Gratitude to Termites?

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Gratitude to Termites?
K. Ken Fujimoto

The other day at our Spring Ohigan service, Rev. Shibata referred to the Four Gratitudes, gratitude to parents, gratitude to the ruler of the nation, gratitude to sentient beings and gratitude to the Three Treasures, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The one that caught my attention the most was the gratitude we should feel towards sentient beings.

Buddhism often refers to all life and not just humans by talking about sentient beings. Most people will understand this as referring to all of those beings that sacrifice their lives for us to be able to live the lives that we have. Others will understand this to also include those that complete our lives as pets and friends. However, there are also things that we may consider as pests that are also important in our lives.

Some of you may have noticed, but I like to think of things that most people would not consider. While listening to Rev. Shibata, I started to think about termites. Most people would never think about termites as being something that we should feel gratitude towards. Most people would see termites as being pests that destroy their homes and other structures that make their lives comfortable. How can we be expected to feel gratitude towards termites?

When we think of termites in nature, we can see that they do play a valuable role in the balance of things. They help break down dead trees in forests and such so that new growth can have room to grow and prosper. In the process of breaking down the dead trees, they also return nutrients to the soil so that the new growth and other plants can have what is needed to prosper. Without termites, piles of dead trees will create a supply of highly flammable fuel for forest fires. The termites will create space for new trees that will provide food and shelter for animals, and they take part in process to create fertile soil so that other, useful plants can flourish.

This shows us that the balance of nature has a definite and productive role for termites and their abilities. Is it their fault that they cannot distinguish the difference between a dead tree in the forest and the dead trees in our homes? Do they really deserve the hatred and animosity of people for doing what they have evolved into to find a productive niche in the greater ecosystem? We are the ones that changed the environment in which they live and they are making a simple adaptation to those changes. How can we judge what they are doing as being “bad?”

To look beyond our ego-centric, human centric thinking and see the value of all life as part of the world in which we live, is what is we are being reminded that we need to do in order to truly appreciate this wonder we call life. To come to see our indebtedness to all life and to see how it is linked to our lives is to realize the gratitude that we are constantly being encouraged to express. This is also the life of the Nembutsu.