I’m grateful for the friends who remind us that the Thanksgiving story is a myth that covers over the genocide of indigenous peoples on which the United States is founded. I’m grateful for the friends who remind us that July 4 was not “Independence Day” for all those held in slavery in 1776.
But I’m also grateful for what the Thanksgiving story and the 4th of July teach us to aspire to. We just need to remember that they’re aspirations, nowhere near accomplishments. I am grateful for the opportunity that these holidays give us to share love with family and friends. We just need to remind ourselves that true love opens to the Other and does not close around what’s Mine.
Generally I don’t embrace the Hallmark card sentiments that tend to be expressed on Thanksgiving. Beyond the holiday I am turned off by self-appointed spiritual gurus who preach virtues like “forgiveness” and “gratitude.” Once you reflect on what they’re saying, you realize that it’s all about Me.
Sometimes in the discussions we have after Monday evening meditation I get argumentative when I think someone has said something contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. It’s not that I’m big on orthodoxy, but I do think that people who present themselves as trained dhamma teachers should recognize what they’re saying and not present it as “gospel” if it’s not. I’m working on letting go of arguing during these discussions.
One time earlier in 2018, however, one of the leaders went on and on about “gratitude” to the point that I finally expostulated that gratitude was being presented as all about Me, contrary to the Buddha’s teaching of no-self. As usually happens after one of my outbursts discussion ended. As usual also, I felt badly for not making a more constructive contribution. I had left the speaker floundering and asking “Well, where does gratitude fit in the dhamma? I like the practice of gratitude.”
When I got home, I searched for “gratitude” in the website Access to Insight and found the Maha Mangala Sutta, the sermon on the highest blessings in our lives. Lo and behold, gratitude is listed as a blessing.
To be respectful, humble, contented and grateful; and to listen to the Dhamma on due occasions — this is the greatest blessing. Sn. 2.4.
I immediately shared my finding with the group leaders to try to put balm on the wounds I’d inflicted.
Another passage my search turned up:
“Bhikkhus, these two kinds of persons are rare in the world. What two? One who takes the initiative in helping others and one who is grateful and thankful.” AN 2.119.
The classic Commentary on the Blessings Sutta defines gratitude as “recognizing, and repeatedly recollecting, the help given by anyone, whether little or much.” Gratitude is about other people, not about Me.
Interesting side note. Even though most of the translators render the Pali word mangala as “blessing,” the Pali word is more about good fortune, an auspicious sign, than something we’re given, as implied in the English word “blessing.” One translator tries to get at this difference by putting the passage as: gratitude is the highest protection.
I like that, but we still need to be careful not to think of using gratitude to protect Me from others. Rather gratitude is a protection because it protects us from “me, myself, and mine.”