Barbara and Eddie Cahill and Ben Frow discuss gratitude from a Buddhist perspective with Howard Hill
Howard: Some years ago Dr. Yamazaki (deceased Honourary Chairman of SGI Europe) gave what I thought at the time to be rather mystical guidance. He said, ‘If we experience gratitude it will open a door to a realm of our life that we previously didn’t know existed’. I wonder if you could explain something about this guidance and what you see as the importance of gratitude in our lives.
Barbara: Gratitude does open up our lives. The more we experience Buddhahood through our practice the more grateful we are, so it must follow that if we experience gratitude as we practise it will open the door to Buddhahood in our lives.
Eddie: Even if we find it difficult to experience gratitude about some situation, if we try to express it in our chanting our minds will eventually follow and it opens up this door in our lives. In the West we tend to think that it is hypocritical to take action unless we feel sincere about it, whereas in the East they say that right thought will follow right action. So even if we don’t initially feel sincere, expressing gratitude creates the cause for it to appear in our lives.
Ben: Another element of gratitude is recognition: recognizing, maybe, that someone who has given us problems is a tool whereby we can change our karma. Therefore, sometimes we might initially find ourselves expressing gratitude through gritted teeth. Maybe we sometimes think of gratitude as being something flowery, whereas it often involves an element of struggle.
Eddie: This is the Buddhist principle of zenchishiki or ‘good friends’. It means that sometimes our worst enemies are our best friends because they force us to change something in our lives. Therefore, we should express gratitude for them. Gratitude isn’t ‘being thankful for small mercies’. There’s no depth in that. What we promote is gratitude at a deeper level where we struggle to discover the significance of various problems for our life’s development.
Ben: Trying to approach things in this way – seeing obstacles as an opportunity to change our lives – is a new learning curve.
Howard: But how can we develop an attitude of gratitude?
Barbara: Just by allowing ourselves to express it. Often when we are chanting we are thinking, ‘I can’t stand this situation’ or ‘Why did he do that?’ But if we just allow ourselves to introduce the idea of gratitude it has an immediate effect. That is what we chanting for – to change our minds away from one of judgement and slander. So gratitude is one of the things that we can try to feel. Just express it: ‘I am grateful that I’ve got you, Gohonzon’: or ‘I’m grateful that I’m alive’: or it may be just to say ‘I’m grateful’, without having to attach it to anything.
Eddie: Gratitude gives power to our lives. What’s the opposite of gratitude – complaint? Resentment? Imagine your life full of resentment and complaint. Then imagine a life of gratitude.
Ben: It’s very difficult to experience gratitude when, for example, you are surrounded by people who seem to be doing much better in life than you are – you know, they might be rich and successful. It’s so easy to get caught up in the trap of jealousy and then it’s very hard to feel any gratitude.
Barbara: That’s exactly the time to express it because it is a trap just to see life in those material terms. What we are not acknowledging is that the material aspect alone doesn’t make us happy. What makes us happy is our approach to life. A person could have nothing but be grateful for the fact that he’s had a floor to sleep on, or just that the sun is shining. He could just spontaneously feel that and that’s happiness. What we’re trying to get to is how we create happiness in our lives. If we see ourselves as having nothing – well, gratitude is one thing we could have. Everyone is open to that possibility.
Howard: I remember an experience that bears that out. Some years ago I travelled with former General Director of SGI-UK, Dick Causton to visit some regional members. At lunch time our hosts provided us with some food; nothing elaborate – sliced bread, processed cheese and some supermarket pickle. I was hungry though and busied myself filling my face with this rather ordinary fare. I was surprised then to notice Dick thoroughly enjoying his repast. ‘I’ve not had any cheese and pickle for ages’, he enthused. ‘Can I have a little more?’ Dick and I were both eating the same food but our responses were a complete contrast. The difference was that Dick ate with gratitude, and was gaining a lot more than I was from it.
I realized then that in one sense gratitude is our ability to taste life and all its treasures. Even if we have all the wealth in the world it is of little value if we are not grateful for it. In the same way, even a simple meal can become a banquet if we are full of appreciation and gratitude.
I resolved then that I would try to open my life to gratitude so that I would be able to taste the full potential, not just of food, but of life itself.
Eddie: Gratitude is a completely alien concept to some people, though. To plant that concept in someone’s life so he or she can start feeling gratitude, rather than dwelling on complaints and problems, is a totally new thing. If someone suggests that you try to develop gratitude I think you should consider it deeply because maybe they’ve seen that your life is full of complaint and slander.
Barbara: I think many religions tell people to feel gratitude. And often people know they should feel it but they don’t have a way of making it happen. That’s where our practice is so vital. It helps us to change – if we will just introduce the idea of gratitude into our thoughts.
Ben: Making a conscious effort to express gratitude eventually changes our attitude to life; we approach it in a different, more positive way.
Howard: Do you think it is a struggle to feel gratitude?
Barbara: Initially, yes, but then I think it starts to come more naturally. I do think we have to make a struggle in our practice. That’s what the practice is for – to change our minds, to change our approach to life.
Ben: You have to be able to look at the wider vision rather than just concentrating on the tiny minutiae of day-to-day problems. If you can understand that Buddhism is about changing your karma then you can start to feel grateful, because you are starting to look at your life on a much broader scale.
Barbara: I agree. Rather than concentrating on the narrow focus of benefits and problems, we should try to see the very wide focus of kosen rufu – which is about transforming the world – and also the inner focus of our lives, our ‘human revolution’. If we do this we are much more likely to experience gratitude because we will be able to see the significance of various events in our lives.
Howard: Thank you.