In saying that kind and grateful people are rare, the Buddha isn’t simply stating a harsh truth about the human race. He’s advising you to treasure these people when you find them, and—more importantly—showing how you can become a rare person yourself.
Kindness and gratitude are virtues you can cultivate, but they have to be cultivated together. Each needs the other to be genuine—a point that becomes obvious when you think about the three things most likely to make gratitude heartfelt:
1) You’ve actually benefited from another person’s actions.
2) You trust the motives behind those actions.
3) You sense that the other person had to go out of his or her way to provide that benefit.
Points one and two are lessons that gratitude teaches kindness: If you want to be genuinely kind, you have to be of actual benefit—nobody wants to be the recipient of “help” that isn’t really helpful—and you have to provide that benefit in a way that shows respect and empathy for the other person’s needs. No one likes to receive a gift given with calculating motives or in an offhand or disdainful way.
Points two and three are lessons that kindness teaches to gratitude. Only if you’ve been kind to another person will you accept the idea that others can be kind to you.
At the same time, if you’ve been kind to another person, you know the effort involved. Kind impulses often have to do battle with unkind impulses in the heart, so it’s not always easy to be helpful. Sometimes it involves great sacrifice—a sacrifice possible only when you trust the recipient to make good use of your help.
So when you’re on the receiving end of a sacrifice like that, you realize you’ve incurred a debt, an obligation to repay the other person’s trust.
This is why the Buddha always discusses gratitude as a response to kindness and doesn’t equate it with appreciation in general. It’s a special kind of appreciation, inspiring a more demanding response.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Essays book, Head & Heart Together: Essays on the Buddhist Path, “The Lessons of Gratitude.”