Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Be Grateful to Everyone

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Be Grateful to Everyone

This slogan is closely related to the previous one, "Always Maintain a Joyful Mind." When we maintain a joyful mind in every life situation, then we are able to see that everyone we encounter — including and especially the people who irritate us and push our buttons — is giving us opportunities to transform our negative patterns and awaken from our own delusion. Just as Atisha realized that his difficult and temperamental Bengali tea boy was his greatest teacher, so each time we meet someone in our lives who tests our patience we are given a choice: to do the habitual, instinctual thing — or to wake up.

The teacher Krishnamurti is said to have had a student like Atisha’s Bengali tea boy, someone who was very temperamental and difficult to work with. All the other members of Krishnamurti’s spiritual community loathed and avoided this man. One day the man got fed up and stormed out of the community. He got in his car and drove away, determined never to come back. Most people in the community secretly breathed a sigh of relief. But Krishnamurti got in his car and went after the man, and persuaded him to come back. When a student later asked him why he had gone out of his way to bring back this man who was so difficult and caused so much trouble in the community, Krishnamurti is reported to have said: “Are you kidding? I pay him to be here!” Krishnamurti knew that the one thing his students needed most was the continued presence of this man who tested their patience and pushed all their buttons.

The other side of “being grateful to everyone” is recognizing that our own well-being depends entirely upon the endless network of sentient beings of which we, ourselves, are part. Almost no blessing or comfort that comes to us is solely the product of our own hands or our own minds; everything is shot through with interdependence. Consider something as simple and ordinary as a cup of coffee at your local coffee shop: thousands of people were involved in serving, brewing, roasting, transporting, harvesting and growing that coffee. A team of hundreds was busy ensuring that clean water would flow to the coffee shop, and providing electricity to run the machines and light the shop so you could read your newspaper while you sip your coffee. You might never meet any of those people, but your happiness in the moment of enjoying that cup of coffee depends on all of them.

The simple fact that you’re reading this would be impossible if not for the kindness of the many teachers who patiently taught you, step by step, how to read and write, how to comprehend and communicate abstract ideas. And standing behind them was a network of teachers stretching back thousands of years, to the dawn of written language, and beyond. How often do you think with gratitude of the kindness you have received from those generations of people and all the ways it has benefited you?

Our habit of taking everything and everyone in our lives for granted means that we seldom see how interdependent we are with everyone around us, and how indebted we are to other beings for providing us with the causes and conditions of our own happiness.

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