At first light of day, the serpentine line of Buddhist monks in central Laos seemed endless as they snaked past my wife and me. Clad in long saffron robes, each was furnished with a wooden bowl drooping from a support belt anchored on his shoulder. Not only Margaret and I (and our university tour group), but a long line of local citizens were placing balls of rice into these bowls as the monks filed past. The silent procession was barefooted and deadly silent.
As they walked by, our American Thanksgiving was far from my mind, yet upon reflection, this procession had a profound impact on my thoughts about the holiday. It allowed me to view it in a totally new light and with an expansive, not egocentric, vision.
“What is going on here?” we asked our tour director. “With their rice balls and oral thanks, the local townsfolk are showing gratitude to these monks!” he said. “They thank the monks, not the opposite.
“It is their belief that one will be reincarnated upon death, that most will live another life on Earth, and each person’s status will be determined by how he or she had lived on Earth. Some, the most pure, will transcend terrestrial status and achieve nirvana, a perpetual peace, and escape from the cycle of life and death. An act such as giving the monks rice increases their chances of a successful rebirth or even the achieving of nirvana.”
Thrilling is the only word that came to my mind then, and again now as I write this. Suddenly the world was transformed. I am surrounded by opportunities to help others and to help myself as well as the recipient.
Of course, like the original Pilgrims, we should be thankful for our multiple blessings: food, shelter, clothing and much else. Yet we can also be thankful for the opportunity of helping others and their presence in our lives. The opportunities are almost infinite — from needy family and friends, to the poor, to the ailing, the refugee, all of whom merit our thanks for being available to us.
But why am I thrilled by this, and why should others give it serious thought?
“Let him who is free of sin throw the first stone,” said Jesus, telling the hard truth that all of us have some acts or omissions in our lives of which we are not proud. Memories of these can haunt all of us who seek expiation. Reaching out at Thanksgiving can be just such a purge,
Our Christian world has a belief similar to the Buddhist view in the afterlife: of a heaven and hell. “Judgment Day” is a common phrase, meaning the time when all of one’s deeds will be finally weighed in the balance. This belief is deeply imbedded in our culture.
Could it be that a single act of kindness, like giving rice to an indigent monk, or taking care of my lifelong partner with Alzheimer’s disease, will weigh the eternal scales in my benefit? This is the enigma of death.
Of course, not everyone believes in heaven and hell. But there is a deep belief in most folks that their reputation will live on and that it matters how one is remembered. This is an earthly immortality. And surely each act of kindness here will improve one’s after-life image.
Aristotle postulated that our goal in life should be happiness. Can one achieve happiness with such acts of kindness and compassion rather than with selfish ones? Recent studies have shown that happiness is a byproduct of compassion. One is happiest when he does for others. So even those who deny immortality in heaven and hell, or in one’s lasting memory, may find motivation for charitable acts. It just feels good!
So this holiday, in addition to thanks for our own blessings, let’s all give of ourselves to the service of others: for a happy immortality, for an improved remembrance of our life here on Earth, and because it feels good! And above all thank those that make it possible! That is the new message of Thanksgiving I discovered in a lonely place in mid-Laos.
Phil Fullerton is a former attorney who lives in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.