Thanksgiving: How to Respond to Grateful and Ungrateful People

by Bob Schwartz

We have arrived at a holiday about gratitude, an element of so many traditions. Gratitude helps put us in our place—not so much a place below or beholden to others as a place connected to others.

The historic Huayan school of Buddhism is based on a very long (1200 pages in English translation) and very extravagant text known as the Flower Ornament Sutra. The text and its insights have contributed to the development of many current Buddhist streams.

Taigen Dan Leighton writes:

Among the Huayan tools for bringing the universal into our everyday experience are gathas, or verses, which include many practice instructions to be used as enlightening reminders in all kinds of everyday situations. Specifically, the eleventh chapter of the Flower Ornament Sutra, titled “Purifying Practice,” includes 140 distinct verses to encourage mindfulness in particular circumstances. Some of the following situations are cited: awakening from sleep; before, during, and after eating; seeing a large tree, flowing water, flowers blooming, a lake, or a bridge; entering a house; giving or receiving a gift; meeting teachers, or various other kinds of people; and proceeding on straight, winding, or hilly roads.

All the verses use the situations mentioned to encourage mindfulness and as reminders of the fundamental intention to help ourselves and others more fully express compassion and wisdom.

Among the verses are these two involving grateful and ungrateful people:

Seeing grateful people
They [enlightened beings] should wish that all beings
Be able to know the blessings
Of the Buddhas and enlightening beings.

Seeing ungrateful people
They should wish that all beings
Not increase the punishment
Of those who are bad.

The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra by Thomas Cleary

The first of these verses is straightforward and positive: You see grateful people (you will see many of them at Thanksgiving) and you are reminded to wish that all people know the ways of enlightenment. Everybody feels good, and it all begins with witnessing gratitude.

The second situation might appear to be less positive. You see ungrateful people (you will not see many of them at Thanksgiving, at least not at your table), which may not make you feel good or feel good about them. But instead of feeling bad, you are advised to remember compassion and mercy—“wish that all beings not increase the punishment of those who are bad.”

Hard as it seems, along with giving and getting thanks, you might set aside those “punishments” you have in mind for “those who are bad.” That isn’t exactly gratitude, but it’s a close companion quality. On any Thanksgiving, and maybe on this one in particular.