Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goodwill to All (Sentient Beings)

“In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease!
Whatever beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong,
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!”
(Buddha, Karaniya-Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata 1:8, Pali canon)

 In many countries this time of year is when we usually remember the ideal of “goodwill to all men.” In these more ‘enlightened’ modern times, the use of the word “men” is often considered redundant, better replaced with “people,” “everyone,” or simply omitted altogether. So, perhaps “goodwill to all” is more appropriate nowadays. Most reasonably-minded people would surely agree with this, wouldn’t they? After all, are we wishing goodwill only to men or to women & children also? Smiling to a stranger, a friendly greeting & generosity to those in need are all ways in which this worthy sentiment can be put into practice. Indeed, any act of kindness is a manifestation of the wish, “Goodwill to all.”

In Buddhism, goodwill is an important quality praised by Buddha & all wise teachers. Called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit, the main two scriptural languages of Buddhism, goodwill is the subject of many important discourses by Buddha. Also translated as loving-kindness or just kindness, metta is a mental quality that Buddhists are encouraged to develop both in meditative practices & in daily life. One way that it is expressed is in the phrase, “May all beings be happy,” which is also rendered, “May all beings be at ease.” To have goodwill with our family, friends, neighbors & strangers is an important aspect of Buddhist life, and without it we might consider someone only ‘half a Buddhist,’ at best.

Analyzing the phrase, “May all beings be happy,” it’s worth looking at the word “beings.” Why do we use this word and not people or humans? As Buddhists, we foster goodwill for all sentient beings. Any being that is capable of thought, feeling or suffering (dukkha) is worthy of our kindness, and if we open our hearts appropriately, a natural outpouring of goodwill will flow towards all such beings. Traditionally, the list of beings worthy of our goodwill includes not only humans but also gods, demons, ghosts, spirits & animals. Presumably, extraterrestrials are also rightful recipients of metta also, as are conscious, feeling forms of artificial intelligence.

Whether we believe in gods, ghosts and ‘greys’ or not, it is certain that animals qualify as sentient beings, and therefore are appropriate ‘targets’ of goodwill. So, for Buddhists, it isn’t only humans that should receive our goodwill at this time of year, but also dogs, cats, birds, fish, spiders, insects & any other creatures that we encounter. Putting out food & water for birds or other animals during the festive season is a wonderful way to be kind towards our fellow suffering beings, as is a kindly pat on the head as opposed to a kick up the tail! Moreover, perhaps it might be an idea to think of the animals that will be slaughtered for our consumption during the festivities: Do they really need to die so that we can eat their flesh during the holidays? Is a nut cutlet as opposed to a turkey a more kindly choice?

Some might say that all this is good and well, but if our actions are kind but our minds are full of unkind thoughts, isn’t there something inherently contradictory there? Moreover, once the festive period comes to an end, or our patience is pushed too far, won’t the outer thin veneer of kindliness disappear like a mirage, only to be replaced with a rush of anger or ill-will? Well, in truth, the above is quite possible. But, there are practical steps that we can take to not only sustain our goodwill over yuletide, but also beyond into our everyday lives over the coming years. One such way is to cultivate goodwill (called metta-bhavana in Pali), which is a popular practice found across various Buddhist schools in a variety of ways, but all of which share the common goal of developing a mind full of goodwill & harmlessness. The method described below is the one found in very early Buddhist texts, and attributed to Buddha himself. It is not necessary to sit in a cross-legged meditation pose for this practice, though one can if one wishes (especially if the intent is to develop deep levels of concentration, but that isn’t the case here).

“One abides, having suffused with a mind of benevolence one direction of the world, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth, and so above, below, around and everywhere, and to all as to himself; one abides suffusing the entire universe with benevolence, with a mind grown great, lofty, boundless and free from enmity and ill will.”
(Buddha, Vatthupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 7, Pali canon)

Cultivating goodwill this way as often as possible will soften the mind, making it more prone to kindness and less likely to get angry or aggressive towards others. It also facilitates an ability to develop empathy towards others, feeling their pain & hurt, and becoming a better person for it. Another benefit is that one actually becomes happier within oneself, for one is happier with oneself, knowing that kindness and not ill-will dominate the mind. There are other advantages of metta-development described in the early texts which include: “One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The gods protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One's mind gains concentration quickly. One's complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and – if penetrating no higher – is headed for the Brahma worlds (Mettanisamsa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 11:16, Pali canon).”

Now, some of the claims above may seem to be hyperbole, such as being impervious to fire, poison or weapons. But, perhaps this simply means that when one is full of kindness it’s obvious to others and they are therefore unlikely to try to burn, poison or shoot someone they see as kind. Whatever the case, this author can vouch from personal experience that cultivation of goodwill can certainly lead to many of the other claimed benefits, such as a sound sleep, better relation s with those that one meets (both human & animal), and that meditative concentration is facilitated. So, as well as benefitting others through one’s goodwill, one benefits oneself also. Everyone’s a winner with metta! This holiday season, why not try metta meditation, or just being kinder; and why stop there? If we all cultivate goodwill towards each other throughout our lives, what an even more wonderful place this world would be, wouldn’t it?

Related links on this site:Karaniya Metta Sutta
Metta / Loving-Kindness
Metta-bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation)
Karaniya Metta Sutta Reflections

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