I was thinking about what to write for a Thanksgiving post when this showed up in my in-box this morning from my friend Alan Senauke. So I happily give the floor to Alan, and wish all of you a happy holiday.
Thanksgiving For Real
When the Way is entrusted to the Way, we attain the Way…When treasures are entrusted to treasures, these treasures certainly become giving. We offer ourselves to ourselves, and we offer others to others.
— Eihei Dogen, “Bodaisatta Shishobo”
Digging around a bit I find that the first “thanksgiving” in the so-called New World may have taken place in June of 1564 on the River of May (now St. Johns River, Florida), celebrated by French Huguenots who fled religious wars in Europe. Another thanksgiving was marked on September 8, 1595 in the Spanish colony of what is now St. Augustine, Florida. By then the Spanish had massacred most of the early French colonists and many of the local native peoples.
In 1619 English settlers landed at Berkeley Hundreds on Virginia’s James River and offered a day of thanksgiving, as per a regulation in their charter. Within several years, the ongoing Anglo-Powhaton wars had driven the native tribes out of the region, and left many of the early settlers dead.
The surviving fifty-three members of the Plymouth Colony celebrated their first successful harvest in New England with a day of thanks in November 1621. A larger group from the Wampanoag tribe, led by Massasoit, arrived uninvited at the festival, causing initial alarm. But they came with generous offerings of food and drink (hence the now traditional Thanksgiving dinner of eel and stuffed lobster), and they partied together avidly. By 1676, only 400 Wampanoags remained and their leader Metacom, or King Philip, was captured and shot. His severed head was displayed on a pike in Plymouth for twenty years.
By now you are surely wondering what does this have to do with Buddhism? I am getting at the fact that our annual fourth Thursday in November tryptophan orgy, followed by Black Friday — the traditional kickoff to Christmas shopping — has a history marked by domination: domination over native peoples, domination over poultry — ask any turkey — and the domination of consumerism over all of us.
Still the force of giving and gratitude cannot be erased by history. It is a universal activity of the true human. Many of us will, in fact, experience just this as we sit down with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. Or as we serve a meal to those in need. In Buddhist terms Dogen Zenji writes:
When we can give up even one speck of dust as the practice of giving, though it is a small act, we can quietly rejoice in it. This is because we have already correctly transmitted and carried out one of the virtues of the buddhas, and because we have practiced a bodhisattva’s act for the first time.
The Bodhisattva’s first perfection or paramita is dana, giving. There are many kinds of giving: material aid, spiritual comfort, the Buddha’s teachings, fearlessness, and more. This is a universal principle. Judaism calls it tzedakah, in Islam it is sadaqah (clearly the same word), Christianity has caritas (Latin) and agape (Greek). We can draw fine distinctions, but these are related practices — giving without the expectation of reward or recompense.
In his inspiring book The Gift, writer Lewis Hyde says:
Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude… Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms.
This is a curious expression, to “suffer gratitude.” The Latin roots of “suffer” imply to carry up or to bear from under. In earlier days it meant to allow something to arise. At the same time, the word suffer inevitably suggests our experience of the pain of life, the mark of our precious human existence.
This awareness undercuts the theme of domination running through the history of thanksgiving as a holiday. When we suffer gratitude there is no room for domination. When giving and gift circulate freely we have moved beyond the realm of subject and object. Giving gives, receiving gives, suffering disperses like morning mist in sunlight.
My own Zen teacher says, “Don’t treat anything as an object.” This means to see all that we encounter — persons, material things, feelings, ideas, and so on — as part of oneself. That is, subjectively. With such an attitude, which is the mind of zazen, domination cannot emerge. We meet the world with an open hand. We immediately know thanks in giving, thanks in receiving, thanks in being. And then we are in the next moment, where the hand is opened once more. This is thanksgiving for real.
I give the last word to Dogen, again from “Bodaisatta Shishobo.” Enjoy the day.
It is like offering treasures that are going to be discarded to people we do not know. Give flowers blooming on the distant mountains to the Tathagata. Offer treasures accumulated in our past lives to living beings. Whether a gift is Dharma or material objects, each gift is truly endowed with the virtue of offering.