To Be Grateful is Most Blissful
People must always be grateful. Lord Buddha is full of praise for gratitude. Persons who are always ready to help are rarely found in this world; but rarer still are those who remember and are grateful to others who have helped them. If we are grateful, we are sure to be happy.
Without this quality, a person forgets his parents, relatives, friends, teachers and those who teach him the Dharma. He turns his back on them just when they could be helped or when they are in need of aid. Such a selfish person isolates himself.
On the other hand, the grateful person makes for harmony and peace. He will always be remembered and loved. Ajahn Chah gave a teaching wherein he said: “The Buddha taught the virtues of knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it. These two virtues are complementary.” If our parents are in need, unwell or in difficulty, then we should do our best to help them. This is the virtue of knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it, a virtue that sustains the world. It prevents families from breaking up and makes them stable and harmonious.
Gratitude is a manifestation of faithfulness
Gratitude is a manifestation of faithfulness. It suggests an evenness of behaviour as opposed to vanity or haughtiness. An instance of this may be seen in the conduct of Venerable Sariputta.
Venerable Sariputta had come across the Venerable Assaji, one of the Lord Buddha’s first Five Disciples one day. He was enlightened by the Elder’s sermon, converted and later ordained into monkhood.
The Venerable Sariputta subsequently became what is called in Pali ‘the right-hand disciple of the Buddha’, highly respected for his supreme wisdom and exceptional teaching methods which were unequalled among all other disciples of the Buddha. He was one of the most valuable helpers of the Buddha in spreading the Dharma and was generally looked upon as second only to the Buddha. But he remained unwaveringly faithful to his first teacher, the Venerable Assaji. Although Venerable Assaji was enlightened, he had no special gifts. Notwithstanding this, Venerable Sariputta always regarded the Elder as his great benefactor, never failing to pay homage to his teacher before he rested for the night throughout his life. This aspect of faithfulness, therefore, is an ennobling virtue for children, pupils or servants who do not forget their debt of gratitude and never neglect to pay respect to their parents, teachers and masters respectively.
Gratitude is a feeling of indebtedness towards another
Gratitude is also an attitude which involves a feeling of indebtedness towards another person. This is often accompanied by a desire to thank the person, or to reciprocate in kind. The Buddha, for instance, knew that the Bodhi tree had sheltered Him. He knew that his five former companions in asceticism had been helpful to Him, so He felt gratitude towards them.
Not only that, He expressed His feelings of gratitude. It was said that soon after attaining Buddhahood, He spent a whole week simply gazing at the Bodhi tree. Then He went in search of His five former companions of asceticism so that He could communicate to them out of gratitude the Truth that He had discovered. The important implication here is that it is perfectly natural behaviour for a good and noble person to feel gratitude for benefits, which he has received. It’s a natural feeling, a natural response.
Of course, the benefit has to be recognised as a benefit first. If we don’t feel that someone or something has actually benefited us, we won’t feel grateful to the person or the thing. This suggests that we have to understand what is truly beneficial, what has really helped us to grow and develop as human beings. We also have to know who or what has benefited us. And we have to remember that they have benefited us, otherwise no feeling of gratitude is possible.
The Buddha exemplified gratitude
The newly-Enlightened Buddha was a grateful Buddha. We don’t usually think of the Buddha in this way. We think of the Fully Enlightened one as a compassionate Buddha, we think of the resourceful Buddha who was a teacher of gods and men, but few think in terms of a grateful Buddha. But the Buddha exemplified gratitude, and one of the very first things He did after He attained Enlightenment, as mentioned earlier, was to show His gratitude to those who had helped Him. He was even grateful to the tree that gave Him shelter during his final quest for Enlightenment! This alone should give us a lot of food for thought, food for reflection.
It’s therefore not surprising that this quality, this virtue of gratitude finds a place in the Buddha’s ethical and spiritual teaching. The Mangala Sutta, the Sutta of Blessings, or sometimes translated as the Sutta of Auspicious Signs, which is very short and is found in the Pali Canon, mentions gratitude as one of the 38 auspicious signs. If you practise gratitude, if you are grateful, then it’s a sign that you are making spiritual progress according to the Mangala Sutta.
The three objects of gratitude
In Buddhism, there are three principal objects of gratitude traditionally: In the first place are our parents, next are our teachers, and in the third place our spiritual friends.
First of all, let us take our parents. In the modern era, there have been quite a few reported cases of ill will between parents and their offspring. Of course, if one is on bad terms with one’s parents then something is seriously wrong. Perhaps it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if one is on really bad terms with one’s parents then one’s whole emotional life, indirectly at least, is affected, perhaps quite seriously. This is where the practice of metta bhavana (meditation on loving-kindness) helps in re-establishing positive relation with the parents.
One has to learn to develop metta. Although some people may have suffered at the hands of their parents, it is necessary in the interests of their own emotional, psychological and spiritual development to get over whatever feelings of bitterness or resentment that they harbour towards their parents.
The Buddha Himself has quite a lot to say about our positive relation to our parents in the Sigalovada Sutta. If it were not for our parents, we would not be here now. Our parents have given us life, they have given us a human body, and they bring us up, as best as they can. They enable us to survive, and they educate us.
The second object of gratitude: our secular teachers from whom we derive rudiments of knowledge and learning. Practically everything that we know or think we know has been taught to us in one way or another, for example, our knowledge of science and history. Others have done all the work for us. We benefit from their efforts. We also learn from people who have been dead for many, many years. We learn from the writings they left behind, from the records of the words they spoke, through books. So to all of them, we should be grateful. Then there are great works of imagination and art which are sources of infinite enrichment. They help us to deepen and expand our vision, and help to create our collective cultural heritage. We would be immeasurably poorer without them.
Our third and last object of gratitude: our spiritual friends, kalyana mitra. These are friends who feel a strong unselfish active love towards us, who are more spiritually experienced or advanced than we are. The Buddhas of course are our spiritual friends, especially Shakyamuni Buddha, who discovered and taught the Dharma in this aeon. The Arhats and the Bodhisattvas are our spiritual friends. The great Buddhist teachers of India and China, of Tibet and Japan, are our spiritual friends. Those who teach us meditation, those with whom we study the scriptures, those who ordain us are all our spiritual friends, and should be the object of our intense, heartfelt gratitude.
We should be even more grateful to them than to our secular teachers, because it is through our spiritual friends that we receive the Dharma, the teachings handed down from the Buddha.
Passing on the Dharma to others
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said, “The greatest of all gifts is the gift of the Dharma.” The greater the gift, the greater the gratitude that we should feel. We should not only feel gratitude in our hearts, we should give expression to it in words and deeds. How do we do this? We give expression to it in three ways. By singing the praises of our spiritual friends; by practising the Dharma they have given us; and by passing on the Dharma to others to the best of our ability.
The greatest of our spiritual friends is of course Lord Buddha. Buddha Shakyamuni, who discovered the path that we as Buddhists follow today. It’s to the Buddha that we go for Refuge, it’s the Dharma taught by him that we try to practise, and it’s with the support of the Community or Sangha founded by Him that we are able to practise the Dharma today. We are therefore intensely grateful to Him. Our parents have given us life; our teachers have given us knowledge, education and culture; and our spiritual friends give us spiritual guidance, but what are these without the Dharma?
For 45 successive years, the Buddha slept less than two hours each night and preached the supreme Dharma of the Buddhas for the welfare of gods and men. To further clarify the profound panacea for the ills of samsara, the Compassionate One explained the Dharma he re-discovered in 84,000 different aspects. He would traverse miles, on foot, if he could enable even one person who has the potential to escape the clutches of samsara. So we should be intensely grateful to Buddha Shakyamuni, indeed to all Buddhas.
Yet, why is it that people don’t always find it easy to be grateful?
There are many reasons but the four most common are:
1. Failure to recognise a benefit as a benefit.
2. Taking benefits for granted.
There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit. They don’t appreciate its value or realise the immense potential of a human life. In Buddhist terms, they don’t realise that it is possible for a human being to attain enlightenment or at least to make some progress in that direction.
Similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. They may even feel resentful that education or culture is being imposed upon them. Such people are unlikely to come into contact with spiritual values, the Dharma or spiritual friends. Or even if they do come into contact with the latter, they may perceive these as their enemies, and therefore the question of gratitude will not arise. There were many people during the Buddha’s time who didn’t see the Buddha as the Buddha. They saw him as a rather eccentric, unorthodox teacher, and they certainly didn’t feel any gratitude towards him for the gift of the Dharma.
Secondly, ingratitude arises when benefits are taken for granted. We think that they are owed to us. We think that we have a right to them and therefore, they belong to us. Hence, we’ve no need to be grateful. This attitude is, of course, very widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them. They think that they have a right to everything. Such people feel that their parents, teachers, friends and even the state have a duty to provide them with whatever they want.
How is egotism a reason for ingratitude? Egotism has many forms, it has many different aspects – an attitude of chronic blind individualism; and the belief that one is separate from others and is not dependent on others in any way. That is, one does not owe anything to others; one is not obliged to them; and one can do everything by oneself.
The fourth and last reason is forgetfulness of the benefits we have received. It could be that the benefits were given to us a long, long time ago. As we have no distinct recollection of them anymore, we no longer feel grateful to the person(s) who bestowed those benefits upon us, even if we did originally feel grateful to the person(s). This is perhaps the principal reason for the failure to express gratitude towards our parents, or at least for not being actively grateful to them.
Over the years, so much has happened in our life; early memories have been overlaid by later ones. Other relationships have assumed importance in our lives. Perhaps we’ve moved away from our parents, geographically, socially or culturally. Or they may have died. So we tend to forget them. We forget the numerous ways in which they benefited us: when we were infants and needed round–the- clock attention, or when we were young and had to be guided, or how they looked after us when we were ill, and so on. Therefore we cease to actually feel grateful.
It could also be that we do not feel the positive effects of the benefits very strongly in the first place. As the original feeling of gratitude is not very strong, it becomes easy for it to fade away over time and be forgotten altogether.
Yet, none of these reasons justifies ingratitude.
Let us be grateful. Let us overflow with gratitude to our parents, teachers, spiritual friends and the Buddhist tradition, and recognise the vast benefits we have received.
Above all, let us be grateful to the Buddha. Remember Him on this day and always!
Let us remember in particular that the Buddha exemplified gratitude. Recall how, out of gratitude, He spent the second week after the attainment of supreme, perfect Enlightenment by paying homage to the Bodhi tree that sheltered Him.