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Arigato in a 7-Eleven

Editor’s note: This article by Teresa Shimogawa, a Minister’s Assistant at the Orange County Buddhist Church, first appeared in the EVERYDAY BUDDHIST blog at everydaybuddhist.org and is being reprinted with the permission of Teresa Shimogawa.


 

This past summer, I took my kids to Japan for vacation. We had a great time, loving everything from temples to Disney Sea curry popcorn, the Ghibli Museum, cat cafes, claw machines, catching a baseball game in Fukuoka, and many visits to Shinto shrines to buy good luck charms. 


Yet perhaps the most memorable parts of my trip didn’t require reservations nor did they come with a price tag. 


One aspect about Japanese culture that impressed me (again) on my second visit to the country was the way they say thank you. It is unlike anything you experience in the United States, where public manners often seem like a pleasant surprise when interacting with strangers. But in Japan, I found myself drawn to the intentionality and tradition of how they thank one another.


Arigato gozaimasu.


The expression of gratitude accompanies a bow that is not too fast, not too slow — something that feels deliberate, kind, respectful, and steeped in history. 


From the slouchy country where I come from, watching the straightness in their backs, the degree of the bow, and the consistency of their enthusiasm displayed from even a 7-Eleven worker, impressed me beyond all expectations. 


I left each interaction feeling like the person was genuinely happy about the moment we just shared, even if it was me paying them for a pack of Pokemon cards in a convenience store as my kids roamed the aisles begging for more candy like the loud Americans that they are.   


Rev. Taitetsu Unno explained in his book, “Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold,” that “arigato” is based “on the Buddhist worldview that any happening is the product of countless causes and conditions … beyond our comprehension or imagination.” 


He goes on to talk about the humility that we experience when we don’t fully understand the scope of the blessings we experience. He quotes Shinran:


Such persons are like those who, imbued with incense,

Bear its fragrance on their bodies.

They may be called

Those adorned with the fragrance of light.”


Perhaps that is what I sensed in Japanese culture: the fragrance of gratitude emanating from their beings. It is something I recognized in my Japanese father-in-law when he was still alive; a settled peacefulness within him and a thankfulness for his simple existence, something that was so natural to him that he didn’t even try to show it, he merely lived it. 


It stands out to me as a person raised in American culture, where gratitude has never been the focus. I’ve grown up in this place where they tell you if you work hard, you’ll succeed, and that it’s because of your efforts of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. 


The United States is an individualistic society with almost no recognition of interconnectedness. But I know that I’m not here solely because of my own merits. There have been innumerable experiences with other people and places and conditions that have made me who I am, for which I am deeply grateful.


For someone like me who didn’t grow up as a Buddhist, gratitude has been something I’ve had to work at. My mind would often go straight to the reasons why gratitude was silly, like how can I be grateful that I’m sick? Or how can I be grateful that my husband died? Why would I be grateful that the air conditioner just broke? 


Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi spoke about the benefits of a Shin Buddhist life in his March 2023 BCA talk, and he said, “Shin Buddhism is about appreciating what I have to balance the desire for what I don’t have.” 


This was a powerful way of explaining gratitude to me. Gratitude is strategic thinking. If I sit here wallowing in my agony of loss, I may have good reasons to be sad, but the act of wallowing won’t accomplish anything. It won’t restore life to factory settings. It won’t contribute to any progress. 


But gratitude will, and it’s not just Buddhists who believe so. Science has backed up the benefits of gratitude for quite some time. 

Gratitude has physical and mental benefits, such as decreasing depression and anxiety, increasing happiness and life satisfaction, strengthening relationships, sleeping better, and lowering blood pressure. 


The New York Times recently published an article written by Christina Caron entitled “Gratitude Really Is Good for You. Here’s What the Science Shows.” In it, Caron writes that gratitude arises from acknowledging “you have goodness in your life and that other people — or higher powers, if you believe in them — have helped you achieve that goodness.”


Here, I thought about Namo Amida Butsu. Rev. Unno describes it as being aware of our self-centered ego and “being touched by the light of the boundless compassion that is Amida Buddha. This light not only illuminates our darkness, it transforms it, so that we try to be compassionate with a sense of humility and gratitude, mindful of our karmic limitations.” 


Thus, when we recite the Nembutsu, we are grounding ourselves in a practice of gratitude, a life of humility, and ultimately opening the doors of possibility for ourselves and those who we share this world with. It is a way that we can make a difference from within every single day.



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