Sunday, September 7, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #1

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.

One of the most widely known, recited, and loved sutras in the Pali Tripitaka is the Karaniya Metta Sutta, words of the Buddha that extol the virtues of goodwill, or loving-kindness, as metta is usually translated into English. Goodwill is one of the four sublime states promoted by the Buddha that lead those that nurture them to become better and wiser people. The other three states are compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Although all four sublime states are important aspects of Buddhist development, loving-kindness has always had a special place in the minds of most Buddhists, being considered a most worthy quality to display. Here, as an introduction to this wonderful teaching, we will explore the broad meaning of the sutra, starting with its name, before taking a look at some of the main themes that the Buddha encourages us to contemplate.

Sutta is the Pali equivalent to the Sanskrit sutra, and as such can be understood to mean a ‘discourse’ or ‘sermon’, given either by the Buddha or one of his senior disciples. This particular sutra is credited to the Buddha himself, and its full name roughly means ‘The Goodwill-to-be Developed Sermon’. It is often simply referred to as the Metta Sutta (although there is at least one other sutra known by that name in the Tripitaka), and in this context may be called ‘The Sermon on Loving-Kindness’.

Essentially, the sutra describes the qualities that a Buddhist needs to cultivate to achieve the ultimate end of goodwill, the state of a ‘non-returner’, that is, someone who is at the penultimate stage of enlightenment. This is the meaning of the final line Being freed from all sense-desires, is not born again into this world. A ‘non-returner’ will never be born into this world again, but will take up residence in a heavenly state where they can become fully enlightened. This is because they are not holding to fixed views and are freed from all sense-desires through the practice of loving-kindness that loosens the bonds of attachment to the things of this world. More than a guide on how to near enlightenment, the Metta Sutta also reveals the various qualities that any good human would want to perfect, making those who come into contact with him or her happier in the process. These qualities are both psychological and behavioral, and include honesty, humbleness, contentment, peacefulness, freedom from hatred, ill will, and having a boundless heart that is cherishing all living beings just as a mother would protect her only child.

Regarding the development of such wide reaching and boundless kindness, the sutra includes a section that comprises the wish may all beings be at ease, which is stated twice, no doubt to emphasize its importance in the cultivation of goodwill. And it is made clear that there are to be no exceptions to this generous wish, with various types of beings referred to as being the recipients of loving-kindness. These include the weak, the strong, the seen, the unseen, those nearby and those far away. For, is it not true that the most hideous of murderers and torturers have some people close to them that they love and protect? To care for only those that are family and friends is to do what probably ninety-nine per cent of humanity do, including rapists, thieves and dictators, whereas to develop feelings of loving-kindness towards all beings, whether close to one or not, is surely a much more difficult yet worthy achievement. Even those that one has never met; to extend one’s best wishes to them also is to create a love in one’s heart that transcends the usual limits of our selfish love.

And this is the more general point of this sutra: it points the way to growing beyond oneself and beyond the normal selfish motives of our emotions, even the good ones. For, if we analyze our feelings with detachment, will we not see that often we feel love towards others because they make us feel good? Is it not so that we are kind to those that we hope will be kind back to us, and that if we knew someone would never return our goodwill, perhaps even being abusive towards us, we would never be kindhearted to them in the first place? The loving-kindness that the Buddha refers to in this sutra is much greater than such common or garden emotions. It points to a way of interacting with the world that truly transforms us into selfless beings, one step away from Nirvana.

The sutra itself does not prescribe a specific practice with which to cultivate loving-kindness, unlike other discourses by the Buddha in the Tripitaka that give precise guidelines on how to develop particular meditative experiences. Combining the intent inherent in an attitude of goodwill with meditation techniques can have powerful results, however, and in ancient and modern commentaries on the Karaniya Metta Sutta such practices are laid out in detail. Both Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Brahm of the Western Forest Sangha have taught on how to cultivate metta in the context of mindfulness and meditation. It will be one of the aims of this blog in the near future to explore some of these techniques to encourage the growth of loving-kindness.

Over the coming months Buddha Space will feature regular reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta, taking it line by line, so to extract as much meaning and inspiration from it as is possible within the limitations of a blog. This will be not only a recapitulation of past contemplations on goodwill by the author, but also an ongoing development of this sublime abiding in his own practice, along with the wise words of those Dharma teachers that influenced him. Your thoughts and reflections on this process along with your views and experiences of metta would be greatly appreciated, so feel free to leave a comment or two.

For now, we will turn our attention to the opening lines of the sutra, quoted at the top of this piece. This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness reveals who exactly the teachings herein are aimed at: a person intent on goodness, or being a wholesome and positive being. Cultivating positive attributes is an important aspect of Buddhist practice, and one that is sometimes neglected in favor of more cerebral pursuits, especially amongst Western Buddhists. Precepts, such as the five basic ones of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants, exist to support the other aspects of the Way like meditation, mindfulness, and metta. A modern Buddhist teacher keen to promote morality and the precepts was Master Xuan Hua:

“Precepts are the rules of moral conduct that Buddhist disciples follow. The precepts stop evil and guard against mistakes. When you maintain precepts, you don’t indulge in any bad actions, but instead you conduct yourself properly and you offer up your good conduct to the Buddha… If you study the Buddhadharma without receiving the precepts, you will be a leaky bottle. To keep the precepts is to patch the leaks. The human body has outflows. It leaks. If you maintain the precepts for a long time, eventually there will be no outflows.” (‘The Shurangama Sutra Volume One’ by Master Hua, pp.16- & 17)

With the word Karaniya, the sutra’s title emphasizes that it contains practices that are to be cultivated in the development of metta. The first line also draws our attention to this, stating that what follows is what should be done by those focused on increasing their levels of goodwill. The sutra is even-handed in that it describes both positive and negative qualities that the Buddhist aspirant needs to be aware of in their metta practice. In doing so, it gives us the data we need to distinguish some basic attributes that will increase our goodwill from those that will hinder our progress. This contrasting of positive-negative factors is a technique used greatly by the Buddha in many sutras, revealing his calm and intelligent insight into both human nature and those practices that lead to either positive or negative results. This even-tempered characteristic of the Buddha and his teachings is, in fact, the second factor that he talks of in the Metta Sutta. For not only should one intent on developing loving-kindness be skilled in goodness, but they should also be one who knows the path of peace, that is to say, is calm in their mind and interactions with other beings.

Let them be able and upright, says the Buddha, again bringing attention to the moral aspect of the Way. For, if we are highly skilled in the teachings and philosophy of the Buddhadharma but do not balance this with a pure attitude of the heart, we have yet to reach true wisdom, as that is partially built upon being a good, moral person. Indeed, in traditional Buddhist countries, morality is the first aspect of the path to be taught to children, giving them the sound foundation required to develop wisdom later in life. Otherwise, a person that has only knowledge and understanding of the teachings is liable to nurture unskillful emotions that not only hurt other living beings, but also do harm to their own ability to become wiser Buddhists. This is crystallized in the famous stanza from the Dhammapada, that ancient collection of sayings of the Buddha, where it states:

To avoid all evil,
To cultivate good,
And to cleanse the mind;
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.
(Dhammapada verse 183)

Those who wish to increase their metta rate should also be straightforward and gentle in speech, fulfilling another side to virtuous living that encompasses our words. If we are generally good in our actions yet are dishonest and hurtful in the things that we say, then our morality still has some way to go. The so-called ‘Freudian slip’ when we blurt out something we didn’t consciously mean to say, revealing the inner state of our mind is bad enough when we say untrue or inappropriate things, but when we deliberately lie and say something to offend others, then we really are veering far from the path to wisdom. For, if we are truly humble and not conceited, our speech will naturally reflect this wholesome state of mind, whereas if we have yet to let go of the likes and dislikes of the ego, then at some point our words will show our true colors. A modicum of insight can assist us here, for if we can see that other beings wish for happiness and well-being just as we do, and that arrogant and self-centered behavior will (eventually) bear negative fruit for the perpetrator as much as the recipient, then perhaps we will humble ourselves and behave in friendlier ways that benefit all parties.

The follower of the Way is someone that is contented and easily satisfied; being contented with what one has reduces one’s suffering, and also lessons the drive that causes us to over compete with our fellow human beings, which causes them much pain. Being easily satisfied is an important attribute that means we have a less destructive influence on both the environment and those around us, as we demand less and use up a minimum of resources that are needed by everyone alike. Again, our outer demeanor and actions will reflect our inner state; showing dissatisfaction a lot we display our lack of contentment that is fired up by desires that have yet to be reigned in. Wanting everything to go our way and wanting people to do what we want them to do and then being upset when they follow their own natural course is a sign of both an discontented heart and an unwise mind.

Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways, practitioners of the Buddha Way do not avoid their duties to society, family, friends and Buddhism, but see them in perspective, thereby avoiding being overwhelmed by them. We all have duties, don’t we? Parents have duties to their children, to feed them, dress them, teach them and protect them well; likewise children have responsibilities to their parents later on in life. Spouses have duties to their husband or wife, to love, respect, and care for them through thick and thin. Employees have duties to their employers and vice versa; lay people have duties to the monks and nuns, and the latter also have their responsibilities to householders. Being unburdened with one’s duties means fulfilling them with a happy heart, knowing that one is playing one’s various roles in life, but that they are not the be all and end all of one’s existence. There is more to life, and this is the Buddhadharma that leads to an inner freedom untouched by the responsibilities of human life. Frugality means being unattached to material possessions, freeing the mind and body to focus on the more valuable threefold treasure of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Simply wishing people the best in life is a good thing to do: there’s no disputing that. If done with an immoral, aggressive, dishonest, discontented, extravagant and burdened mind, however, such wishes will have little impact on the world, especially when contrasted with the negative effects that all the above unwholesome characteristics will produce. Virtuous, honest, and peaceful people are bound to have a more positive influence on those around them, and their commitment to the cultivation of loving-kindness will be more successful as it is done from a pure heart. In realizing this and changing the way we live to fit in with the Way of the Buddha, we are already developing the attributes required to becoming truly kind and wise beings, and the effects of this on the world will be there for all to see.

The free ebooks quoted in the above article are available from the following links:

The Shurangama Sutra Volume One
The Dhammapada: A Rendering by Ajahn Munindo


JD said...


I can't seriously hope to add anything more to this at all. It's an enriching exploration. Be well in acting on the wise guidance set out by the Buddha in this wise sutta.

G said...

Thanks, Justin.

As your comment suggests, exploring the sutra is one thing; living it quite another. May we all develop loving-kindness and heal the world!


Unknown said...

So, true G, May we heal the world!