Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Greatest Loss

Last night the Society of Friends of the Buddha met in my living room. We discussed some teachings of the Buddha. I want to share some of our discussion with MindfulHeart friends and with members of our Sangha who were not able to be here last night.

In a reading titled, “The Sharpest Sword,” the Buddha answers a series of questions. His answers to these questions are, I believe, well worth contemplating. 

The Buddha was asked, “What is the greatest loss?”

His reply was, “The greatest loss is to receive without gratitude.”

His reply to this question was not something I would have guessed as an inevitable answer to this question.  His anwer is, however, well worth thinking about. 

Please allow me to ponder the Buddha's answer for a moment, for I think his answer applies to me, and perhaps to many others of us as well.

You see, I count myself among a very, very, very small minority of human beings who has never known real hunger in an entire lifetime. 

I was born in the United States in 1951, and I have always enjoyed only  plenty of food. Grocery store shelves have always been fully stocked wherever I go. A huge variety of foods from around the world is available to me at very little cost. Half a dozen stores within walking distance from my front door compete among themselves for my food dollar which has buying power that is not less than astonishing.

Am I grateful for my great good fortune?

Well, I try to be. I really do. I try to remember to be grateful for the plentiful food that has always been available to me. 

But as often as not, rather than really tasting and focusing my attention on the tasty and nutritious food that I am eating, Sarah and I talk—as we did, again, this evening—about local city politics or the music class in kindergarten this morning or some non-gustatory subject of the sort. 

To be fair, we cook our food from scratch; we linger an hour or more over our meals by candlelight. We have some very pleasant music playing in the background (Stan Getz's tenor saxophone tonight). We keep our conversational pleasant, and interactive, and, if you will permit me to say this, pretty interesting. But the food we eat falls into the background of our consciousness. It's not the main focus of our meal time together. The fact is, I take my incredible good food mostly for granted.

With climate change, peak oil, ecological collapse (is there really any other word for it?), and topsoil degradation, it is not difficult for me to imagine a very different scenario within my lifetime (or, since I’m getting on in years) certainly within my children's lifetimes.

The days of plentiful good food for the many are numbered and probably fewer than we realize at the moment. Before too long, the abundance of food I’ve known my whole life will come to its natural end. Plentiful food will someday be a fond, and bittersweet memory.

As the Buddha said, “The greatest loss is to receive without gratitude.”

I can imagine a time not so far in the future when I’m hungry, really hungry, and without anything to eat. At that time,  I may remember the meal I had tonight and wish I had been less concerned with city council business and more attentive to the rice and green soup and vegetable salad that I enjoyed this evening.

Will I wish I had heeded the Buddha’s answer to the Deva's questions? Will I wish I had avoided the greatest loss by receiving my meal with genuine gratitude?

I think it’s more than possible.

What do you think?


Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

As always is the case, there is more to the Buddha's answer than meets the eye. Gratitude is a healing emotion - for the one receiving and the one giving. Gratitude is always a moment of connection and presence.

Above all, gratitude gives ego-mind a little taste of what enlightment might be like. When truly experiencing gratitude - one steps outside of oneself, one is truly in the moment, one can actually merge with the 'thing' received and the place it is received from, one experiences spaciousness, one is present to what is, one is not experiencing any other desires ...

Gratitude actually changes the physiology of our body - affects heart rhythm and coherence. Such a healing emotion - we should try to live in gratitude!

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Me again. Meant to add that the Buddha was not just talking about receiving the 'good' with gratitude - but receiving whatever comes our way with gratitude - pain, illness, separation, etc.
As everything that comes is a teacher on our path.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Bonnie-- Thank you for both comments. Gratitude is a healing emotion, and one I do try to cultivate as much as I can remember to do so. As you say, gratitude, deeply felt, brings us into the present moment, just as it is, in all its fullness, connected. It's so easy to slip away from that connection and return to a take-it-all-for-granted slumber.

Your second comment is spot on. It requires a great deal of skillful gratitude practice to cultivate gratitude for everything that comes along, even the unwanted stuff that appears to be an obstacle to our life plans. (I think that's why so many of us admire Barry's blog: he manages to do just that.)

Jennifer said...


I am in a different place of "following", but ironically I am in a great place of awareness about GRATITUDE. I have felt a depth of gratitude for the most minute of blessings recently. I know even this is not enough, but still - what I have come to understand in this for myself is to EACH DAY - honor my life. Honor what is. As I ponder those who are not as fortunate I can honor them by being aware, kind and considerate of these abundant resources by using them consciously and with GREAT care. More and more I feel compelled to do so. Thank you always for your sharing!

Linda Sue said...

my eyes are not great- I thought your t-shirt said "eat constantly" and I agreed whole heartedly.Love what Bonnie said- always love what Bonnie has to say- spot on- being grateful for all of it- even the protruding tummy as a result of "eating constantly"...Buddha belly!

Rebecca Johnson said...


Really? The Society of Friends of Buddha? I want to hear more! Are you Quakers who study buddhist teaching or people interested in Buddha or Buddhists who named their Sangha?

If there was "a"path that really calls to me, it would be "being" a Buddhist Quaker. : )

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Linda--

Well, eating constantly, I think, is what hungry ghosts in hell realms are said to do.

Probably better to eat less, chew more.

Dan Gurney said...

Rebecca, that's it. I'm a Quaker who studies Buddhist teachings. I'm also a Buddhist who reveres Quakers. For me, it's definitely a both/and sort of a deal.

But to answer your question: we're people interested in Buddhism (people who identify as Buddhists and some who do not) who've adopted a Quaker style of study and discussion of Buddhist texts.

Dan Gurney said...

Jennifer, I'm glad you found my contemplation worth reading. Gratitude is a great feeling to cultivate for it opens our hearts to what is right with the world. Our whole physiology is set up to notice and remember things that "go wrong" so as to help our ability to survive. So it takes intentional effort to notice all of the multitudes of things that "go right" each day. For example, when I washed my hands, the water came on. That's a miracle of modern plumbing, really... warm water on demand, at the turn of a handle? An amazing luxury not shared by millions of Africans and Asians, and one I often take for granted. Except when I'm present.

Jim Fish said...

Hi Dan. I'm brand-new to your blog and found it very interesting. Just had a significant conversation with my adult daughter on the benefits of being grateful for the trials and tribulations of both marriage and casual relationship. She is rebuilding a relationship with her husband after a six-month seperation. Your thoughts were clarifying and confirmed certain beliefs I have only recently introduced into my rationale.

Looking forward to your future posts.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Jim, Welcome to Mindful Heart. I'm happy to learn you found something helpful here. Thanks for leaving a comment. May your daughter be well.