Tonight, let us begin by listening respectfully to the wise gratitude of Native American indigenous people. The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address honors the Natural World:
Today we have gathered, and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people. Now our minds are one.
The Earth Mother
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.
We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms—waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers, and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water. Now our minds are one.
We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.
Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come. Now our minds are one.
The Food Plants
With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks. Now our minds are one.
The Medicine Herbs
Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines. Now our minds are one.
We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here and hope that it will always be so. Now our minds are one.
We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty, and useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life. Now our minds are one.
We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds—from the smallest to the largest—we send our joyful greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.
The Four Winds
We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages, and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds. Now our minds are one.
Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our grandfathers, the Thunderers. Now our minds are one.
We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all fires. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our brother, the Sun. Now our minds are one.
We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our grandmother, the Moon. Now our minds are one.
We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered as one, we send greetings and thanks to the Stars. Now our minds are one.
The Enlightened Teachers
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers. Now our minds are one.
Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one.
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to every individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way. Now our minds are one.
This translation of the Mohawk version of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address was developed, published in 1993, and provided, courtesy of the Six Nations Indian Museum and the Tracking Project. (All rights reserved.)
[Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World
English version: John Stokes and Kanawahienton (David Benedict, Turtle Clan/Mohawk) Mohawk version: Rokwaho (Dan Thompson, Wolf Clan/Mohawk)
Original inspiration: Tekaronianekon (Jake Swamp, Wolf Clan/Mohawk)]
The beauty of nature surrounded us during Howie Cohn’s wise and compassionate teachings at Auspicious Cloud West retreat center. In the aftermath of the retreat, I have been feeling tremendous gratitude for being on the dharma path with such beloved guides and sangha friends. At Rafi’s request, I will give a fuller account of the retreat to remind those in attendance how fortunate we were and to inspire those who could not attend to reap the benefits of future retreats.
Howie’s structure followed the Buddha’s teachings about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The classic introduction to the First Foundation is, “There is one thing, monks, that leads to the heart’s release. It is mindfulness directed to the body.” Howie asked, “What could be more compassionate than aligning the mind and the body?” He guided us to move beyond the idea of our sitting body and to be aware of the direct experience of sensations. We learned to be still, observing the body being breathed in and out, and noticing the spontaneous unfolding of the selfless, impersonal nature of the dharma unfolding.
With his kind reminders, we used awareness of the breath to return our attention to the present moment, creating the conditions for calm abiding. We used 360% attention, being equally mindful of the back body, the front, and the sides. Once we settled down, we became aware of an array of sensations, which we used as objects of meditation. As Howie said, “All objects are treated equally, whether they are sensations, emotions or thoughts.”
I recognized my habitual tendency to favor thinking and to ignore the rest. On retreat, I enjoyed noticing the ever-changing quality of the attention that is noticing meditative objects arising and passing away. Depending on shifting inner and outer conditions, my internal labeling was relaxed, kind, curious, interested, impatient, judgmental, or tense.
Howie’s light, humorous approach gave us permission to accept our human imperfections. He quoted Alan Watts: “Meditation does not have to be a grim duty.” Urging us to “Gladden the heart,” Howie stated, “It’s normal to space out 50% of the time, but with practice you’ll establish continuity of mind. It’s enough to hold an intention to learn from moments when you are not distracted. Link together moments of mindfulness. Congratulate yourself each time you become aware of attention drifting away. The pinnacle of practice is mindfulness of what is happening in each moment. Relax.” A quotation by Aldous Huxley stays with me: “Lightly, child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.”
Howie emphasized that, “Walking and sitting are equal partners in mindfulness practice. Walking practice helps to develop continuous attention.” In his words, “We start off being ‘mentally ill’ and too restless to walk slowly. Eventually we learn to sustain attention to our movements.” His advice was to “Just walk and be aware that you’re walking. Pause when you notice ‘thinking mind.’ As thoughts disappear, take your next step. Be mindful, with your eyes focusing ahead—not on the feet. Trust that they’ll know what to do. When you slow down, you’ll notice more details around you, and you’ll become interested enough to stop spacing out.” Howie jokingly warned us, “Don’t make slow walking a religion!”
In the process of walking, I felt my overcharged nervous system easing. During one walking meditation period, I happened to look up at the top branches of a dead tree. To my surprise, a large black buzzard was peering down at me from his lofty perch. Stopping in my tracks, I stared back at the bird, and we locked eyes, engaging in telepathic communication for about ten minutes. I had an experience of sharing the buzzard’s consciousness, imagining that I could see my body from an aerial viewpoint. I sensed my vision becoming more acute as if I were a bird of prey. Suddenly the big bird shifted his weight, ruffled his feathers, and heavily flew off. As I watched, he soared skyward to join about forty of his fellow buzzards, who were cruising on wind currents, swirling in lazy circles so high in the blue sky that they appeared like tiny black floating specks. I felt enormously grateful for that exhilarating direct experience of complete absorption in the present moment.
Howie observed that “Mindfulness has no destination in time. The destination is the openness of mind that is aware of what is emerging.” His observation catapulted me into a direct appreciation of the vast blue dome of sky above us. I was blown away by the beauty of spectacular cloud formations morphing, merging, separating, and transforming. I realized how seldom I gaze at the sky to merge my consciousness with the heavens.
As Howie introduced the 2nd Foundation of Mindfulness, we included noting pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feeling tones. He commented that stress depends on whether the mind is reactive or nonreactive to what feels unpleasant. Mindfulness erases conditioned moments of stress. I attended to the tone of my mental noting, which ranged from accepting to judgmental. Howie helped us see that impartial noting allows us to observe what’s arising with equanimity.
Practicing in silence opened my awareness to appreciate nature’s manifold expressions. I delighted in watching butterflies flitting across the fields and listening to the calls of pileated woodpeckers in the woods. I photographed a grasshopper who landed atop a paver brick that I had donated. It looked as if the green insect was reading my inscription of gratitude: “Thanks Jack Kornfield.” At night, I gazed at a crescent moon and brilliant starry constellations in a dark sky and listened to owls hooting above my tent.
The 3rd Foundation of Mindfulness includes attention to thoughts and emotions. Howie stated, “Heartbreak is a part of the fabric of life. Our hearts open by surrendering to each present moment. Tibetan monks say that we are open, inviting, and comfortable when we are tender-hearted.” I was touched by excerpts from a poem by Jennifer Wellwood: “Everything that can be lost will be lost. Let us grieve our losses fully… This is the true life. Let’s dance this wild dance of no hope.”
From the Sonnets of Orpheus, Part I by Rilke: “You are the bow that shoots the arrows, And you are the target. Give yourself to the air—to what you cannot hold.”
The 4th Foundation of Mindfulness added the wisdom of the dharmas to our awareness. We noticed the principles of impermanence in everything around and within us. We observed the interconnectivity of all things. As we practiced calm instead of drama and cultivated wholesome thoughts with compassion, we reaped rewards of being on retreat. Each of us returned home giving thanks for Howie’s teachings and for experiences of inner peace.