The Lessons of Gratitude (Part One)

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu (also known as Geoffrey DeGraff, or more affectionately, “Than Geoff”) — abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery, and a highly prolific and respected teacher and translator — comes a new teaching about what the historical Buddha taught about gratitude.

Part one follows; click here to jump to part two.

“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.” — The Buddha, in the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 2:118).

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.

Kindness and gratitude are virtues you can cultivate, but they have to be cultivated together. Each needs the other to be genuine—a point that becomes obvious when you think about the three things most likely to make gratitude heartfelt:

1) You’ve actually benefited from another person’s actions.

2) You trust the motives behind those actions.

3) You sense that the other person had to go out of his or her way to provide that benefit.

Points one and two are lessons that gratitude teaches kindness: If you want to be genuinely kind, you have to be of actual benefit—nobody wants to be the recipient of “help” that isn’t really helpful—and you have to provide that benefit in a way that shows respect and empathy for the other person’s needs. No one likes to receive a gift given with calculating motives, or in an offhand or disdainful way.

Points two and three are lessons that kindness teaches to gratitude. Only if you’ve been kind to another person will you accept the idea that others can be kind to you. At the same time, if you’ve been kind to another person, you know the effort involved. Kind impulses often have to do battle with unkind impulses in the heart, so it’s not always easy to be helpful. Sometimes it involves great sacrifice—a sacrifice possible only when you trust the recipient to make good use of your help. So when you’re on the receiving end of a sacrifice like that, you realize you’ve incurred a debt, an obligation to repay the other person’s trust.

This is why the Buddha always discusses gratitude as a response to kindness, and doesn’t equate it with appreciation in general. It’s a special kind of appreciation, inspiring a more demanding response. The difference here is best illustrated by two passages in which the Buddha uses the image of carrying.

The first passage concerns appreciation of a general sort:

“Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the far shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the far shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the far shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks? Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?”

“No, lord.”

“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over to the far shore, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the far shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft.” — Majjhima Nikaya (MN 22)

The second passage concerns gratitude in particular:

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world.

“But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one’s mother & father.“— Anguttara Nikaya (AN 2:32)

In other words, as the first passage shows, it’s perfectly fine to appreciate the benefits you’ve received from rafts and other conveniences without feeling any need to repay them. You take care of them simply because that enables you to benefit from them more. The same holds true for difficult people and situations that have forced you to develop strength of character. You can appreciate that you’ve learned persistence from dealing with crabgrass in your lawn, or equanimity from dealing with unreasonable neighbors, without owing the crabgrass or neighbors any debt of gratitude. After all, they didn’t kindly go out of their way to help you. And if you were to take them as models, you’d learn all the wrong lessons about kindness: that simply following your natural impulses—or, even worse, behaving unreasonably—is the way to be kind.

Debts of gratitude apply only to parents, teachers, and other benefactors who have acted with your wellbeing in mind. They’ve gone out of their way to help you, and have taught you valuable lessons about kindness and empathy in the process. In the case of the raft, you’d do best to focus gratitude on the person who taught you how to make a raft. In the case of the crabgrass and the neighbors, focus gratitude on the people who taught you how not to be overcome by adversity. If there are benefits you’ve received from things or situations you can’t trace to a conscious agent in this lifetime, feel gratitude to yourself for the good karma you did in the past that allowed those benefits to appear.

As the Buddha’s second passage shows, the debt you owe to your benefactors needn’t be tit for tat, and shouldn’t be directed solely to them. Now, the debt you owe your parents for giving birth to you and enabling you to live is immense. In some passages the Buddha recommends expressing gratitude for their compassion with personal services.

Mother & father,
compassionate to their family,
are called
Brahma,
first teachers,
those worthy of gifts
from their children.
So the wise should pay them
homage,
honor
with food & drink
clothing & bedding
anointing & bathing
& washing their feet.
Performing these services to their parents,
the wise
are praised right here
and after death
rejoice in heaven. — Itivuttaka, 106

However, AN 2:32 shows that the only true way to repay your parents is to strengthen them in four qualities: conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment. To do so, of course, you have to develop these qualities in yourself, as well as learning how to employ great tact in being an example to your parents. As it happens, these four qualities are also those of an admirable friend (AN 8:54), which means that in repaying your parents in this way you become the sort of person who’d be an admirable friend to others as well. You become a person of integrity, who—as the Buddha points out—has learned from gratitude how to be harmless in all your dealings and to give help with an empathetic heart: respectfully, in a timely way, and with the sense that something good will come of it (MN 110; AN 5:148). In this way, you repay your parents’ goodness many times over by allowing its influence to spread beyond the small circle of the family into the world at large. In so doing, you enlarge the circle of their goodness as well.

This principle also applies to your teachers, as the Buddha told his disciples:

“So this is what you think of me: ‘The Blessed One, sympathetic, seeking our well-being, teaches the Dhamma out of sympathy.’ Then you should train yourselves—harmoniously, cordially, and without dispute—in the qualities I have pointed out, having known them directly: the four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors of Awakening, the noble eightfold path.” — Majjhima Nikaya (MN 103)

In other words, the way to repay a teacher’s compassion and sympathy in teaching you is to apply yourself to learning your lessons well. Only then can you spread the good influence of those lessons to others.

As for the debts you owe yourself for your past good karma, the best way to repay them is to use your benefits as opportunities to create further good karma, and not simply enjoy the pleasure they offer. Here again it’s important to remember the hardships that can be involved in acting skillfully, and to honor your past skillful intentions by not allowing them to go to waste in the present. For example, as the teacher Ajaan Lee once said, it’s not easy to attain a human mouth, so bow down to your mouth every day. In other words, respect your ability to communicate, and use it to say only what’s timely, beneficial, and true.

These are some of the lessons about kindness and empathy that well-focused gratitude can teach—lessons that teach you how to deal maturely and responsibly in the give and take of social life. Small wonder, then, that the Buddha cited gratitude as the quality defining what it means to be civilized (Anguttara Nikaya 2:31).

This is part one of a two-part teaching; click here to jump to part two. Our thanks to Thanisssaro Bhikhhu for allowing us to share his teachings with you.

For more from Than Geoff — including a digital version of his new book, Skill in Questions, visit Dhammatalks.org. To learn more about Metta Forest Monastery, of which Than Geoff is the abbot, click here.