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Seven Buddhist Lessons in Gratitude

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Gratitude is powerful. Building your sense of thankfulness the Buddhist way.

Gratitude is a virtue that has been promoted by the world’s great religions. Science is confirming that those who consistently express gratitude are happier and healthier.

Recently researchers Stephen M. Yoshimura and Kassandra Berzins explored the connection between expressing gratitude and psychological and physical wellbeing, concluding that “Gratitude consistently associates with many positive social, psychological, and health states, such as an increased likelihood of helping others, optimism, exercise, and reduced reports of physical symptoms.”

Here are Buddhist suggestions for increasing your gratitude level.

1. BE GRATEFUL FOR NOTHING. Be aware of the fact that unfortunate events did not come into your life—and be grateful. You didn’t become unemployed, like many others. You didn’t get sick, like many others. You didn’t lose good friends over political differences, like many others. You didn’t get a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, like many others. You don’t live in a war zone, like many others. You are not starving and suffering from famine, like many others. Buddhist writer Gregg Krech asks this critical question: “When was the last time you felt grateful because nothing happened?” He adds, “Nobody crashed into your car on the way home from work. The electricity didn’t go out. You didn’t wake up with a toothache. You didn’t have a heart attack. Nobody shot at you or robbed your home while you were gone.

2. MAKE GRATITUDE YOUR CENTRAL SPIRITUAL PRACTICE. Jeff Wilson is an ordained teacher in the tradition of Shin Buddhism and a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Wilson says that when he speaks at various Buddhist temples and gatherings in North America, he is commonly asked, “So, what is your practice?”

His answer surprises people: “As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice isn’t meditation, sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable, of course, but in
Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. This sets us apart from many other Buddhists. We don’t practice to achieve anything—not enlightenment, good karma, a favorable rebirth, or material rewards. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspective, but when pursued, it can be transformative.”

Every circumstance, no matter how complex, challenging, and frustrating, contains a positive seed that should be nurtured.

3. APPRECIATE IRRITATING PEOPLE. Atisha (980-1052 CE), the great Indian Buddhist sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet, famously taught through short, simple slogans. One of those is “Be grateful to everyone!” He specifically had in mind those individuals who are highly irritating and who bring out the worst in those around them. Commenting on that slogan, Judy Lief says, “Conventional gratitude is based on distinguishing what we like from what we do not, good fortune from bad fortune, success from failure, opportunities from obstacles. But what about all the obstacles, unpleasant people, and difficulties in our life?”

According to this slogan we should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them ... how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness, or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop. So we should be very grateful to have them.

4. BECOME HIGHLY RESPONSIVE TO KINDNESS RECEIVED. An unfortunate reality is that a kindness received seldom elicits a lingering feeling of gratitude. This was something noted by the Buddha more than 2,600 years ago. He said,

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, explains, “In saying that kind and grateful people are rare, the Buddha isn’t simply stating a harsh truth about the human race. He’s advising you to treasure these people when you find them, and—more importantly—showing how you can become a rare person yourself.”

5. LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING. Train yourself to see a positive in the presence of many negatives. Then gratitude will emerge from even the most challenging of circumstances.

That’s the point of the popular Buddhist fable about a man walking in the hills enjoying exercise in nature when he is confronted by a mountain lion who chases him to the edge of a cliff. With no other option available, the man jumps over and is able to grab onto a vine. He dangles from the bottom but when he looks down he sees a bear looking up at him. The vine continues to hold him, offering some protection from both the mountain lion above and the bear below, when two mice appear from a burrow on the cliffside. They begin to eat away at the vine. While dangling precariously, the man sees a strawberry growing. He picks it, eats it, and smiles because it is so delicious.

The lesson is obvious: Every circumstance, no matter how complex, challenging, and frustrating, contains a positive seed that should be nurtured.

6. EXPAND YOUR MINDFULNESS. Buddhist author Phillip Moffitt asks, “If you were asked to make a list of things for which you are grateful, how long would this list be? 20 items, 100, 500? Most likely you would include your health, your mind’s ability

to function well, family, friends, and freedom. But would it include the basics, like a safe place to sleep, clean air and water, food, and medicine? What about for Earth itself, blue skies, a child’s laughter, a warm touch, the smell of spring, the tang of salt, the sweetness of sugar, or that morning cup of coffee?”

Expand your mindfulness to deepen your awareness so that you can more clearly see how many factors work together to make your life possible and pleasant.

Moffitt offers this additional insight: “Practice being consciously grateful to your family, friends, teachers, benefactors, and all those who have come before you who have made it possible for your existence to be comfortable, informed, and empowered. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to mentally note the many people who have invisibly served you by providing medicine, shelter, safety, food, and education.”

7. Start each day like a Buddhist monk. Many Buddhist monks begin each day with this chant of gratitude for the blessings of their life. Join them in this practice every morning when you wake up by reciting the following words of gratitude.

With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day.

With gratitude I remember the care and labor of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.

I offer my gratitude for the safety and wellbeing I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessing of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given. I offer my gratitude for the life I have been given.