November 27,1996 Wednesday Night Group

Aaron: I am Aaron. Good evening, and my love to you all. Since it is the eve of the day you commemorate as a national day of thankfulness, it seems appropriate to talk about gratitude. What does it really mean to give thanks?

You in your culture have a habit ingrained in you from early childhood. When someone hands you something you say, “Thank you.” How often is the heart a part of that Thank You? Very rarely, I would surmise. Sometimes you even say thank you when somebody has treated you rudely, so habituated are you to this response.

Come on a little journey with me. Come and join me in the Thai monastery where I lived in my final human lifetime, where we get up at 2 or 3 in the morning and come together in a common place for chanting and meditation. The night air is cool. I'm wrapped in a rather ragged robe. While I am permitted 3 robes, at the moment I only have 2 because I gave one to a brother, and I've not yet gotten a new third robe.

We're in a clearing in the jungle. When I awaken I find myself in a small hut built on stilts, built of bits of wood from cut trees, not boards as you know it, simply the saplings themselves latched together with a thatched roof. It is sufficient to keep me off the ground and safe from snakes, tigers, scorpions and such creatures. The open sides allow the air to pass through when the weather is warm.

When I sleep I spread my spare robe beneath me, over the ridged saplings that create my floor, and I lay my other robe over me as a blanket. Arising now, it is cool, cold enough that I take my spare robe and also wrap it around me. My feet are bare. As I walk from my small pallet other monks also are walking along the paths. We'll come together in a clearing where we will sit, not on comfortable cushions as you have here, but simply on the bare ground. A framework of similar saplings, perhaps, the thickness of a man's ankle, are lashed together and support a roof which creates shade, and that simple shelter is our meditation hall and also the place where we prepare our food. At one end of this shelter there is a heating fire. There is also nearby a well which provides our drinking water. The word “cistern” perhaps would be more appropriate, as the water is not from an underground source but is collected rainwater stored in this cistern and raised up with buckets.

So we gather together, chant and meditate. Today there are about 40 of us. Our number changes from season to season as monks go on walking tours, traveling some distance. The rainy season just passed; our number was higher last week.

Our needs our simple, and few: a safe place to sleep (although many do not sleep in such raised cabins but simply sleep on the ground), the several robes, 3 that we are entitled to or fewer, a begging bowl, a razor, a small bag in which I may carry all of this.

With the first light of dawn we rise from our meditation and head out in different directions, some going to the nearest town to seek food, some traveling the opposite direction to a village which is a bit further away. Some walk quite a bit further, to a third village. We do this that our presence not be a burden on the townspeople.

Our needs are simple, and it is easy to watch when any kind of greed arises in us, to observe the fear from which that greed arose and greet it with presence and kindness. We acknowledge the fear and allow it to dissolve itself so that we have a certainty that we will not enact our greed in harm to others.

Knowing that I live my life with such simplicity and non-harm gives me great peace of mind, for I am on good terms with all creatures. When I go out on walking tour - I do not know if this instrument can pronounce the Thai word, “tu-dong” - I leave my cabin, which is not MY cabin but is simply the place where I temporarily have slept. Then I eat and sleep under the shade of trees. Outside of the rainy season the weather is clear, so I've no need for a roof. Food is wherever the nearest village is. If I keep my needs simple, I am certain that my needs will always be met.

So I feel a profound peace and much gratitude for that peace. It is not gratitude to somebody who has given me the peace, nor even to myself whose meditation and inner work has allowed me the peace. Gratitude does not need to have an object. Simply put, my heart is open and I am joyful. There is gratitude to be alive, to serve the dharma, to hear the birds with this ear of “no-hearer.”

On this morning some weeks after the rainy season has ended but before many monks have left to wander the more distant countryside, we're still a large group. Furthermore, the people's food has been somewhat depleted through the rainy season and people are a bit hungry. We set out, 6 of us together, barefoot down a jungle path, the path just visible in the early light of dawn. Within a few minutes' walk the trees fall away and open into fields, farmland, especially rice paddies. Here there is a shallow river and we must ford it at its very shallowest place to reach the village which lies on the far side. I hold my robe up high, that it will not become wet. Since we're all barefoot there are no shoes to be concerned about.

By the time we have crossed, the sky is getting light. A small boy from the village approaches us leading his water buffalo. He bows, “Good morning, venerable sirs,” and we bow back. His bow is not a habitual bow, hammered in by his elders as “Be polite.” Rather, it comes from a true place of kindness and friendship in him. This young lad hopes to be a monk one day. When he is able, he comes often to the monastery to hear our teachings of the dharma. He is but a boy and he has little to bring, but he brings what he can. And one thing he can always offer is his kindness.

Kindness is perhaps the primary ingredient of my life. I treat all the world with respect and the world treats me with respect. I treat all beings with kindness and as equals and they treat me with kindness. There is little fear out of which pride and ego grow, and for that I am also very grateful.

As we come to the main street in the village, people have begun to come to the side of the road and they kneel there with bowls of food. They have so little, these people, and yet they see that we are fed before they feed themselves. This is not because I am better than they are or more worthy, it is because they so profoundly uphold the dharma. I am not the being whose name I bore in that lifetime, I am simply one in the robes, a spokesman of the dharma. By my promise to enact that as best I can in that life and share it with others, I make a commitment to the world, and my world makes a commitment back to me to sustain me so I may continue to give. My dharma teaching is not better than their food; their food is not better than my dharma teaching. Both are essential and all of us recognize that that is how it is. Each has its own place in this scheme. And no one is inferior or superior. All are important.

I hold out my bowl. My tradition asks that I not note the faces, and certainly not note who gives what, and I do NOT note that, but after many years, of course, these faces are familiar because these are the same people that come to me and ask for teaching. These are the ones who come when one is sick or has died, or when they are confused or afraid, and so I know them very well. Although I do not meet their eyes, my heart sings in greeting to them: “My brother, my sister, how do you fare on this beautiful morning?” My voice asks in silence. I hold out my bowl and they give so generously of their meager supply. I do not feel shame in taking from them because what we exchange is equal.

In this way I move through the village. Each one offers just a spoonful because each knows that they alone may not fill up my bowl, that that would be a disservice to the others who also want the gift of giving. If one were to give me everything, he would deprive his comrades of the joy of generosity.

When I have reached the end of the village, I turn onto a trail which leads me back over the fields and, in a roundabout way, into the woods. The 6 of us are still together. We pause here by the small shelter of a brother monk who has chosen to live alone, apart from all others, for some period of time. Because he is crippled he cannot walk into the village to ask for food. Each morning we pass by and make sure that his needs have been met. It is really a totally unnecessary stop because always villagers have tended to his needs before we came. But I would not leave it to chance, and prefer to see for myself that he is well. He does not wish to see us on most mornings, and we do not disturb his solitude. We simply note that his food bowl is filled and his water is available.

We come back to our compound and all the food that we all have gathered is pooled together and redistributed so that each one's needs are met. And then we each wash our own bowls, spend a bit of time sweeping and cleaning up our compound, raking leaves out of the way for example. We may also wash a robe or mend it, or repair a tear in the roof. And that is our work for the day.

Please note that when we sit to eat, we have not eaten for 24 hours. We're hungry but we do not dive into our food. We chant and offer prayers for a considerable length of time. We remind ourselves that this food is a gift and to let our hearts open in appreciation of the deep beauty of our lives and the generosity and the love that surrounds us. Today I am especially aware of that generosity because later in the morning after our meal, several villagers come bearing cloth for they have observed the shabbiness of my robe and that of some of my brothers. When I say shabby, perhaps “threadbare” would be a better word, that it ceases to protect us because the fabric is worn so thin.

I will live my life like this, deeply aware of others' needs and always offering my own energy in service to any who has a need, while those around me are equally attentive to me. I am constantly nurtured. I do not experience a fear, “What if my needs are not met?” It was easy to give away my third robe, my brother needed it. But also I had no fear. If I needed another robe, one would come to me.

The predominant note of my life is peace and gratitude, a constant openheartedness that lives in connection with the world, that constantly offers myself out into the world and constantly experiences the world offering itself back to me. There is such joy in this deep connection with all things. It makes living the truth of interbeing quite simple!

Your lives here are very very different. Indeed I also have lived in what might for that time have been termed a large city, with much turmoil and constant comings and goings. You have gained much. You can travel distances in a day that the being I was in my final lifetime would never have dreamed of traveling in his entire life. You can travel in an hour what would have been a week's arduous journey. You can pick up the phone and instantly be connected anywhere in the world.

In this way it would seem that you live a life of intense interconnection. But you live it from such a place of such separation and aloneness. I do not fully understand this, that you live in a universe that is so close, all beings literally interdependent in every way on one another, and yet all of you experience intense alienation, fear, and separation.

I have pondered much about this. Despite all the gifts your Earth gives you today, you have lost the one precious gift, which no material thing can replace, and that is the gift of living in the heart. I do not think that living separated from your heart is a necessary condition of your highly materialistic and fast-paced culture. But it makes it much more difficult because so much greed, desire, fear of the unknown, fear of lack, aversion, comes up so frantically in your lives.

And yet this is where you are. We can't take you off to Thailand of 500 years ago to give you peace. The question is, how is peace to be found here and now.

I think that the practice of gratitude is one answer. I mean it specifically in the way that I have phrased it, the practice of gratitude. And so I would like to challenge all of you to try something in these coming weeks. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and then you enter into a period of celebration of the birth of the one known as Jesus, something else for which it is suggested you may be thankful. Especially at this time of year you exchange presents and find joy in surprising one another and giving to one another. If it feels appropriate to you, I would request that each day between now and the end of the year, you pause at night for a few minutes with a very specific meditation.

Whatever turmoil, whatever pain may have come through your day, there's got to be something for which you are thankful. I don't ask you just to say, “Oh yeah, that, thank you,” I ask you to deeply feel it in your heart. Maybe it was a small thought, such as the bagger at the supermarket smiling at you very warmly as she loaded your bags. Maybe a friend stopped by to bring you a few cookies from the latest batch he had made. Or waiting in line at a bank, perhaps the person behind you in line tapped you on the shoulder, handed you $10 and said, “I think you dropped this,” instead of keeping it for himself.

When someone gives to you, returning your lost money, offering you a cookie or a smile, in that moment your heart has the opportunity to connect. When the bagger smiled, did you smile back? Was it a habitual smile or heart centered? When a friend called to see how you were feeling just as you were rushing out the door and a sense of annoyance arose—”Oh I'm going to be late”—did you ever stop to appreciate that this friend was thinking of you, and holding you in her heart?

It is easier to feel gratitude, perhaps, for the big things. You may sit down tomorrow for your turkey dinner with family or friends, and feel a sense of “Thank you. I have had enough food to eat all year.” What I want you to do is attend to this in every moment, not once a year and for the big items but for the smiles, for the falling leaf that offered you gracefulness as it fluttered to the ground, for the raindrop which kissed your forehead! And in order to come into the moment, I ask, once a day, maybe before you go to bed, that you sit for a few minutes and allow to come into your heart whatever you're truly grateful for.

Some time ago when I asked this instrument to work regularly with this practice, I remember one night when her toilet was malfunctioning several times during the day, and she had worked it with a plunger. And finally it was flowing and when she sat in the evening and looked at what she was grateful for, she was simply grateful that her toilet was flushing again! So it can be something very mundane - although as one who has never been incarnate on your earth with flowing water, a flush toilet is quite a miracle!

You have got to feel it from your heart. Sit for a few minutes with these several happenings during the day for which you are most grateful. Really let yourself feel it, and offer the words “thank you” from the heart to the persons or incidents responsible. Realize as you do so that there is no one being to thank, that what has arisen is compounded of many elements.

In this way you also can come back to living from the heart as I did 500 years ago. You can start more fully to appreciate your connection with all that is. And I think that even in the franticness of your daily life, this open heart will sustain you, ground and nurture you. Let it bring you much joy.

I hope those of you who attempt this practice will share the results with me in the coming weeks. My heart opens in joy and gratitude to you, to this group of seekers who strive after truth and understanding. To all, but especially tonight to those who are here with their energy on this pre-holiday night—I thank you.

I love you. That is all.

(remainder of session not yet reviewed)