During his storied life, the religious scholar Huston Smith studied and then practiced virtually all of the world’s religions. But in a tale he tells in his autobiography Tales of Wonder, Zen may have been the most difficult to grasp.
Smith studied for a grueling week at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, where during day-and-night meditation sessions, he had to try and decipher koans like “Does a dog have Buddha-nature.” Koans are meant to demonstrate how our normal ways of reasoning don’t work, forcing us to strip away what we know in order to find real truth. When the koans are answered successfully, they’re supposed to reveal greater insights and even provoke enlightenment.
But as hard as he tries, Smith can’t seem to find the proper answers to the koans, at least from the perspective of the supervising monk. The stern taskmaster prods and literally pokes Smith (with a stick), to keep him awake and alert as he tries, and fails, to solve the koans again and again.
By the end of the seven-days, an exhausted and despondent Smith feels as if he has just wasted a week of his life. He goes to see the monk with the intent of releasing his frustrations by chewing the man out—only to have the monk greet him with a warm smile and invite him into his humble home.
Smith is taken aback by the monk’s now kind and friendly demeanor, and proceeds to ask the monk a few simple questions. The answers teach him more in a few minutes, than what he had learned from a week of trying to unravel the meaning of the koans. Smith’s first question is, “What is Zen?”
The monk tells Smith that while koans are helpful, they are not Zen. And while meditation is helpful, it is not Zen. He goes silent. “Then what the hell is Zen?” asks Smith incredulously. The monk then replies “Simple, simple, so simple.” He tells Smith that Zen is:
Infinite gratitude toward all things past.
Infinite service to all things present.
Infinite responsibility to all things future.
The monk tells Smith that when he travels home the following day, to not overlook all those who would help him get there—the taxi driver, the gate agent, the flight attendant, the pilot. Give thanks to everyone. The monk then brings Smith to the present moment. He looks above him to gives thanks for the roof over his head, then bows to Smith to thank him for his presence. The monk’s final words of advice:
Make your whole life unceasing gratitude.
It seems that most of the world’s religions place a premium on gratitude, encouraging us to give thanks for all the good that is in our lives. As I have written here before, I say a prayer of thanks each day following the advice of the 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart who advises us that if we say only one prayer all day, let it be a prayer of thanks.
Yet, we can go further. If we follow the lead of Smith’s Zen master, we can go a step beyond a daily prayer that and make our whole life one of “unceasing gratitude”, giving recurrent thanks for our surroundings and each person and thing we encounter during the day. These short silent prayers connect us with our environment and help us realize that at any given moment we have cause to give thanks.