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Shin Buddhism - the practice of gratitude

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Shin Buddhism - the practice of gratitude
Shin Buddhism - the practice of gratitude

Shin Buddhism - the practice of gratitude & surrender. Not striving for nirvana or enlightenment. Not making yourself a better meditator or more ethical person. Not pondering this precept or this doctrine. Simply giving thanks for what is & trusting what's to come.

As a Shin Buddhist, my primary practice isn’t meditation, sutra study, ritual, or precepts. All of these can be valuable, of course, but in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. This sets us apart from many other Buddhists. We don’t practice to achieve anything—not enlightenment, good karma, a favorable rebirth, or material rewards. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspec­tive, but when pursued, it can be transformative.
This practice of gratitude traces back about eight hundred years to premodern Japan and a Japanese monk named Shinran, who founded a new Buddhist school with his wife, Eshinni. After spending twenty years at Mt. Hiei, the center of Buddhist studies of that era in Japan, Shinran came to the insight that meditation, precepts, and other rigorous practices often subtly rein­force our egos. He saw that if we become good at sitting still for long periods of time, we may start thinking, “Wow, I’m a great meditator. Too bad all the other people out there don’t have my capacity.” Likewise, he saw that a glimpse of emptiness often leads us to believe that we are more enlightened than normal people, and that if we manage to adhere to strict precepts, we tend to slip into thinking, “I’m a good person, and people who don’t stick to the precepts are bad.” Indeed, Shinran found these sorts of attitudes in himself, and in his fellow monks as well.
Liberation is therefore always naturally avail­able and needn’t be chased after endlessly. Shinran taught that we must give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion. In this way, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about attaining buddhahood for ourselves and instead becomes about expressing gratitude for all that we have received. This is a way of life that deep­ens as the years pass; as Shinran put it, “My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebted­ness ever more compelling.” Buddhist practice is transformed into an act of pure expressiveness that puts our inner feelings into word and deed through the utterance of the nembutsu and other acts of gratitude.

Hearing this, we may naturally ask - why? Why be grateful? Why trust reality? I think there are two good reasons. One, it sets a positive & accepting tone, which makes us more receptive to what's occurring, & makes it more likely we respond constructively. It sets a vibe we instinctively recognize as wise & healthy. Put bluntly: why not? Two, the practice corresponds with a higher truth taught in Buddhism, that of phenomena as dharma. Dharma means the teaching, the path, the way. In a narrow sense, dharma refers to wise teachings, e.g. the teachings of the Buddha and his followers. The Eightfold Path being perhaps the most famous example. In a broader sense, dharma refers to occurrence - whatever happens is a teaching for us. And not an accidental teaching; a tailored teaching, a customized opportunity to (1) recognize where we're stuck or confused, and (2) move toward greater insight & clarity. We meet the unfolding moment with gratitude & surrender because doing so softens our reflexive resistance to dharma - to personal transformation - thereby enhancing our ability to learn & grow. Our compulsiveness & reactivity don't want to let go. They want to keep operating in us, keep us stuck in the same eddies & loops as always. Reality keeps presenting us with challenges and difficulties that, when engaged mindfully, can break us free from our bondage. By approaching these challenges with the attitudes of gratitude & surrender, we embrace our role as students, and we allow the challenges to become the loving teachers & transformers they can be. No need to buy into that, though. It's something to practice & see what happens. What happens when we practice gratitude & surrender? When we say "thank you," from the heart, without mustering up a reason first? When we exhale, relax, and allow the moment to unfold, without first adopting an attitude or strategy toward it?

It's not realistic to expect we'll suddenly do this effortlessly & all of the time. What if it happened 3 times today? What if during each phase of the day - morning, midday, evening - we looked for one opportunity to practice unconditional gratitude & surrender? "Unconditional" simply meaning, we don't wait for a reason why before doing it. We've decided in advance to do it. The moment has come - we just do it. We say thank you. We exhale, sigh, unclench - whatever helps us break the entrancement of compulsive doing so we can shift into a mode of noticing, letting go, & letting be. Try it. See how you feel before, during, & after. Give it a few days' practice, to let it take root. Consider setting phone reminders during the day to prompt you.

We're not looking for a miraculous overhaul - though of course, if it wants to come, come!

Look instead for subtle shifts, gentle softenings, little openings - new occurrences to give thanks for! That's how this practice can gain its own momentum.

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