Gratitude Brings You Close to Life

Here we are in November. It is a cool day, the sun shines, the clouds above are light and puffy against the blue sky. This morning I let the horses out into the lower field. There the sweet grass is long and plentiful. In the same field I hear calves calling out across the pond. In moments like this gratitude is easy, the heart opens and appreciation flows, my inner being greets and touches the world. Where then is inside and outside? Deep appreciation shifts perspective, transforms how I receive my life. A long ago Zen teacher caught this in his “Praise Song for Meditation,”

This very place is paradise 
This very body the Buddha.

It is nice when it is this easy like that. Deep appreciation leads to profound intimacy, which in Zen we call awakening — perspective changes and everything seems close. Yes, but when things are difficult? Hard? When I feel bad? When the shit hits the fan? What about that?

When IT Hits the Fan

An old teacher was once asked, “What is Buddha?” Perhaps the one who asked was hoping for an ideal picture, Buddha in each flower blossom, in the way the clouds reflect in pond, the full moon rising at midnight or maybe some sort of metaphysical Buddha, flashing light permeating the universe. We all hope for that. But sometimes we get this:

The teacher responded, “Dried shitstick!” Yes, here once upon a time where I live people used old corncobs in the outhouse, you know, andafteruse and a little time — “dried shitstick.” But, lets not dwell there for too long. What about the unhappy instances in your life? The times when you are blue, unhappy, where life seems to have gone to shit. Yes, that feeling. The teacher is pointing to the reality that even that, that is IT too.

Yesterday I went to a Memorial Service commemorating loved ones who had died over the last year. I was there because my Father died last December. As the Bluegrass Band played “Torsten’s Irish Blessing,” the music touched deep. My heart opened and tears flowed — sadness, missing him, mourning what was and would never be again, morning what was not nor had ever been, his face, his smile, his intelligence, his gullibility were all transformed  and were flowing down my face. Now his death seemed sad and simultaneously ok, wrenching and spacious, dark, unknown and bright and clear. The bottom dropped out, and as I sat there with the tears of the bitter sweet, I received my life without complaint. No fault. Nothing wrong. 

So as they say, stuff happens. Life is filled with what we like and what we dislike, the circumstances that we embrace and those we keep at bay. Through spiritual practice the heart opens to what it cannot grasp, to a great Before that lies beyond understanding. Heart opens to sorrow and pain as well as joy and celebration. Heart finds that in it all life is revealed, that the light shines. There is no reason in any circumstance to find fault in life. The open heart is in it all. The invitation is to be in the life you have. Your life will do the rest.

Below is a story by Zen teacher Zenkei Shibayama, retold by my teacher, John Tarrant in his Zenosaurus blog.

Thank You Very Much

Once upon a time there was a young man who was deeply unhappy. He had many good things in his life but they didn’t help. When he was at the end of his tether he heard about a teacher who was supposed to be good with hopeless cases and he made the journey to see her.

“I am very unhappy,” he said. “I’m too restless to sit still and do a spiritual practice and I’m too selfish to practice compassion and service. I reach for what I want but when I get it, I’m not happy, and I’, always looking out for the next thing. I don’t have a clue where to turn. But I’m told that you deal with hopeless cases so perhaps you can help me. You are my last resort.”

“I’m glad you came,” she said. “I might be able to help but you will have to agree to do the practice I ask you to do.”

“Why don’t you tell me?” he said “and I’ll decide if it will work for me.”

“Oh no,” she said, “The deal is that you agree to do what I say and then I tell you what you must do. There is no other way.”

He hemmed and hawed and went back and forth and finally surrendered and said, “OK I’ll do it, but I won’t do it forever.”

So she said, “Try it for a year and let me know.”

“A year!”

She said nothing.

“OK,” he said, “Give it to me.”

“I’ll give you the practice I do myself. Whenever anything appears in my mind or appears in the world, I say ‘Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

“That’s all? That’s it? That’ll never work for me!”

“You agreed. For a year. Off you go now. Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

So he left and she more or less forgot about him.

Then a year passed and he asked for an interview and arrived in her room.

“It’s as I suspected, I knew it would never work for me, I’m still just as unhappy and selfish as I ever was.”

Immediately she said, “Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

With her words, he felt an eruption in his chest and began to laugh and immediately understood what she meant and laughed and laughed and laughed and his happiness didn’t subside though it did become quieter after some months.

“Thank you very much,” he told people, “I have no complaints whatsoever.”