I sit here in the cool fall air of northeast Ohio, chilled fingers on the warm keyboard, coffee steaming under my nose. I realize that I’m grateful and rarely see the term “gratitude” in classical dharma; it’s not in any of the typical lists that come to mind. I don’t recall it in the Dhammapada, and I just searched Access to Insight (a sutra database) for mentions of gratitude. While I’m sure more exhaustive research could produce more content, I only found two sutras where the Buddha spoke of gratitude. The relevant quotes are:

The Blessed One said, “Now, what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful & unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful & thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.”

Kataññu sutta

“Reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude, and the timely hearing of the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha — this is the highest blessing.

Maha-mangala sutta

Clearly, there’s a correlation between living the dharma and gratitude. Yet, at the same time, it’s not emphasized as something to practice or cultivate. Reflecting on this, a quote from the Mondo Manual came to mind:

Impermanence: When we truly realize – understand and embody – impermanence, we no longer grasp and cling to that which is eventually going away no matter how tenaciously we cling. This realization brings gratitude as we now fully experience, appreciate, and radically accept the ephemeral nature of this life, this very moment, this fleeting gift. 

This teaches us that genuine gratitude isn’t something we can do, practice, or cultivate. Gratitude is not something we can be told to have, or required to feel, by others. It is not “finding the silver lining” as a way to turn away from the pain in our lives and the difficulties we must face. It is not the same as compassionate understanding or forgiveness and serves a different purpose in guiding our lives. 

Gratitude naturally and spontaneously flows through us when we open and soften to the truth that everything is changing, and that change is the gift of life. In simply being, it is ever-present, and so we always have gratitude available to us as a beacon of light. As a beacon, it does a great job of helping us steer our ship. 

Our contraction away from being out of pride, anger, jealousy, desirous attachment, and false beliefs of separation hinders us from being genuinely grateful. It’s impossible to  “fake it till we make it” with gratitude. What we can do, though, is commit to expressing gratitude when we do feel it and noticing when we do not. 

When we’re honest with ourselves about what’s arising within our awareness, we receive beautiful and delicious lessons on where we are on the path and what is going on in our lives. This little voice that says “but…” that we would prefer (or have been taught) to ignore tells us so much about who we are in the moment, what we need to change or accept in our lives, and how to do it. We can become extremely grateful for this “but!”

These can be hard lessons that part of us would prefer to stay blind to, and other parts are uninterested or afraid to change. And, again, gratitude can help. Much like metta practice, we can open and soften to the feeling of gratitude in one area of our life and bring that emotional quality to bear on thought patterns in other areas. As we do this, the awareness that listens with no opinion will hear the barriers, and we can create an emotional koan. The practice goes something like this:

  1. Build up embodied gratitude for something simple and true.
  2. Carry this embodied emotion into thoughts about something neutral. 
  3. Bring to mind something challenging that you aren’t grateful for.
  4. Listen as the contraction builds in the body and get the information. 
  5. Use that information to determine “what now?” and do it!

You can feel free to try it on your own, or follow along with a little guided meditation (<10 min). 

Umi Dan Rotnem is a teacher of Hollow Bones Zen, currently serving as Executive Director.

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