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Givng Thanks

November 24, 2012

by Stephen Damon

On Thursday, most of us in America gathered with friends and family to give thanks for all the good things in our lives.  Keeping this attitude in mind, I realized that sometimes the only thing I have to give is my thanks. And I noticed that giving thanks was so full and inclusive that I felt that I was receiving as much as I was giving.  In an odd sense I felt that when I gave thanks I was losing or at least easing my ordinary boundaries of self and others.  When one wholeheartedly thanks someone, she doesn’t need to hear “you’re welcome.” The act of giving thanks is a complete act that needs no response, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it includes all responses.

This morning I came upon this story, in the collection of 101 Zen stories, about giving thanks that I’d like to share with you.

While Seietsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umeza Seibei a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

Seisetsu said: “All right. I will take it.”

Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

“In that sack are five hundred ryo,” hinted Umeza.

“You told me that before,” replied Seisetsu.

“Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,” said Umezu.

“Do you want me to thank you for it?” asked Seisetsi.

“You ought to,” replied Umeza.

“Why should I?” inquired Seisetsu. “The giver should be thankful.”

If we are expecting to be thanked for what we have done, we are probably identified with labeling it as “good.” We feel that we must be good to have done something as good as giving money to a monastery.  Asking for thanks for what we have done is a way of asking to be acknowledged as an independent self.  Of course, Seitsu would not want any part of this.  If Umeza had money it should’ve been only “natural” to give it to the master who needed more space to teach more students.  The impulse to give money to the monastery should’ve come before any discriminations of “good” or “worthwhile.”

This story illustrates how in traditional Buddhist cultures it is considered a rare opportunity to give alms to monks and nuns.  Seisetsu is saying that for any act to be complete it needs to include the attitude of being thankful.  In Zen, we are often instructed to do whatever we are doing as fully and wholeheartedly as we can.  This story is telling us that feeling thankful is a necessary element of doing things in this way.  If we do things without feeling grateful for the opportunity of doing them, we are not fully awake.  If we are really paying attention to what is going on in our lives, we see that each moment provides an opportunity to be grateful.  I feel this most intensely at the end of our sangha’s weekly Monday gatherings so after we chant the Four Great Vows, I thank everyone for coming.

Thank you very much!



From → Zen Buddhism

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