Reflections on Gratitude
Tibetans typically greet each other with a cheery “Tashi Delek!” Hands together at the heart in a prayerful gesture, they express respect for their fellow creatures. “Tashi Delek” can be translated as “Hello,” “Good luck,” “Congratulations,” or “May all be auspicious!” To my mind, it means, “Congratulations! You are alive!”
As I was growing up near the ocean in California, surfing was my life. Sitting on my surfboard in the middle of the sea, waiting for waves, was a spiritual experience. After college, I spent a year studying in Japan and fifteen years studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, the Himalayan village in India where His Holiness the Dalai Lama now lives. In 1977, I realized my dream of becoming a Buddhist nun and then lived quietly in a small mud hut in the forest to meditate and study philosophy at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. My Southern Baptist mother thought I was studying dialects.
One day in 1989, while walking in the forest in the foothills searching for land to build a study center for Himalayan nuns, I got bitten by a poisonous viper and nearly died. Eight days later, my friends drove me to a hospital in Delhi, fourteen hours away. It was a time of great strife in India, with groups of zealots terrorizing the Punjab. We had to travel by night to minimize the chances of a murderous attack. When we finally arrived in the capital, in the midst of monstrous heat, humidity, and traffic, the recommended hospital proved to be another disaster. Thankfully, the doctors didn’t amputate my arm, because they didn’t expect me to live and weren’t sure who would pay the bills. I survived the encounter, but it was a close one. It took a year to learn to use my reconstructed arm again.
Having narrowly escaped the jaws of death (more than once—see my next book), I felt blessed to be alive. Each moment was magical. Every flower, bird, and leaf brought delight. Passersby must have thought I was in a mind-altered state, and I was. After fifteen years of rice and lentils, a foray into an American supermarket with hundreds of choices, colors, and flavors on display was overwhelming and delightful. The staff watching the CCTV footage surely must have thought the Buddhist nun on camera was either mad or contemplating a heist.
After recovering from the snake bite, I spent ten years studying religion and philosophy at the University of Hawai’i, living the life of a poverty-stricken graduate student and leading meditations in a treehouse in the tropical peace of Manoa Valley. During school breaks, I’d pack my stuff in a closet to save rent and head to exotic locations in Asia to organize international conferences that brought women together from around the world to help redress gender imbalances in Buddhism.
The next twenty-two years were spent teaching Buddhism in San Diego and continuing projects to work for gender equity in Buddhist societies. With friends from many different countries, I helped found Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and Jamyang Foundation, nonprofits that support the empowerment and education of women around the world, especially in developing countries. Meeting like-minded spiritual friends from around the world has been inspiring and empowering, creating ripples of change and benefit for all of us.
When I returned to Hawai‘i from a trip to India and Nepal in February 2019, I did an intensive Vipassana (“insight”) meditation course on the North Shore of O’ahu. A hundred people sat in silence in a large hall on the mountaintop, meditating from dawn until late at night. Staying in tents and rustic cabins and eating simple, healthy food, it was another life-changing time of introspection. But the world was about to change dramatically. By the time the course ended ten days later, news of Covid-19 had begun to filter in and the students scattered in different directions to find a safe place to spend the lockdown. I’ve been fortunate to continue my international networking via Zoom and thousands of email messages, while developing La’i Peace Center, a project of Sakyadhita Hawai‘i, to help restore Earth and work for world peace. It feels like the perfect way to spend a pandemic.
The pandemic has turned the world upside down. All our illusions of security have been swept away. Our dreams for the future now stand in ruins, amidst great uncertainty. In the face of unbearable human misery and (un)natural disasters, we are having to completely reorder our priorities and reimagine our futures. The media is full of horrific events and ideas for how to preserve our mental health in facing the repercussions of them.
As crazy as it may sound, the ancient Buddhist texts teach many ways we can transform obstacles into insights. The news reports that break our hearts confirm the Buddha’s first teaching: everyone experiences suffering. Social, political, economic, and personal upheavals confirm another core teaching: everything is constantly changing. In the moments of clarity and ease we feel throughout the day—moments when our minds are free from greed, anger, and confusion—we can glimpse nirvana. In a time of anxiety and unexpected isolation, we can use our time to pursue spiritual practice, reconnect with Earth, and learn to appreciate the silence and solitude.
Living in a city can be very comfortable, with all the modern conveniences, but today’s urban lifestyles are so fast and stressful that many people simply cannot keep pace and wind up living on the sidewalk. One solution is to return to the land and live a simple life. Planting trees, caring for the land, living in harmony with the birds, butterflies, and bugs, we can discover many treasures and renew our spiritual life. Cultivating the land is hard work but, if we combine it with mental cultivation, learning to free our minds of greed and anger, we discover many treasures, both in nature and within our hearts. Every day we spend renewing Earth, even on the balcony of an apartment building, we strengthen our body and nurture a joyful heart.
Spiritual practice takes many forms. If we practice sincerely and diligently, every waking moment is a chance to transform our hearts. As we transform our hearts, we automatically help transform our troubled world. When we consider the sufferings of living beings, our hearts fill with loving kindness and compassion, rather than despair. We feel inspired to help renew the wounded Earth and flawed social structures.
By simplifying our life and consuming less, we directly challenge exploitative economic systems. Studying the teachings of the great masters, we cultivate hearts of wisdom. By cultivating compassion and wisdom, like two wings of a bird, we can fly straight to awakening. As we awaken ourselves, we help awaken the world. If each human being holds up just one tiny piece of the sky, together we join a wondrous tapestry of countless dedicated and compassionate folk throughout the world who are also working to transform the world. We no longer need to seek freedom and happiness outside ourselves. We rediscover our own inner freedom and happiness, reflected in the sunshine on a simple flower.
If we’re fortunate, we can avoid life-threatening viper bites and appreciate each aspect of ordinary experience. We can avoid getting tangled up in our story and enjoy each magnificent moment of life. Setting aside unwholesome distractions and trivia, we can dive into life with pure awareness, negotiating the events life throws us in skillful ways. This is what Hawaiians call living a pono, righteous life.
My teachers taught me that the benefits of spiritual practice are countless. At a minimum, the practice enables us “to sleep well at night and die without regret.” We banish all fears and regrets. Our hearts become joyful beyond measure. The flowers and butterflies and even the traffic become opportunities to practice awareness. We can rejoice in even difficult moments, since they give us a chance to practice patience. Full of love for all living beings, we learn to live aloha and appreciate every moment of each precious day. With mindful awareness, joy is transcendent and immanent, present to us all.