In last month’s article, I spoke about my meeting with Jack Kornfield and how his statement, “The purpose of meditation, and the purpose of any spiritual practice, is not to perfect ourselves, but to perfect our love,” has affected me.
I also mentioned that, ultimately, the perfection of our love is really the universal message of all traditions. But the truth is, while many teachers and traditions proclaim the message, they leave it at that. They tell us to “love everyone” or “be compassionate” but there aren’t many teachers who have told us how to do it.
Therefore, I’d like to direct you to a short discourse from a teacher who shows us the way to cultivate perfected, selfless love and compassion. This teacher was Siddartha Gautama, but many of us know him better by his title: the Buddha. The teaching is called the “Metta Sutta” or, Loving-Kindness Discourse.
This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness
and who wishes to attain the state of Peace and Wisdom (Nirvana):
Let one be capable, upright, exceedingly upright,
easy to speak to, gentle, and humble.
Let one be content, not a burden to others but easily supported,
with but few responsibilities, and living simply;
with the senses composed and serene, let one be prudent, courteous,
not proud or demanding, unswayed by the emotions of others;
and let one not commit the slightest wrong
for which the wise would later reprove.
Let one contemplate and wish:
May all beings be happy and safe.
May their hearts rejoice within them.
Whatever living beings there may be—
whether they are weak or strong, omitting none;
the great or the mighty; medium size, short, small, or large;
those seen and those unseen; those dwelling near and far away;
those born as well as those yet to be born—
may all beings be happy at heart.
Let no one deceive another, nor despise anyone in any place.
Let no one through anger or hatred wish harm upon another.
Just as a mother protects her child, her only child, with her very life,
even so with a boundless heart of love let one cherish all living beings.
Let one radiate boundless love over the entire world—
spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths;
in all directions—without any obstruction,
completely free from hostility or hatred.
While standing or walking, sitting or lying down,
as long as one is awake, without laziness,
let one sustain this recollection (mindfulness) of love.
This is said to be Noble Living,
and this is called the Sublime Abiding.
By not falling into wrong views—
being virtuous, endowed with ultimate clarity and insight,
having discarded greed for sensual desires—
then truly, never again will one return to be conceived in a womb.
While the Metta Sutta is a very short teaching, it is a profound one. For, in this teaching, the Buddha laid it all out. Not only does he tell us how to purify the heart and mind, so that we can develop altruistic, selfless love toward all beings, but in the final words of the teaching, he says that if we work at this, it will lead us all the way to full enlightenment!
So, let’s take a closer look at this short but important teaching.
The teaching begins by saying: “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness and who wishes to attain the state of peace and wisdom.” First of all, notice he says, “skilled.” Skills are things we must learn; painting is a skill, riding a bike is a skill, cooking is a skill. Well, the Buddha says that “goodness” (being kind, loving, and compassionate) is also a skill. It’s something we must learn how to cultivate.
And right after this, he says, “to attain the state of peace and wisdom.” “Attain” means “to gain.” It means that what the Buddha’s about to teach us comes through our own effort. No one can do this for us. We are going to have to do the work ourselves.
Let’s look at where the work must begin. The Buddha doesn’t go directly into talking about how to love others. He speaks about the qualities that must be cultivated within us first. Many scholars say the Buddha begins the sutta by first speaking about morality. But, I say it is more than this. I say there is a deeper meaning to why the Buddha begins as he does. In fact, how he begins is very important because he is saying that before we can truly love others and generate compassion, we must first work on perfecting and purifying ourselves.
He then goes on to list what we must work on:
“Let one be capable.” This means we should be able to take care of ourselves. Let us be self-reliant and not dependent on anyone or anything. The reason being, if we are dependent on anyone, we cannot truly and fully perfect our love because subconsciously we will be living in fear. We will be fearful of what will happen to us if the other person is taken from us. We will always be thinking about how we are going to survive if we lose our loved ones. Fear and perfected love cannot exist in the same heart and mind. And so, what being “capable” does is give us self-confidence and makes us secure. This allows the space for perfected love and compassion to grow within us.
The Buddha then goes on to say we must be “upright, exceedingly upright, easy to speak to, gentle, and humble.” “Upright,” in this context, means we must be honest and truthful in our words, but also true to ourselves. “Easy to speak to” means that we are not angered or offended by the slightest thing. While “gentle and humble” means that we are not proud. Pride is a feeling that we are somehow better than others. Therefore, we can think of pride as “ego-centeredness.” This indicates that there is selfishness within us. And selfishness is perhaps the greatest obstacle to perfected love and the spiritual path. In fact, perfected love is never selfish, but completely selfless.
Next, the Buddha says, “Let one be content, not a burden to others but easily supported, with but few responsibilities, and living simply…” This means that we appreciate and are satisfied with what we have. We need to realize that running after external things for our happiness is a never-ending and self-defeating cycle because the happiness we find in “things” external from ourselves is fleeting. After we get what we want, we immediately go looking for the next thing to bring us happiness. Ultimately, we are trapped in a vicious cycle that can never bring us peace. If we want peace, we must learn to be content and let go of certain desires. It’s desire that is the cause of turmoil within us. Until this turmoil is quenched, our love cannot be perfected.
When the Buddha speaks of “few responsibilities,” he means that we shouldn’t get too caught up in the world. It’s the same teaching of Jesus, who said, “Be in the world, but not of it.” Yes, modern society places a great amount of responsibility upon our shoulders, and sometimes we feel it’s impossible to stop for even a minute. But, we must remember to take the time to contemplate, meditate, look within, and come home to our center each day. We need to create an atmosphere of peace within ourselves, if we wish the perfected love of our true nature to become manifest.
The Buddha ends the first part of this teaching by saying we must be master of our senses and minds to the extent that the reactions of others do not sway us from our center. We must be mindful of every action so that we can respond appropriately rather than how we’ve been conditioned to habitually react. This sort of mindfulness is cultivated and strengthened through a daily meditation practice.
We will only be able to fully love others after working on and changing ourselves. And this is why I say that the first part of the loving-kindness teaching goes deeper than just a teaching about morality. The Buddha is saying that we must first purify our own self. We must get rid of the impurities within our body and mind so that perfected love can be cultivated. And we do this by continually wishing and holding within our minds the thought: “May all beings be happy and safe. May their hearts rejoice within them.”
The Buddha then makes sure we understand what he means by “all beings.” Whatever is living, be they big, small, large, thin, living near or far, visible to the eye or invisible, be they living on this earth or looking to be reborn—we must keep well-wishes in mind for all without limit or distinction. We cannot just casually hope for happiness for family and friends or those within our community, state, or country. We must cultivate a sincere wish and desire for the happiness of each and every being.
Then the Buddha says, “Just as a mother protects her child, her only child, with her very life, even so with a boundless heart of love let one cherish all living beings.”
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
But the Buddha gives us some help. He tells us to think about our past lives. Call to mind the fact that we’ve been reborn countless numbers of times and had many fathers, mothers, and children. We don’t recognize them during this lifetime. And therefore, we never know when we are interacting with another being if the essence within that person cared for us as a parent, or if we birthed and cared for them as a child. The Buddha says if we laid the bones of all our fathers and mothers end to end they would circle the planet numerous times.
Therefore, as we go about our day, we should challenge ourselves to try to hold onto the idea that all the people who cross our path may have been our father, our mother, or our child. If we can sincerely hold such a thought, it can help us cultivate a feeling of love and compassion for others.
Next Buddha says, “While standing or walking, sitting or lying down…let one sustain this recollection (mindfulness) of love.” This is the Buddha’s way of saying, “This is the thought that must be held within our minds 24/7.” Think about it: standing, sitting, walking, and lying down—that covers all the positions and activities we are performing throughout an entire day. That is how much attention we must devote to this loving thought-energy.
Finally, the Buddha ends the teaching by saying, this is “noble living.” This is the divine life. If one is able to live this way, and keep this thought in mind, “then truly, never again will one return to be conceived in a womb.”
There you have it, a simple and short teaching with a great and profound benefit—no rebirth! Full enlightenment!
The only “problem” or obstacle is that no one can do this for us. No one can take us to this final goal but us. We must walk the path. And unless we set our feet on the path, there’s no way for our love to be perfected and for us to reach liberation.
So, the way is shown. The map is in your hands. I encourage and challenge you all to embark on this journey because the world needs more of us to cultivate kind, loving and compassionate hearts.
I wish you luck!
May all your days be filled with an abundance of love, happiness, and peace; and may your hearts always rejoice within you!
Author: Anthony Profeta
Editor: Travis May