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.
OK, 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!