Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi
The other day I ran across the Pali word metta again and was surprised as I don’t see the word used often in Buddhist text. The word means loving-kindness. Like most Buddhist expressions it has more of a complex meaning then first appears. Or more accurately, the English translation is lacking some of the subtleties of the Asian usage. The word refers to the human response to feelings of joy and wonder by generating the same type of emotion that love produces. Some times we humans can be so overcome with the joy of living, generally caused by a special event or situation, that our harts are thrown wide open to project love and kindness toward all beings and things. We are overcome with goodwill toward all, at least in that moment. We have all experienced this feeling sometime in our lives. I feel sad for those that haven’t. I think the holiday season that surrounds Christmas is an opportunity where much loving-kindness is expressed towards those we love or consider special in our lives.
Metta is a natural ordinary quality of a happy-mind. I say ordinary because we all have the capacity to experience this self-expression. Sometimes metta appears and disappears quickly; sometimes it stays around for a while. It is not projected toward an individual alone, for that is the ordinary human response to a love object. Metta is all encompassing and projected as a Universal human expression. It’s karmic signature must be huge.
Metta is more about expressions of loving-kindness coming from our social-self. Some Buddhist teachings say that metta is the real nature of our minds, the inner goodness that comes forth when we achieve an egoless state of being. Our minds are filled with unlimited, boundless love, but this love is often covered up, making it difficult to experience metta. We have to be ready for these special moment that is often unexpected. It comes when we let the notion of self go, and just let ourselves be in the moment. That moment will feel like it has no time limit. It is a spiritual event that is not difficult to recognize.
Even ordinary experiences we tend to overlook can be full with metta. Perhaps it is when you hold your child, spend some quite time with a close friend, work in your garden when it is in full bloom, or when your awareness returns from a meditation session. It is true that feelings of loving-kindness is more easy to experience toward those we love. This also is natural. It is more of a challenge to express loving-kindness for those we less respect and care for.
Over the years I have come to realize that not only is metta a loving quality that can arise in my mind unbidden, while alone or with others, it is also a quality of mind that can be cultivated. The Buddha taught meditative practices in order for us to more fully develop metta. I read that Siddhartha first taught metta when a group of monks were practicing meditation deep in the forest. The monks complained that they could not meditate because of the tigers and lions around them. They asked the Buddha if he could make the wild animals go away. He said, “Sorry, I can’t get rid of the animals, but what I can do is teach you how to protect yourself with the practice of loving-kindness.” I can’t say that is a true story of course, but it is a wonderful way of teaching the nature of metta, nonetheless.
Some legends say the monks were no longer afraid because the wild animals felt the love radiating out of the monks body-mind and refused to eat them. This reminds me of the famous Thai monks of today that care for tigers brought to them for refuge. Each monk is assigned an animal for care and feeding. Not a single monk has been attacked. When you watch these monks interact with their tiger it is easy to see the love they have for each other. It’s amazing. So who knows the power of nature to respond to its own code of conduct. This feeling of unconditional love is metta.
So lets talk about this notion of unconditional love. Most of us are use to conditional love. It is how we often develop personal relationships, we negotiate terms, it’s in our genes. But with true metta, you are happy with things exactly as they are. Your loving-kindness does not in any way hinge on the subject of your interest changing themselves, their behavior, or their style to make you like them better. And your metta does not depend on whether or not they return the metta to you. Metta as ‘open loving-kindness’ moves us beyond personal preferences, and thus, the suffering that comes form the complications of such relationships. Can you think of anyone that will accept you just the way you are? That shows love and devotion no matter what? Maybe that would be our dog, if we had one. But I can not think of a better example of unconditional metta than what comes form a dog. Perhaps children.
Feeling angry or fearful sometimes is not always wrong. It comes with our genetic code. These are normal feelings that arise in our mind. But our fear, anger, or hatred separates us form others, which is a unpleasant feeling if we are honest with ourselves. Whereas metta is a feeling of connection. We feel joyous, happy, and lighthearted even, because of this connectedness. I think that the true feeling of metta is being at home in the world. It is interesting how these feelings are often experienced after meditation. Metta is beyond the base human feeling of attraction and desire for others. It takes practice to discern the difference.
Metta can be cultivated and developed. An element of a developed Buddhist practice is to realize spiritual qualities in this life. As the Buddha taught, every being wants to be happy. Each of us has the power to wish themselves this happiness. As we wish others happiness including safety from danger, health and a life free of hardship, when we do this with genuine intent, we experience warm feelings and a sense of good will. This does not happen at once, but takes time to grow into mature and consistent self-projection. We can make it an object for meditation, and let it expand, first though our thoughts, and then into action. A good place to start is toward ourselves, then imagine loving-kind thought towards others, and let the feeling well up inside you, until you fill your being with good thoughts for all living things. We can even expand the practice of sending these feelings towards those we don’t like so much. Later, when our metta practice becomes more developed, we can send thoughts of metta for the whole world.
One meditation technique we teach to our formal students and in our centers is called ‘meditation on altruism’. This meditation practice has as it’s primary purpose that of promoting cultivation of loving-kindness for those we are connected to, as well as the importance of the nature of our social-self. It articulates the reality of our causal and interdependent world. In this form of meditation you begin by find your normal zazen posture and slowly connect yourself through your thoughts to your family and those who are closest to you. Think about the various aspects of this connection including relationships, activities, responsibilities, and emotional bonds. Next extend this pattern of thinking to those you do not know well and also to all humanity, even to those you have disagreement with. Think of how your food is brought to you, how your electricity and natural resources are obtained, or how the vary clothes you have on are made and brought to you. Now extend this altruistic exercise to animals, and the environment. Only end the meditation period when you have connected to all aspects of your life, and your altruistic hand is extended to all beings.
I am quite aware that some of us have a difficult time practicing this kind of absentee form of metta. I have been told by those trying very hard to practice mediating on altruism that no matter how hard they try, feelings of loving-kindness rarely seem to arise in their thoughts. Mostly they just feel frustrated. Or rather than compassion, they might feel anger, grief, or just something like numbness. Not experiencing a feeling of metta during this meditation is a completely normal experience in the beginning, and can be positive. It means that you get to see for yourselves what obstacles block the flow of loving-kindness and that human emotion called compassion. This is positive because it shows you are applying rigorous self-honesty. If this is something you have also experienced, I recommend that you make meditation on altruism your primary technique for awhile. As you send your mind in the direction of metta, you can learn what is really happening in your heart, even if it is painful. Then you can bring your awareness to these states of sadness or aversion, and see what happens as you confront them. The obstacles may dissolve and metta may flow in their place overtime. But remember, sometimes numbness is real in this moment, and we don’t have to try to change anything immediately. Just being aware of this body-mind state is progress too. Our Buddhist practice teaches us how to accept difficult emotions.
So, when you are trying hard to experience metta and you experience an inability to feel loving-kindness, simply breathe, notice what is happening and whether you can be present with it, and investigate the experience. Over time, you will notice some surprising changes. A serious meditation practice does that. I can not explain why some of us seem to have a nature for showing metta, and others have to work hard to let go of preferences that seem to block this aspect of human emotion. I have witnessed or know of many acts of extreme loving-kindness by children, some very young. Children, in fact, seem to have a knack for showing unconditional love. Then they grow up, and those attachments, cravings, and desires get in the way and blinds us to our real natures. How deeply submerged determines how hard we have to work towards being a mature caring social being. For you see, ‘caring’ is a key characteristic in metta.
We can have moments and experience in life when metta spontaneously arises in our hearts and minds. And we have now learned that we can cultivate it though meditation. It is also good to know that we can practice altruistic meditation at any moment, and any time. Something we can add to our daily practice is that every time we hear an ambulance siren, we send metta to whomever was affected by the event. I no longer watch TV by choose, but I remember those social-based commercials that ask for our support for those children suffering in the most poorest parts of our planet. They showed very compelling pictures, I remember. Many would bring strong emotions and sometimes tears for me. I would offer a blessing and send positive thoughts their way. This is a practice that you too can share, and even thoughts can produce positive karmic results somewhere in the Universe.
I don’t know how this mental kind of karma works, but I do know that the one thing I can say for sure is that when you practice metta in your actions you will benefit. You will experience a happiness that comes form wishing happiness for others. Your own life will be transformed, because your body-mind will be filled with love and joy. And more instances of spontaneous metta will just bubble up from inside you. More and more you will find yourself wishing even the most surprising people well.
May we realize the preciousness of each moment, and not squander the gift of life in narrow pursuit of self-serving interests that only narrows our human response to others. Let us each find a way which will open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to the great reality that lies before us in each moment, and so come to realize its greatness manifest in its beauty, and when we share with others our happiness and good will. May we learn the power that a life of showing loving-kindness has for our own liberation.