I’ve struggled for a long time with metta practice, often called Loving Kindness meditation. Generally, this practice is carried out by sitting in guided meditation, then on your own later. During meditation, you picture in your mind a person you hold dear, and are mindful of how that feels. Holding that feeling of endearment, you picture other people you know, then someone who is challenging to you, and lastly, you expand that feeling of “loving kindness” to your city, then the world, etc. There are variations on this practice, but that is the gist of it.
I realized my issues with this practice are three-fold. First, I struggle with wording loving kindness, and worse, the word love. I know how I feel about people and pets I love, and I’m just not going to feel that for strangers. Secondly, it feels fake and superficial to me. While the feelings for certain people are genuine, imagining that same emotion in regard to others feels contrived. Lastly, wishing others happiness seems like useless prayer. I understand the intent is to help us condition the mind positively towards others, but it just doesn’t work for me. At least, not on this surface treatment.
My grandmother used to tell me Jesus taught that people should love their enemies, but I found that impossible as a child, and it seems more absurd to me as an adult. If I feel they are my enemies, my feelings for them are likely to be negative. On the other hand, Buddha said (I’m paraphrasing here, as I forget the source), You have no enemies. Hatred is a defilement of the mind, a defilement you can overcome.
Buddha seemed to understand the problem more realistically.
When I’m uncomfortable with a practice or information I’ve been taught, I turn to the Pali Canon English translations. By going directly to the sutta where these practices had supposedly originated, I get better insights than trying to wade through current dialogue, opinions, and information.
So, I did some digging and found out metta practice is not as simple as sitting and wishing loving kindness for others. No, there is a lot more here than a meditation on warm fuzzies! I discovered that metta in Pali doesn’t mean love. The Pali word for love is pema. Metta actually means kindness, or goodwill. This makes a lot more sense, as it is possible to extend goodwill to people you don’t know, and even people you don’t care for, whereas love with its attachments and feelings of affection is something different. Love also has come to mean a variety of things to people. Goodwill or kindness seem to carry original meaning without much confusion.
But the Metta Sutta has a lot more to say on goodwill. As with other teachings, there is much more to be understood about conditioned existence first before we can nurture an attitude of goodwill.
I’m going to go through parts of the sutta with you. There are a few lines that I’ve crossed through, just because I prefer a more secular take. But if you are comfortable with the original translation, by all means, use it as is. By the way, on the Access to Insight site, there are four different translations given for this Karaniya Metta Sutta. This one just happens to be the one I like the best. My comments are in [ ] and in blue.
This is what should be done By one who is skilled in goodness, And who knows the path of peace: Let them be able and upright, Straightforward and gentle in speech, Humble and not conceited, Contented and easily satisfied,
[Right away we see that we have to be on the path. The above are conditions and traits we need to develop first!]
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. [Yes, it is difficult to be full of goodwill if you are feeling overworked, or stressed.] Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, Not proud or demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing That the wise would later reprove. [Our regular meditation practice helps with the above.] Wishing: In gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, The great or the mighty, medium, short or small, The seen and the unseen, Those living near and far away, Those born and to-be-born May all beings be at ease!
[Once we have the right conditions in our minds and how we behave, then we develop an attitude to want all beings to be at ease.]
Let none deceive another, Or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will Wish harm upon another. [The above can prevent goodwill in a big way. This must be resolved!] Even as a mother protects with her life Her child, her only child, So with a boundless heart Should one cherish all living beings; [Thanissaro argues that the above is a mistranslation, that it's our goodwill that is to be protected.] Radiating kindness over the entire world: Spreading upwards to the skies, And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, Freed from hatred and ill-will. Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down Free from drowsiness, One should sustain this recollection. This is said to be the sublime abiding. By not holding to fixed views, The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,[one is free to reside in goodwill for all!]
Being freed from all sense desires, Is not born again into this world.
I crossed out the last part because I’m skeptical about the content. Goodwill and kindness arise when we are able to let go of hatred and ill-will, conceit, etc. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try working on developing goodwill before that. We should. Setting the intention to develop goodwill can help in the other areas we are working on the path.
It helped me a great deal to see what the underlying teaching was for this loving-kindness practice I kept coming across. The translation of metta to goodwill and kindness makes sense to me, and this sutta helps me see where my sticking points are, what other states of mind I need to let go of, in order to allow goodwill to arise in place of these other defilements. Also, while this sutta does have the word wishing, I can view it as a state of mind rather a wish, an attitude to develop towards others.
I understand why others have simplified this sutta into a meditation many can do, but for myself I often need to come back to the foundation to see what else may be involved, especially when I feel stuck or resistant. If doing the prescribed loving-kindness meditation works for you, then by all means, keep doing it! If you are interested in following a Loving Kindness guided meditation, I’ve listed one below.
But for those who have felt uncomfortable with it, or like more details, I hope seeing this sutta is helpful to you. It reminds me of the areas I need to work on, that there is more to this practice than just wishing others goodwill, and I can see how it fits into other areas of practice.
- Karaniya Metta Sutta — At the top of the page, you’ll find links to other translations by clicking the translator’s names
- Metta Means Goodwill — Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote a nice essay on what metta means, and he comments on some of the content of the sutta. In particular, I found it interesting what he says about how people misinterpret the part about developing an attitude that you want to protect it in the same way that a mother would protect her only child.
- Mettam Sutta: The Brahma-viharas
- Loving Kindness Guided Meditation