What do you see when you look at a stranger?

What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!

In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*

“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain

It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.

One-day experiment

Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…

*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.

Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

13 thoughts on “What do you see when you look at a stranger?”

  1. Whenever I’m in a really crowded situation I sometimes start to feel anxious. Then I think look at all the Buddhas appearing for my benefit and I usually experience great bliss. Then I relax and thoroughly enjoy the situation no matter what is happening.

  2. When we look at a fridge we can fairly assume it contains food, as that is what a fridge is designed to hold within. Why then, when looking at a person, do we only see “the fridge door” and not what we know a person to hold within?

  3. Hi Luna. I have performed your thought experiment in the last two weeks, trying to regard the manifold people as beings with a formless and unperceivable mental continuum that has the potential to attain a high spiritual state, and I report that I have found the experience very powerful.

    What happens is there is an immediate shift from ‘she’s gorgeous, he’s ugly, that kid’s screaming and doing me head in’ to ‘she’s a spiritual saviour, he’s an unfortunate but potential warrior, the child’s a potential meditator’ in a rapid flash. This is very useful! I find the ‘recognizing all beings as our mother’ meditation difficult to attain at all, and I am sure that this is what it is trying to achieve at the end – a kind of formless, spiritual equanimity instead of the horrid and muted projections that we have to reel back in one after the other.

    It takes a few journeys by bus and tram for it to really happen, but through a bit of mindfulness I am habituating to it slowly. I can feel my anger and attachment minds subsiding as I apply the technique in the public space. All the physical features become surface manifestations of this formless mind – and that I can SO identify with. There are no inherently or ugly people, only formless minds on an inexorable path to enlightenment. Wow!!

    Is this a form of pure view? It feels like it.

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for doing this. I think it is pure view, yes. Your experience seems to be showing how much more realistic pure view is than our ordinary, mistaken perceptions, and how much better it makes us feel (and behave.) I hope you’ll report back some more as time goes on, say in a month’s time…

  4. Great article. Many new people are appearing at KMC California (e.g., 75 people at last night’s General Program class). We’ve all got the shared karma to arrive at the same tiny meditation room in a not so easily accessed location in Los Angeles, yet we look so different. My limited mind thought, “I would never have guessed that this group had Buddhism as a common interest.”

  5. I’m guilty of the ‘judging people by their appearance’ thing, and their vibe – how they make me feel. Thing is, how are THEY feeling? One to watch out for, isn’t it.

  6. A suffering sentient being! As we all are in samsara.

    Thank you so much for this weekly blog, it is so helpful and the weekly teaching we all need (well I do anyway)

  7. This is great advice.

    I live in a big city (Moscow) and see so many people on the subway etc. It’s hard to connect with them on a deeper level.

    One thing I did once which helped was to look at each person and think ‘I’ve been in exactly that situation. That has been me.’ It definitely made me feel closer and more connected.

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