The holiday known as Thanksgiving has its origins in the harvest feast, when folks would gather together and offer grateful prayers at the end of harvest time. For many years the day was centered around feasting upon a slaughtered turkey. Nowadays the holiday seems to be focused on activities conducted the day after Thanksgiving, which has been given the ominous sounding name of Black Friday, in which people ritualistically camp out days beforehand at places called Best Buy and Walmart so that they may be among the first to trample and shove their way into the store and exercise most vulgar displays of consumerism.
Well, the original idea of giving thanks is a good one, and actually should be practiced each day of the year. Being thankful every day is a challenge, though. For many people, myself included, it’s much easier to find things to complain about every day, and that’s because we often take the good stuff in our lives for granted.
Thankfulness is not a word that you see very often in Buddhist literature, traditional or contemporary. There is a Pali word, however, which comes close: “katannuta”. It’s loosely translated as “gratitude,” while the literal meaning is “recognizing what has been done.” But we shouldn’t limit this term to just the past. We should have gratitude, or a real sense of appreciation, for everything, bad and good, in our lives both past and present. Why gratitude for the bad things? Because they teach us. We can learn from the bad as well as the good.
Here are some words by the Dalai Lama on the subject of gratitude. They come from his book “A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night”, teachings he gave on Shantideva’s “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”.
A good heart is the source of all happiness and joy, and we can all be good-hearted if we make an effort. But better still is to have bodhichitta [the thought of awakening], which is a good heart imbued with wisdom. It is the strong desire to attain enlightenment in order to deliver all beings from suffering and bring them to Buddhahood. This thought of helping others is rooted in compassion, which grows from a feeling of gratitude and love for beings, who are afflicted by suffering.
Traditionally there are two methods for developing this sort of care and gratitude. One is to reflect on the fact that all beings have at some time in the succession of their lives been our parents, or at least close friends, so that we naturally feel grateful to them and wish to take on their suffering in exchange for our happiness. The other method is to understand that others suffer in the same way as we do, to see that we are all equal, and to reflect on what is wrong with egotism and on the advantages of altruism. We can use whichever of these two methods suits us best or practice them both together. In either case, it is necessary first to understand what we call suffering . . .
Our own sufferings, though not felt by others, are certainly hard for us to bear. So it is natural that we should try to protect ourselves from suffering. Similarly, others’ pain, even if we do not feel it, is no less unbearable for them. But as we are related to all other beings, as we owe them our gratitude and they help us in our practice, let us try to dispel their suffering as well as ours. All beings equally want to be happy, so why should we be the only ones to get happiness? Why should we be protected from suffering and others not be?
So I will dispel the pain of others,
Since pain it is, just like my own.
And others I will aid and benefit,
For they are living beings, just like me.
May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving every day!