A Buddhist Thanksgiving: Understanding Gratitude in Buddhism


What does gratitude in Buddhism and Thanksgiving have in common?

An American tradition and holiday, Thanksgiving, is often the cornerstone of being thankful for people and things in our lives (and ironically, followed by massively acquiring things the next day on “Black Friday”).

As a Buddhist, it may seem like this is yet another holiday that is something we cannot take part in.  In-fact, it is one of the most important American holidays where Buddhist values shine.

It is also important to note that any holiday, even Thanksgiving, need not be tied down by whatever rituals, beliefs, and practices that are currently being practiced.  Buddhists can deepen the meaning of Thanksgiving in their own minds and actions to be a day of deep [Buddhist] compassion, loving-kindness, and community.  

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What is Gratitude in Buddhism?

When someone benefits us even a little, we should repay them with all our hearts. Even if someone is angry with us, we should always treat them well.
~ Upasakasila Sutra

It is the Buddhist value of “gratitude” and “giving” (“Dana”) which is fundamental to Buddhism that we share on this day.  Not only does it help us progress towards realizing dependent origination (we are all connected), but also helps free us from attachment and builds a compassionate mind.

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained, being grateful is something we should always practice:

As Buddhists, we should feel fundamentally grateful for everything that happens to us.

But why?  Why should we be “fundamentally grateful for everything that happens to us”?  It is easy to be grateful for the beautiful and wonderful things that happen to us, but what about those “not so good” thing that happen to us?  Yes, we should even be grateful for them even though that is an extremely hard practice to follow.

Buddhist author Barbara O’Brien explained that gratitude is an “antidote for greed”.  Greed is an important topic in Buddhism, because we can be greedy for things like our health, family, friends, work, money, beliefs, etc., which makes us attached (and thus caught in the “Three Poisons/Fires“).  But, as we now as Buddhists, all things are impermanent.

When we are greedy, even about the good things, we are drifting farther away from the true path.

Being grateful for everything that happens to us builds our compassionate mind.

As Barbara O’Brien explained:

This shows us that gratitude is also an antidote to greed. Greed often comes from a sense of not having enough, or at least not having as much as everyone else has. Gratitude assures us that what we have is enough; greed and gratitude cannot peacefully coexist, it seems. The same goes for jealousy, regret, resentment, and many other negative emotions.

So how do we become grateful so we can use this as an antidote to greed?  By thinking deeply, we begin to understand that we are interconnected (dependent) on others (and things).  This helps us “awaken” to our natural gratitude and compassionate mind.

According to Ven. Master Hsing Yun, the Sutra on the Compassionate Upaya of the Buddha provides guidance on how to be grateful as it helps us manifest the Four Immeasurable States of Mind of the Tathagata (Buddha) which are boundless kindness, boundless compassionate, boundless joy, and boundless equanimity:

The sutra continues its discussion of gratitude by mentioning four other ways of being that can help us always stay grateful toward the world. It says:

  1. When we see an evil person, we should become thoughtful and consider that their evil is a burden most of all to themselves. With this understanding we should treat them with as much compassion as possible.
  2. When we see those who are suffering, we should not turn away from them. Instead, we should provide them as much comfort as we are able.
  3. When we are with our parents, our teachers or others who are of good nature, we should feel joy and respect. We should seek to build on the compassion they have shown us by creating even more positive conditions in the world.
  4. When we come upon someone who is angry with us, we should not return the feeling. Instead, we should look for every way we can think of to diminish it.

Buddhists also practice giving (Dana) through supporting the monastics (Sangha/community).  The earliest tradition is that of giving robes to monks, and it is still practiced to this day as more tradition than necessary.

The presentation of three robes to a monastic date back to the days of the Buddha as a way of showing support of the Sangha, the monastic, and allowing the laity to develop gratefulness, compassion, and merit.  CC0 Photo via Pixabay

Because Buddhist temples are often supported in many ways, having the laity present robes is not as vital as it was in the Buddha’s day, it still provides the ability to practice giving and thanking the monastic (or new monastic) for their desire to give up everything and become a monastic.  This not only provides the laity with the ability to gain merit, give the monastic something they will use daily, but also increases loving-kindness.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Gratefulness shines on the face of this Buddhist nun.  CC0 photo via Pixabay

A common tradition on Thanksgiving is to give thanks in a way of prayer before everyone starts eating.  Traditionally a Christian prayer is given, but many religions also give their own.  Does this mean Buddhists do not have one?  Of course not.

For Buddhists, a regular prayer is one of “Metta” or “Loving Kindness”.  This prayer helps bring forth the blooming of the seeds of compassion in our minds, which is critical in Buddhist practice.  Without compassion, the Three Poisons quickly take over.

The “Loving Kindness” Sutra (also known as the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta) is what most Buddhists know, however is often translated, and worded in different ways.

Here is my (adapted) version in a prayer-like form, and maybe you will find it a favorite of yours as well (check out the graphic at the beginning of this article that matches this):

For all living beings, no matter who or what they are.

Whether they are seen or unseen.

Whether they are living near or far.

Whether they are born or unborn.

Let none deceive or despise anyone.

Let none wish harm to another, through anger or hatred.

May all beings be safe, peaceful, and happy!

Can a Buddhist Eat Meat?

These Turkey’s would like to have a thanksgiving dinner that does not involve them, thank you very much. (CC0 photo via Pixabay)

In America, eating meat…specifically Turkey and Ham…is deeply a part of this tradition for many.  In-fact, America is the #1 producer of Turkey (and consumer), especially on this day.

So, what does a Buddhist do?

For Theravadin Buddhists, this may not be too much of an issue as they take the more liberal view of eating meat that followed the Buddha’s example of accepting whatever was given to him (and his followers) during daily alms rounds as long as it was not specifically killed for them.  This goes to the Buddha’s wish for all sentient beings to benefit from being compassionate and giving, he was not willing to tell them what to do.  It also allowed him and his followers to practice gratefulness as well.

However, killing is a fundamental Buddhist “do not do” as part of the Five Precepts.  So what to do?  Mahayana Buddhists are a mixture in this realm, where Chinese Buddhists strive to be vegetarian, while others like Japanese Buddhists see no problem eating meat due to how Buddhism grew in their country.

We won’t even get into the health benefits of not eating meat, but focus on “can a Buddhist eat meat”?  The answer is yes unless you are a monastic and you are forbidden to.

So, fundamentally, there are some steps you can take:

  • If you have some flexibility with your hosts, let them know you can bring a vegetarian dish(es) and/or your preference
  • If you wish to not offend your hosts, there is often plenty of non-meat parts of a thanksgiving dinner you can load up on
  • If you are given turkey on your plate, should you eat it?  That is personal and up to you.  To continue the practice of being grateful you may want to, while being grateful in your mind for all things, including the animal that was sacrificed for this food, so you can still practice while eating
  • When presented with a question if you would like more meat, say you loved some of the other (non-meat) dishes and would love to have more of that as you are getting full
  • This is about being grateful and kindness, so focus on that…talk with others, have fun, and remember the meal is a part of the tradition, but it is not the entirety!
  • If you are hosting the dinner, and you know your guests prefer meat, figure out if you wish to have meat especially for them without making them the exception
  • If you are the host, and guests bring meat dishes, will you partake?  Yes if you can in order to show gratefulness unless you are a monastic, have health issues, or it is too much for you (you don’t have to eat it all!)

Regardless of what is on the dinner plate, a Buddhist always strives to be grateful and practice loving kindness, and especially at Thanksgiving with friends and family who surround them!

Happy Thanksgiving!


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