Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love
All of the information in the post is transcribed and/or copied from “Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love”, by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013 Acharya Buddharakkhita. Archived in full length HERE
The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others(parahita-parasukha-kamana). Essentially metta is an altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest. Through metta one refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind, developing instead a mind of friendliness, accommodativeness and benevolence which seeks the well-being and happiness of others. True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love.
Metta makes one a pure font of well-being and safety for others. Just as a mother gives her own life to protect her child, so metta only gives and never wants anything in return. To promote one’s own interest is a primordial motivation of human nature. When this urge is transformed into the desire to promote the interest and happiness of others, not only is the basic urge of self-seeking overcome, but the mind becomes universal by identifying its own interest with the interest of all. By making this change one also promotes one’s own well-being in the best possible manner.
Metta is the protective and immensely patient attitude of a mother who forbears all difficulties for the sake of her child and ever protects it despite its misbehavior. Metta is also the attitude of a friend who wants to give one the best to further one’s well-being. If these qualities of metta are sufficiently cultivated through metta-bhavana — the meditation on universal love — the result is the acquisition of a tremendous inner power which preserves, protects and heals both oneself and others.
Apart from its higher implications, today metta is a pragmatic necessity. In a world menaced by all kinds of destructiveness, metta in deed, word and thought is the only constructive means to bring concord, peace and mutual understanding. Indeed, metta is the supreme means, for it forms the fundamental tenet of all the higher religions as well as the basis for all benevolent activities intended to promote human well-being.
The present booklet aims at exploring various facets of metta both in theory and in practice. The examination of the doctrinal and ethical side of metta will proceed through a study of the popular Karaniya Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s “Hymn of Universal Love.” In connection with this theme we will also look at several other short texts dealing with metta. The explanation of metta-bhavana, the meditation on universal love, will give the practical directions for developing this type of contemplation as set forth in the main meditation texts of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Visuddhimagga, theVimuttimagga and the Patisambhidamagga.
The Background to the Metta Sutta
The historical background which led the Buddha to expound the Karaniya Metta Sutta is explained in the commentary written by Acariya Buddhaghosa, who received it from an unbroken line of Elders going back to the days of the Buddha himself.
It is told that five hundred monks received instructions from the Buddha in the particular techniques of meditation suitable to their individual temperaments. They then went to the foothills of the Himalayas to spend the four months of the rains’ retreat by living a life of withdrawal and intensive meditation. In those days, a month or two before the rains’ retreat started, monks from all parts of the country would assemble wherever the Buddha lived in order to receive direct instruction from the Supreme Master. Then they would go back to their monasteries, forest dwellings or hermitages to make a vigorous attempt at spiritual liberation. This was how these five hundred monks went to the Buddha, who was staying at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove in the monastery built by Anathapindika.
After receiving instructions they went in search of a suitable place, and in the course of their wandering they soon found a beautiful hillock at the foothills of the Himalayas. This, according to the commentary, “appeared like a glittering blue quartz crystal: it was embellished with a cool, dense, green forest grove and a stretch of ground strewn with sand, resembling a pearl net or a silver sheet, and was furnished with a clean spring of cool water.” The bhikkhus were captivated by the sight. There were a few villages nearby, and also a small market-town ideal as alms-resort. The monks spent a night in that idyllic grove and the next morning went to the market-town for alms.
The residents there were overjoyed to see the monks, since rarely did a community of monks come to spend the retreat in that part of the Himalayas. These pious devotees fed the monks and begged them to stay on as their guests, promising to build each a hut near the grove on the sandy stretch so that they could spend their days and nights plunged in meditation under the ancient boughs of the majestic trees. The bhikkhus agreed and the devotees of the area soon built little huts in the fringe of the forest and provided each hut with a wooden cot, a stool and pots of water for drinking and washing.
After the monks had settled down contentedly in these huts, each one selected a tree to meditate under, by day and by night. Now it is said that these great trees were inhabited by tree-deities who had a celestial mansion built, appropriately using the trees as the base. These deities, out of reverence for the meditating monks, stood aside with their families. Virtue was revered by all, particularly so by deities, and when the monks sat under the trees, the deities, who were householders, did not like to remain above them. The deities had thought that the monks would remain only for a night or two, and gladly bore the inconvenience. But when day after day passed and the monks still kept occupying the bases of the trees, the deities wondered when they would go away. They were like dispossessed villagers whose houses had been commandeered by the officials of visiting royalty and they kept watching anxiously from a distance, wondering when they would get their houses back.
These dispossessed deities discussed the situation among themselves and decided to frighten the monks away by showing them terrifying objects, by making dreadful noises and by creating a sickening stench. Accordingly, they materialized all these terrifying conditions and afflicted the monks. The monks soon grew pale and could no longer concentrate on their subjects of meditation. As the deities continued to harass them, they lost even their basic mindfulness, and their brains seemed to become smothered by the oppressing visions, noise and stench. When the monks assembled to wait upon the seniormost Elder of the group, each one recounted his experiences. The Elder suggested: “Let us go, brethren, to the Blessed One and place our problem before him. There are two kinds of rains’ retreat — the early and the late. Though we will be breaking the early one by leaving this place, we can always take upon ourselves the late one after meeting the Lord.” The monks agreed and they set out at once, it is said, without even informing the devotees.
By stages they arrived at Savatthi, went to the Blessed One, prostrated at his feet, and related their frightful experiences, pathetically requesting another place. The Buddha, through his supernormal power, scanned the whole of India, but finding no place except the same spot where they could achieve spiritual liberation, told them: “Monks, go back to the same spot! It is only by striving there that you will effect the destruction of inner taints. Fear not! If you want to be free from the harassment caused by the deities, learn this sutta. It will be a theme for meditation as well as a formula for protection (paritta).
Then the Master recited the Karaniya Metta Sutta — the Hymn of Universal Love — which the monks learned by rote in the presence of the Lord. Then they went back to the same place.
As the monks neared their forest dwellings reciting the Metta Sutta, thinking and meditating on the underlying meaning, the hearts of the deities became so charged with warm feelings of goodwill that they materialized themselves in human form and received the monks with great piety. They took their bowls, conducted them to their rooms, caused water and food to be supplied, and then, resuming their normal form, invited them to occupy the bases of the trees and meditate without any hesitation or fear.
Further, during the three months of the rains’ residence, the deities not only looked after the monks in every way but made sure that the place was completely free from any noise. Enjoying perfect silence, by the end of the rainy season all the monks attained to the pinnacle of spiritual perfection. Every one of the five hundred monks had become an arahant.
Indeed, such is the power intrinsic in the Metta Sutta. Whoever with firm faith will recite the sutta, invoking the protection of the deities and meditating on metta, will not only safeguard himself in every way but will also protect all those around him, and will make spiritual progress that can be actually verified. No harm can ever befall a person who follows the path of metta.
The Psychology of Metta
One loves all beings:
(a) by the non-harassment of all beings and thus avoids harassment
(b) by being inoffensive (to all beings) and thus avoids offensiveness
(c) by not torturing (all beings) and thus avoids torturing
(d) by the non-destruction (of all life) and thus avoids destructiveness
(e) by being non-vexing (to all beings) and thus avoids vexing
(f) by projecting the thought, “May all beings be friendly and not hostile.”
(g) by projecting the thought,” May all beings be happy and not unhappy.”
(h) by projecting the thought, “May all beings enjoy well-being and not be distressed.”
In these eight ways one loves all beings; therefore, it is called universal love. And since one conceives (within) this quality (of love), it is of the mind. And since this mind is free from all thoughts of ill-will, the aggregate of love, mind and freedom is defined as universal love leading to freedom of mind.
Meditation on Metta
There are various ways of practicing metta-bhavana, the meditation on universal love. Three of the principal methods will be explained here. These instructions, based on canonical and commentarial sources, are intended to explain the practice of metta-meditation in a clear, simple and direct way so that anyone who is earnest about taking up the practice will have no doubts about how to proceed. For full instructions on the theory and practice of metta-bhavana the reader is referred to the Visuddhimagga,Chapter IX.
Sit down in a comfortable posture in a quiet place — a shrine room, a quiet room, a park, or any other place providing privacy and silence. Keeping the eyes closed, repeat the word “metta” a few times and mentally conjure up its significance — love as the opposite of hatred, resentment, malevolence, impatience, pride and arrogance, and as a profound feeling of good will, sympathy and kindness promoting the happiness and well-being of others.
Now visualize your own face in a happy and radiant mood. Every time you see your face in the mirror, see yourself in a happy mood and put yourself in this mood during meditation. A person in a happy mood cannot become angry or harbor negative thoughts and feelings. Having visualized yourself in a happy frame of mind, now charge yourself with the thought; “May I be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may I live happily.” As you suffuse yourself in this way with the positive thought-force of love, you become like a filled vessel, its contents ready to overflow in all directions.
Next, visualize your meditation teacher, if living; if not, choose some other living teacher or revered person. See him in a happy frame of mind and project the thought: “May my teacher be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may he live happily.”
Then think of other people who are to be revered, and who are also living — monks, teachers, parents and elders, and intensely spread towards each one of them the thought of metta in the manner mentioned already: “May they be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
The visualization must be clear and the thought-radiation must be “willed” well. If the visualization is hurried or the wishing is performed in a perfunctory or mechanical way, the practice will be of little avail, for then it will be merely an intellectual pastime ofthinking about metta. One must clearly understand that to think about metta is one thing, and to do metta, to actively project the will-force of loving-kindness, is quite another.
Note that only a living person is to be visualized, not a dead one. The reason for this is that the dead person, having changed form, will be out of the focus of metta-projection. The object of metta always is a living being, and the thought-force will become ineffective if the object is not alive.
Having radiated thoughts of metta in the order already mentioned — oneself, the meditation teacher and other revered persons — one should now visualize, one by one, one’s dear ones beginning with the members of one’s family, suffusing each one with abundant rays of loving-kindness. Charity begins at home: if one cannot love one’s own people one will not be able to love others.
While spreading metta towards one’s own family members, care should be taken to think of a very dear one, like one’s husband or wife, at the end of this circle. The reason for this is that the intimacy between husband and wife introduces the element of worldly love which defiles metta. Spiritual love must be the same towards all. Similarly, if one has had a temporary misunderstanding or quarrel with any family member or relative, he or she should be visualized at a later stage to avoid recalling the unpleasant incidents.
Next, one should visualize neutral people, people for whom one has neither like nor dislike, such as one’s neighbours, colleagues in one’s place of work, bare acquaintances, and so on. Having radiated loving thoughts on everyone in the neutral circle, one should now visualize persons for whom one has dislike, hostility or prejudice, even those with whom one may have had a temporary misunderstanding. As one visualizes disliked persons, to each one must mentally repeat: “I have no hostility towards him/her, may he/she also not have any hostility towards me. May he/she be happy!”
Thus, as one visualizes the persons of the different circles, one “breaks the barrier” caused by likes and dislikes, attachment and hatred. When one is able to regard an enemy without ill-will and with the same amount of goodwill that one has for a very dear friend, metta then acquires a sublime impartiality, elevating the mind upward and outward as if in a spiral movement of ever-widening circles until it becomes all-embracing.
The first method of practicing meditation on metta employs the projection of loving thoughts to specific individuals in order of increasing remoteness from oneself. The second method presents an impersonal mode of radiating metta which makes the mind truly all-embracing, as suggested by the Pali term metta-cetovimutti, “the liberation of mind through universal love.” The unliberated mind is imprisoned within the walls of egocentricity, greed, hatred, delusion, jealousy and meanness. As long as the mind is in the grip of these defiling and limiting mental factors, for so long it remains insular and fettered. By breaking these bonds, metta liberates the mind, and the liberated mind naturally grows boundless and immeasurable. Just as the earth cannot be rendered “earthless,” even so the mind of metta cannot be limited.
After completing the radiation of metta towards selected persons, when the mind breaks the barriers existing between oneself and revered ones, beloved ones, friends, neutral ones and hostile ones, the meditator now embarks on the great voyage of impersonal radiation, even as an ocean-worthy ship voyages through the vast, measureless ocean, nevertheless retaining a route and a goal as well. The technique is as follows.
Imagine the people residing in your house as forming an aggregate, then embrace all of them within your heart, radiating the metta thoughts: “May all those dwelling in this house be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.” Having visualized one’s own house in this manner, one must now visualize the next house, and all its residents, and then the next house, and the next, and so on, until all the houses in that street are similarly covered by all-embracing loving-kindness. Now the meditator should take up the next street, and the next, until the entire neighborhood or village is covered. Thereafter extension by extension, direction-wise, should be clearly visualized and spread with metta-rays in abundant measure. In this way the entire town or the city is to be covered; then the district and the entire state should be covered and radiated with thoughts of metta.
Next, one should visualize state after state, starting with one’s own state, then the rest of the states in the different directions, the east, south, west and north. Thus one should cover the whole of one’s country, geographically visualizing the people of this land regardless of class, race, sect or religion. Think: “May everyone in this great land abide in peace and well-being! May there be no war, no strife, no misfortune, no maladies! Radiant with friendliness and good fortune, with compassion and wisdom, may all those in this great country enjoy peace and plenty.”
One should now cover the entire continent, country by country, in the eastern, southern, western and northern directions. Geographically imagining each country and the people therein according to their looks, one should radiate in abundant measure thoughts of metta: “May they be happy! May there be no strife and discord! May goodwill and understanding prevail! May peace be unto all!”
Thereafter one should take up all the continents — Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America — visualizing country by country and people by people, covering the entire globe. Imagine yourself at a particular point of the globe and then project powerful rays of metta, enveloping one direction of the globe, then another, then another and so on until the whole globe is flooded and thoroughly enveloped with glowing thoughts of universal love.
One should now project into the vastness of space powerful beams of metta towards all beings living in other realms, first in the four cardinal directions — east, south, west and north — then in the intermediary directions — northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest — and then above and below, covering all the ten directions with abundant and measureless thoughts of universal love.
According to the cosmology of Buddhism there are numberless world- systems inhabited by infinitely varied categories of beings in different stages of evolution. Our earth is only a speck in our world-system, which again is a minute dot in the universe with its innumerable world-systems. Towards all beings everywhere one should radiate thoughts of boundless love. This is developed in the next method of practice, the universalization of metta.
The universalization of metta is effected in these three specific modes
Generalized radiation (anodhiso-pharana),
Specified radiation (odhiso-pharana),
Directional radiation (disa-pharana).
According to the Patisambhidamagga, the generalized radiation of metta is practiced in five ways, the specified radiation in seven ways, and the directional radiation in ten ways. These ten directional ways may be combined with the five categories of general radiation and with the seven categories of specified radiation, as we will show. In each of these modes of practice, any of the four phrases of the standard metta formula — “May they be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily” — may be used as the thought of radiation. Thus four types of thought applied to five, seven, and 120 objects of metta amount to 528 modes of radiation. Any of these can be used as a vehicle for attaining absorption (jhana) through the technique of metta-bhavana. (See Vism. IX, 58.)
The five ways of generalized radiation are as follows:
- “May all beings (sabbe satta)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all those that breathe (sabbe pana)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all creatures (sabbe bhuta)be free from hostility, free from affliction. free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all those with individual existence (sabbe puggala)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all those who are embodied (sabbe attabhavapariyapanna)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
The seven ways of specified radiation are as follows:
- “May all females (sabba itthiyo)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all males (sabbe purisa)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all the Noble Ones (sabbe ariya)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all worldlings (sabbe anariya)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all gods (sabbe deva)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all human beings (sabbe manussa)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all those in states of woe (sabbe vinipatika)be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
The ten ways of directional radiation involve sending thoughts of metta to all beings in the ten directions. This method, in its basic form, is applied to the class of beings (satta), the first of the five generalized objects of metta. But it can be developed further by extending metta through each of the five ways of generalized radiation and the seven ways of specified radiation, as we will see.
- “May all beings in the eastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the western direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the northern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the southern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the northeastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the southwestern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the northwestern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings in the southeastern direction be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings below (in the downward direction) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
- “May all beings above (in the upward direction) be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”