The general purpose of this meditation is generate a feeling of gratitude towards all living beings, wishing to repay their kindness. The perfection of this meditation is I want to generate a wish to repay their kindness to serve as fuel for the ultimate way in which I can repay their kindness, namely by becoming a Buddha which then leads them all to enlightenment. The ultimate perfection of this meditation is the perfection of this meditation combined with an understanding that ourselves, others and their kindness are all empty.
If we understand the emptiness of ourselves we realize that everything we are is in dependence upon others. An inherently existent person is an island unto themselves, completely independent of everything. But in reality, there is nothing about us that is not dependent upon everything. In this way, meditating on the kindness of others is itself a way of meditating on the emptiness of ourselves. Where does our body come from? From our parents and from the food we eat. Where does their DNA come from? From the actions and activities of countless beings over countless generations. Our food comes from the work of countless farmers, truck drivers, grocery store workers, etc. Who built the trucks? Who built the roads? How was all of this paid for? Without all of these beings (our parents, our ancestors, those in the food industry, taxpayers for roads, etc.) we literally would not be who we are today. But surely our thoughts are our own? No, everything we think ultimately comes from others as well. There is not a single thought we have which we can say comes exclusively from us. How to read, the language we speak, the ideas we have all come from others – we did not invent them ourselves. Even if we have had some original ideas ourselves, these have come from understanding the connections between the ideas that other people have given us. Without their ideas, we would have nothing to connect. The mental habits we have in this life largely carry over from the mental habits we cultivated in previous lives. These habits arose from an enculturation of countless others we have intereacted with in the past. More profoundly, mind and its object arise in mutual dependence upon one another. All minds have, directly or indirectly, others as part of the object of mind. Put another way, without others serving as objects of our mind, we would simply not have any minds at all! So there is not a single aspect of our body nor a single aspect of our mind that is not entirely dependent upon others. We simply wouldn’t be without them. So everything we have, everything we are is due to the kindness of others, and realizing this helps us realize the emptiness of ourselves.
Realizing others are kind is itself a meditation on emptiness, and meditating on the emptiness of others helps us realize their kindness. It has been discussed before how others are empty, in other words mental constructions. Nobody is “kind” from their own side, they become kind in dependence upon how we mentally construct them. By focusing on certain aspects of them and mentally viewing them in particular ways, they become “kind” in our eyes. For example, our mother cared for us throughout our childhoood. This is an act. We could say “that’s normal for her to do” and then we would not feel her to be kind, but would rather take it for granted. We could say, “yes, but she also treated me badly” and then we would completely ignore all that she has done for us. Or we could say, “she didn’t have to do any of these things and if she hadn’t I would surely be dead or completely screwed up right now” and then suddenly her acts become acts of kindness. One final word on mothers, while it is true we may have had a troubled relationship with our mother, the fact remains that she did not abort us. She could have, but she didn’t. This means we owe our entire life we have to her. Without that one act of kindness, we would not have had any of the other opportunities we have had in our life, including the opportunity to travel the path. This one act of kindness so completely trumps any mistakes she might have made to make our focusing on her mistakes nothing but being petty. We need to let go of our petty resentments and see the bigger picture.
Just as we say that “friend, enemy and stranger” are mere mental projections and just as we say “each being is my mother” is a mental projection, so too is viewing each being as kind. For me, the most powerful way of realizing their kindness is to realize how the simple existence of beings – regardless of what they do – is an act of supreme kindness because they serve as objects of my practice. If all beings are equally empty, then all beings are equally useful in terms of serving as an object of our practice of training the mind. Some give us opportunities to practice patience, some give us opportunities to practice love, but all equally give us an opportunity to practice something. If all we wish to do is train our mind, and all beings provide us equal empty opportunities to do so, what basis do we have to develop bias or aversion towards anyone? All beings are equally kind in that regardless of what they do, they are an equal opportunity for me to train my mind, and without these opportunities that they provide me, I wouldn’t be able to attain enlightenment. It is impossible to engage in virtue without others, and there is no happiness without virtue, so we can correctly say all happiness arises in dependence upon the simple existence of others. How kind they are, regardless of what they are doing to me!