When I first arrived at my Zen group Doshin Sensei gave me some tips on sitting. He suggested that I set my intention first and then go into watching and counting my breath. That resonated with me because I am a person who has written down my goals and worked to attain them my entire life.
Not long after that we had a wonderful teacher, Dr. Brenda Shoshanna author of Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, come to visit us for a weekend retreat at the Southern Palm Zen Group. I went and had dokuson (private meeting with a teacher) with her and during the visit we talked about my relationship with my mother. She gave me some sage advice and told me that when I set my intention I could include my parents in it.
I have three lines that I say when I begin.
I sit in order to save the planet and all sentient beings. I sit in honor of my mother and father who gave me life and taught me to do good. I ask the Buddhas of all directions to light the lamp of dharma for all those on my prayer list named and unnamed and for all those who are groping in the darkness of suffering.
I then go into the silence counting and/or watching my breath and letting the universe take care of the rest.
There is a Zen Koan that goes like this:
One day, Layman Pang and his daughter, Lingzhao, were out selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, the Layman stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw you fall so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.
Joan Sutherland reflects on this koan in the beautiful book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women.
Lingzhao’s action obliterates the idea that there is a helper and a helped. Compassion isn’t a commodity we deliver but a commitment, according to Chan, to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation. ‘What is most intimate?’ the koan suggests that we ask. Usually the most intimate response to another’s difficulty begins with the willingness not to flee. Fleeing can take the form of abandoning the situation, and it can also mean escaping into ‘helping,’ into a whole constellation of ideas about what ought to happen. Intimacy is being willing to stay and accompany and listen, to be vulnerable and surprised and flexible. It’s a willingness to fall with someone else, and see what becomes possible when we do (page 294).
So what does this story have to do with thanksgiving? For me it reminds me of what happened with my mother when I began setting my intention—we became the best of friends and I was given the opportunity to be her caretaker, as she had done for me in my early years. I give thanks to the universe for bringing me the opportunity to be like Lingzhao and throw myself down beside her and say, “I saw you fall so I’m helping.” And thus it was with my father in his last years as well. And so I give thanks for my Buddhist teachings which have given me the strength and “willingness not to flee” when others could have and did.
Namaste mom and dad wherever you are…
So I take this opportunity now to give thanks for my teachers, mentors, and friends at the Southern Palm Zen Group, for my dear departed parents, for my friends and family, for the men that I sit with at our prison ministry, and for all of my clients who keep me employed doing what I love to do the very most—teaching.
In gassho, Shokai
 Caplow, F. and Moon, S. Editors (2013) The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. Wisdom Publications. Somerville: MA