Just say thank you.

A friend of mine wrote me the following about my post on Gratitude is a blessing.

Just as I was reading your most recent posting, I got a call from my brother asking information about our Aunt’s birth and death dates. Inevitably he started to lecture me on his take of history, both past and recent and countered my responses with “I’ve read from people who have PhDs because you think you know everything…ad nauseous.” We each told a joke so that we could say that the call ended on a “happy” note and that was that.

I returned to reread your posting and wondered how to apply gratitude and blessings to the notion of who I ended up having as a brother…that’s one nut I’ve never been able to crack. I’m grateful that I don’t live in the same city as he does, but that sounds more like the Me gratitude that you were writing about.

I replied that he might consider two things about gratitude that both stem from the definition given in the blog post.

The classic Commentary on the Blessings Sutta defines gratitude as “recognizing, and repeatedly recollecting, the help given by anyone, whether little or much.”

(1) I read this definition to mean that you don’t have to be grateful to or for someone who has not given you anything.  There are other, even more difficult, practices that we need to develop towards them: lovingkindness, compassion, joy at their good fortune, and equanimity.

(2) I also read it more generally to mean that gratitude is optional. Part of the Hallmark card morality that I object to is the notion that there is something wrong with us if we don’t forgive or don’t express gratitude for everyone and everything.

This exchange occurred last Friday. One reason for the delay in posting these follow-up comments is that another friend asked me to listen to Donald Rothberg’s talk about “Cultivating Gratitude.”  He had picked up on my judgmental tone about gratitude.  I guess “Hallmark card morality” was a hint.  So he also referred me to Rothberg’s talks about “transforming the judgmental mind.”

The title “Cultivating Gratitude” warned me that I should listen to the talks about being judgmental first.  I’m glad I did.  Rothberg explained the difference between “discerning” something, just recognizing that it’s there, and being “judgmental” about it.  When we’re judgmental, we’re reacting negatively, aversively towards something of which we’ve become aware.  This reaction arises from the three main character flaws (kilesas) identified in Buddhist psychology.  I like to call them excitement, annoyance, and confusion.  As a result, when I listened to Rothberg about “cultivating gratitude,” I discerned my questions about his attempt to elevate gratitude to one of the cardinal virtues (brahmaviharas) in Buddhist ethics, but I didn’t let these questions get me annoyed.  (The brahmaviharas are the four practices I listed above: lovingkindness, compassion, joy at the good fortune of others, and equanimity.)

As a result, you are spared from reading a doctrinal analysis of the weaknesses in Rothberg’s view of gratitude and I got to see that the issue is not really what Buddhists call “right view.”  Rather I saw something else that my friend who referred me to Rothberg also pointed out in our conversation.  As Buddhism has spread into different cultures, it has adapted.  The process of adapting has not always been smooth.  In fact, “difficulty” is one way to translate the Buddha’s main teaching dukkha.  Where I get judgmental about our current difficulties with adapting Buddhism in U.S. culture is when I react to some contemporary teachers as high-minded and holier-than-thou.  Rothberg helps me in the process of transforming that judgmental mind.

Rothberg gets it right when he says that practicing gratitude is good, wholesome, skillful.  I prefer to keep it simple.  Just say thank you.  If it helps him and others to make gratitude into a PRACTICE, then more power to them.  If gratitude practice leads them to do what I find already covered in the brahmaviharas, then that’s what we call “skillful means.”

My friend likes Rothberg, but doesn’t like to chant.  I find that chanting helps me to cultivate the path to liberation from dukkha, but I don’t hold it against people who don’t chant.  I like to say thank you.  I think that it is important to say thank you.  All I ask is that you not get judgmental that I don’t make a big deal about gratitude.

In the next post I will explore some of the cross-cultural difficulties that arise from using “gratitude” to translate the Pali words in the suttas I referenced in the post on the Blessings Sutta.

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