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Buddhist Study

The Four Debts of Gratitude

Nichiren Daishonin teaches that throughout our many past existences, we have formed connections with, and thus owe gratitude to, all people. “And since this is so,” he states, “you should help all of them to attain Buddhahood.” Photo by ORBON ALIJA / GETTY IMAGES.

Gratitude means feeling thankful or returning the kindness or generosity received from others.

As we practice Nichiren Buddhism, we come to understand the principle that all life and phenomena in the universe are eternal and interconnected. Nichiren Daishonin teaches that throughout our many past existences, we have formed connections with, and thus owe gratitude to, all people. “And since this is so,” he states, “you should help all of them to attain Buddhahood” (“Four Virtues and Four Debts of Gratitude,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 637).

Amid the division and suffering in today’s world, we strive as Buddhists to lead people to happiness, bring them together and create a peaceful society. This is how we repay our debt of gratitude to all living beings.

SGI President Ikeda also explains: “Recognizing debts of gratitude expresses the Buddhist spirit of cultivating the richest possible humanity, while repaying that gratitude is the hallmark of a life of wisdom that comes from conquering fundamental ignorance. Hence, the lives of genuine Buddhist practitioners always shine with the inner light of appreciation and gratitude” (Learning From the Writings: The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 223).

Nichiren explains that there are “four debts of gratitude”: to our parents, teacher, country and the three treasures of Buddhism (see “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude,” WND-1, 690).

1) Gratitude for One’s Parents

The starting point of gratitude in Buddhism is having appreciation for our parents, who gave us life. Though some may find it difficult to feel gratitude for their parents, President Ikeda encourages us not to worry, saying that most important is our effort to steadily transform our state of life by striving in Buddhist practice and to treat those around us with compassion (see January 2019 Living Buddhism, p. 62).

2) Gratitude for One’s Teacher

Nichiren had the deepest gratitude for Dozen-bo, his first teacher of Buddhism. Dozen-bo, however, never completely embraced Nichiren’s teachings, nor did he stand up for Nichiren when he faced severe persecution. Despite these shortcomings, Nichiren always treasured his teacher, confident that when he attained enlightenment, Dozen-bo would as well.

Through Nichiren’s compassion for his teacher, we learn that, from the perspective of Buddhism, we can find appreciation for all people.

3) Gratitude for One’s Country and Society

Developing gratitude for one’s country or society does not mean unquestioningly supporting those in power. Rather, it means having deep compassion for one’s country and the people living in it, and striving courageously to bring about peace and happiness for all.

4) Gratitude for the Three Treasures of Buddhism

The three treasures are: the Buddha, the Law (the Buddhist teachings) and the Buddhist Order (community of believers). Without the Buddha who expounded the Law, the Mystic Law itself, and people who live based on the Law, we would have no way to access our Buddha nature or to awaken others to their Buddhahood.

We repay our debt of gratitude to the three treasures by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, which embodies the highest life state of Buddhahood, respecting and uniting with our fellow members and propagating Buddhism to awaken all people to their inherent power.

How Do We Deepen Our Appreciation?

One simple way to deepen our appreciation is to say “Thank you” to and treasure the person in front of us. President Ikeda says: “ ‘Thank you’ is a miraculous expression . . . When we speak or hear the words thank you, the armor falls from our hearts, and we communicate on the deepest level” (April 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 16).

A strong daily practice of doing gongyo and chanting abundantly also cultivates our sense of gratitude. When we elevate our state of life as a result, we can more compassionately embrace others, even those who give us a hard time.

When we get stuck in our lives, seeking ways to advance based on faith helps us break through. This can include studying Nichiren’s writings, reading President Ikeda’s guidance in the World Tribune and Living Buddhism, or seeking encouragement from seniors in faith. Attending an SGI activity can also provide us inspiration to move forward.

President Ikeda writes: “To repay one’s debts of gratitude is the highest virtue. Neglecting gratitude is a reflection of a life controlled by innate negativity.

As we each deepen our faith in the Mystic Law, break through our fundamental darkness[1] and live true to our greater self, we will come to feel boundless appreciation for all those around us and for all who have nurtured and helped us become who we are (Learning From the Writings: The Hope-filled Teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 222).

SGI President Ikeda’s Guidance

Second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda said: “True greatness means that, even if you forget what you’ve done for others, you never forget what others have done for you and always do your utmost to repay your debts of gratitude. Therein shines the light of Buddhism. Such people radiate integrity, depth of character, generosity, and charm.”

This, too, is the conclusion at which I have arrived after more than 60 years of Buddhist practice. I have seen many different people—people who have lived lives of gratitude, people who have been ingrates.

Those who have a sense of appreciation and gratitude are loved and trusted by everyone and lead lives of tremendous fulfillment and satisfaction. Based on Nichiren [Daishonin’s] teachings, it is clear that the inner radiance of those who embody true gratitude will imbue their lives with indestructible good fortune and benefit throughout the three existences. (Learning From Nichiren’s Writings: The Teachings for Victory, vol. 4, p. 28)


  1. Fundamental darkness or ignorance: The most deeply rooted illusion inherent in life, said to give rise to all other illusions. The inability to see or recognize the truth, particularly, the true nature of one’s life. ↩︎

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