Simple Gratitude

I wrote this upon a request by the developer of Sweeping Zen, a web-based encyclopedic project dedicated to the advancement of Zen Buddhist studies here in the West. I was reminded of it recently by a student who was practicing with gratitude. She found it after 4 years on the site and reminded me of its message. Here it is again.

November, 2010
Making things complicated is easy. Making them simple is hard. The Buddha was a master teacher who found ordinary ways to express the ineffable. He was also a master rhetorician who spoke with clarity and ease to anyone who came to him, commoner or king. Centuries later, the great Ch’an masters, informed in part by the Taoist sages, and then the Zen masters of Japan and Korea, transmitted the Buddha’s teachings with a fierce and spare elegance that remains a treasure today. I found myself responding to this kind of startling clarity when I first read the poetic version of the Four Noble Truths used by Joko Beck. Suddenly, the foundational teaching of the Buddha began to come alive for me.

Caught in the self-centered dream, only suffering;
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream;
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher;
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.

I was captivated by this simple yet profound clarity, but I still didn’t really understand it with my whole mind and body. I needed someone to show me.

Early on in Zen practice I arranged to spend some time as a guest at the City Center location of the San Francisco Zen Center. It was the week before a new Abbott was to be installed.  The more experienced students explained to me that in traditional Zen monasteries and temples the installation of an Abbott is called a Mountain Seat Ceremony.  The new leader "ascends the mountain and takes their seat" alongside all the teachers that preceded them.  I was told that this was a great honor accompanied by a beautifully complex ceremony steeped in tradition and full of meaning.  As a fledgling student, I was, as always, the volunteer help.  I offered myself enthusiastically, cleaning the temple and engaging in the preparations for visiting dignitaries and local members. As I busied myself working in the temple I was also very busy thinking: "I am too old.  I see all of these young people here starting out fresh, dedicating themselves to the dharma.  They are the lucky ones.  I missed out on Suzuki Roshi.  I missed all the other really cool teachers who came through here in the past.  I don't know why I think I can even do this or why the current teachers would even want me as a student."  On and on I went, building a case for my pitifully lacking nature and comparing myself unfavorably to everyone and everything.  This was a familiar rut.

For security reasons, the front door of City Center remains locked.  To gain access one must have a key, be accompanied by a resident, or simply knock and hope someone will let you in.  I was sweeping the foyer grumbling to myself in this downward spiral of self-pity when someone knocked at the front door.  With some irritation at being disturbed in my misery I went to the door and opened it.  Standing in front of me with a warm smile was Hoitsu Suzuki, the son of the temple's revered founder, Shunryu Suzuki.  He had arrived on the temple's doorstep having just flown from Japan to officiate in the Mountain Seat Ceremony.  He was standing there in front of me with suitcases on either side of him hoping that someone would grant him access to the building. I looked at him with a shock of surprise because I recognized who he was.  He simply bowed and smiled.  I returned his warm gesture, grabbed one of the suitcases, and stepped aside so he could enter.  He came in and immediately put down his bag, slipped out of his shoes, and made his way into the Buddha Hall adjacent to the entrance.  He lit a candle, offered incense and then three full bows, all gestures of deep respect at the altar of the temple his father had established so many years ago. I watched all of this unfold with reverence and awe. I had simply stopped!

The suffering I had been generating was shattered in those few moments after answering the knock at the door.  I had been lost in my story, fully engrossed in its apparent "reality."  Then, with a generous smile and with palms together, this small Japanese man had turned my world upside down.  Suddenly there was no such thing as a "missing past."  My age and accomplishment in the Zen world had no meaning.  It was not as if my aspirations or fears were unimportant, they were just not relevant to the moment.  Everything I assumed was missing in my spiritual life was manifest in those few moments. I could attempt to stay caught in the self-centered dream but to do so would have meant I would have had to stay loyal to my self-centered thoughts.  However, the potency of the moment was such that it pierced my dreamlike bubble and I was invited into a moment of simple intimacy and effortless grace. I was met by great generosity and I was able to respond with an unselfconscious receptivity.  I was shocked to find how close at hand real freedom is when stories fall away.  Spontaneous relief and undeniable joy were right there. I didn't have to work for them or create them. These qualities revealed themselves quite naturally in this simple meeting beyond self-concern.  This was liberating intimacy, unfolding naturally in relational virtuosity. He had shown me.

I learned something essential in that brief and unexpected meeting: The heart of practice is simple gratitude. It is not revealed in complicated teachings or impenetrable stories of our ancestors. A moment of profound meeting in the most ordinary way contains everything that is necessary. I am deeply grateful for having been shown this, and I began to see that the quality of gratitude I discovered was not the ordinary “thank-you” or customary appreciation for a precious gift received or something special achieved. Instead, it was the profound and almost unspeakable appreciation for life, exactly as it is. It was the deep realization that our very existence is a mystery, and that this fact of being alive is a gift beyond measure.

Earlier this year (15 years after that brief meeting at City Center) I was co-leading the annual “Heart of Meditation” retreat in Hawaii with my wonderful friend Donna Martin. After more than ten years of bringing people to Molokai to practice at the beautiful Hui Ho’olana retreat center, I was reflecting on the meaning of the title we had chosen. I wondered if someone were to ask me, “What is the heart of meditation?”, or “What does your title mean?”, how would I respond? When most Buddhist practitioners think of “heart” alongside “meditation” we immediately have associations with loving kindness and compassion practices. These are definitely heart practices, but what is the heart of all practice? As I sat and walked in the natural beauty of Molokai this past summer, as I awoke each morning with the sun and the birds, and as I moved through each glorious day looking up into the ever-changing sky and out over the vast ocean, I realized a different meaning of “heart.” I came to see again, but even more deeply, that the very heart of meditation is gratitude.

During that week of retreat, we received shocking messages that two of our close friends had suffered heart attacks from which they were just beginning to recover. A few days after the end of the retreat, I heard that yet another very special person on the island had also just been rushed to a medical center in Honolulu for treatment of a heart attack. In an email message from a support person letting us know how she was doing I received these words: “I spoke with her today, she is doing well...she suggested that maybe she is here to simply breathe...and what a challenge that is going to be!” What a challenge it is for all of us as we sit silently on our meditation cushions and follow our breath — in and out, over and over, slowly realizing the amazing fact of our life.

There is a special word in the Hawaiian language which speaks about gratitude. Here is what I discovered about hoomaikai.

We have much to celebrate. Our being alive, awake and aware and able to survive are great blessings. Most of us can feel the wind on our face, listen to the early morning birds, sample the fragrance of fresh-cut blooms, treasure the visual magnificence of the moonset. When we gather in community to share our gratitude for all of life’s gifts, we create an opportunity for social bonds to be strengthened and past transgressions forgiven. The idea of being hoomaikai is woven deeply into the fabric of Native Hawaiian Culture. Music, dance, the exquisite variety of fine artworks, and personal adornments all function as expressions of thanksgiving. When you focus more on what you have, than on what you want, a special abundance is created. Happiness is indeed wanting exactly what you already have. When we take time to recognize and actively give thanks for all the goodness that is, we complete the circle that began with the asking and receiving.

As I reflect on simple gratitude and the gift of practice this Thanksgiving season, I realize yet another level of appreciation unfolding. The meaning of simple gratitude I was shown that day in San Francisco by Hoitsu is also suggested in the description of hoomaikai I found in Hawaii. Together they have revealed to me that gratitude is much closer to relinquishment than it is to attainment. We seem to be most in touch with the heart of gratitude as we relinquish our self-centered ideas about how life should be or how we would like it to turn out. As our ideals and models for some fantasied spiritual life fall away, sometimes through active letting go in practice and sometimes because life simply defeats our hopes and dreams, we are left with the bare essentials of living — our breath, our beating heart, the wind, the birds, the sun and moon. And, it is in the ongoing release of our ideas about life that allows life to come to us, just as it is. We then experience the simple gratitude of this immense and incomprehensible gift.

Here are some words from Suzuki Roshi as he reflected on this very full release into mystery.

Many Zen masters missed this point while they were striving to attain perfect zazen: things that exist are imperfect. That is how everything actually exists in this world. Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right in the imperfection is perfect reality...

We talk about enlightenment, but in its true sense perfect enlightenment if beyond our understanding, beyond our experience. Even in our imperfect practice enlightenment is there. We just don’t know it. So the point is to find the true meaning of practice before we attain enlightenment. Wherever you are, enlightenment is there. If you stand up right where you are, that is enlightenment.
This is called I-don’t-know zazen. We don’t know what zazen is anymore. I don’t know who I am. To find complete composure when you don’t know who you are or where you are, that is to accept things as it is...
When we find the joy of our life in our composure, we don’t know what it is, we don’t understand anything, then our mind is very great, very wide. Our mind is open to everything, so it is big enough to know before we know anything. We are grateful even before we have something. Even before we attain enlightenment, we are happy to practice our way. Otherwise we cannot attain anything in its true sense. (all emphasis added)

Even though his words may sound unusual, there is something that rings true at the heart of his message. “Things that exist are imperfect...but right in the imperfection is perfect reality.” Eventually we realize that there is nothing but perfection, but we only begin to see this as our minds open and our hearts soften. The simple gratitude of existence eventually reveals itself as profound self-acceptance. “To find complete composure when you don’t know who you are or where you are, that is to accept things as it is...“

One of my teachers used to say that sitting zazen facing a wall was essentially enacting the message, “Thank you very much, I have no complaints whatsoever.” Sitting in stillness and silence, without striving for anything, aware of everything, is enacting gratitude for this moment, this life, this body, these people, and these circumstances. This is very different from practicing to improve ourselves or to achieve some special state of mind. We all have what it takes to live our way into a big heart and an open mind, beyond knowing and beyond attaining anything. In doing so, we discover we have always had everything we ever needed. Knowing this we realize the “heart of meditation,” full of gratitude and free of self.