Friday, November 23, 2007

Pausing to give thanks

George Fox admonished his followers to be aware of their own similarity to villains and sinners mentioned in the Bible. Rather than saying “I t is they, they, they who sin and fall short,” he suggested getting i nto the habit of saying “It is I, I, I and we, we, we who are in this condition.” (See Truth of the Heart, p. 12-15.) Because it has been my lifelong practice to seek fault nearby rather than far away, and to see flaws in self and friends more readily than in real or imagined enemies, I may give the impression to some of being unduly critical of my own home and native land. Indeed, many of the blogs here may seem to fall into the “Blame America First” genre. If that is how my writings appear, it shows how deceptive appearances can be.

A Buddhist friend of Japanese-American background once told me that he thinks the most important gift that Japanese Buddhism has to make to Americans is the practice of expressing gratitude repeatedly—not only for things for which gratitude is the most obvious response, but also for things that may seem to invite expressions of discontent. Not just Japanese Buddhism, but all of Buddhism encourages practitioners to feel contentment and joy with even the smallest of good fortune, whether that good fortune is one's own or belongs to a friend, a total stranger or an enemy. When I am counting things to be deeply grateful for, one of the first items on the list is the effects that years of Buddhist practice has had on my mentality.

Also very high on my personal list of things to feel thankful for are the Sun, the planet Earth and the country in which I happened to be born and in which I have lived almost 42% of my life so far. Not only when the mood strikes, but daily I feel deep gratitude for a range of blessings found in the United States.

  • The Constitution. The more I have studied the founding documents on which the United States was founded, the more I have come to admire them. Informed by the values of The European Enlightenment, the Constitution was written by men who were deeply wary of the abuses of power to which men are prone, and perhaps especially when they think of themselves as fulfilling the will of God. The genius of the Constitution is manifested best in its carefully crafted system of checks and balances, designed to keep any branch of government from growing too powerful and invasive in the lives of the ordinary citizen. The spirit of compromise—even some rather unfortunate moral compromises, such as the concessions to slavery—pervade the work, and this spirit of compromise has been one of the greatest strengths of the United States through the decades.
  • Location, location, location. The North American continent has a breathtaking geographical diversity, most of it beautiful. Surrounded by seas, the land is relatively safe from attack from the outside, as a result of which it would be possible to spend nearly all of the continent's resources on promoting civilization rather than on military defense.
  • Excellent neighbors. The United States is blessed with long, undefended borders with two peace-loving countries. Canada to the north provides a steady example of refined multicultural civilization, much of which has found its way across the borders to enrich the culture of the United States. Mexico to the south has a vibrantly exciting culture and a hard-working population, some of which has found its way into the United States to increase the agricultural and industrial productivity of the United States. While it is a shame that so many Mexican and South American families are dependent on workers finding employment out of their own countries, Americans would be immeasurably poorer, both economically and culturally, if it were not for the flow of workers coming from points south.
  • Religious diversity. Part of the genius of the Constitution is the first amendment, which prohibits the formation of a state religion but guarantees right of association and freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Many observers have rightly argued that the prohibition of forming a state religion has allowed the United States to have one of the most diversified religious populations in the world. The presence of many kinds of Buddhist, numerous denominations of Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, not to mention the many religions of American native peoples.
  • Ethnic and cultural diversity. Before Europeans touched foot on American soil, there were already hundreds of peoples who had learned how to live on the continent without destroying its resources. Their linguistic, cultural, and racial diversity made the Americas a remarkably rich land. Over the centuries this richness has been augmented by waves of immigrants from all parts of the world, each bringing its own values and perspectives (not to mention its food!). To its credit, America has always eventually found ways to embrace everyone who has come to live within its boundaries, whether they have come involuntarily as slaves, or have sought refuge after their own countries have been devastated by wars and natural disasters, and whether they have come legally or illegally. North America is truly a melting pot to which everyone who has come to its countries has made an important and welcome contribution. That the United States has been part of this multicultural adventure is an occasion of joyous gratitude.
  • Thanksgiving holiday. Although the list of things for which I am grateful is much longer than I have given here, I am going to close my list by noting my gratitude to the fact that there is a national holiday set aside just for giving thanks. Every year people set aside time to give thanks for their health, their well-being, their freedom, their relatives, their friends and their many other individual and collective blessings. Just about everyone, whether or not they feel a need to thank anyone in particular, pauses to look around them at all the things worth living for. And this itself is perhaps the most wonderful gift of all to the people in this land.