Just to Be Alive Is Enough

There is no greater gift than to be grateful for our lives, says the late Zen teacher Blanche Hartman, and gratitude leads naturally to generosity, because we want to share this gift with others.

Blanche Hartman
4 June 2021

There are two related practices that guide my life these days: cultivating gratitude and cultivating generosity. Generosity, dana paramita, is the first of the perfections of the heart of a bodhisattva. It is deeply supported by the experience of gratitude.

Gratitude as an experience, and not just a sentiment, came into my life most vividly during a vacation in Connecticut sixteen years ago. I had gone with my niece to an exhibition of vintage automobiles, an old hobby of mine. At one point I was having some chest pain and she said, “Aunt Blanche, you look horrible, I’m going to call an ambulance.”

Her prompt action, and the skill of paramedics, doctors, and nurses, made it possible for me to go home ten days later. As I was walking away from the hospital with my husband, I thought, “Wow! I’m alive! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a free gift!” After a couple more steps I thought, “Gee, it always has been a free gift, from the beginning.” I was flooded with gratitude just to be alive, and understood what Suzuki Roshi meant when he once said, “Just to be alive is enough.” Even though there may be difficulties and disappointments, and sometimes real pain and hardship, I really do like being alive.

This was one of those moments of practice that gave rise to spontaneous gratitude. It was not at all like that when I came close to dying twenty years earlier, before I ever heard of Zen or meditation practice. At that time, my primary response was fear—terror actually—at realizing my own mortality. Up until then I had known that everyone dies eventually, but it was impersonal. Now I knew that I, personally, was going to die and that it could happen at any moment. I understood first-hand the teaching “Death is certain. The time of death is uncertain.”

I began a frantic search to understand how you live a life that you know is going to end.

The great ancestor Nagarjuna said, “To see into impermanence is bodhichitta [the altruistic aspiration to awaken for the benefit of all beings].” As a result of that experience I began a frantic search to understand how you live a life that you know is going to end. That search finally led me to Suzuki Roshi and practice. It is clear to me that my dharma practice in the years between my first and second brushes with death caused the dramatic change in my response. So you can understand why I feel that one of the greatest gifts of practice is gratitude.

But I need to be careful not to suggest that anyone should practice expecting some particular result. Suzuki Roshi often cautioned: “No gaining idea! No goal-seeking mind!” He said, “The most important point in our practice is to have right or perfect effort. Right effort directed in the right direction is necessary. If your effort is headed in the wrong direction, especially if you are not aware of this, it is deluded effort. Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement.…When you are involved in some dualistic practice, it means your practice is not pure. We do not mean to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are.”

There is nothing we need to get that is not already right here, right now, in this very body and mind as it is.

All the teachers I know have emphasized that we practice for the sake of practice—just to express and actualize our intrinsic buddhanature for the benefit of all beings. There is nothing we need to get that is not already right here, right now, in this very body and mind as it is.

The Heart Sutra says there is “no attainment because there is nothing to attain.” Sawaki Kodo Roshi said, “Zazen is good for nothing. And until you get it through your thick skull that it’s good for nothing, it’s really good for nothing!” In my first zazen instruction, Katagiri Dainin Roshi said, “We sit to settle the self on the self and let the flower of our life force bloom,” again suggesting that everything we need is right here.

To seek for something other than “just this” implies that something is missing, that we are not complete somehow. The first time I heard Suzuki Roshi speak, he said, “You are perfect just as you are.” I thought, “He doesn’t know me. I’m new here.” But again and again he would keep pointing in that direction, saying “You have everything you need,” “You are already complete,” “Just to be alive is enough.” I finally had to assume that I was not the sole exception to these assertions, but I was still dubious. And as I continued to practice and to talk with other students of the buddhadharma, I found that many people share the conditioning that leads us to think that there’s something wrong with us. If we could only get, do or be something more, then we would be all right.

Coming to accept that there is nothing wrong with me has been a very important part of growing up.

The Zen teacher Cheri Huber also addressed this common source of distress with her book entitled No Matter What You’ve Been Taught to Believe, There’s Nothing Wrong with You. I found the book very helpful and have recommended it to many people, including my daughter, who has recommended it to many of her friends. For me, coming to accept that there is nothing wrong with me has been a very important part of growing up. (I understand that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “Our mantra should be, ‘OM grow up svaha!’”) I have had a lot of help in this from practicing with the three treasures: my teachers, the dharma, and my friends in the sangha, including a psychotherapist.

It’s so easy for us to get the idea that there’s something wrong with us. And it’s so hard to let go of that and just appreciate this one life, as it is, as a gift. My first spontaneous experience of gratitude came more than thirty years ago as I was preparing to enter Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. I was sitting tangaryo, a practice in which new monastics sit continuously (with brief breaks) for a number of days (five at Tassajara) to settle themselves and clarify for themselves and others that they are ready to immerse themselves in monastic practice.

I had had to wait several years before I could go to Tassajara because I still had teenage children at home and I also needed to work. So I was really glad to finally be there, but it was also very difficult. I had sat weeklong sesshins before, but in tangaryo we didn’t have walking meditation between periods of zazen; we just sat all day. And it was hot, and there were flies, and our knees hurt, and so on. On about the fourth day, I became more aware of what was going on around me. I heard the sounds of the students working outside. I became aware of the cooks preparing food for us, and the servers serving us, and I began to feel grateful that they were all working so that I could sit! Then I began to feel grateful that Suzuki Roshi had come to this country to teach us and establish the monastery so that I could sit! And then, like a line of dominoes falling, my gratitude went racing back through the whole lineage, from Suzuki Roshi to the Buddha—if any of them hadn’t kept this practice alive, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit today. So instead of being miserable, hot, hurting, and tired of flies, my experience was overwhelming gratitude for everyone who had made it possible for me to practice the buddhadharma.

In fact, not only is life a gift, and practice a gift, everything we have, without exception, has come to us through the kindness of others. Years ago Tara Tulku Rinpoche, a wonderful Vajrayana teacher, visited us at Green Gulch Farm, where I then lived. He taught us a traditional meditation to cultivate gratitude. He asked us to think of everything that we thought was ours and consider how it came to us. Our food, clothing, houses, books, tools, toys, health: anything we can think of comes to us through the kindness of others. Even something we have made with our own hands depends on the tools and materials we used to make it. And we, through the activities of our life, are also offering gifts to others. This dance of offering and receiving is going on continually. Gratitude and generosity generate each other.

What better antidote to suffering can there be than gratitude?

For me, this gift of gratitude has been a great delight, so naturally I wish it for everyone. When the Buddha made the first turning of the wheel of dharma he spoke to his friends with whom he had practiced asceticism before he accepted the bowl of rice and milk and sat down under the Bodhi Tree. The first thing he said was, “Friends, there is dukkha [suffering].” What better antidote to suffering can there be than gratitude? And with this experience of gratitude there is a natural response—wanting to give something back, to share with others this gift of life and the opportunity to practice. How can we do this?

The Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi, who came here from Japan as a young monk to help Suzuki Roshi start the monastery at Tassajara, once said, “You don’t use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality, or fulfilling your dream of your highest image. You don’t use the precepts that way. The precepts are the reflected light-world of one precept, which is Buddha’s mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha. Zazen is the first formulation of the accomplishing of Buddha existing.…The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally such a person sits down for a while. It’s not an intended action; it’s a natural action.” How shall we use this life, how manifest it so as to share this gift?

Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto school, said of zazen, “Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away and your original face will manifest.” He also said, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by everything. And this awakening continues endlessly.” This waking up is the aspiration of bodhichitta. If we really want to benefit beings, we must wake up, see reality as it actually is. Then we will know how to benefit beings.

Zen is making your best effort on each moment…forever.

Going back to what I mentioned in the beginning, in addition to assuring us that we are perfect as we are, Suzuki Roshi also said, “There’s always room for improvement.” He said, “Zen is making your best effort on each moment…forever.” And the question arose in me, “What is it to make effort with no gaining idea? What kind of effort is that?” In his poem “Zazenshin,” Dogen Zenji said, “Realization is effort without desire.” That was a real puzzle to me because as far as I could recall, my effort had always been directed toward accomplishing some goal, or being good, or at least looking good. This question became my koan. I could not put it down. I have wrestled with it for years. This koan has served me well and I offer it to you.

There are teachings in the abhidharma, the basic Buddhist description of mind, about right effort: to relinquish unskillful mind states that have arisen, not to give rise to unskillful mind states that have not yet arisen, to cultivate skillful mind states that have not yet arisen, and to maintain skillful mind states that have arisen. But that didn’t satisfy me as an answer to my koan. There seemed to be something more that I needed to understand about making constant effort while accepting and embracing just this, as-it-is.

One spring at Tassajara I walked to the zendo along the same path every day. One day I noticed a few green shoots pushing their way up through the soil. Every day there were more and they were higher. And one day there were some buds. And then one day there were suddenly many golden daffodils! And my koan broke open. Here was effort without desire right in front of me all the time! Just letting the flower of the life force bloom right here, right now, wholeheartedly and with nothing held back—giving ourselves completely to whatever arises right in front of us moment after moment.

Someone once asked Suzuki Roshi, “Roshi, what’s the most important thing?” and he answered, “To find out what’s the most important thing.”

I’d like to share with you a poem by Mary Oliver called “Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

What is it you plan to do with this wild and precious life that has been given to you?

I think this question of how we live our life, how we actually live this life—not what we think about it, not what we say about it, but how we actually live it—may be the most important thing. Dogen Zenji said, “To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.”

Blanche Hartman

Blanche Hartman

Zenkei Blanche Hartman (1926-2016) was a Senior Dharma Teacher and the first woman Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.