“Next, the four debts of gratitude of Buddhism are (1) the debt of gratitude to be paid to one’s father and mother; (2) the debt of gratitude to be paid to the ruler of the nation; (3) the debt of gratitude to be paid to all living beings; and (4) the debt of gratitude to be paid to the three treasures [the Buddha, the Law, and the Order].”
Nichiren Daishonin discusses the four debts of gratitude as elucidated from the perspective of Buddhism. Gratitude entails knowing to whom we are indebted for our present life and circumstances and, by dedicating ourselves to our Buddhist practice, repaying that debt of gratitude. In another sense, repaying our debts of gratitude means elevating our state of life from one of being supported by others to supporting others and drawing the power to do so from the innermost depths of our being. In Sanskrit, there is the expression kritajna, which literally means “acknowledging (jna) what has been done on one’s behalf (krita).” After one acknowledges and appreciates what has been done for one, the next step is to live a life dedicated to the welfare of others. This is the origin of the phrase repaying debts of gratitude that appears in the Chinese sutras. Knowing and having appreciation for the fact that who we are now is the result of the actions and support of many others can powerfully affirm our sense of self and establish a solid foundation for our lives, which creates the basis for ongoing personal growth
Repaying our debts of gratitude is the challenge of human revolution, the process by which we can develop our potential to the greatest possible extent. In this letter, Nichiren discusses the four debts of gratitude owed by all. The first is the debt of gratitude to one’s father and mother. How infinitely profound is the debt we owe to our parents who gave us life and nurtured us! The Daishonin says that our debt to our father is higher than Mount Sumeru, and our debt to our mother is deeper than the ocean . We must find some way of repaying this enormous debt. The first thing we need to do, he tells us, is to take faith in Buddhism. The greatest wish of parents is the growth and happiness of their children, so entering the path to happiness by having faith in and practicing Buddhism is the kindest thing we can do for our parents and the best way to repay our debt of gratitude to them. Second is the debt of gratitude to the nation’s ruler. This is the gratitude owed to the sovereign for supporting one’s livelihood, thereby providing one with food, shelter and clothing . In today’s democratic world, where sovereignty rests with the people, it is gratitude to society itself. Similarly, therefore, Nichiren’s remarks about praying for the ruler to “enjoy peace and security in the present existence and good circumstances in future existences”could today be interpreted as praying for the happiness of every member of society. The third is the debt of gratitude to all living beings. Life is eternal, extending through the three existences of past, present and future; the sutras teach that we have been born in this world after having undergone the cycle of birth and death infinite times. From that point of view, at one time or another in the past, all men have been our father and all women have been our mother. Buddhism sees us all as related and owing debts of gratitude to one another. Nichiren indicates here that this is why we should wish for the happiness of all people. Since supreme happiness lies in attaining the life state of Buddhahood, the best way to repay our debt of gratitude to others is to teach them Buddhism, the ultimate means for gaining enlightenment.