Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #3

Whatever 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.

In this third section of the Metta Sutta, it makes absolutely clear who is to receive feelings of loving-kindness – every living creature in existence. Whatever beings there may be emphasizes this general point that the heart producing true metta knows no boundaries, and does not pick and choose who to have goodwill for and not. If I feel kindness towards my family, friends and colleagues, how is that different from any run-of-the-mill person that cares for those close to them? Moreover, is it that different to the positive feelings that a despot or serial killer might have for the special people in their lives? Metta is greater than this: it is a love that is inclusive not exclusive, shared with whatever beings there may be in this world or any other.

Following this general point that metta is meant for all, the sutra next goes into more detail, giving examples of the various beings that make up potential recipients of goodwill, starting with the great or the mighty. Now, the great could mean those that are great in size, or those great in their achievements or social standing, such as famous entertainers, politicians, scientists, or religious types. Mighty can have similar connotations also, of course. In the context of the sutra, where the following words refer to those that are medium, short, or small, we might take it that the Buddha was referring to physically big and powerful beings. But, as the wisdom of a Buddha is without bounds, we can also interpret his words to mean those considered great and mighty in societal terms, and, in the all-inclusive spirit of metta, those not so great.

It is common for human beings to respect or even idolize those people that we consider great and mighty. We may revere an actor such as Tom Cruise, a political figure like Nelson Mandela, a scientist such as Albert Einstein, or a religious figure like the Buddha. Having feelings of goodwill to successful and influential people like these can be very easily cultivated, and hero-worship is a common phenomenon in human society, where amazingly diverse figures can be the recipients of people’s devotion and goodwill, modern examples being the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, Roger Federer and Celine Dion! All great in one sense of the word or another, and all readily cared for by their followers. But true goodwill also cares for the less famous and not so mighty.

Considering the great or the mighty to mean big beings, along with medium, short, or small, it can be seen that the Buddha encourages us not to judge potential recipients of our metta by their physical stature, any more than by how successful we consider them to be. Feeling loving-kindness towards an elephant or a dog is pretty commonly found amongst humans, but how many of us can say we have wished all the best to an ant or a microbe? When being buzzed by a bee or a mosquito, how would you respond? With metta, or with a swipe and a curse? True loving-kindness is felt for even the tiniest, most annoying insect, not just a cute poodle or a majestic elephant. “May all gnats be at ease!” is not something heard often, but in the light of the teachings of the Buddha, perhaps it should be!

Nor should our development of loving-kindness be restricted to those beings that we come into contact with. Both the seen and the unseen are included in the sutra’s list of those deserving of metta, as are those beings that are living near and far away. Again, it’s easier to feel kindness towards those people and other beings that one has met or seen, but those that are unknown to one are less comfortably incorporated into the development of metta. Not knowing their appearance, their characters, or even their species, can make it difficult to generate loving-kindness for them. But, if one’s metta is to be truly transcending, then it needs to be boundless, traveling across the space that divides us, extending to the possible creatures that dwell on other worlds. Like the boy Elliot in Stephen Spielberg’s movie E.T., we can even care for extraterrestrials, if our cultivation of goodwill is great enough!

Genuine loving-kindness isn’t limited to those beings presently in existence, however, for those to be born should receive our goodwill, not only those already born. So, time as well as space is to be no hindrance to true metta; all future beings are to be included in the expansive scope of one’s kindly wishes.

But, what of the actual wish may all beings be at ease, often translated as “may all beings be happy”, which amounts to much the same thing; what form should or could it take. Well, obviously the way the Buddha himself presents in the sutra is just fine for the purpose of generating feelings of goodwill to limitless beings, but if one wants to be more specific in what one is actually wishing for all these creatures, there are examples found in Buddhism. Many, many, generations of followers of the Way have reflected on metta and come up with various elaborations and variations on the sentiments the Buddha describes in the Metta Sutta. One such variation that is recited on a daily basis by Buddhists across the world is found in the Reflections on Universal Well-Being:

May everyone abide in well-being, in freedom from hostility, in freedom from ill-will, in freedom from anxiety, and may they maintain well-being in themselves. May all beings be released from all suffering, and may they not be parted from the good fortune they have attained. (From the ‘Reflections on Universal Well-Being’ in the Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book)

Here, metta is expressed as the heartfelt wish that all beings should experience “freedom from hostility” and “ill-will”. Such negative attitudes come in many forms of course, all of them debilitating and causing much suffering in the receiver. Hostility can be both verbal and physical; it can also be both active and passive. A hostile glance can be just as hurtful as harsh words, and no one would deny the damage done both in body and in mind by a serious physical assault. In the above wish, it is hoped that beings may be freed from such suffering.

Anxiety and a lack of well-being are important aspects to a happy and content life, as well. If we are in constant worry over our safety, money matters, or matters of the heart, we will suffer. Being anxious can eat away at our sense of well-being, not only causing psychological problems but also affecting our physical health. Having a healthy body can be a source of great contentment, just as having a sound mind. If we are unwell in our body we can suffer mentally as well; it is a commonly heard modern piece of wisdom that mind and body affect each other, sometimes with dire results. Of course, in such traditions as Buddhism, such knowledge has been known for millennia, but we moderns are only recently catching up with this knowledge of our forebears.

“May all beings be released from suffering” lies at the heart of this daily reflection, and indeed forms the essence of the cultivation and sharing of metta for the Buddhist. This is because suffering has been emphasized from the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma to the present day. It is because beings suffer that we feel for them, and because of the Buddha Way and such practices as sharing metta that we have a way to help them and ourselves move away from suffering and its hold on our lives. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, Nirvana, is the very transcendence of suffering. In this light it can be seen that this reflection on metta is actually wishing that all beings realize Nirvana.

There is also a reference to karma in the above reflection on loving-kindness, too, with the wish that beings are “not parted from the good fortune they have attained”. Here “good fortune” means the results of positive karma or actions from the past reaping positive effects in the present or future. That karma and its fruits are referred to in this reflection is important, for it is partially in the context of past actions that the present, including at least some of the suffering that we experience, takes place. Although Buddhism is not, as some might think, a fatalistic religion, it does recognize the relationship between the past and the present and the present and the future. Cause and effect are central to the Buddhadharma, and this is where metta comes in, for in producing loving-kindness one is creating good karmic results for both oneself and others.

A free e-book containing both the Karaniya Metta Sutta & the Reflections on Universal Well-Being is available from the following link:

Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book


JD said...

Excellent relection G. As always you leave nothing out so there isn't much to comment on but I think I'll add a little bit of my own reflections on the part of the sutta you reviewed this week.

As a a pro life person myself, I find that the phrase "those born and to be born" could be used in the context of abortion. Your views on this or the views of others on it are none of my business, but for me that phrase along with my own interpretation of it strengthens my pro life position.

Also, the refrence to "seen and unseen" to me also means all the other beings in the different realms that the Buddha talked about. If the suttas are right then there are beings suffering in hells and enjoying bliss in the heavens and in both of those extremes Nibbana is far away. They need all the merit and kindness they can get as do ghosts and wild animals since they might not be able to practice the Dhamma.

Ajahn Geoff often talks about spreading goodwill for ourselves and others before a meditation session and I think that is a good thing. He also brings up the reason behind it which is that everyone finding true happiness would be a good thing and that our wishing harm on others doesn't help either ourselves or other beings at all.

I have found that over the years I have cultivated a willingness to act in benevolent ways towards insects and things that in the past I would have not given any thought to harming. I don't believe I could kill even one of the brown widows at the mailboxes for anything but the conditions for that benevolence had to be cultivated.

A great sutta and great reflections G. I hope you and your other readers derive great benefit from reading the sutta and your reflections and then making it a part of their lives.

JD said...

reflection, not relection. My mindfulness must have lapsed or something.

G said...

You haven't been thinking about the election over there in the States, have you, Justin, and mixed it up with the word reflection? Never mind; such brief lapses in mindfulness happen to us all from time to time. (At least you don't get people's names mixed up!)

Lovely to read of your own reflections & actions regarding metta, Justin. Cultivating goodwill before or during a meditation session can really have positive results in practice - for oneself & others.


Kyle said...

“May all beings be released from suffering” lies at the heart of this daily reflection, and indeed forms the essence of the cultivation and sharing of metta for the Buddhist. This is because suffering has been emphasized from the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma to the present day. It is because beings suffer that we feel for them, and because of the Buddha Way and such practices as sharing metta that we have a way to help them and ourselves move away from suffering and its hold on our lives. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, Nirvana, is the very transcendence of suffering. In this light it can be seen that this reflection on metta is actually wishing that all beings realize Nirvana."

I could not have said this better. I think this metta, this wishing all beings to be freed from suffering truly encompasses the heart of Buddha's compassion, and one we should continue today.

Beautifully written post!

madsolitaire said...

I am ashamed to say that i still have a lot of problems with cockroaches, lizards, maggots and other squirmy friends :-(

G said...

Yes, Kyle, metta is such an important aspect of the Buddhadharma. Sometimes Buddhists can hark on and on about wisdom - and so they should - but then forget to mention metta or compassion (karuna). There would seem to be an imbalance present if goodwill is not expressed and acted upon by a Buddhist.

Well, Solitaire, why not try out some of the metta chants or reflective practices when next confronted by such creatures? Contemplating that these beings are also subject to suffering may help you develop feelings of loving-kindness towards them. Even the most ugly, squirmy thing is worthy of our metta, isn't it?

May you be well in the Dharma,

madsolitaire said...

Thank you, G. I have tried what you have suggested, and many times more. Perhaps men are able to deal with this better. As a woman, i can't help but scream if any squirmy friends happen to drop by. And most times, i will just run away from them. I have no wish to harm them in any way, but i just wish they wouldn't care to visit me too often..

G said...

Oh, it's fear, then? I always tell my wife that the little creatures she's so afraid of are probably even more scared of her, being the giant that she is compared to them!

Perhaps you have karmic affinities with them, and that's why they come to visit you! (I try to remember this when dealing with mosquitoes in the house - I catch them and let them go outside.)

Be well in the Dharma, Solitaire.

puthujjana said...

Hi G, I'm enjoying this exploration. Thanks so much! I've had more difficulty with this teaching than any other. I think it is due to the way we tend to throw the word "love" around so loosely. So perhaps it was that translation to loving-kindness that had thrown me in the past.

May all beings be at ease


G said...

Glad to read your words again, Kris. Good to have you back!

Perhaps the meaning can get lost in translation sometimes. 'Goodwill' & 'kindness' are pretty good English versions of 'metta'. 'Loving-kindness' does include the element of the deep caring that a mother can have for her child, however, which the others lack. But, as you wrote, Kris, the use of the word 'love' can be so overused in society that it loses its meaning. It can also have nuances of attached love as well, which is not metta, either. This is why I use all three translations in different places.

May we give & receive much metta,

pb said...

I'm not convinced that gnats suffer. Peter Singer summarizes research about animal suffering(he was focusing on edible animals) and concludes that clams, for instance, do not, or at least no more than a plant. If a clam does not suffer then I cannot believe that a gnat suffers. I am therefore willing to kill gnats, if the necessity arises. I am also willing to kill disease-bearing insects when they cross my path, such as mosquitos. I would absolutely kill any cockroach that crosses my path and will be more than happy to kill all its progeny as well, if I can find them. I am also "for" the killing of viruses and bacteria that are harmful to human beings and other animals. There are parasites that cause immense suffering for human beings and other animals, and I would support their elimination. If I had bed bugs (which thankfully I don't), I would take every measure possible to eradicate them. I guess I'm saying that I take a moderated approach to the practice of loving kindness. I think it goes too far and is not realistic to attempt to include non-sentient beings who cause immense suffering to humans and other sentient beings within the scope of our loving kindness.

G said...

Personally, pb, if I'm not sure that a gnat suffers or not, then I will not take chances and not kill it. If you, on the other hand, kill insects out of a sense of compassion for other sentient beings, I wouldn't condemn such actions. We all have to apply the Buddhdharma to our lives as best we can. In my life, I find no need to kill insects (even though I live in tropical Thailand), but that's me.

Be well & thanks for the comment,