During this month of November, we have some special opportunities to express our gratitude for all the precious gifts we receive in our lives. On Sunday, November 17, we will observe our Eitaikyo Service, which is dedicated to grateful remembrance of those temple members whose families felt inspired to donate to the temple Eitaikyo Fund, which exists to ensure that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple will continue to be a place where we can gather to hear the Dharma and joyfully recite the Nembutsu. On Sunday, November 24, we will hold the Shichigosan Observance at the temple for the families of children ages three, five and seven to express our gratitude and wishes for continuing healthy growth of the children. On Thursday, November 28, many families and friends will also come together in their homes to celebrate the wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving.
While gratitude is a theme that we return to throughout the month of November, living in the Nembutsu, we find that gratitude is a daily practice that brings peace and joy to our hearts. One of the ways in which we cultivate gratitude in our daily lives is by pausing to join our hands in gassho and utter the word “Itadakimasu (I humbly receive)” before beginning a meal, and “Goshisosama deshita (It was feast created through great effort)” at the conclusion of the meal. This practice of gratitude has deep roots in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. I recently came across the following clear and profound explanation of the Buddhist practice of joining our palms in gassho before a meal in a collection of Dharma School messages composed by Rev. Daisho Tana at the Department of Justice incarceration camp in New Mexico where he was held prisoner throughout the Second World War. I thought I would share it with you as the questions it addresses remain as relevant today as when it was written some 75 years ago:
Question: Who started our practice of joining our palms in gassho before meals?
Answer: Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), the Eighth Generation Head Priest of the Hongwanji, joined his palms in gassho and said, “It is thanks to the Buddha and my ancestor Shinran Shonin that I have clothing to wear and food to eat.” As children of the Buddha, Rennyo Shonin’s gassho is our model for gassho before meals.
Question: In that case, aren’t we joining our palms in gassho to give thanks with the understanding that “The Buddha gives us this food”?
Answer: Other religions teach that “Other animals and plants were all created by God as food for human beings.” However, in Buddhism there is not a similar teaching that says, “The Buddha provides meat from fish and birds for us to eat.” In that sense, the meaning of our gassho before meals is not to turn to the Buddha and say, “Thank you Buddha for today’s turkey dinner.”
Question: Please teach us the Buddhist meaning of gassho before meals.
Answer: It is an expression of our gratitude to all beings. Buddhism teaches us to be mindful of the truth that we are able to simply live through this one day due to the support we are given from all directions in the world around us. For example, when I consider the food laid out on the table for any given meal, I first ask myself, “Who cooked this food? Who worked so that we could buy the ingredients from the store?” As I continue to acknowledge the various lives that contributed to the meal one by one, I ultimately come to recognize that the very lives contained in the food on the table were taken in order to preserve my life. When I come to this awareness, my grateful feeling of “With deep gratitude, I humbly receive” shines forth in the Nembutsu. In time, that grateful awareness comes to be expressed as a life lived for the benefit of others, and the practice of generosity (dāna) in the Six Paramitas sprouts forth.
In recent years, the Hongwanji in Kyoto has provided the following “Words of Thanksgiving at Mealtime,” which capture the heart of gratitude expressed in Rennyo Shonin’s Nembutsu in words that resonate in our modern lives today:
⚫leader: We are truly grateful for this opportunity to share this wonderful meal, thanks to all the many people and living beings that surround us who made this occasion possible.
Group: With deep gratitude, itadakimasu.
⚫leader: We are thankful for the wonderful meal which we have received. May our gratitude to Amida Buddha enable us to work even harder for the benefit of everyone.
Group: Thankfully, gochiso sama deshita.
As we gather for special meals this month, whether we are enjoying a turkey dinner or a tofu salad, I encourage you to take a moment to pause, reflect, and allow the gratitude in your heart to shine forth in the Nembutsu.
Namo Amida Butsu