Below is an extract from a remarkable book by Dharmachari Nagapriya called The Promise of a Sacred World. It’s about the Japanese Buddhist Pure Land teacher Shinran, but, as I say in my review of the book “it’s also a sustained and searching enquiry into the nature of the Dharma life, actually the nature of any spiritual life”. However, I’ve chosen this particular extract because the point Nagapriya makes applies to any and all kinds of human lives, whether you consider yourself spiritual or not. With thanks to Nagapriya for allowing us to publish the extract.
My teacher Sangharakshita has said that gratitude ought to be an ever-present characteristic of our existence. While we can all point to examples of where others have been unfair with us, even violent, it takes only a moment to notice how all the privileges and opportunities that we enjoy depend upon others. We are the inheritors of the entire cultural history of human beings. While some of this legacy is dark and heavy to carry, such as the traumas of invasions, wars, and so on, much of it is uplifting, humanizing, and precious. Take the gift of being able to read. What an amazing, mysterious human accomplishment. Owing to the efforts of my teachers at a modest primary school in rural south Gloucestershire, I have coursed in the thoughts of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Rilke, to name but a few writers who have lit the touchpaper of my imagination. I recall the first time I witnessed a live performance of Shakespeare. It was Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and I was sixteen. Nothing could have prepared me for the catharsis that I experienced. I was lifted out of myself and, at least momentarily, grasped by a world of saturated value. We so easily take such gifts for granted. To be grateful, then, requires a sensitivity to the principle of conditionality, an awareness of the ways in which we benefit from all the many things that others have done that permit us to flourish.
To be grateful does not at all imply that we should ignore the violence meted out by others and so turn a blind eye to injustice. But it can help us put grievances into an enlarged perspective, one that is balanced by the startling legacy of human cultural life that we are heirs to. Imagine what it would be like to live in a state of constant gratitude, consistently attentive to all of the wonderful gifts that you have received. Sometimes I fall into a pit of self-pity, even martyrdom, in which I am driven to think that people don’t value me (after all I have done for them!), that I have few genuine blessings, and that others are seldom generous with me. When this happens I pay attention to small things: the fact that someone gave me a free Portuguese lesson, someone bought me lunch, or simply that someone reached out to ask me how I am. When we start to notice, we can see that we are in the midst of a constant flow of generosity. This can activate our gratitude and so provide an antidote to feeling hard done by.
Sometimes I am tempted to identify as a victim, zeroing in on all of the bad things that have happened to me, collapsing in on myself, becoming the ‘bitter animal’ of which the poet Jaime Sabines writes.1Yet resentment is corrosive, self-destructive, and small-minded. It is rooted in lack, in ego-clinging, in blaming rather than overcoming. It is a self-made prison in which we make ourselves suffer, and it goads us to mete out suffering upon others. Resentment is a leg iron constantly pulling us back, pulling us down. Gratitude, by contrast, consists in awakening the imagination, an expansion beyond inward-looking awareness, and a recognition of our interdependence. Its nature is to decentre the self and so see it as more like a node in a web of abundant connections. Gratitude dissolves away self-pity and lack, and helps us to see how we are constant receivers.
The Promise of a Sacred World: Shinran’s Teaching of Other Power. Windhorse Publications, 2022. P. 159-60.