Life and Gratitude plus November Highlights
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Life and Gratitude

On Monday we took down all the stalks from the summer’s sunflowers. There will be no more goldfinch visits, no more bright yellow birds dancing in the air. That would have ended soon, anyway. It’s getting too cold for goldfinches. I’ve enjoyed seeing them and sparrows making dinner from those seed heads hovering high over the garden, and I take solace that the seeds were mostly gone by the time the stalks came down.

Autumn is a time of stock-taking, when the balance of day and night of the equinox reminds us to balance our lives. One balance that often needs restoring is that between positive and negative thoughts and ideas. Usually we think a lot about the negative things in our lives and don’t much notice the good things. If we’re not careful, we find ourselves in a little boat constructed of our dissatisfaction and insecurity about life drifting into disapproval, cynicism, and hopelessness. This is what the Buddha meant by suffering.

Gratitude is good medicine to keep our boat on course. It balances the grudges and resentments and gives our life contentment and direction. Let’s look for this gratitude in our hearts, take it from its usual dark corner and put it where we can remember and use it more often.

What was the most recent thing we were grateful for? I remember some green beans fresh from a member’s garden. They were really good! That was several days ago. Since then, a troop of things has marched past me and I haven’t even noticed. How about you? If we’re truly awake, we’ll likely find something in each moment – our health, our friends, the birds eating berries in the tree outside my window. If we’re awake, we can find something to be grateful for even in the midst of great pain. That appreciation can sustain us through our ordeal. Perhaps it’s just gratitude for our lives – Thich Nhat Hanh once noted that when we feel pain we know that we are still alive and we can be grateful for our lives.

At Shōgoji, whatever came into our monastery was offered on Idaten-sama’s altar. Idaten-sama is the guardian of temples and his image - the image of a roundish person with a gentle face wearing samurai garb - stands on the altar in the kuin (administration building) entrance. I passed him many times in the course of each day, and he became a familiar fixture in my life. When we received a donation we placed it on his altar for a day before we used it. Perhaps someone who came to sit brought delicious tea cakes – cakes that would be so good at afternoon tea on that hot day. We would look longingly, then give them to Idaten-sama until tomorrow’s tea.

This was not just a musty old ritual – offering gifts to the gods in hopes that they would have mercy on us. Idaten-sama is not a god out there somewhere but a reminder to ourselves to notice what comes to us and appreciate it. It was paying attention to what we received and saying, “Thank you” each time we passed the altar. Putting offerings on that altar was about noticing the miraculous and vast universe from which this good thing came.

Since Idaten-sama is the protector of the temple, this ritual is also perhaps about the survival value of gratitude. Better than Idaten-sama, gratitude is a great protector. If we demonstrate gratitude, others will be generous with us. Since we monastics survived because of others’ generosity, it was good to be grateful.

Actually we all survive in this way, both lay and monastic. We are all dependent on each other for survival. A factory owner can’t survive without the workers who run it. The workers can’t survive without the owner who receives money from customers and pays them. We usually think of this as a competitive relationship but, actually, it’s working together that makes it all function properly. Yes, in one sense we deserve our salary – we worked hard for it. In another sense we would not have a salary if our job didn’t exist. Can we perhaps find a tiny bit of gratitude for that? Even if we hate our job, being grateful for the money – even if it may not be quite enough – can bring a bit of joy.

It’s easy to be grateful to people who do lots of nice things for us, but it’s important to also be grateful to those who aren’t always so nice. Asians express gratitude toward their parents, even though they may have been lousy parents. Why? Our parents gave us life; they gave us food and shelter when we were small and helpless. For this we can be grateful – it was indeed a much-needed gift. This gratitude balances our feelings of resentment and anger at all the hurtful things our parents may have done. It helps us recall the tender, loving things they did and, through this recollection, allows us to see their humanity. When we can see their humanity we come much closer to understanding and forgiving them. We can find happiness in that understanding and forgiveness.

Many gifts just happen. We did exactly nothing to deserve the rain and sun in summer, the goldfinches and apples in fall. It’s actually a miracle that they’re here and we’re here. Their presence is beyond anything we might do to deserve them. We owe an infinite debt to the whole universe, to the Emptiness out of which we and all of reality come up in each moment.

Gratitude helps us balance our dissatisfactions – it’s another way of dealing with suffering. It’s easy to be grateful for goldfinches dancing in the sun. Let’s go even farther and wake up to all the things that come our way and be grateful for them. It will make our lives more alive.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the October, 2009 issue of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center Newsletter.

November Highlights



November 11: Sitting in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois


Zuiko will be leading a half-day of sitting with the group in Bloomington-Normal on Sunday, November 11.  There’s also a public lecture on the evening of November 10.  For more information, contact the group.

November 18: All Day Sitting

5:00 a.m. - 4:40 p.m.

All-day sittings are informal times of sitting together, and a chance to do a mini-retreat for a morning or spend an entire day sitting, walking, chanting and sharing food. Participants can come and go as their schedules allow. If you’re from out of town and need to stay overnight, there’s room at the center. Donations are welcome; there is no fee. 


November 20: Introduction to Zazen

7:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


The Zen Center offers a one-evening introduction to Zen Buddhism and zazen. This includes a talk about Zen, zazen instruction, a short period of zazen and an opportunity for questions. Donations are welcome.


Coming in December


December 7-9: Rohatsu Sesshin

Friday - 7:00 p.m. to Sunday - 5:30 p.m.


Please sign up by November 29 to assure a place. You can sign up by clicking here.

We begin at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, December 6, with a short orientation followed by zazen at 7:30. We end at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, December 3. Oryoki instruction is available at 6:00 p.m. on Friday.  For a complete schedule, go to

Fees are $25 per day or $15 for a morning, afternoon or evening only. 
Sunday sitting and dharma talk are open to everyone.

Sesshin is a silent zazen retreat that’s more formal than all-day sittings. The daily schedule includes zazen, sutra chanting (service), a dharma talk, and work. Meals are eaten silently and formally. In chanting, zazen, eating, and work we turn our lights inwardly, illuminating and investigating our habits of thinking. The silence and attention to detail of sesshin point us away from self and toward the ground of being. To do sesshin, even for a morning or an evening, is to renew limitless mind.  A typical sesshin schedule is available here .


December 19: Introduction to Zazen

7:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


The Zen Center offers a one-evening introduction to Zen Buddhism and zazen. This includes a talk about Zen, zazen instruction, a short period of zazen and an opportunity for questions. Donations are welcome.




New Year's Eve

Beginning at 7:30 p.m.


For a different kind of New Year’s Eve, come sit with us.  We will sit 40-minute periods of zazen interspersed with 10 minutes of kinhin from 7:30 until 10:40 in the evening,  read the Precepts at 10:40, then spend the last hour of the year eating soba (buckwheat) noodles and enjoying the end of the year.  Noodles, broth, and condiments will be provided.  

Dishes to share are welcome. 
You’re welcome to come when you can and leave when other commitments call.  Many people like to sit a period or two before spending the rest of the evening in less quiet activities.


New Year's Day

Sitting at noon, ceremony at 12:45, open house from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.


We’ll have zazen, a short ceremony to welcome the new year, followed by an open house on New Year’s Day.  Zazen begins at 12:00 noon and is followed by the ceremony at 12:45. 

The open house begins at 1:00 and ends at 5:00.  There will be traditional Japanese New Year’s vegetarian food, and contributed dishes are always welcome.  American vegetarian food, especially sweets, is welcome.  No alcohol is served.

Please come anytime.  Children are welcome at the ceremony and the open house.  Older children who aren’t bored by sitting are also invited to zazen.

Beginning on December 27, we will be cooking and preparing for the open house.  If you'd like to participate, email Zuiko.  Vegetable peeling and chopping is fine practice and you can also learn a bit of Japanese cooking in the process.  There's also lots of good talk and good times.


Other Sitting & Sangha Opportunities


Bloomington-Normal, Illinois group meets at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings at Palms Together Yoga, 1717 R.T. Dunn Drive, Unit E in Bloomington. For more information, click here or contact them at

Cedar Falls, Iowa group meets Saturday mornings at 7:20 a.m. and Tuesday evenings at 7:20 p.m. in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 2410 Melrose Drive. For more information, email them at

Des Moines - Daishin McCabe and Jisho Siebert lead half-day sittings from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month at Pure Land of Iowa – 8364 Hickman Road in Clive. For more information contact Daishin.

Weekly practice

9:00 a.m. Zazen
9:45 a.m. Dharma talk
10:30 - 11:15 a.m. Samu (working meditation)
11:15-11:45 a.m. Tea/Discussion

6:30 - 8:00 p.m. Monday Night Dharma

12:15 – 12:55 p.m. Zazen

6:30 – 6:50 p.m. Zazen
6:50 – 7:00 p.m. Kinhin
7:00 – 7:20 p.m. Zazen
7:20 – 7:30 p.m. Kinhin
7:30 – 8:00 p.m. Zazen

12:15 – 12:55 p.m. Zazen

6:30 – 7:10 p.m. Zazen
7:10 – 7:20 p.m Kinhin
7:20 – 8:00 p.m. Zazen

6:30 – 7:10 p.m. Zazen
7:10 – 7:20 p.m. Kinhin
7:20 – 8:00 p.m. Zazen

12:15 – 12:55 p.m. Zazen

Monthly practice

Third Wednesdays
7:30 – 9:00 p.m.  Introduction to Zazen and the Center

Second and fourth Thursdays
5:30 - 6:30 p.m. Baika

6:30 - 8:00 p.m. Dharma Study

Fourth Sunday
Sangha meeting (following dharma talk)
Click here for more information about Cedar Rapids Zen Center.
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