Lovingkindness Now and in the Past

| January 26, 2016 | 12 Comments
Image courtesy of sixninepixels at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of sixninepixels at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In contrast to the dominant role that mettā (lovingkindness) and the other Brahmavihāras (compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) play in contemporary Buddhist practice, they seem to have played a relatively minor role in the earliest tradition. One looks in vain for much elaboration on mettā’s dhammic role; largely it seems to have been seen as a skillful means to counteract hatred or ill will. (E.g., MN 114.7, DN, SN 46.51.iii). Secondarily it seems to have been seen as a means of physical and mental benefit (AN 11.16, Iti. 1.27) and protection (AN 4.67, SN 20.5).

In practice it seems to have been used originally as a kind of ad hoc skillful method to help dispel hindrances and focus the mind, and to protect oneself from snakes, bad dreams, and other troublesome or dangerous pests. It does not however seem to have been a central part of practice. For example, none of the Brahmavihāras are explicitly listed as parts of the Eightfold Path. And while practices of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity can be seen as integral to Right Effort, the effort to cultivate the skillful and de-nourish the unskillful, nevertheless they do not explicitly constitute that aspect of the path as, say, jhāna practice explicitly constitutes Right Concentration.

Brahmavihāras in the Early Tradition

The particular formulas for Brahmavihāra practice changed as well quite significantly over the centuries since the earliest material was compiled. The Nikāyas actually contain a very compressed set of practices, most particularly that of boundless radiation:

He abides pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness (compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity), likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth; so above, below, around, and everywhere, and to all [as to himself], he abides pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness (compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity), abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will. (MN 7.13-16).

I have put the phrase “as to himself” in square brackets; this is a phrase we will return to below.

The famous Mettā Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta (Sn. 143-152) outlines a framework of achievements and efforts that surround any practice of mettā, suggesting that it cultivates the path factors of Right View, Speech, Action, and Livelihood. As to one skilled in that practice:

He should be capable, straight, and very upright, easy to speak to, gentle and not proud, contented and easy to support, having few duties and of a frugal way of life … And he should not do any mean thing, on account of which other wise men would criticize him. (Sn. 143-145; Norman, p. 19).

As to formal meditation however, the Mettā Sutta contains only one additional set of practices to that of unbounded radiation in all directions. It is given in the barest sketch:

Let all creatures indeed be happy [and] secure; let them be happy-minded. Whatever living creatures there are, moving or still without exception, whichever are long or large, or middle-sized or short, small or great, whichever are seen or unseen, whichever live far or near, whether they already exist or are going to be, let all creatures be happy-minded. (Sn. 145-147).

Here instead of carving up the world directionally, and radiating good will in various and all directions, one is instead to carve up the world in terms of various gross aspects of the creatures within it, by size, by visibility, by distance, by time.

Buddhist scholar Andy Olendzki has noted* that in none of these earliest practices does one find any reference towards a practice of directing mettā towards oneself. It is true that in Ñāṇamoli’s (2009) translation above we find the phrase “to all as to himself”, thus apparently including oneself in the practice of boundless mettā radiation, however the Pāli word at issue is something of a problem. This is the word “sabbattatāya”, presumably a compound of “sabba + atta”; but this should mean something like “all selves” or “all beings”, e.g., “and to all” in the above quotation. There is no additional phrase “as to himself” in the passage, and it may stem from the 5th c. CE commentator Buddhaghosa. (Vsm. IX.47).

Olendzki, Anālayo (2015a: 21n46; 2015b), and Rune Johansson (1981: 90) put forward the possibility that the word may actually be “sabbatthatāya” or “in every way”. Anālayo notes that several editions of the texts do indeed preserve this form. (2015b: 17). Further, Anālayo notes that “none of the relevant Chinese or Tibetan texts have a reference to oneself. Instead, wherever equivalents can be found, these all correspond to the basic notion “everywhere”.” (2015b: 19). Maurice Walshe translates like passages (DN 13.76-78, as “everywhere, always”, not “to all as to himself”.

To direct mettā everywhere, or to all beings, is of course by implication to direct it to oneself. As we have seen, the Buddha does say to direct it towards other kinds of beings in the Mettā Sutta, and in a sutta protecting one from snakes. (AN 4.67). Hence one might argue one was directing the attitude towards oneself as well. The knock on this kind of analysis is that the Buddha did not believe that there was a self accessible to meditative insight, so telling one in formal meditation to direct an attitude of mettā towards such a self is odd; this I believe is why Olendzki and Anālayo do not believe the Buddha intended us to practice in that way.

But then mettā is not intended in the early tradition as an insight practice.

If indeed Richard Gombrich (1996, 2009) is right that at least at times in his early teaching the Buddha intended the Brahmavihāras as direct routes to nibbāna, then he left the practices for such a direct path severely underdeveloped, as he did not for example with the “direct path” outlined for mindfulness practice. (Anālayo 2003). A Brahmavihāra-based path also appears philosophically underdeveloped. There are several places in the Canon where such practice is claimed not to be sufficient for liberation (e.g., MN 7.14-17, MN 52.8, AN 3.63). For example in the Aṭṭhakanāgara Sutta, Ānanda states that the Brahmavihāras are “conditioned and volitionally produced”, and so any awakening stemming from them must stem from insight into their being impermanent, dukkha, and non-self.

That is to say, Brahmavihāra practice is not in itself a form of insight practice, and it is only insight practice which leads to awakening in the early texts, because it is only insight practice that leads to complete non-clinging, through awareness of the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of reality.  This is no doubt the reason why Anālayo in his recent book calls the Brahmavihāras routes towards “temporary” rather than complete liberation. (2015: 21).

Only equanimity (upekkhā) might, if understood as complete non-clinging, be understood as true awakening: it is after all the one Brahmavihāra which is also explicitly an enlightenment factor (bojjhaṅga). So if indeed the Buddha intended the Brahmavihāras to be a direct path towards liberation, it would probably have been through practice of equanimity in particular.

That said, of course the Brahmavihāras are entirely compatible with whatever we might consider the awakened state. Perhaps indeed they are necessary for it, or necessary accompaniments of it. It is only that they were most likely not intended as direct paths to liberation in the early texts, as for example mindfulness practice was.

So if, pace Gombrich, we are to see at least the first three Brahmavihāras as non-insight related practices, as skillful means for ridding the mind of ill will, and for protecting oneself from various forms of nastiness, then perhaps it matters less how we hold the self when in formal mettā meditation, for example. After all, the Buddha did hold to a kind of self as locus of transformative effort. Many of us will be familiar with passages from the Canon such as, “Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector. What other protector could there be?” (Dhp. 160). Or in one of the last statements before the Buddha died, “[Y]ou should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge …” (DN 16.2.26). And so on.

Indeed, as Anālayo (2015a) points out following passages in the Canon (e.g., AN 4.95), for the Buddha “benefiting oneself is superior to benefiting others.” (Though of course it is most superior to benefit both). This is because one can only teach properly from a position of understanding:

In this way, one’s verbal teaching will be grounded in one’s own practice and will be complemented by teaching undertaken by way of example. (2015a: 19).

One may have good intentions but if one acts upon them without understanding one will not in fact work for the true benefit of others. Or in other words, put on your own oxygen mask before helping your neighbor to do so. Insofar as we make transformative effort, our locus of action begins in the self as “protector” and “refuge”, however that is understood.

Brahmavihāras in the Later Tradition

One does not find practices of mettā, or to my knowledge any of the other Brahmavihāras, directed at oneself in the early texts. This was important enough for Buddhaghosa to comment upon it in his own formulation of the practice of mettā in the Visuddhimagga, from where we receive the basis of much contemporary practice:

First of all [lovingkindness] should be developed only towards oneself, doing it repeatedly thus: ‘May I be happy and free from suffering’ or ‘May I keep myself free from enmity, affliction and anxiety and live happily’.

If that is so, does it not conflict with what is said in the texts? For there is no mention of any development of [lovingkindness] towards oneself in what is said in the [Canon]. (Vsm. IX.8-9).

Buddhaghosa’s desire to answer this question is, I think, enough of an indication that the role of the self in mettā meditation was a live issue in his day, even though it seems he did understand the word as “sabbattatāya”, and as possibly indicating self-reference. He says though that if it did include reference to the self along with other beings, that was “without making the distinction ‘This is another being’” (IX.47), a claim which is somewhat difficult to follow.

Nevertheless his answer is that developing mettā towards oneself, particularly as the first step in a practice of the Brahmavihāras, is apt because one naturally holds oneself dear:

… if he develops it in this way: ‘I am happy. Just as I want to be happy and dread pain, as I want to live and not to die, so do other beings, too’, making himself the example, then desire for other beings’ welfare and happiness arises in him. (Vsm. IX.10).

And then he refers to the famous verse from the Mallikā Sutta:

Having traversed all quarters with the mind,
One finds none anywhere dearer than oneself.
Likewise, each person holds himself most dear;
Hence one who loves himself should not harm others. (SN 3.8).

Buddhaghosa’s approach to practicing the Brahmavihāras is personal, involving an attitude towards oneself, and recollections of particular token individuals from one’s past. This is quite a radically different approach than that found in the early texts, which are exclusively generalist in character, referring to beings as types. In the early texts mettā is radiated outwards like “a mighty trumpeter were with little difficulty to make a proclamation to the four quarters” (DN 13.77), or it is applied to beings based on size, distance, time, species, and so on.

Buddhaghosa on the other hand asks us to begin with ourselves, towards whom we presumably find the production of lovingkindness the easiest. Then we move to a revered teacher, then towards a dear friend, then towards a neutral person, then towards a hostile person. (Vsm. IX.11-12).

Interestingly, and I think this is little noticed, he does not advocate our trying to view a hostile person with lovingkindness. Instead he advocates we look “towards a hostile person as neutral.” Presumably this is to rid ourselves of ill will towards the hostile person. Then if we can rid ourselves of ill will towards them, perhaps we can return to the practice at a later time and find them in the neutral category, at which point we can view them with lovingkindness.

Indeed the majority of Buddhaghosa’s elaboration of mettā practice deals with how we should approach our feelings towards hostile people, and how we should work to counter such negative feelings in the case that we cannot easily come to view them as neutral. (IX.14-39).

Buddhaghosa does not use the same formula of practice for the other three Brahmahvihāras however. For compassion he recommends starting with an unfortunate person, or if none is known, an evil person (who we are to assume will suffer for their deeds). After one has aroused compassion through them, one turns to a dear person, a neutral person, and then a hostile person. (IX.78-80). For sympathetic joy one starts by recalling the happiness of a good friend, then a neutral person, then a hostile person. (IX.85-86). For equanimity one begins with the neutral person, since the neutral person is the one to whom one is most naturally equanimous. Then one uses that sense of equanimity to infuse one’s attitude towards a person dear to one, a person who is a good friend, a hostile person, and even oneself. (IX.88-89).

Buddhaghosa’s advice for practicing the Brahmavihāras is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than one finds in the Canonical texts. That said, the practices he suggests have the apparent disadvantage of

tak[ing] living beings as their object. The problem implied here is that [lovingkindness], for example, supposedly comes close to holding the view of a self, since it takes living beings as its object. This helps to appreciate an advantage of the description of boundless radiation in the early discourses, which does not explicitly mention any individual person as the object. (Anālayo 2015b: 21).


So we can see that the practice of mettā and the other Brahmavihāras changed pretty radically over the first millennia or so of Buddhist history. They began as visualizations of generalized emotional radiation towards particular directions or types of beings. This radiation did not explicitly include oneself, although it might be argued that oneself was included implicitly.

Buddhaghosa’s practice on the other hand essentially involved recollections of token individuals, to whom one directed emotional radiation. This included oneself explicitly, in particular as that whom one holds most dear.

One knock on the early tradition is that its Brahmavihāra practices were underdeveloped. In the Vatthūpama Sutta (MN 7) for example, there is no distinction made between the practices of each Brahmavihāra; all use precisely the same simple formula of directional radiation. Only the emotion is changed. This is at the very least a highly compressed template for practice, and may indeed suggest a certain measure of superficiality.

It also should be said that while the early tradition did not explicitly include self-directed practice, the early teachings do contain references to the self as a locus of effort, intention, concern, refuge, and practice. In that context it is therefore perhaps not so unusual to include an explicit reference to self-directed mettā practice as in Buddhaghosa.

The knock on the later, Buddhaghosan tradition is that it appears to introduce oneself and other token selves as objects of meditative focus. Insofar as such practices as these are intended to lead to insight, such introductions may not be particularly helpful. They may lead to the subtle psychological reification of beings as permanent, or as worthy of attachment.

However, insofar as we do not see the Brahmavihāras as themselves insight practices, but instead as forms of skillful means, perhaps we can relax a bit around the Buddhaghosan approach: what it lacks in insight it may make up for in detail and effectiveness. Each practitioner will have to be the judge.

It may also be that we will decide to use one form of practice at one time and another at another. Perhaps for example we come to believe that Buddhaghosa’s approach is good for the novice, but that the radiative approach is better for the advanced practitioner. Or the other way around. It may even be that one or another practice will prove more effective under controlled scientific testing.

Nowadays the practice of the Brahmavihāras in general, and mettā in particular, seem to dominate the contemporary Buddhist scene, only slightly behind the mindfulness movement in public recognition. This is thanks to teachers such as Sharon Salzberg and others who have made it their particular aim. One might even say that Right Effort has been transformed in contemporary parlance into something more like Right Lovingkindness, and the Brahmavihāras have become an explicit part of the Eightfold Path.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it does appear to be a change from what went before. Another change is that since these practices are taken as useful for overcoming self hatred, we will need an approach to mettā which diverges from Buddhaghosa’s own. After all, he advocated beginning with the self since the self was the paradigm source of mettā, none being dearer to us than ourselves. Insofar as we find self-hatred arising instead of self-love, mettā practice cannot begin with the self. I have heard that contemporary teachers are aware of this issue and teaching with this in mind. Although I do not know specifics, this does not surprise me.

It may be that in the Buddha’s world, sparse populations and tight local communities meant that Brahmavihāra practice was not as important for them. Perhaps the everyday shared miseries of those days brought kindness and compassion to the surface more often than it is brought nowadays in our hectic, crowded, and often comfortable lives. This is only speculation, but anyhow a shift in emphasis seems clear.


* Most recently in a series of lectures on January 16 at New York Insight.


Bhikkhu Anālayo (2003), Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (Cambridge: Windhorse, 2003).

Bhikkhu Anālayo (2015a), Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation (Cambridge: Windhorse 2015).

Bhikkhu Anālayo (2015b). “Compassion in the Āgamas and Nikāyas”, Dharma Drum Journal of Buddhist Studies, 16:1-31.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Various Nikāyas (Boston: Wisdom).

Gil Fronsdal (trans.) (2005), The Dhammapada (Boston: Shambhala).

Richard Gombrich (1996), How Buddhism Began (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal).

Richard Gombrich (2009), What the Buddha Thought (London: Equinox).

Rune EA Johansson (1981), Pali Buddhist Texts, 3rd Ed. (London: Curzon Press, Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies).

Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom).

Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (1999), The Path of Purification (Onalaska WA: BPS Pariyatti).

K.R. Norman (2001), The Group of Discourses (Sutta-Nipāta), 2nd Ed. (Oxford, Pali Text Society).

Maurice Walshe (trans.) (1995), The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom).

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (12)

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  1. djlewis says:

    Great article — thanks.

    At some point it might be useful to contrast this material with the Mahayana. The obvious point is the move of the Brahmavihāras (called the Four Immeasurables in Tibetan Buddhism) to the center of the Mahayana system in the form and practice of Bodhicitta, co-ordinate with insight practice. But the connection with Right Effort that you develop resonates even further with Bodhicitta. The popular view of Bodhicitta is that it is simply compassion for the suffering of all beings. But it is actually the *motivation* to become enlightened in order to be able to fulfill that great compassion with action. In other words, the great compassion of that Brahmavihāra is the fuel for the enormous effort to propel one towards enlightenment — Right Effort!

  2. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks for your comment, yes I agree it would be great to deal with the Mahāyāna as well; my focus has generally been on the early material and the Pāli commentators. There is so much historical depth here, way too much for a single blog post for sure. I think you make some great additional points!

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    On the other hand, the fact that the Metta Sutta is included in Sutta Nipata, which we know to be among the earliest collections of suttas, is an indication that it is one of the early foundational practices; its relative absence in later texts such as MN and AN is consistent with the shift to an emphasis on the jhana system that developed after Gotama’s death. Furthermore, Samyutta Nikaya 54 (4) makes clear that the practice of the Brahmaviharas can lead to the same higher formless states as jhana practice. Since the form of the SN suttas also probably predates MN and AN, this is another indication that the Brahmaviharas had a greater emphasis in early Buddhism than they did in the wake of the Brahmanization that occurred after Gotama’s death.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Mark,

      I think that if anything jhāna practice was de-emphasized in the later Canon, as Gombrich argued in his piece on “How Insight Worsted Concentration”. Of course we know that the Buddha studied formless jhāna before attaining nibbāna. I have argued as well in my piece at the JOCBS that formless jhāna is in the Aṭṭhakavagga, at times misinterpreted as anti-realist advocacy. Whether this de-emphasis happened in the Buddha’s lifetime is not entirely clear, but I don’t see any reason why it should not have. At any rate jhāna constituted a central part of the early path.

      Additionally while the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga are probably quite early, it isn’t quite as clear how early the other books of the Sutta Nipāta are. Regarding the Mettā Sutta in particular, Anālayo claims that the portion about the mother’s love for her only son may be a later addition. (p. 29n6 of his recent book). I don’t think it’s clear that the Mettā Sutta is any earlier than any other part of the Canon. (Though again I don’t see any reason to deny it went back to the Buddha).

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        Of course anything we can say about the provenance of the Canon prior to at least Ashoka’s time is speculation. But it seems to me that certain bits of evidence can’t be ignored:

        Literary traditions tend to advance from simpler forms to more complex forms. Literary conventions require time to evolve and become accepted. This would have been especially true in a pre-literate religious tradition where anxiety over the preservation of the teaching would be acute. Therefore, because the material in MN and AN is the most highly developed conventionally, and is almost exclusively dominated by pericopes and other formulaic elements, it almost certainly has to be older than material like the Dhammapada and most of the material in Sutta Nipata. In fact, because they are so different than the earliest texts, they are unlikely to have been composed within the living memory of the first generation of Buddhists.

        Secondly, if Bronkhorst is right, the world depicted in MN and AN — i.e., one which is thoroughly Brahmanized and even Buddhists take their rituals and doctrines for granted — did not exist in Northern India at the time Gotama lived. The constant debates with Brahmins, the Buddha’s concern with securing royal patronage, and the suttas devoted to assuring us that the Buddha was every bit as magic as any Brahmin sage — are more consistent with conditions in Northern India about the time of Ashoka and afterward, suggesting that this is when the MN and AN texts were probably composed.

        We see the simpler verses of the Dhammapada and Sutta Nipata quoted in the more complex texts, but never the other way around, again suggesting that complexity came with age.

        Finally, re: the emphasis on the multi-level formal Jhana states, these are never mentioned in the earlier material, suggesting that they developed as part of the Brahmanization of Buddhism, as does their consistency with Vedic creation mythology. Also we note four-level Jhana passages in some texts and 8-level versions elsewhere, again suggesting that Jhana practice was not part of the earliest teachings and evolved over time. I would also note that, while brahma vihara practice could be done by laypeople, only individuals with the freedom to immerse themselves in concentration practice for long periods of time can practice the 8-layer Jhanas, suggesting that the increasing complexity and strenuousness of Jhana practice came along with the rise of a well-developed monastic institution, something that also would have required time to develop.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Well, I think we see the history very differently. Bronkhorst’s material in particular is highly speculative and AFAIK not generally accepted as an accurate picture of the development of the earliest stratum of Buddhist history. I think we are on much safer ground with Richard Gombrich or Analyo than Bronkhorst, although any scholar will have their pitfalls. That said, even Bronkorst believes that the four jhānas were original. In a piece of his from 1993 cited in a recent paper on early Buddhist meditation he writes:

          “What remains that can be considered authentic Buddhist meditation? … The four Dhyanas and the subsequent destruction of the intoxicants survive the present analysis easily. I know of no indications that they too must be looked upon as due to outside influence. …” Etc.

          Also AFAIK Bronkhorst doesn’t think that all of the material in the MN, AN, etc. post date the Buddha. (He refers to texts from those sources at times as demonstrative of the Buddha’s views). So I think to the extent you want to rely on Bronkhorst it might be more useful to cite particular passages of his work that support your claims rather than referring to his work generally.

          Though the last two books of the sutta Nipāta are referred to in texts of other Nikāyas, and so most likely are relatively early, certain (though not all) other texts of the sutta Nipāta, not to mention the Dhammapada, are more like summaries of dhamma than (e.g.) recollections or reconstructions of original speeches of the Buddha. I do not believe the Dhammapada is particularly early as texts go for that very reason.

          Further, the fact that jhāna is more strenuous than brahmavihara practice should not be meaningful in the context of a renunciant culture. This was not a lay culture but a culture of complete immersion in meditative and theoretical experimentation. I find no reason to doubt the Buddha’s pre enlightenment experience with formless jhāna practice, something that doubtless predated the Buddha and was a mark of spiritual advancement.

          Anyway I don’t really think there is scholarly basis for the picture you paint re. early Buddhist history. That is not to say it is necessarily wrong, just that AFAIK none of the best scholars in the field think it is right. Of course all this material is to some extent controversial, but I prefer as much as possible to stick to relatively established scholarship in these matters, since there is less chance for error.

        • mufi says:

          Mark: If you want to up the skeptical ante (as well as explore some cross-cultural comparative literature of the ancient world), then check out Beckwith’s Greek Buddha, which endorses some of Bronkhorst’s account, but also parts ways with it.

          That said, Beckwith cites Bronkhorst as the source for the claim that the “earliest form of Buddhist meditation…ends with the Fourth Dhyana”, which also jibes with this wiki’s claim that “According to Bronkhorst, the practice of the four dhyanas may have been an original contribution by Gautama Buddha to the religious practices of ancient India…” That much also jibes with my recollection from reading Gombrich.

          Still, it bears reminding (firstly, by myself) that, from a pragmatic lay person’s perspective, these scholarly views on history are of little or no consequence, since a philosophical teaching’s value is determined by its usefulness, not by its age.

  4. Kevin K. says:

    Excellent article – thank you!

    I recently completed the “Entering the Path” course at BCBS, and Anālayo co-taught the Brahmavihāra section with Sharon Salzberg. His presentation of doing these practices based on the suttas was a revelation to many of us, and was and is in quite sharp contrast to the complicated, phrase-based practice that many in the vipassanā community think came from the Buddha when it was in fact created by Sayadaw U. Pandita on the basis of the Visuddhimagga! Many people who have struggled with the conceptual dryiness of the phrase-based approach, or the complexity of near and far enemies (again, not taught by the Buddha), found the boundary-less radiation in all directions that Anālayo teaches based on the suttas to be a wonderful alternative (or complement) to the better-known phrase-based method.

    You write about the Brahmavihāras in the context of insight practice, but it seems to me they are really primarily concentration practices. Anālayo points out that they have many advantages in this context: “they have an advantage over other practices for the development of tranquility in that we do not need to reach absorption through the practice of the brahma-vihāras in order to realize the benefits. Thus, we can sidestep the counterproductive striving that one might experience in trying to reach absorption through mindfulness of the breathing, for example. We only need to rest in the spaciousness of mind and we are already there. Second, the brahma vihāras can be used continuously. That is, even if there is a disturbance one can sustain mettā by turning towards that disturbance with mettā in the heart. Finally, the practice of the brahmā viharas brings out the feminine capacity of softness and acceptance … a much-needed attribute in a world wherein the masculine qualities tend to dominate.”

    One could say that this gulf between ancient and modern understandings of metta and the other immeasurables is very much analogous to what has happened with “mindfulness” meditation (and here, again, Anālayo both in the aforementioned course and in his writings has brought unprecedented clarity to things due to his apparently unique ability to compare the earliest strata of teachings in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese). In the sutta context we have samatha leading to jhāna in the service of insight, as embodied by the 4 establishments of mindfulness. As you pointed out, jhāna IS Right Concentration in the context of the Buddha’s teaching, while “dry” insight and mindfulness as it’s presented in both modern vipassanā and MBSR come not from the suttas but rather were invented out of whole cloth, on the basis of the Visuddhimagga and later commentarial literature, by Ledi Sayadaw and his disciples in the early 20th century (as Erik Braun shows so wonderfully in his “The Birth of Insight”).

    As Robert Sharf has been pointing out for years now, mindfulness meditation, however useful it may be, isn’t really a Buddhist practice, but rather Burmese response to British colonialism that’s quite far removed from the deep concentration and renunciation-oriented discursive contemplations practiced by the Buddha and his disciples.

    Anālayo, as you probably know, often says (paraphrasing here) that all definitions and applications of sati, from that of the suttas to Dzogchen and Mahamudra, MBSR, etc. are valuable and to be honored but (as with mettā and the others) that understanding where teachings come from and not conflating the suttas with the commentaries or modern hybrid approaches is advisable. There’s a deep radicalism in Anālayo’s research and practice that reminds me very much of Ajahn Buddhadasa, who in going back to the suttas and setting later accretions aside revitalized the Thai forest tradition.

    Here’s the link to Dr. Sharf’s article:


    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks very much Kevin, agreed. In the suttas and the early commentarial literature the Brahmavihāras are largely concentration exercises, in part for ridding the mind of hindrances to jhāna. And yes, jhāna (and of course renunciation) is absolutely essential in the Buddha’s early program, something we have gotten away from a bit recently, in part due to layification of Buddhist practice. Unless one has time for deep, lengthy retreats one can only reach the barest hint of jhāna. (Leigh Brasington basically says one needs at least ten days of retreat, and he is working at a rather light level). This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, just something we need to be aware of.

      And yes, Anālayo is doing some of the deepest and clearest analyses of the early material. No doubt. His stuff always rewards reading.

    • Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

      Kevin, thank you for the link to Dr. Sharf’s article. This has helped me to understand the brouhaha between the Buddhist traditionalists and the modern Mindfulness movement. Perhaps it’s better if Mindfulness is not really thought of as Buddhist as many people may be disturbed by its supposed connection to a religion.

      Nonetheless, I sense that Dr. Sharf has reservations about the efficacy and benefits of modern Mindfulness which are becoming more and more recognized by scientific investigation.

      And one last observation: I wonder what he means when he says “Just as there is a set of metaphysical commitments that under-gird the modern
      mindfulness movement, there are also ethical and political commitments.” I’m having a hard time understanding what he means by metaphysical commitments that under-gird the modern mindfulness movement. To me, metaphysical commitments are a defining nature of traditional Buddhism, not the other way around.

  5. mufi says:

    Ron: I also have difficulties with the Sharf article, although I admit that I was already primed to think skeptically of it, based on Kevin’s take-away message that “mindfulness meditation, however useful it may be, isn’t really a Buddhist practice”, which Doug seemed to let pass without criticism.

    This much reminds me of the claim that “American yoga isn’t really yoga”, given that it is largely a product of modern innovation. It’s not that I necessarily dispute the history used to support the claim (e.g. as reported in this book), but rather the assumption that there is some absolute, eternal, and/or essential meaning of ‘yoga’ that precludes its extension to such innovations. I would argue that, in actual experience, this is not how either language or culture generally works.

    So, too, with mindfulness meditation. While we need not get all bunched up about its historical origins (let alone ‘authenticity’), we should give credit for this helpful practice to where it is due, and it is due to Buddhists and those who studied among them and disseminated their teachings to others around the world. That others would adapt them to their own cultures and personal situations is to be expected, as frustrating as such changes might be to traditionalists, who see these changes as corruptions and/or dilutions.

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