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Looking at the Bodhi Tree

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by Sangharakshita

... for seven days contemplating the Bodhi tree." So why did the Buddha look at the Bodhi tree? Why did the Buddha gaze at the Bodhi tree? Perhaps He didn't gaze literally for seven days, but we may take it that at least He gazed for a very long time and the quotation from which I've read previously makes it clear why. He looked at the Bodhi tree out of gratitude, He was grateful to the Bodhi tree for having sheltered Him in His attainment of Enlightenment, grateful to it for having sheltered Him. And it's about the significance of this looking at the Bodhi tree that I want to say something today. I want in fact to speak about gratitude, gratitude. So far as I remember I've not spoken on this particular quality before. I'm told that I've given many, many lectures, hundreds even thousands of lectures, and I'm also told that are 18 million words of seminar on tape. It's an awful lot of lectures, it's an awful lot of words, and it's all indexed I'm told.

But so far as I can remember I've never spoken on this quality of gratitude. In a way that's rather strange, but even if you talk in public as much as I've done well perhaps you can't get around to talking about everything. But if the Buddha demonstrated so soon after his attainment of Enlightenment the importance of gratitude then surely we ought to pay some attention to that particular quality. Gratitude surely should be a quality that Buddhists should be trying to develop. So let's look at it a little this afternoon on this Wesak day.

The Buddha also demonstrated gratitude in other ways according to the scriptures. I've referred to the episode of Brahma Sahampati's request, his request that the Buddha should teach the Dharma He had discovered out of compassion, and as a result of that request, yes, the Buddha decided out of compassion to teach what He had discovered.

But whom should He teach? The scriptures represent Him as thinking in the first place of His two old teachers, the teachers under whom, according to some accounts, He'd learned to meditate not very long after leaving home. Of course He'd found their teaching inadequate, insufficient, He'd left them, but they had been helpful to him at a particular stage of His career and it's as though He wanted to repay a sort of spiritual debt to them after His attainment of Enlightenment, but He quickly realised that they were dead so He couldn't do anything about it and He then thought of His five former companions in asceticism. You may remember, those of you who've read any account almost of the Buddha's life, that after leaving those two teachers He started practising very extreme self-mortification. He practised it in the company of five friends who became as it were disciples of His and who admired Him, who looked up to Him very greatly because He went further in His self-mortification than anybody else at that time. And of course eventually the Buddha had realised the futility of self-mortification, realised that that was not the way to Enlightenment gave it up, started taking solid food and these other five ascetics of course left Him in disgust. They said "The samana Gautama has returned to luxurious living," because He took a few handfuls of rice to sustain Himself. So after His Enlightenment, having realised that his two old teachers were dead, the text represents the Buddha as reflecting "The five ascetics were of great help to me when I was practising the penances. I wish to preach the Dhamma to them." And this is what the Buddha did. He went to them, He taught them and eventually they too realised the Truth that He had realised, and He did this out of gratitude.

So the newly Enlightened Buddha we may say was a grateful Buddha. Now we don't usually think of the Buddha in this way. We think of the all-wise Buddha, we think of the compassionate Buddha, we think of the resourceful Buddha, but as far as I know we don't usually think of the grateful Buddha. But the Buddha was grateful, and one of the very first things He did after His attainment of Enlightenment was to show His gratitude to those who had helped Him. He was even grateful to a tree! And this alone should give us quite a lot of food for thought, food for reflection, that the Buddha after His Enlightenment showed His gratitude to the tree that had sheltered Him.

In the Buddhist scriptures there are quite a lot of references that show that the Buddha and His disciples didn't regard trees and stocks and stones as just inanimate dead matter.

They regarded them as living things; they could have even a relationship with them, they could talk to a tree, they could talk to a flower because yes, there was what they call a devata inhabiting it, and I have said in the past, and this was years and years ago when I was living in India, it's much better to be an animist, a primitive animist, than to think that trees and flowers and rocks and stones are just dead matter. So the Buddha certainly didn't think in that way, and it was because He didn't think in that way that it was possible for the Buddha to be grateful, actually grateful even to a tree.

And it's therefore not surprising that this quality, this virtue of gratitude finds a place in the Buddha's ethical and spiritual teaching. You've probably all heard of the Mangala Sutta, the Sutta of Blessings, or the Sutta of Auspicious Signs as it can also be translated.

This particular Sutta which is very short and is found in the Pali Cannon, is often regarded as summarising the whole duty as we may call it of a serious minded Buddhist, and it mentions gratitude, it enumerates gratitude as one of the auspicious signs. If you practice gratitude, if you are grateful, then it's a sign that you are making spiritual progress according to the Mangala Sutta.

So what is gratitude? What do we mean when we use this term? Turning to the dictionaries, which are very useful, very helpful, and to which we should be grateful, very grateful to the great makers of dictionaries. I'm personally very grateful to Doctor Samuel Johnson ­ his historic dictionary is always at my elbow (at least up in Birmingham; I don't carry it around with me). If I'm writing especially I sometimes consult it several times a day.

Doctor Johnson defines gratitude as "duty to benefactors", and as "desire to return benefits". Coming to more modern dictionaries the Concise Oxford says "being thankful, readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness", and Collins has "a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation as for gifts or favours".

So these are the definitions of the English word, and they're all right as far as they go.

They give us some understanding of what gratitude is. But from a Buddhist point of view we really need to go further. We need to look at the Pali word, which we translate as gratitude. And this word, this Pali word is katannuta, katannuta.

So what does it mean literally, this word katannuta? I hope it's a word that in the course of the next few months will be on everybody's lips in the FWBO ­ katannuta.

It consists of two parts: kata which means what has been done, that which has been done, especially that which has been done to one, to oneself, and the second part is annuta which means knowing or recognising. So katannuta means knowing or recognising what has been done to one, that is to say knowing and recognising what has been done to one for one's benefit. And you can at once see that the connotation of the Pali word is rather different from its English equivalent or its English translation. The connotation of the English gratitude we could say is rather more emotional. We speak of feeling gratitude, feeling grateful, but the connotation of katannuta is rather more intellectual, more cognitive. It makes it clear that what we call gratitude involves an element of knowledge.

So an element of knowledge of what? Obviously, knowledge of what has been done to us or for us for our benefit. If we do not know that something has benefited us, we'll not feel gratitude.

The Buddha knew that the Bodhi tree had sheltered him. He knew that His five former companions in asceticism had been helpful to Him, so He felt gratitude towards them.

Not only that He gave expression to that feeling of gratitude, He acted upon it. He acted upon it in the first place by spending a whole week according to tradition simply gazing at the Bodhi tree. And then He went in search of His five former companions of asceticism so that He could communicate to them out of gratitude the Truth that He had discovered. So here there's a very important implication. The implication being that it's natural; it's a perfectly natural thing to feel gratitude for benefits, which we have received. It's a natural thing, a natural response. I'll be going into this a little later.

But of course the benefit has to be recognised as a benefit. If we don't feel that someone or something actually has benefited us, we won't feel grateful to them or to it and this suggests that we have to understand what is truly beneficial, have to understand what has really helped us to grow and develop as human beings. We also have to know who or what has benefited us. We have to remember that they've benefited us otherwise no feeling of gratitude is possible.

In Buddhism traditionally, in the Buddha's teaching there are three principal objects of gratitude. In the first place there's our parents, in the second place there's our teachers, and in the third place our spiritual friends. So I want to say a few words about each of these in turn.

First of all our parents. I think most of you know that I came back to this country in 1964 after spending twenty years uninterruptedly in the East studying and practising {?}and teaching the Dharma. And of course when I came back to England there were ...

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