I lived in Japan for 7 years and was fairly immersed: practiced at a Zen fighting temple, graduated from a Japanese University and was part of Japanese families.  During that time, I willfully absorbed several Japanese customs.  For instance, before eating, many Japanese will ‘prayerfully’ put their hands together and say “Itadakimasu“.  The word means “[I] will [thankfully] receive”.  But when Japanese say it, they are not thanking gods or spirits, they are just being thankful in general.

An unfocused thankfulness is an odd idea for most Western praying folks.  But cultivating attitudes, without conjuring up specific objects for the attitudes, is a very Buddhist concept.  Japan’s general religious milieu is largely a mix of secularized Shinto flavored with various forms of Buddhism.  A central concept of Buddhism is “interdependence”.  Interdependence or interconnectedness is the understanding that all phenomena exist because of the existence of and the dependence on other phenomena.

itadakimasuOK, so let’s make this more real:  Since they were very young, I have taught my kids to say “Itadakimasu, thank you for the food” before eating their meals — yet we are atheists.  Sometimes we discuss the concept of interdependence by discussing one item of food on the table and exploring how many people and other creatures we are dependent on to have that item for our food.  For example: The lettuce was bought by Mom with family money given to us by my boss and their business dependents. The farmer bought lettuce seeds from others, people picked the lettuce, a truck driver drove the lettuce, people made the roads for the truck driver ….   And on and on until we all laugh at the hundreds of people needed to get us our simple bowl of lettuce.

All in all, culturing feelings of happiness and thankfulness create greater health and happiness.  You don’t have to be a theist to do be thankful.  Ask the Japanese!  We don’t have to eternalize these moments — now is good enough.

As a funny consequence of our family’s custom, I have to share this story: When the kids were a bit younger, we went out to a restaurant with friends.  Right before eating, our kids reflexively put their palms together and gave thanks saying “itadakimasu”.  But as they looked up, they saw the other family just digging into their food — they later asked us what was wrong with that family.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they themselves were actually the weird ones!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “Thankfulness

  1. Very interesting post.

    I wonder if westerners (and Americans in particular) might have a difficult time with this concept because we understand our interdependence within the framework of Capitalism. We’ve patterned our “interconectedness” to be a series of self-serving actions by individuals within a larger system that is (ideally) designed to benefit the whole.

    Instead of recognizing what are obvious connections between ourselves, our communities and the land—we might grumble about the inordinate price we paid for lettuce, or how we’re not being paid enough in order to buy more lettuce, or how our neighbors are able to buy slightly better lettuce than us.

  2. I really like this practice, it is far too easy to forget our interconnectedness. I think that is what causes humanity to wreak the greatest havoc both on the planet and on each other.

  3. Thanks for your comments and for the well-wishes!

    When I started studying Japanese, I used to say itadakimasu every time I ate something. Er, when I remembered, and now that I’m involved in Jewish stuff I’ve played around with saying the blessings over food, but all of them are in the vein of “thank you god, for…” which bothers me a bit. And growing up, the Catholic relatives did a simple grace prayer, whereas the Quakers did silent grace, where you hold hands and close your eyes and sit silently for a minute. Sometimes we would do both, but I only ever did silent grace.

    I like your spin on it though. It’s great to think about how literally we are interconnected – through the matter that makes up our bodies.

    I might go back to saying itadakimasu. I stopped when my French-speaking housemate moved in, at which point we said bon appetit for a while, but the effect and intention are very different.

  4. aly

    Another great post! ‘Unfocused thankfulness’!!! : )

  5. Hey, Aly: glad you enjoyed — thanks for reading!!

  6. I agree–it is important to be mindful. Thankfulness is a type of mindfulness. The mindfulness of the hard work of others and of your caretakers and benefactors.

    The Japanese tradition of “Itadakimasu” is a useful expression of mindfulness typically lacking in Western reflective thought. Western thought is predominently self-serving, whereas, in many Asian cultures, even Japan, the thought is of oneness, or at least, of being a part of the community–more importantly perhaps, making the effort to do so, which requires one to be mindful of others.

    It is an excellent habit to cultivate in oneself, I have found. It makes me more reflective, considerate, and still allows me to show my gratitude towards others–and be thankful–without having to invoke spiritual, supernatural, or religious nonsense.

    I even say “Gochasosamadeshita” when I’m finished with my meal, which is the complimentary closing to “Itadakimasu.”

  7. “We don’t have to eternalize…..”
    Absolutely correct. Excellent post.
    This one line, for me, defines why religion is completely unnecessary.
    Just be grateful for being.

  8. @ subayaitori[Tristan] :
    What is with the new handle? To let readers know, you are responding to your post here on “Giving Thanks to God”.

    I totally agree with your comment — well said !!

    @Arkenaten :
    Glad you liked the post.
    I probably would not generalize about religion as easily as you do. Not all religions externalize. Some forms of Buddhism and Taoism, for example.

  9. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Interesting that these comments show up this week. My Uncle Bob passed away on Tuesday and his life was all about gratitude.

  10. Sorry for you loss, Mike, but your Uncle Bob sounds like he led a very fine life! May we all do so well.

  11. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Thank you, Sabio. I’ve always loved my uncle, but didn’t really appreciate his beliefs until after I de-converted. He was a very spiritual person, but I only saw his views as heretical before becoming an apostate myself.

  12. I remember when I was a monk we had discussed practices to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude”. Some practice included writing down what we were grateful for each day. Appreciating many ordinary, everyday things we take for granted leads to thankfulness.

    Your family’s “thankfulness” practice before meals is a great example of “secular” or non-religious “prayerfulness” without need to invoke any gods or supernatural forces.

  13. Cool story, Scott — yep, thankfulness is important!

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