Looking at Metta


The Next Buddha is Sangha

Where do the instructions for metta practice come from? The suttas give relatively little instruction on what actually to do, beyond generating universal good will that we find in the Metta Sutta, and the practice of focusing on each direction, in an oft-cited pericope:

[W]ith his heart filled with lovingkindness, he dwells suffusing one quarter, the second, the third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upwards, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with lovingkindness, abundant, unbounded, without hate or ill-will.

Just as if a mighty trumpeter were with little difficulty to make a proclamation to the four quarters, so by this meditation, … by this liberation of the heart through lovingkindness he leaves nothing untouched, nothing unaffected in the sensuous sphere. (Tevijja Sutta, Digha Nikaya 13.76-77).

In one sutta, the Buddha suggests directing metta towards various species of snake, and from there to various living creatures (Anguttara Nikaya 4.67). Perhaps this is the inspiration for the more general instructions one finds attributed to Sariputta from the Patisambhidamagga, which slices the categories somewhat differently:

May all women be freed from enmity, distress and anxiety, and may they guide themselves to bliss. May all men… all Noble Ones… all who are not Noble Ones… all deities… all human beings… may all those in the states of deprivation be freed from enmity, distress and anxiety, and may they guide themselves to bliss. …

May all breathing things… May all creatures… May all persons… May all who are embodied… May all women… May all men… May all Noble Ones… May all who are not Noble Ones… May all deities… May all human beings… May all those in the states of deprivation in [each] direction be freed from enmity, distress and anxiety, and may they guide themselves to bliss…

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to generate the appropriate feeling tone towards abstracted categories like “all in the eastern direction”, or “all creatures”. At least at the start of my practice, I find metta is best directed towards particular people. Then when the felt sensation arises, the practice can move towards general categories.

Contemporary metta practice such as that found in Sharon Salzberg’s wonderful book Lovingkindness instructs us to pick out particular people in our lives and direct good will to them, in a particular order. We start by wishing good will towards ourselves, then towards a benefactor to whom feelings of good will come naturally, then to a good friend, then to a neutral person, and finally to someone we find difficult. Andy Olendzki described this practice as a form of fixed concentration on an emotional tone, where we hold onto the tone and work by shifting its focus from an easy person to a more difficult person. By practicing metta bhavana over a period of time, we hope to get ourselves to a place where we can maintain the same attitude of good will towards the difficult people in our lives that we do to our close friends.

I doubt I’m alone in finding it difficult to get myself to the same place with antagonists that I do with close friends, though.

The practice of successive focus on different people in metta does not come to us from the Buddha, but rather from Buddhaghosa’s fifth century CE text, the Visuddhimagga. There is a lot to be learned about metta from that text, but here are a couple of interesting points. First, the Visuddhimagga does not counsel us to try to hold the same attitude towards an enemy as towards a friend. Instead, its instructions are more relaxed: the practitioner should work to develop metta “towards a very dearly loved friend, then towards a neutral person as a very dearly loved friend, then towards a hostile person as neutral.” (IX, 12).

In other words, we are to generate feelings of metta towards a dear friend, then retain that same attitude towards a neutral person. But when switching to a hostile person, Buddhaghosa doesn’t counsel us to retain the same attitude. Rather, we are to hold the hostile person as we would someone to whom we have no particular feelings one way or the other. We do not need to hold them as we do a dear friend.

Basically, Buddhaghosa tells us to raise the level of friendliness in our thoughts so as to erase ill will. Over time, this process may help to establish equanimity towards friend and foe alike. Then from such a place, once the distinction between ‘enemy’ and ‘friend’ has receded, one can manage metta towards all alike.

A related issue comes in our attitude towards a “very dearly loved friend”. The first person who comes to mind is my wife. But such a person isn’t at all an apt subject for metta practice. The Visuddhimagga tells us why, with a little story:

An elder supported by a family was asked, it seems, by a friend’s son, ‘Venerable sir, towards whom should lovingkindness be developed?’ The elder told him, ‘Towards a person one loves’. He loved his own wife. Through developing lovingkindness towards her he was fighting against the wall all the night. That is why it should not be developed specifically towards the opposite sex. (IX, 6).

I think the next time someone tells me the Visuddhimagga is a dry text, I will remember this poor young man, climbing the walls at night after performing metta towards his wife!