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A teacher called their attendant three times, and three times the attendant responded.

The teacher said, “I was about to say that I was ungrateful to you. But the fact is that you are ungrateful to me.”

Thanksgiving is on Thursday and I find myself interested in exploring the experience of gratitude. It is particularly interesting at a time like this, when there would appear to be a dearth of reasons to be grateful. Though this koan would appear to be an exploration of ingratitude, koans are often not what they appear to be, like us. Koans reflect us back to ourselves and where they appear to be contradictory or nonsensical, that is a reflection of us too.

Called by the teacher three times, replying to the call three times, where did the attendant go wrong? How is it that he was ungrateful? Seems more like the teacher was ungrateful. That’s what the teacher said, he thought he was ungrateful. What made him change his mind? What made him go from thinking he was ungrateful to thinking his attendant was ungrateful? Having called his attendant three times and then dismissed him three times, without asking for anything, it would be easy to understand how the teacher might have noticed being ungrateful towards his attendant. Not appreciating the way his attendant responded three times, unquestioningly, without hesitation, without commentary. Was the teacher saying that he noticed how he wasn’t feeling as much gratitude as he thought he should be feeling?

Was the teacher saying that his attendant was not expressing gratitude for having been given the opportunity to be his attendant? To have the opportunity of intimately interacting with the teacher as his role required is a plum position. Was the attendant not sufficiently grateful for being given the position? There is no evidence to that effect. Called three times he responded three times, isn’t that an expression of his gratitude?

There is an alternate translation for this word “ungrateful” which is, “standing alone with my back to you.” What does ‘standing alone’ have to do with being ungrateful? The words attributed to the baby Buddha, spoken at birth come to mind, “I alone, the world honored one.” Rather than being an inflated statement coming from a place of ego, it is referring to the ‘aloneness’ of disappearing into a piece of music, a sunset, your lover’s eyes. Not alone at all. What if ‘ungrateful’ is like that?

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