In the Dullabha Sutta, the Buddha states that there are two kinds of people that are difficult to find: those who are first to do kind acts, and those who feel gratitude for kind acts. As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, we can trust that what we’re getting here is first a direct assessment of reality (not enough kindness in the world), followed by an indication of how we might address that unfortunate reality (by cultivating gratitude). The Buddha is telling us that more grateful hearts will make for a kinder world.
I’ve been blessed to study with teachers who have exemplified this teaching by never taking anything for granted, by always expressing gratitude for even the smallest kindness shown them. Certainly their own acts of kindness have been incredibly inspiring, but they’ve taught as much in never once demonstrating a sense of entitlement or expectation around the kindness of others. In my experience, one of the things you’ll hear the greatest teachers say an awful lot is “Thank you.”
A story: many years ago, I was a student on Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India program, which is based at the Burmese vihar in Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Participants not only take a semester’s worth of classes, but also study meditation closely with teachers in the Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan meditation traditions. One of our teachers for the Vipassana unit was Godwin Samararatne, the late guiding teacher at Nilambe Meditation Centre in Kandy, Sri Lanka. It would not be an overstatement to say that Godwin’s effect on me was enormously profound. In many ways, he’s the most “awake” person I’ve ever encountered, and bountiful kindness and gentleness seemed to flow out of him naturally, effortlessly. I was and continue to be changed by having known him. I could see all this clearly as a nineteen-year-old, but it also overwhelmed me; a neurotic kid encountering the Buddhadharma for the first time and in all of its richness, I was a little scared by this remarkable, special person, though I also wanted to be around him as much as possible. So I hemmed and hawed when it was announced Godwin would offer an optional weekend-long meditation retreat, and ultimately decided I probably couldn’t handle it and wouldn’t go. On the morning before the retreat, I unexpectedly ran into Godwin in the courtyard of the vihar. He asked if I was planning to attend the retreat, and I nervously made some excuse about wanting to catch up on schoolwork. When I finally had the courage to look up at him, he looked back with soothing warmth, saying, “I will miss your smile. I always see your smiling face after our morning meditations. Thank you.”
In the limited time I spent with him, I experienced Godwin as someone who found something to appreciate and be grateful for in everyone and every situation he encountered. I have no doubt that his tremendous kindness and gentleness were developed and strengthened by this deep sense of gratitude that he tended to with his words, his actions, and even his body language. (Walking with our program director Robert Pryor and the other Vipassana teacher, Anagarika Munindra, he might have been mistaken for their attendant.) Godwin understood, just as the Buddha did and all of our most precious teachers have, that to truly benefit oneself and others, it all starts with a grateful heart.