Metta–Goodwill to All

| February 26, 2013 | 20 Comments

Kindness (Metta) 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.

More Information

  • 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

Category: Articles

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (20)

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  1. Candol says:

    I have difficulties with the loving kindness meditation but not the same ones you do. Its quite effortful. That my difficulty with it.

    I have long considered loving kindness as goodwill and often say it in the same breath. It probably should have been translated that way. Bhante gunaratana refers to it as loving friendliness which is very ungainly but is not all bad either.

    I have never thought of this practice as being about thinking it could have a magical effect but always thought of it as being about cultivating a feeling in it for all others.

    Unfortunately a lot of traditional buddhists do seem to think it has magical properties just like prayer. It always astounds me how they can be on a mission to know reality as it is and yet hold all these other totally unrealistic views about the way the world works.

    The sutta you quote is very nice. I think its meant to as an ideal to live up to. Not as a mere description of one who has already advanced far.

    I think in traditional circles some people get given this practice to work on (eg John peacock) because they need to develop goodwill and kindness towards themselves.

    Whenever i do this practice in a group setting, people really seem to respond to it. I also responded well to it the first time i came upon.

    I have read Ajahn Brahm talk about it and how he uses a kitten. I don’t think that is a good example. I think that’s more compassion and explains why he seems to think of everyone else as like his little children when he talks about people. But he told of one woman who didn’t like cats and couldn’t do this for anyone. Finally she discovered that she could do it for plants. Again i think its more compassion than goodwill.

  2. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for that, Dana. Yeah, I also have trouble with the translation of “metta” as “loving kindness”; it’s too saccharine, and love isn’t really the point of it. John Peacock prefers “boundless friendliness”, which has a better feel to it but is still a mouthful. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t just stick with the word “metta”, understanding it as kindness, friendliness, and so on.

    I was initially skeptical about metta practice as well, but now include it as a part of each sitting meditation I do, and have found it very useful. It’s also a clear antidote to anger and hatred: when they arise during meditation, I’ve found that doing metta practice can substitute skillful for unskillful: the anger tends to diminish or go away entirely. (Of course, it isn’t quite so easy off the cushion!)

    One other thing a dharma buddy of mine said to me the other day: apparently there is some evidence that using negative terminology in metta tends to direct the mind towards the negative: e.g., using words like: “Let none deceive another,/Or despise any being in any state./Let none through anger or ill-will/Wish harm upon another” tends to cloud the mind with concepts of deception, anger, harm. So he suggests that current best practice should be to substitute positive words for negative, such as something like: “Let all be truthful and kind to one another. Let all wish for each others’ benefit.” (Though my practice tends to be a lot simpler than that).

    If he’s right about the research, and to me it at least seems plausible, it would be more effective with the positive spin rather than with a denial of the negatives.

    But yeah, it should be seen as essentially a practice in cognitive therapy. And I think it should be a part of everyone’s practice, since without metta, we just are too prone to ill will. My suspicion is that many people who are least drawn to metta are those who might benefit from it the most.

  3. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said, Dana, especially the juicy skeptical bits. But, that being said, this practice of friendliness (my preferred term for it) was extremely transformative for me during a crisis point of life.

    Something that helped my own willingness to do the practice was shifting my attitude about it from how it often appears in the traditional context, which seemed very much like prayer. And, as we’ve seen in controlled studies, prayer is ineffective in creating change.

    The shift was from one of casting my thoughts out into the universe in a (debunked) Maharishi Effect like wish, to the understanding that I was simply practicing friendliness. It was replacing the emotional pain — my suffering of that time — with a lightness of friendly thoughts. Note that this was not denying the circumstances or my own visceral response to them, it was disengaging from continuing to let them control my entire life, and instead actively seeking out the equanimity that had fled the scene.

  4. Rod says:

    I try to keep all this stuff as simple as possible and always seem to come back to, this is how our biology works. I see metta as imagery thru words and images to construct positive mind states that then facilitate our interaction with the world both internally and externally. Pretending to smile is a good start to being a smile.

  5. Ben says:

    Thanks for this post, Dana. I had never practiced metta meditation, in part because of the associations with prayer / magic thinking that it had for me. But, thanks to Mark and the SBA Practice Circle, I’ve found that it’s really a wonderful practice, in precisely the cognitive-therapy sense that others have described. And it works surprisingly well for me, given my initial skepticism.

    As for the translation of the word: “loving-kindness” is a standard, English translation of the Hebrew term chesed, going back to the 16th century (according to the OED). I’m a bit embarrassed that my Hebrew school education is insufficient to judge whether or not it’s a particularly good translation of chesed, or to describe what the differences might be between chesed (in the Hebrew Bible) and metta (in the Pali canon). But “loving-kindness” has always sounded quite explicitly Biblical to me, and thus un-Buddhist (though it’s clearly become a big part of the English-language Western Buddhist vocabulary). I’m generally comfortable with the notion that some terms are better left untranslated when all available translations seem not to do the trick (Stephen Batchelor has made this argument about dukkha). My one problem with leaving metta untranslated is that, in English, it sounds just like “meta” (for better or for worse, a word on the rise), which creates an unfortunate homonym (this has, in fact, already caused a conversational misunderstanding between myself and a teacher of mine).

    Finally, I wanted to note a concern that Stephen Batchelor has voiced on occasion about metta practice: that metta really needs to happen off the cushion, between beings, and that metta practice, in working only within oneself, really doesn’t do this. I think this is a valid concern, but, in my admittedly very limited experience, I really think that metta practice can have a positive impact on one’s orientation to others…though ultimately, Batchelor is right: if our behavior towards others doesn’t reflect metta, our metta practice is not doing the trick.

    • Candol says:

      The reason why a lot of terms in the english translations from the pali canon sound either biblical or allude to our western religious traditions is because when the canon was first translated it was some years ago and people just did the best they could at the time and the tended to translate according to their worldview at the time. I think the first translaters were christians and maybe even missionaries. John Peacock is pretty good to listen to about the language of buddhism. See his talks on audiodhamma or is it audiodharma i can never remember.

      For some reason i don’t like the word metta. I think it maybe because in my early scouting around on buddhist forums a lot of people used to sign their posts metta which to me seemed like an affectation. Theravada buddhists seem to adopt lots of these rather cringeworthy ways.

      Yes i listened to STephen Batchelor on that topic the other day and was quite surprised. The thing with metta or goodwill, the more you think about it, the more likely you are going to be able to practice it with those around you. Hence why it probably should be a daily practice. I’d say if our metta practice is not reflected in our behaviour towards others, we are not doing very much of it. But if we are then definitely something is very wrong.

      I’m always surprised how many people seem to get bogged down in metta practice and prayer. I never got stuck in that groove although the first i heard of it was Bhante Gunaratana in his book Mindfulness in Plain English.

  6. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Ah, my favorite topic! Thanks, Dana!

    I went on an on about this in my own post on Metta a couple months ago but I’ll restate that my attitude changed when I started reading Dan Siegel’s stuff on what he calls the “resonance circuit”. The higher cortexes in our brains evolved specifically in a social context; much of what they do involves processing language and social cues to determine the intentions and mental states of others. What the visualizations and intention statements in formal metta practice do is permit us to engage those neural networks that produce our experience of kindness and compassion, which strengthens them (neurons that fire together, etc) and makes them more available to us in our everyday life. AND it enables us to use those same neural networks to attune to ourselves. So if some neuroscience would take the curse off for you, you might give “Mindsight” a read.

    The other point is that what’s important in metta practice is not following some rules or instructions but doing what helps you engage with those feelings of kindness. If you don’t like the traditional phrases, use others, or use images or sensations or whatever works. The point is not just to send out nice wishes, but to open your heart, so whatever does that for you is the right metta practice for you.

  7. mufi says:

    Dana: Regarding that phrase (beginning with “Even as a mother protects with her life…”), which you say Thanissaro called a mistranslation, it would seem to be a rather big mistranslation, given the stretch between the plain meaning of that translation and “it’s our goodwill that is to be protected.”

    FWIW, here are the other translations given on the Access site:

    Ñanamoli Thera:

    And just as might a mother with her life Protect the son that was her only child, So let him then for every living thing Maintain unbounded consciousness in being;

    Acharya Buddharakkhita:

    Just as with her own life A mother shields from hurt Her own son, her only child, Let all-embracing thoughts For all beings be yours.

    Piyadassi Thera:

    Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

    As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings.

    Of these, I’d say that Ñanamoli Thera’s translation is the least like the others, whereas Thanissaro’s doesn’t really stand out as so different at all.

    For full disclosure: I partly take an interest in this detail because I quoted this same phrase (viz. the Amaravati Sangha translation) in the “Metta and the Ethics of Killing” discussion (see here). Also, note that I was somewhat critical of the idea that it expresses.

  8. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Yes, thank you all for the feedback. I do find the practice more doable now that I understand the background and the translation of metta. I naturally have a good dose of goodwill towards others, but there are a few I struggle with now because of resentment. Mark, yes, I recall you saying something about neural circuits. Link please!

    I should have mentioned at the end of the article and I think I didn’t make it clear, rewording loving kindness to goodwill makes a big difference in my attitude towards that practice, and understanding its an attitude we are developing and not something akin to praying also helps me. So, I just need to rejigger the wording a bit for myself. And I’m working on some deep resentments I’m feeling towards someone:-)

    I found the sutta helpful to gain a deeper understanding of the practice. I am one of those people who needs to understand the whys of everything.

  9. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Re: your crossouts –

    Note the translation doesn’t say that sense desires are extinguished, but that we are freed from them. We see them as they are and are not enslaved by our reactivity to them. It’s not dukkha that is ended, but craving.

    Also, if we apply Linda Blanchard’s theory of what Gotama was talking about in dependent arising, what’s not born again is the concatenation of drives,views and thoughts that we cling to as “I,me,mine.” When we cultivate metta, we lose our internal sense of separateness from others and come to see that our mental and emotional states are a shared experience. In this way, metta leads us to the insight of anatta — and it feels good, too!

    So I would get out my blue pencil and write STET over your deletions.

  10. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Excellent food for thought, Mark!

  11. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    Although the Metta Sutta lays out the general principles, the actual metta practice that Sharon Salzberg has popularized comes from the Visudhimagga of the Theravadin monk Buddhaghosa. See the beginning of chapter 9 (around page 293) in

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/PathofPurification2011.pdf

    One of the things that is wise is that it does not ask us to love our enemy (or deny how we feel about them) but to make a shift in our feelings toward this person to whom we feel hostility to shift them into the NEUTRAL category. We don’t love our enemies. We just try to neutralize our hatred. That seems reasonable and reachable.

  12. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Thank you, Rick, I will check out that doc!!!! Dana

  13. Metta practice works much better now for me since I started using the term ‘unconditional friendliness’ for metta.

    http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/loving-kindness-meditation/

  14. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Unconditional friendliness is a great way to word it, Ramsey!

  15. Gregory Clement says:

    Thanks very much Dana for your thoughts on Metta. I found them very useful. Your difficulties with the traditional practice exactly mirror my own. Looking again at the Karaniya Metta Sutta is very helpful.

    I’m due to give a talk to my local meditation group on this subject next week. Hope you don’t mind if I pirate some of your ideas.

  16. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Thank you, Gregory, and by all means, use anything from the article that you want!

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