One of the primary changes in the history of religions was the movement from blood sacrifice to more symbolic offerings. The stairs around the temple which Jesus famously disrupted ran with the blood of slaughtered lambs and chickens and goats. The air around the temple stunk of blood and innards.
This was as much true in the time of the historical Buddha, where the Vedic priests charged money for the slaughter of animals as offerings and charged families big fees for their efforts. Much of this transformation from real to symbolic offerings happened during the so-called Axial Age, a period most brilliantly explained by the British historian and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong.
What do we do about this deepest paradox of our ethical ambient: that we must kill to maintain our own lives? We must eat. And even if we’re vegans, there is still the loss of plant life. Grace means, among other things, “thanks,” as it has come down to us from Latin into the Spanish gracias. So before we eat, we say a prayer of thanks, just as hunters and fishers have, from time immemorial, apologized to and thanked their prey. The birds and the fish, the orchards and vineyards and fields of grain all contribute to the furtherance of human health and culture. So when we say grace before meals we are saying thank you to the plants and animals that have become our food.
Recently typhoon Heyan, which devastated the southern Philippines, sent a flurry of images through the social media of people who had nothing: no food, no clothing, no shelter, no power, no gas. Recent tornadoes in our own country produced similar images. So why can’t I be grateful for the icy sunshine of this winter season on the Harbor? Winter is filled with grace.
I was walking on one of the trails in South Aberdeen and an elder gentleman dressed in camo, and smoking a cigarette, was walking his very cute and cheerful dog. We passed an area where large birds had swooped down to feed and his dog stopped and pointed dutifully toward the flock. “Looks like he wants duck for dinner,” I said cheerfully. The man threw his cigarette down and huffed: “Those are geese, not ducks!”
I felt rebuked as well as stupid. How could this man be so angry, I wondered — especially with such a cute dog for company? Yet some of us are angry or jealous or gossipy or depressed. It’s just how people are. So for almost two days I had to send this man my loving-kindness. May he be safe; may he be healthy, may he be happy, may he know love, may he find peace. I repeated this formula to myself over and over, and I had to keep doing it until I actually started to believe it, to feel it. I can now be grateful to this grumpy old man. And I know he is not other than myself. I have experienced some of his suffering. I have had similar bad days.
A few days later I was walking near the same spot where the geese had been and I noticed his cigarette butt. I picked it up. It reminded me to say grace, to give thanks for the geese, for the old man, his dog and for the bright clear winter that surrounds us all.
Thay Kobai Whitney is spiritual director of Plum Mountain Buddhist Community in Aberdeen. He has served as chaplain is hospitals and prisons and is author of the book, “Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons.”