Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reflections on the Karaniya Metta Sutta #5

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.

In this, the fifth of six reflections on the Metta Sutta, we will look at the penultimate section of the sutra, where the Buddha directs us to radiate kindness (metta) in all directions, spreading it upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths. This quality of limitless goodwill, which we studied how to develop with Ajahn Brahm in the fourth reflection in this series, should be sent to every corner of the world, indeed, the universe. Sharing metta in this way, we break down the barriers that perception creates around distance, not only wishing beings well in habitats similar to our own – on land, that is – but also to creatures in the sky and in the oceans, as well as those living underground.

What creatures are found in the skies? Birds, of course, but also flying insects, bats, and people traveling in airplanes; in the depths of the sea we will not only find fish, but also coral creatures, crustaceans, and marine mammals; whilst the earth contains many beings like worms, insects, burrowing mammals and reptiles. All of these various creatures are deserving of our best wishes of loving-kindness, which should be generated outwards and unbounded and freed from hatred and ill will. If the mind questions this, why not try looking at things from one of these creatures’ point of view? Take a worm, for instance. Despite its presumed lower intellectual level compared to (most) humans, and maybe a less sensitive set of emotions, surely a worm does not seek out pain and discomfort? Worms do not want to be eaten, injured or pulled apart by a hungry bird or a curious child playing in the soil. They seek food, a hospitable environment, moisture, and air, but to name a few things that we humans require, too. If we wish all beings well in all directions of the world, it includes these humble little creatures, too, does it not?

As referred to above, the meditation techniques of Ajahn Brahm, designed to cultivate and share metta are an effective way to become a more genuinely loving and caring being. Another way to develop our metta skills is to reflect on specific words or phrases that encourage the production of kindness. In the monasteries and households of Asia, earnest Buddhists have chanted such wise words for centuries, and now in the West, these contemplations are being recited in new temples from England to Australia. One such set of international monasteries is the Western Forest Sangha, headed by the wonderful monk Ajahn Sumedho (currently residing as abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the UK.) As part of their “Suffusion of the Divine Abidings” chant, they include the following words:

I will abide pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving kindness…
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth;
so above and below, around and everywhere; and to all as to myself.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving kindness; abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.
(Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book)

This suffusion of the divine abiding of metta is spread in the six traditional directions of North, South, East, West, the zenith and the nadir, thereby reaching every corner of existence. As well as being inclusive of all other beings, this chant also points out that loving-kindness is felt for oneself also, something that many metta meditations emphasize. We shouldn’t forget ourselves when giving out goodwill, for how can we really feel for others if we don’t care for ourselves? The description of the infinite nature of true kindness is beautifully put in the above chant: “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.” In reciting the chant, and others like it such as the Karaniya Metta Sutta itself, of course, the mind can be trained in developing goodwill. Frequent recitation of these words can seep into the heart, gradually filling it with metta whilst wearing away the negative forces of selfishness, self-hate, and ill will. I myself have used the Metta Sutta in this way: it works!

Thus far in this series of reflections on this wondrous sutra of the Buddha, the cultivation of metta has been centered on formal traditional Buddhist activities such as meditation and chanting. The sutra itself has a broader context for the development of goodwill, however, stating that whether standing or walking, seated or lying down, loving-kindness should be reflected upon. This means that we need to generate metta in our everyday activities, and not just when in a temple or at home, sat in contemplation. And, in a sense, this is the proof of the pudding, so to speak, for it is when in the presence of other beings that our sharing of loving-kindness can have its most profound and immediately visible effects. Feeling warmth towards other beings may make us more patient drivers, less prone to bleeping our horns at the slightest error others make. (And let’s not forget that to err is to be human, or words to that effect.) It may also make us nicer spouses, parents, children, work colleagues, etc. But it is only in applying metta to everyday life that we will witness its affect on others, as well as receive the blessings of its cultivation.

Something else regarding one’s own well being and relating to the cultivation of loving-kindness is that it breeds contentment. The more metta one emits, for others as well as oneself, the more at ease one becomes, replacing previous negativity with a positive attitude of mind that revels in the sharing of goodwill. Put simply, being kind makes one happy. Not only that, it helps one get a good night’s sleep. How? Let me explain. Years ago I had frequent trouble getting to sleep at night, and would often wake up in the small hours, sometimes with the memory of a nightmare still fresh. Various methods were tried out that might induce sleep quickly, but none of them worked, including counting sheep. Baa-baa! Finally, I tried metta meditation, as I led on my bed with my wife happily snoozing besides me. I emitted goodwill to a series of people, much as Ajahn Brahm’s method featured in the last Metta Sutta reflection, and it worked. Before completing the meditation I fell to sleep, and didn’t have a nightmare, either. I continued to use this method for some time, finding that I always fell asleep before finishing the meditation, and that I had a sound night’s sleep to boot. So, not sleeping lately? Try metta!

All this loving-kindness practice, whether while seated in meditation, walking down the high street, standing in a queue, or lying down and trying to get to sleep, should be cultivated free from drowsiness, according to the sutra. (Perhaps the above example of metta-induced sleep seems to contradict this, but in fact it is in the clear-minded focus on goodwill in the method that leads to sleep!) As with everything we do as Buddhists, cultivating loving-kindness should be accompanied by mindfulness, the antithesis of drowsiness. To be alert means that we are able to focus our thoughts towards the harmless and open-hearted emission of metta, rather than allowing them to drift off into irrelevant or even counterproductive states of mind. According to the Buddha, one should sustain this recollection of metta in this consistent manner, allowing it to spread through one’s being and actions, as well as in one’s thoughts. In this way, not only does the world benefit from one’s development of goodwill, but so does oneself, even to the extent that sleepless nights are a thing of the past!

A free e-book containing both the Karaniya Metta Sutta & the Suffusion of the Divine Abidings is available from the following link:

Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book


Barry said...

G, thanks for this series of posts. As a Zen practitioner, I'm interested in the correspondence between the Mahayana aspiration to "save all beings from suffering" and metta practice. Different techniques but same direction.

Thanks again,

JD said...


I have enjoyed your reflections on the metta sutta and this is no exception. It's nice to know that metta practice helped you with nightmares and bouts of insommnia.

An interesting point I would like to make about metta is this, some of the Ajahns have said that for monks metta is not the best practice because it actually draws people to you, something that monks don't want. Another thing is that if one practices well then metta just becomes a natural part of the way one relates. I'm not at all trying to denigrate metta practice at all, but it is an interesting perspective I heard Ajahn Panyavaddho talking about in one of the recorded talks/q &a sessions of his. I must confess, I could certainly use a little more metta in my life as I don't really wish harm on people but I don't always feel particularly warm either. Be well in your practice G.

G said...

Barry: I'm with you in that metta & the Mahayana aspiration to save all beings from suffering are expressions of the same Buddha-heart. To be honest, I see Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana as all part of the Ekayana, the One Vehicle. Metta & karuna are two of the four sublime states, and both carry the wisdom of the Buddha in them, spreading his love to all beings.

Justin: Yes, some monks that wish to concentrate on their own practice don't want to attract too many people around them attracted by warm feelings of goodwill. It all stems from want we need in our practice, doesn't it? And yes, metta, karuna & other positive mind states will naturally arise from one's deepening time.

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

Prabhu Peiris said...

You have done great job describing this sutra. It is a sutra which should be taught to children because it contains alot of things that helps to creat a better human being.

G said...

Thank you Prabhu Peiris for your kind words.
I agree with you that if the meaning of this sutra is taught to children, then they will have a much better chance of growing up to be responsible and caring adults.