A Zen Meditation on our American Thanksgiving

A Zen Meditation on our American Thanksgiving November 25, 2023

Closeup of Wood sculpture of Guanyin early 19th century CE Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 CE) China





Our American Thanksgiving has just passed. While it’s set for the third Thursday of November, I’ve noticed many people move the date around for their personal or family observances. I personally know some people who marked it out on Wednesday, and we here in Tujunga actually had our grand family gathering yesterday, Friday.

I’m fascinated with Thanksgiving as a semi-secular semi-well-something else holiday. It combines a lot of things.

I do like digging around for the history of things. So, just a little.

Our first American Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington on the 26th of November, 1789. It might be worth noting it was not connected to the Pilgrim story. Washington called out for a day to thank God, well, he rarely used that word, he tended to prefer “Providence,” and in his formal proclamation said, “the Almighty,” for divine protection before the Revolution, and then through the revolution, and then out of that for the establishment of a republic.

When Thomas Jefferson became president, he chose not to continue the proclamation and as a national holiday Thanksgiving was only sporadically observed in subsequent years.

That is until 1863, when in the midst of our terrible Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a regular Thanksgiving holiday to be observed on the last Thursday in November. It was a somewhat darker thing than Washington’s. For Lincoln as he said in his proclamation

“I recommend to (the American people) that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

Through an act of congress in 1885, Thanksgiving became an official Federal holiday. It wasn’t until 1942 that the third Thursday in November was enshrined into law. Franklin Roosevelt was hoping to boost retail sales in the run up to Christmas.

At least throughout my adult life I’ve found this holiday complicated. On the one hand a worthy thing, a time simply to celebrate the goodness of life, to just be thankful. As Meister Eckhardt wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

But on the other hand, this observation has come to be attached to an extremely problematic story. For those who care, this joining of the Pilgrim story along with a collapsing of two different English customs, an Autumnal “Thanksgiving,” a time of feasting, usually drinking, and all around celebration, and occasional days of “Humiliation,” which called for fasting, prayer, and repentance, such as we hear most clearly from Lincoln in his proclamation, gathered together ultimately seems to trace to the Unitarian minister, the Reverend Alexander Young in his book “Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers.”

That mixed up holiday, including of course, Franklin Roosevelt’s timing for business purposes, has gradually enshrined itself in the national consciousness. So, for many native Americans and those sympathetic to their plight this day has become a National Day of Mourning. Not unlike the original sense of Thanksgiving, I notice.

For me these things are inextricable linked. One people’s blessing is often another people’s curse. Our American culture, as wondrous as it is in many ways, is also built upon piles of bones. The genocide of Native Americans. And, how can we forget the other original sin, an economy built upon chattel slavery?

Good and ill woven fine.

And, this is a Zen gathering. And this all reminds me of the nature of our days, rich and terrible. It’s collected as the 6th case in the ancient Chinese anthology, the Blue Cliff Record.

Yunmen addressed his assembly, ‘I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month. Tell me something about after the 15th.’ No one spoke, so he responded himself, ‘Every day is a good day.‘”

This isn’t a complete non sequitur. The 15th is the time of the full moon, and is a common metaphor in East Asia for the moment of awakening. So, there’s that. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt to note that Yunmen lived in harsh, politically unstable times, where armies were on the march and famine and hunger and danger the common currency of the day.

So, it would be very hard to find the phrase “every day is a good day” to mean “don’t worry, be happy.” This good day carries with it the possibility of ending very badly. It wasn’t all that different than this day of complicated Thanksgiving, with all that is going on in our lives all around this beautiful and terrible planet.

In some communities of the Zen tradition, people who’ve been acknowledged as teachers, after a ceremony that takes place in private at midnight, the next day they’re often expected to give a talk on this koan. Perhaps that suggests how complicated and how important it is.

Koans. A koan is a statement about reality. And with that is an invitation. Or, another way to say it, a koan is a pointer to the real, the deepest real, and with that an invitation to come and stand in that place.

And here we are. A very problematic story attached to a communal call to give thanks for what is good, and to celebrate. A terrible memory of the possibility of evil, and its actual manifestations. And the sense of powerlessness while also wishing for some reconciliation among people and this little planet upon which we live, and breathe, and from which we take our being.

The problem, it seems to me, it is the calling of the tradition to which I’ve given my life: the problem lies with our sense of separation.

The solution, at least within our Zen world, is said to be rooted in not turning away, in the practice of presence. Presence to Thanksgiving. Presence to Humiliation. Presence to the betrayals upon which many a feast is founded. Presence to political chaos and even the possibility of the unraveling of this republic. Presence to hunger. Presence to questions of why. Presence to our own hearts.


This is most important. It is within presence we find our awakening, our waking up from the slumber of a life that has been distracted from the most important matters. We slumber with our apparently endless desires. We slumber with our angers and hatreds. We slumber as we figure something out as true and defend, fiercely that idea of that true, sometimes even to the death. Sometimes our own, too often someone else’s.

Waking up is waking up from all this grasping at wanting and resenting and hating, and knowing for sure, into something else. It denies not of that. But opens us larger. And, and this is most important: this waking up is also our common human experience. Here the action and the questions collapse into one thing.

And what does that look like?

Well, I suggest we can find a hint of the way forward in another koan in that same Twelfth century anthology, the Blue Cliff Record, this time in case 89. One of my favorite in all the Zen literature.

Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?’ Daowu answered, ‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.’ Yunyan said, ‘I understand.’ Daowu asked, ‘How do you understand it?’ Yunyan said, ‘All over the body are hands and eyes.’ Daowu said, ‘That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.’ Yunyan said, ‘How would you say it, Elder Brother?’ Daowu said, ‘Throughout the body are hands and eyes.’

Both Yunyan and Daowu were students of the same teacher and would themselves each become famous teachers in their own right. According to some traditions they were actually brothers. While unlikely it points to deeper truths.

But the really important thing for us here today in the penumbra of this holiday of Thanksgiving, is that both these monks had their ideas of self and other collapse and saw deeply into authentic interconnectedness.

At the time this story takes place Daowu perhaps sees a bit deeper than his dharma brother. Although perhaps not. In the great way we play a lot, each of us taking different parts in turn, and play is in fact one of the primary spiritual disciplines. That noted, in this conversation we get a sense of what it means to move from the interdependent web as a really good idea, to where it describes who we actually are.

Here. Now. With all these truths arising. Hunger. Hurt. Joy. War. Gratitude. So much collapsing. So much dying. Family for good and ill. Actions, small and great. Dreaming. Longing. Wanting something better. Acting on that. All of it. Reaching out, reaching out knowing we’re all in this together.

Reaching out is the body of awakening.

Reaching out and finding Buddha, finding Christ, finding our true selves…

And Daowu says of this need to act, that it comes not through an interpretation of the image of the interdependent web, not through reading the Wealth of Nations, not through solid Marxist analysis, not through righteousness of any sort, certainly not righteous anger, a dreadful seducer beckoning us to a confusion of ends and means: but rather like someone turning in her sleep and reaching a hand behind her head to adjust her pillow.

Just this. Ends and means, one thing. Our interdependence and you and I, one thing.

It becomes our broken song. It acknowledges fully and without hesitation the cracks in everything. It remembers the call to Thanksgiving and Humiliation. It recalls the horrors of days. And endless failures. And it sees something else. Joys small and great. Beauty. Loves, small and great. In the very same place. At the very same time. Found as we loosen the death grip of our knowing and slip into the mysteries of not knowing.

The meeting of the month before and after the fifteenth. And with that the light that shines through those wounds and joys. The promise of our saving ourselves and each other.

A real Thanksgiving.

All of it. Intimate. Intimate.

A real Thanksgiving.

(About the image)

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a writer and spiritual director in the Zen tradition. His latest book the Intimate Way of Zen (Shambhala Publications) is now available for preorder at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Intimate-Way-Zen-Surrender-Awakening/dp/1645472183/ You can read more about the author here.
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