A Reflection After Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, the Aranya Bodhi forest was very still, gifting us with a few hours of sun, long twilight, and a warm night.  The hurly-burly of traffic, shopping, advertising, sociality, and feasting were far away.  The troubles in our contemporary world were like a dark cloud on the horizon.  

Ayya Sobhana, Anagarika Michelle and guest Healah took some time this Thanksgiving Day to consider America’s forebears, looking at how their spiritual life relates to the Dhamma that we know and practice.  

We learned that Thanksgiving was originally much more than a happy occasion for comfortable folk to count their blessings.  Instead, Thanksgiving was proclaimed by our leaders during times of peril, times of trauma.  

❧ The Pilgrims called for their feast after just barely surviving their first year at Plymouth, having lost half their number to disease and malnutrition.

❧ George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving shortly after our constitution was ratified, having endured eight years of miserable warfare and the difficult transformation of many small communities each defending their home turf, into a unified nation.

❧ Abraham Lincoln first made Thanksgiving a national holiday at the height of our bloody civil war.

The Thanksgiving proclamations of Washington and Lincoln are deeply infused with their worship of Almighty God, whom Washington called “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be … the great Lord and Ruler of Nations.” As Buddhists we don’t relate everything to the Creator in this way, but it’s possible to listen with the heart to these wise leaders of the past, and to find the common ground.  Washington and Lincoln both exhorted the people to take a day to pray and reflect — a daylong retreat at home — to thank God for blessings received; to ask forgiveness for misdeeds so there can be reconciliation between people, and reconciliation between the nation and God; to resolve to live up to our most noble aspirations; and to humbly ask for God’s grace in protecting the welfare of all people and all nations.  Here we see not only giving thanks, but also a broader spiritual practice including gratitude, atonement, resolve, and the wish for universal blessings. 

Shall we consider how the Buddha taught us the parallel Dhamma of Thanksgiving — the way to keep a steady and pure heart both during and after times of duress?  

To acknowledge blessings received

In the Mangala Sutta, gratitude is named in a cluster of beautiful qualities together with reverence, humility, and contentment. “Gāravo ca nivāto ca santuṭṭhī ca kataññutā. The respectful person (gāravo) appreciates six honorable and important foci of devotion, the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, the training precepts, heedfulness, and good friendship.  The humble person (nivāto) looks out for the place of safe refuge, literally “sheltered from wind”. The contented person (santuṭṭhī) is finds an even-minded joy or appreciation in the basic requisites of life. And the grateful person (kataññutā) knows what was done.   

We may especially appreciate those gifts like contact with skillful and kind friends which help us to see and develop our positive potentials.  We can gratefully acknowledge our interdependency with all beings in this web of life. 

Many of are deeply aware of our good fortune in meeting the Dhamma here in the west, and in meeting the teachers who inspired us and showed the way.  We also know it is a blessing that we were somehow ready and willing to take the teachings to heart, and found the motivation to undertake this path of training.

It is interesting that Washington and Lincoln didn’t list the persons who helped and inspired them.  Instead, they listed the endeavors that were within their responsibility and that turned out successfully, as they understood, due to the providence of God.  Washington gave thanks for the “conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors [conferred upon us].

From the Buddhist perspective, this is close to an attitude of appreciation for the fruits of Kamma, the results of our past intentional acts. In the Dasadhamma Sutta, the fruits of past actions are compared to an inheritance.  Just as we inherit material wealth from our family, so we inherit the results of our past deeds.  We cannot undo our past actions, do not own or control them, but must simply experience their results.  Kamma and its fruit are similar to divine providence in being the manifestation of the lawful order of the universe.  

If those results are pleasant and helpful, it’s easy to be grateful, but even the bitter fruit of unskillful past actions can be converted to a cause for gratitude.  We would never learn without failures; we would not develop compassion without pain.  Sometimes, a person who makes terrible mistakes and suffers great losses can later on acquire a kind of spiritual power. Whether pleasant or painful, we should receive, know and understand the kammic fruits that come to us, not try to wish them away, sweep them under the rug, or protest that they are unfair.  The practice of appreciation is a kind of mental training. In stressful times, it helps the mind let go of its fixation with painful experiences and return to a balanced state.  Whatever is painful can be seen as it is, as merely a part of the picture, impermanent and not-self. 

The pleasant kammic results should also be seen as impermanent and not-self, not the basis of self-conceit. Like our American forebears we humbly, and appreciatively take each bit of good luck, knowing it’s not me, not mine.   

To ask forgiveness

Abraham Lincoln invited all Americans to “also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”  

Is there any more effective medicine in times of social crisis than the power of an authentic apology?  That is, the apology where one actually reflects, understands and can enunciate where they took a wrong turn; where one can speak openly about it; where one makes a resolve to refrain from the same behavior in future, and where that resolution leads to actual change in future.  Such apology can heal conflict between people. It supports the transformation of difficult formations within the individual.  And removes the heart’s agitation, fear and remorse, clearing the ground for deeper practice.  

The Buddha made acknowledgement of faults a regular, constant part of the training, so that divisions would not fester and grow within the Sangha. The power of authentic apology extends to all spheres of life.  We hope there would be a revival in the secular world of the power and importance of asking and giving forgiveness, of reconciling all conflicts.

To make a determination

George Washington made the determination suitable for his great purposes as a leader, to  “to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”  

What is our determination?

Adhiṭṭhāna, the act of determination, is such an important part of our training, it is the essence of Right Effort, the sixth factor in the Noble Eightfold Path. There are four right efforts, to prevent and abandon unwholesome states of mind and to arouse and protect the wholesome states.  For each one, we are invited to bring forth the will, to empower our decision with energy, to arouse heroic strength, to apply the heart-mind to our intention, and to sustain this effort.  

The last phrase in this Right Effort refrain is an important key for a successful act of determination.  Cittaṃ paggaṇhāti padahati”  refers to applied thought and sustained thought.  We don’t just use brute will power to make our efforts successful, but instead we skillfully direct our attention so that we really connect with the matter at hand and then continue to observe and pay attention in a sustained way. 

To set our heart's intention for the welfare of all people

Lincoln prayed to restore the nation “to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”  Washington asked God "to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Our Buddhist reflection might go like this:

     May my friends, neutral persons,
     And the hostile be happy, too.
     May all beings in this village,
     In this state, in other countries,
     And in all the world systems be ever happy.
     May all persons, individuals, beings,
     Creatures in all world systems be ever happy.
     So too, may all women, men,
     Noble ones, non-noble ones,
     Gods, humans, and beings in the lower worlds be happy.
     May all beings in the ten directions be happy.

Daily Buddhist Devotions, 171-177, Compiled by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda. This verse is based on The Path of Discrimination (Paṭisambhidāmagga).

Most of us are familiar with several forms of mettā practice: developing the four divine abidings (loving friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity), loving friendliness for the four persons  (oneself, the benefactor, the neutral one and the difficult one), or emanating loving friendliness in the ten directions.  Perhaps after studying the Dhamma of the Pilgrims, Washington and Lincoln, we can devise a new practice for social reconciliation, which will include acknowledging blessings, acknowledging faults, setting up determination, and the sincere wish for universal well being. 

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 3, 1863

President Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1879