The ninth of the 10 paramis, the perfections of Theravaden Buddhism, is Metta, Loving Kindness.
The Buddha’s words from the Metta Sutta are quite clear:
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
This is the mind state that the practice leads you to, a state where no matter what arises, no matter what someone might do or say, you always, without fail, wish them well. No one is excluded.
This mind state arises because you no longer see any separateness. There is no self to be protected. There is no “other” to guard against.
What gets in the way, what stops you from “being” in this way? The traditional teachings speak of the “near” and “far” enemies of metta, desire and ill-will.
The near enemy is a mind state that masquerades as loving kindness.
You act kindly towards someone, but there is an underlying motivation. You expect something in return. Your kindness is not unbounded. You are bound by your own needs and wants.
“I’ll act kindly towards you, but I expect you to do the same.” You want your kindness to be reflected back towards you, so that you can feel loved, appreciated, wanted.
In a sense this goes right back to the beginning of the Buddha’s teachings. The second noble truth says that the cause of suffering is desire. If you fall into the near enemy of metta you end up not alleviating suffering, but causing more suffering, both for yourself and others.
This is where truthfulness, the seventh parami comes strongly into play. You have to be totally honest with yourself about your motivations. Are you really “radiating kindness” or are you simply acting out of your own insecurities; seeking approval, praise, confirmation of your own self-worth? Are you acting from a place of oneness or are you simply reinforcing your sense of self, of separateness.
The far enemy, ill-will, is the opposite of metta.
It is easy to find yourself in a place where you feel loving kindness towards all beings, except this person or that group, who you think of as bad or wrong or even evil, not deserving of your goodwill. This is another way you reinforce your sense of separateness, of self and other. As long as you hold on to these unwholesome emotions, you are bound by them.
I had an interesting experience about this on one of my long retreats. We had been working with metta as a formal practice including working with what is called “the difficult person”, someone who you normally have thoughts of ill-will towards. Part of the practice is to visualize the person you are thinking of.
During the morning question period a woman said:
“I’m working with a very difficult person. I can only visualize him sitting on the far side of the room from me. He is tied to the chair, and has a gag in his mouth. Is this OK?”
A ripple of nervous laughter ran through the room, but the teacher didn’t hesitate for a second. All he said was “Good start!”
Better to offer thoughts of loving kindness to this person, even in this limited way, then to be filled with thoughts of ill-will, anger and fear. As long as you are caught in afflictive emotions you are held by them, controlled by them. You are caught in the world of self and other? Your loving kindness is not “unbounded”.
This woman was consciously working to relieve her suffering, to take off the chains of fear and ill-will, to forgive,
It is important that you don’t get caught in the new-age fallacy that you have to “love everyone”.
You don’t! In fact you don’t even have to like everyone. There will always be people that for some reason or other just rub us the wrong way. You need to understand that no matter what these people are like, they are just like you. They want to be happy.
You simply need to wish these people happiness. Then you will be “freed from hatred and ill-will.”
What would this be like? A few lines later the metta sutta answers that question.
“This is said to be the sublime abiding.”
This is where the practice can take us, to a place where we no longer suffer, or cause suffering for others. Something I can at least aspire to.
*Author’s note: This is the ninth of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages you to develop. All of the other articles were also published in elephant journal.
Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.
Ed: Dana Gornall