Mettā (Pāli) or maitrī (Sanskrit) has been translated as "loving-kindness," "friendliness," "benevolence," "amity," "friendship," "good will," "kindness," "love," "sympathy," and "active interest in others." It is one of the ten pāramitās of the Theravāda school of Buddhism, and the first of the four Brahmavihāras. The mettā bhāvanā ("cultivation of mettā") is a popular form of meditation in Buddhism.
The object of mettā meditation is loving kindness (love without attachment). Traditionally, the practice begins with the meditator cultivating loving kindness towards themselves, then their loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings.
Buddhists believe that those who cultivate mettā will be at ease because they see no need to harbor ill will or hostility. Buddhist teachers may even recommend meditation on mettā as an antidote to insomnia and nightmares. It is generally felt that those around a mettā-ful person will feel more comfortable and happy too. Radiating mettā is thought to contribute to a world of love, peace and happiness.
Mettā meditation is considered a good way to calm down a distraught mind by people who consider it to be an antidote to anger. According to them, someone who has cultivated mettā will not be easily angered and can quickly subdue anger that arises, being more caring, more loving, and more likely to love unconditionally.
Mettā signifies friendship and non-violence as well as a strong wish for the happiness of others, but also less obvious or direct qualities such as showing patience, receptivity, and appreciation. Though it refers to many seemingly disparate ideas, Mettā is in fact a very specific form of love – a caring for another independent of all self-interest – and thus is likened to one's love for one's child or parent. Understandably, this energy is often difficult to describe in words; however, in the practice of Mettā meditation, one recites specific words and phrases in order to evoke this boundless warm-hearted feeling. Metta is not limited to one's family, religion, or social class. Its cultivation allows one's generosity and kindness to be applied to all beings and, as a consequence, one finds true happiness in another person's happiness, no matter who the individual may be.
Contemporary metta practice is often based on a method traditionally associated with the 5th century C.E. Pali exegetical text, the Visuddhimagga ("The path to purity"). The full instructions for the theory and practice of mettā bhāvanā are available in this text (Chapter IX). Therein, the text describes six stages of mettā bhāvanā meditation, which are as follows:
It is recommended that one avoid choosing someone to whom one feels sexually attracted, or that is much younger or much older than oneself, or whom is dead. In addition, when choosing "an enemy," one is to avoid choosing a person who has just wrecked one's life, unless one is very well grounded in awareness. In the fifth stage, one is to treat all four categories as equals, equally deserving of loving-kindness.
In the Pali Canon, statements regarding the use of metta traditionally employ one or more of the following devices, often using a stock formula:
The well-known Kakacupama Sutta and Karaniya Metta Sutta use striking metaphors to give these traditional devices vitality. Other canonical material, such as in the Paṭisambhidāmagga, elaborate on these basic devices in a manner that is perpetuated by the later traditional commentaries. Other canonical sources, such as the Abhidhamma, underline the key role of metta in the development of wholesome karma.
In the Pali canon, a classic example of extending loving-kindness and compassion (Pali: karuna) to "difficult persons" can be found in the "Parable of the Saw" sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 21), where the Buddha provides the following instruction:
In Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta ("To Cunda the Silversmith," Anguttara Nikaya 10.176), the Buddha explains that mental or intentional purity (manasā soceyyaṃ) is threefold: non-greed, non-ill-will and non-delusion. Regarding the manifestation of non-ill-will the discourse describes a virtuous person in the following manner (in English and Pali):
He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of his heart.
Avyāpannacitto hoti appaduṭṭhamanasaṃkappo,
This basic statement of intention and verse can also be found in several other canonical discourses.
In over a dozen discourses, the following description (in English and Pali) is provided for radiating metta in six directions:
"He abides, having suffused with a mind of loving-kindness
So mettāsahagatena cetasā
In the Canon, this basic formula is expanded upon in a variety of ways. For instance, a couple of discourses provide the following description of "the path to the company of Brahmā" (brahmānaṃ sahavyatāya maggo) along with a memorable metaphor:
"What … is the path to the company of Brahmā? Here a bhikkhu abides pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the forth; 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, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill well. When the deliverance of mind by loving-kindness is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there, none persists there. Just as a vigorous trumpeter could make himself heard without difficulty in the four quarters, so too, when the deliverance of mind by loving-kindness is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there, none persists there. This is the path to the company of Brahmā."
Incorporating facets of the above textual methods in a series of increasingly vivid similes, the Kakacupama Sutta ("Parable of the Saw Discourse," Majjhima Nikaya 21) provides the following culminating scenario:
"Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: 'Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love—thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.' It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves."
The Karaniya Metta Sutta (Suttanipata 1.8) combines both the interpersonal and radiant aspects of canonical expressions of metta.
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
… 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!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
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….
According to the Pali commentaries, the Buddha originally gave this instruction (of Loving-Kindness meditation) to Monks who were being harassed by the Tree Spirits of a forest in which the Monks were trying to meditate. After doing this meditation in the forest it is said that the Spirits were so affected by the power of Loving-Kindness that they allowed the Monks to stay in the forest for the duration of the rainy season.
In the Khuddaka Nikaya's Paṭisambhidāmagga, traditionally ascribed to Ven. Sariputta, is a section entitled Mettākathā (Patisambhidamagga. 2.4, "Metta Instruction"). In this instruction, a general formula (below, in English and Pali), essentially identical to the aforementioned Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta verse (especially evident in the Pali), is provided for radiating metta:
In addition, this instruction categorizes twenty-two ways in which "the mind-deliverence of lovingkindness" (mettācetovimutti) can be radiated as follows:
Moreover, the directional pervasions can then be applied to each of the unspecific and specific pervasions. For instance, after radiating metta to all beings in the east (Sabbe puratthimāya disāya sattā …), one radiates metta to all beings in the west and then north and then south, etc.; then, one radiates metta to all breathing things in this fashion (Sabbe puratthimāya disāya pāṇā …), then all creatures, persons, and so forth until such is extended for all those born in the lower realms.
In the Abhidhamma's Dhammasangani, the causes of "good" or "wholesome" (kusala) and "bad" or "unwholesome" (akusala) karmic states (dhammā) are described (Dhammasangani 188 ff). The three causes of wholesome karma are stated to be the non-greed, non-hate and non-delusion (alobho adoso amoho). Non-hate is then defined in the following manner:
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