You’ve likely heard of the concept of practicing lovingkindness, a common translation of the word metta. But what if metta and lovingkindness are not quite the same? How could that affect you? Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu gets to the original meaning of metta.
Ajaan Fuang, my meditation teacher, once discovered that a snake had moved into his room. Every time he came in the door, he saw it slip into a narrow space behind a storage cabinet. And even though he tried leaving the door to the room open during the daytime, the snake wasn’t willing to leave. So for three days they lived together. He was very careful not to startle the snake or make it feel threatened by his presence. But finally on the evening of the third day, as he was sitting in meditation, he addressed the snake quietly in his mind.
He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.” And as he sat there spreading thoughts of metta to the snake, the snake left.
When Ajaan Fuang first told me this story, it made me stop and reconsider my understanding of what metta is. Metta is a wish for happiness—for true happiness—and the Buddha says to develop this wish for ourselves and everyone else: “With metta for the entire cosmos, cultivate a limitless heart.”
Metta is not necessarily an attitude of lovingkindness. It’s more an attitude of goodwill—wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that ultimately each of us will have to find for him or herself.
But what’s the quality of heart that should go along with that wish? Many people define it as “lovingkindness,” implying a desire to be there for other people: to cherish them, to provide them with intimacy, nurture, and protection. The idea of feeling love for everyone sounds very noble and emotionally satisfying. But when you really stop to think about all the beings in the cosmos, there are a lot of them who — like the snake — would react to your lovingkindness with suspicion and fear. Rather than wanting your love, they would rather be left alone. Others might try to take unfair advantage of your lovingkindness, reading it as a sign either of your weakness or of your endorsement of whatever they want to do. In none of these cases would your lovingkindness lead to anyone’s true happiness. You’re left to wonder if the Buddha’s instructions on universal metta are really realistic or wise.
But as I learned from Ajaan Fuang’s encounter with the snake, metta is not necessarily an attitude of lovingkindness. It’s more an attitude of goodwill—wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that ultimately each of us will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.
This understanding of metta is borne out in the Pali Canon, our earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings, first of all in the word itself. The Pali language has another word for love—pema—whereas metta is related to the word mitta, or friend. Universal metta is friendliness for all. The fact that this friendliness equates with goodwill is shown in the four passages in the Canon where the Buddha recommends phrases to hold in mind to develop thoughts of metta. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the heart-quality that underlies metta, but also to the understanding of happiness that explains why it’s wise and realistic to develop metta for all.
The first set of phrases comes in a passage where the Buddha recommends thoughts to counter ill will. These phrases are chanted daily in Buddhist communities the world over: “May these beings—free from animosity, free from oppression, and free from trouble—look after themselves with ease.”
Notice that last statement: “May they look after themselves with ease.” You’re not saying that you’re going to be there for all beings all the time. And most beings would be happier knowing that they could depend on themselves rather than having to depend on others. I once heard a Dharma teacher say that he wouldn’t want to live in a world where there was no suffering because then he wouldn’t be able to express his compassion—which when you think about it, is an extremely selfish wish. He needs other people to suffer so he can feel good about expressing his compassion? A better attitude would be, “May all beings be happy. May they be able to look after themselves with ease.” That way they can have the happiness of independence and self-reliance.
Another set of metta phrases is in the Karaniya Metta Sutta. They start out with a simple wish for happiness:
Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.
But then they continue with a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness:
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or resistance
wish for another to suffer.
In repeating these phrases, you wish not only that beings be happy, but also that they avoid the actions that would lead to bad karma, to their own unhappiness. You realize that happiness has to depend on action: For people to find true happiness, they have to understand the causes for happiness and act on them. They also have to understand that true happiness is harmless. If it depends on something that harms others, it’s not going to last: Those who are harmed are sure to do what they can to destroy that happiness. And then there’s the plain quality of sympathy: If you see someone suffering, it’s painful. If you have any sensitivity at all, it’s hard to feel happy when you know that that happiness is causing suffering for others.
So again, when you express goodwill, you’re not saying that you’re going to be there for them all the time. You’re hoping that people will wise up about how to find happiness and be there for themselves.
In a follow-up to this post, Thanissaro Bhikkhu discusses how the act of protecting your goodwill is most effective in protecting you and the world around you.