Getting together with family
Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. Thanksgiving is part of modern life and one of the most important days on the American calendar. Therefore, it is our job to figure out how to celebrate it in a Kadampa way.
Traditionally on Thanksgiving, extended families get together and have a big feast and give thanks for the things and people in their life. Even if people live far away, they travel to reunite with their family. It is really only at Thanksgiving and Christmas that most Americans make a point of coming together as a family. But that is often where the trouble starts! We all have our uncle Bob or Grandpa John who just can’t help themselves saying offensive things. Because it is supposed to be a “special day,” Mom and others get all stressed out that everything has to be “perfect,” but it is their anxiety about perfection that ruins it for everybody else. Then of course, there is always the cynic – the person who is “too good” for Thanksgiving and feels the need to lambaste everyone else for their hypocrisy, fake friendliness, and consumerism come tomorrow. Or perhaps we are Uncle Bob, the Nervous Nellie, or the cynic ruining the holiday for everyone else. So the first things a Kadampa needs to do on Thanksgiving is to (1) fully accept and love our obnoxious relatives for who they are without feeling the need to change them in any way, and (2) make sure we are not the one ruining the holiday for everyone else. As a cultural tradition, getting together with your family to give thanks is something to be rejoiced in, so we should throw ourselves into it and do what we can to make it good for everybody else.
Next, of course, comes the question about being vegetarian – or even more difficult, a vegan – on Thanksgiving. What’s a good Kadampa to do with a giant Turkey carcass on the table, butter on the bread and mashed potatoes, and a hungry hoard ready to dig in? Here, it entirely depends upon circumstance. If your family is accepting of your vegetarianism, then make a vegetarian dish that you can share with everybody, and you eat what you can. If your family does not understand and will feel offended or judged by your dietary choices, then I would advise to not make a stink out of it. Take a small piece, eat a few bites without commentary to be polite and not hurt the cook’s feelings who prepared this big elaborate meal, and get on with your day. But under no circumstances should you get on your soap box and make everybody else feel judged or guilty about their choices. It is not our place to tell other people what dietary choices they should make. Say some prayers for all the turkeys slaughtered on Thanksgiving, then transform everything into a giant Tsog offering and imagine you are offering up completely purified nectar to all the heroes and dakinis gathered around the table.
Usually during Thanksgiving, often during the meal, there comes a time where everyone explains what they are grateful for. If your family is not accepting of your Buddhist path, now is not the time to profess your gratitude for your guru and the three precious jewels! Internally, you should of course generate such gratitude. But externally, you should express gratitude for things everyone else at the table can likewise generate gratitude for. Why is this important? If you express gratitude for something others are not grateful for, they may politely smile while you say your thanks, but in their heart they will be generating a critical mind towards your object of thanks. You may feel like you have made your point, but they will have accumulated negative karma of holding on tightly to wrong views. If you focus your thanks on things that everyone can be grateful for, then it is like you are leading a guided meditation in gratitude for all our kind mothers.
One of the hardest parts about Thanksgiving is, if we are honest, we don’t necessarily like our family very much. Of course this isn’t true for everybody, but it is true for many people. We are all just so different – different views and different priorities in life. The members of our family have unique abilities to say all the wrong things which upset us in so many different ways, whether it is the irresponsible brother, controlling mother, judging father, obnoxious uncle, or embarrassing aunt, we find something we don’t like in all those closest to us. One thing I have seen quite frequently among Kadampas is a very pure love for all the living beings they have never met, but general aversion for those closest to them in their life. It’s easy to love all living beings in the abstract, loving actual deluded and annoying people is a different thing altogether. Geshe-la tells us in all of his books we should start by learning how to love our family and those closest to us, and then gradually expand the scope of our love outwards until it encompasses all living beings. Thanksgiving is a good day to start doing it right. Love them, accept them, stop judging them.
Some people, though, find themselves alone on Thanksgiving. Perhaps there is so much conflict in their family that they just don’t get together anymore. Perhaps they would like to be with their family, but they lack the financial resources to join them. Perhaps there is a pandemic, preventing people from gathering. Perhaps their whole family has already passed away. Depression and suicide rates are often highest during the holidays. We attach so much importance to these holidays, and then when people find themselves alone or unloved, they fall into despair. When we were little, my mom was a single mother and the holidays were very important to her. Fortunately, some kind person always found a place at their table for us. It was annoying for me and my brother because we had to spend Thanksgiving with people we didn’t know nor particularly get along with, but it made a big difference for my emotionally fragile mother. If we know somebody who is alone on Thanksgiving, we should invite them to join us. There are so many people hurting out there, and most people just want to feel loved. So create a space at your table for them as my mother’s friends did for her. Don’t underestimate the difference such a gesture can make.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in Dharma Centers
I also think it would be wonderful if every Dharma center in America had a Thanksgiving party in which everyone was welcome. Geshe-la often talks about Dharma centers as belonging to the community. Why can’t a Dharma center have a Thanksgiving celebration? This could be a private affair for the people of the center, or it could even be an open house community celebration for anybody to come. In addition to a great meal and quality friends, discussions can be had about the kindness of all our mothers. It doesn’t matter if the people who come never come back, or perhaps they only come on Thanksgiving because they have nowhere else to go. We are grateful for all living beings, so Thanksgiving is our chance to give some love and kindness back. Gen-la Losang once asked who is more important, the people who come to the center and stay or the people who come and never come back? If we look at how most centers are run, it seems our answer is the people who come and stay. But he said the correct answer is those who never come back for the simple reason they are more numerous. If somebody comes once, but walks away thinking, “hey, those Buddhists ain’t bad,” then they have just created the karma to find the path again in the future. If our centers belong to the community, there is no reason why our centers can’t start doing community service. Perhaps this isn’t currently the tradition at our center, but there is no reason why it can’t become a tradition next year.
Internally, for me, Thanksgiving is a reminder that for the most part I am an extremely ungrateful individual and I take for granted the kindness of everyone around me. As those who have been following my blog for a long time know, I have had lots of difficulties with my father over the years. At the core of it, he simply finds me ungrateful for all that he has done for me. Historically, I have disagreed and protested, but if I’m honest, he is right. I take for granted all of the kindness others have shown me, and I feel as if I am entitled to him showing me kindness. No matter how much kindness he or my mother have ever showed me, my general view has been “not good enough.” I might even conventionally have been right that he should have done more, but what good does such an attitude do. If others find me ungrateful, then instead of becoming defensive, I should use that as a reminder that I need to be more grateful. How could that be a bad thing?
Gratitude as the Foundation of the Mahayana Path
If we think about it, a feeling of gratitude is really the foundation of the entire Mahayana path. It is not enough to just generate a feeling of gratitude once a year on Thanksgiving, nor is it enough to generate such a feeling once every 21 days when we come around to it on our Lamrim cycle. Rather, gratitude should be our way of life. Venerable Tharchin says that the definition of a realization of Dharma is when all of our actions are consistent with that realization and none of our actions are in contradiction with it. A feeling of gratitude towards everyone is a stage of the path, and one we should carry with us every day of the year.
But Thanksgiving is about more than just feeling grateful, it is also about “giving” back. Giving is one of our basic virtues, and one of our perfections which will take us to enlightenment. Venerable Tharchin says the thought “mine” is the opposite of the mind of giving, so the way to perfect our giving is to stop imputing “mine” on anything. Instead we should mentally give everything we have to others. We mentally think everything, including our very body and mind, belong to others. We give them to others. Of course we may still retain control over certain things, but we should have no sense of ownership over anything. We are custodians of things for others, but our intention is to use them all for their benefit. We offer our body, our mind, our money, our time, our family, our careers, everything, to others. We commit that we will use everything we have for their sake. At the very least, we can offer a good meal and a warm heart. In the end, what most people want is to feel loved. This is something we can give if we put a little effort into it.
Most of all, on Thanksgiving, I try give thanks to those closest to me. Before I got married, I had a vision where Tara came to me and handed to me a child. As she did so, she said, “this is where you will find your love.” My children may be a lot of work, insanely expensive, and they may be maddening at times, but I love them with all my heart. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. If they were not in my life, I wouldn’t know what it means to really love another person and put their interests first. The path would remain quite abstract. I am also extremely grateful for my wife. I have to work all the time, but she takes care of our kids and she takes care of our home. She is my best friend. Before I received highest yoga tantra empowerments for the first time, I met with Venerable Tharchin for the first time. I explained to him all of the troubles I was having with my then girlfriend, and he told me two things. First, view all of her apparent faults as reflections of the faults within my own mind, and then purge those faults like bad blood. When I do, he said, they will “magically” disappear from her because they aren’t coming from her side anyways. Second, he said, “never forget she is an emanation of Vajrayogini sent to bring you in this life to the pure land.” Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand emptiness enough to understand that my now wife is or isn’t anything from her own side, but thinking she was an emanation saved our relationship and enabled me to transform my relationship with her into the path. Later, when I came to understand emptiness a bit more, I realized it didn’t matter what she was, it was beneficial for me to believe she is an emanation. Now, after more than 20 years of marriage, I’m starting to come back to Venerable Tharchin’s words – she is an emanation, not in an inherently existent sense, but in the same sense that any emanation is an emanation. Every day, her every action and her every word, functions to ripen me on the path. Externally, she appears to act entirely normally, gets angry or sad like everybody else, but her normal is now my blessing. All of us can get to the same point with our partners no matter how they act or what they might do. Our partners have come to get us and take us to pure Dakini land, even if they don’t know it! Be grateful for them entering into your life in this way.
I think it is very important that we also learn to be genuinely grateful for our suffering. If we are honest about our spiritual practice, we usually only really get serious when we are experiencing some type of suffering. Then, when the difficult period in our life has passed, we go back to enjoying samsara and going through the motions with our practice. The solution to this problem is to “know suffering,” not just intellectually, but with our heart. We need to actually see our samsaric happiness as nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the endless slaughterhouse of samsara. We need to know our ordinary body and mind – our contaminated aggregates – as a cage that will torment us until the day we die, only to be thrown into a new prison cell which is likely to be far worse. We need to know our delusions are like devils duping us to follow paths that all end only in the fires of the deepest hell. We need to know all of the negative karma on our mind that we have not yet purified are like time bombs that can explode at any moment, shattering our lives and everything we hold dear. Such suffering is inevitable unless we end it as a possibility. It will never end on its own. When we actually “know” our suffering in our heart, then we will be motivated to practice sincerely, day and night, from this day until we are finally out. When we are grateful for our suffering, we are able to “accept” it. When we accept our suffering, it is no longer a “problem” for us. It may still be unpleasant, but it is not a problem, and so in many ways, we no longer “suffer” from it. Suffering comes primarily from non-acceptance of unpleasant feelings. But if we can develop an attitude of gratitude towards our difficulties, we will be able to accept them and realize that they are actually our most important fuel for our spiritual life.
Most of all, I am thankful for Geshe-la entering into my life. He found me at my darkest hour, pulled me up, gave me a purpose, taught me what my real problem was (my own deluded, unpeaceful mind), gave me methods that work to heal my mind, provided me with perfectly reliable outer and inner advice, opened up my heart, revealed to me the magic of faith, provided teachers and centers who could help me bring the Dharma into my life, gave me the opportunity to teach the Dharma, and has been with me when I have felt otherwise alone. He has created for me a vajra family of Sangha Brothers and Sisters who are some of the dearest people in my life, even though I rarely am able to see them. He has shown me the root of my suffering and a doorway out. He has provided me with everything I need to enter, progress along, and complete the path. He has blessed my mind with countless empowerments, and has promised to remain in my heart helping me along until I attain the final goal. Most of all, he has introduced me to Dorje Shugden and defended him when anybody and everybody else would have abandoned him. Dorje Shugden is my guru, yidam and protector who helps me in this life and will be with me when I need him most – at the time of my death.
On Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all of this. And I offer myself as a servant to my guru and to all living beings. Please keep me in your service for as long as space exists.