We owe our physical existence to our parents. Parents' love for their children is perhaps the strongest human feeling there is. Parents will sacrifice their very lives for their children, and we know that even various animal species will defend their offspring with similar disregard for their own welfare. After our parents have raised us through our earliest years, our teachers and elders continue to transmit their wisdom to us. We are not self-contained or self-created. What we are now is the result of many people's painstaking efforts in nurturing and instructing us. An African proverb states it succinctly: "It takes a whole village to raise a child." Considering what our parents, elders, and teachers have done for us, what is the attitude we should take towards them, and by extension, towards all living beings?
One of the contemplations that moved me the most when I first started studying Buddhism was that of regarding all sentient beings as our kind mothers. This contemplation was also used as a theme for meditation at guided meditation sessions at the monastery where I was staying. This contemplation is one of the strongest strands in Tibetan Buddhism, one that has been reinforced through the centuries, to the effect that even the most unlearned ruffian will be familiar with the idea of regarding all beings as one's mothers. For me this meditation was very moving and effective. Unfortunately, not all people have a harmonious relationship with their parents, so this kind of contemplation may be difficult for some. "What if you can't get along with your mother?" asked one participant. The expedient answer was: "Think of a good friend instead." The key point is to acknowledge the kindness we owe to others, so you can contemplate whoever has shown the most kindness towards you, whether it be parent, friend, or a teacher.
A mother's love is extolled in many Buddhist Sutras. In Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Sutra on Loving Kindness, the cultivator is encouraged to regard all beings with such love as a mother feels for her only child. Another short Sutra, the Sutra of the Deep Kindness of Parents and the Difficulty of Repaying It, describes the sacrifices parents make for their children so movingly that on hearing the Sutra the Buddha's disciples were moved to deep grief and remorse, thinking of the kindness they never appreciated before. In Buddhism we are exhorted to repay the "four kinds of kindness"--that of the Buddhas, our parents, elders, and teachers. All these are beings who we have ample reason to feel grateful towards.
Our parents give us our physical bodies and nurse us through our early years. Yet, all too often, we take their care for granted, and seem to keep better count of the comforts they were unable to provide for us than of the care they lavished on us for so many years. We humans have a very long childhood: it takes almost 20 years to raise a child to adulthood, and even then many children are still dependent on their parents, both economically and emotionally. Repaying our parents is not an easy task. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, "A parent can raise 10 children, but 10 children often are not able to support a single parent." Taking care of an elderly and ailing parent may take so much time and effort and require so many sacrifices that many grown-up children are not able or willing to make the necessary changes in their own life. But by distancing themselves from their parents, by relying on institutional care, the children actually cut themselves off from one of the basic human experiences, the cycle of generations, and the cycle of intimate, mutual care that we owe to each other.
When we are old enough to start school, our teachers start to pass their knowledge on to us. We may have an idea that we should be filial toward our parents, but how often do we feel genuinely grateful towards our teachers? By gratitude I do not mean obsequiousness or external show of deference, but a quiet, inner appreciation. I myself appreciation. I myself have to admit that I didn't think much about my own teachers--until I started teaching in school myself! Only then did I start to appreciate the kindness and patience of my elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Apart from the academic subjects that they hammered into our heads, I have realized that it was their personalities which have left the deepest, most long-lasting impression. This is not to say that my teachers were saints or sages, far from it. Like everybody else, they had their own idiosyncrasies, their good and bad points. But year in and year out they stuck to their vocation, dealing with 30 or so unruly youngsters at various stages of development, passing on their knowledge and experience. The fact that theirs is a vocation that is poorly paid and seldom appreciated makes this stick-to-it-iveness even more admirable.
Apart from our parents and elders, we owe a general debt of gratitude to all our elders, to all past generations. Constantly through our lives we use the fruits of others' labor. All the commodities we need were produced by someone else. All the knowledge we gain was compiled by someone else. All the material wealth in this world comes from the work of previous generations. Few of our achievements are totally original, totally unprecedented. This thought should help us stay on guard against arrogance. Young people need to find their own way, to learn to make their own judgments, and examine things critically. Yet they also need to know and understand the great religious and philosophical traditions of the world so that they can distill the essence of all these teachings of wisdom. Ignorance of the past and lack of respect for the struggles our elders have gone through and the wisdom it has brought them dooms us into an extremely short-sighted and self-centered existence. It is said that every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one. If we can appreciate the wisdom of our elders, the wisdom of the past, we can stand taller and look farther than any generation before us. If we spitefully ignore this collective wisdom of humankind, we are not likely to understand very much of the world, or even ourselves.
Gratitude towards our parents, teachers, and elders is a basic teaching that most religious traditions emphasize. This gratitude and respect has been expressed in different ways in different traditions, but the essence is the same. Buddhism and Confucianism call it filiality. The Judaeo-Christian tradition calls it "honoring your mother and father," as it is phrased in the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, a text that is held sacred by the Jews and Christians, and, to a lesser extent, by the Muslims as well. To take an example from another part of the world, many visitors to Africa comment favorably on the respect shown towards elders in African tribal societies.
To these three kinds of kindnesses--those of parents, teachers, and elders--a Buddhist disciple would naturally add the kindness shown to us by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Followers of other religions might want to think of the kindness of the founder of their own religion. How can we possibly repay this kindness? Speaking at an interfaith gathering, Master Hua once suggested that all of us should do the very best we can to be exemplary disciples of the founder of our own religion. We should keep in mind the sacrifices these founders made, emulate their virtues, and pass on their teachings.
A profound feeling of gratitude lies at the very heart of all religious practice. If we can keep this feeling alive and expand it towards all beings, our practice is certainly not in vain. In the human sphere, we all have the kindness of our parents, teachers, and elders to be grateful for. In the transcendental sphere, there is the kindness showered on us by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These two are not contradictory, they do not obstruct each other or compete with each other. The mundane and transcendental kindness harmonize and reinforce each other. Awareness of the kindness of the Buddhas will inevitably lead to the awareness of the kindness of living beings as well. As it's said: "I repay the Buddhas' kindness to living beings. I repay the kindness of living beings to the Buddhas." Ultimately, there is no difference between the two.