This month, I would like to continue on the topic of the benefits of living the Shin Buddhist way of life. My topic is the benefit of living a life of gratitude, which is something that modern psychology is now emphasizing, but is something that Shin Buddhism has been teaching for centuries.
Modern psychology is finding that grateful people are actually happier people. People nowadays are constantly in search of finding that elusive thing called “happiness” and are now learning that the key to happiness is just to be a grateful person.
In Shin Buddhism, it is not so much that we “should” be a grateful person, but having encountered the teachings, one cannot “help” but be grateful.
One of the most striking examples of gratitude in Shin Buddhism is the life of Hisako Nakamura, who is like the Helen Keller of Japan. Hisako Nakamura lived nearly her entire life without hands or feet due to frostbite as a small child. She lived a most tragic and difficult life, being handicapped and living in Japan in the 1900s.
Later in life, she encountered Shin Buddhism and became a popular lay speaker. She was an accomplished calligrapher, writing with the brush in her mouth. She could knit, sew, and do anything a normal person can do, but not without tremendous struggle and effort to learn how to do those things without hands or feet.
In one of her poems, she expresses the following:
I have them, I have them,
I have them all ...
It’s all I need.
What a refreshing autumn morning.
How can someone who has no hands or feet say they “have them all”? How could you not be bitter about the tragic life you have had to live, without hands or feet like other people? But Hisako Nakamura states that she has everything in life. She lacks nothing. Her life is fulfilled and gratified. Can we say the same? We might be grateful to a certain degree, but there is always something more that we “think” we need, whether it is a new car, a bigger house, or a new computer. Hisako Nakamura has such a perspective on life because of her encounter with Shin Buddhism.
In our Shin Buddhist services, we often sing the Japanese gatha, “Ondokusan.” The lyrics to this gatha are actually a poem written by Shinran Shonin, called “wasan.” Music was added to this poem to create a popular gatha that has been sung both in Japan and the United States for decades. The poem goes as follows:
Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion,
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies;
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.
In this poem, Shinran Shonin expresses the most profound sense of gratitude that he has, not for his parents, or for his home, or for his family, or for his daily food. He expresses his profound gratitude to the heart of the Buddha, great compassion, and to the masters and teachers who have transmitted that heart of compassion to him, through the teachings. For Shinran Shonin, that is the deepest sense of gratitude. It doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful for his wife, or his family, or his home. It means that even deeper than that for him is his sense of gratitude to the Dharma, to the Nembutsu. And that is why he feels compelled to repay that debt of gratitude. How does one repay that debt of gratitude? By sharing the teachings with others.