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Metta Bhavana Meditation


The classic formulation of 'metta' as an attitude of mind to be developed by meditation is found in the 'Karaniya Metta Sutta' (Sutta Nipata, Khuddaka-patha). It is recommended that this sutta be recited before beginning meditation, and again at its close, a practice which is invariably followed in the Buddhist countries.

The verses of the sutta embody the highest concept to which the thought of loving-kindness can reach, and it serves both as a means of self-protection against unwholesome mental states and as a subject of contemplation ('kammatthana').

It is taught in Buddhism that the cultivation of benevolence must begin with oneself. There is a profound psychological truth in this, for no one who hates or despises himself consciously or unconsciously can feel true loving-kindness for others. To each of us the self is the nearest object; if one's attitude towards oneself is not a wholesome one, the spring of love is poisoned at its source.

This does not mean that we should build up an idealized picture of ourselves as an object of admiration, but that, while being fully aware of our faults and deficiencies, we should not condemn but resolve to improve ourselves and cherish confidence in our ability to do so.

'Metta bhavana meditation', therefore, begins with the thought: "May I be free from enmity; may I be free from ill-will; may I be rid of suffering; may I be happy." This thought having been developed, the next stage is to apply it in exactly the same form and to the same degree, to someone for whom one has naturally a feeling of friendship. In so doing, two points must be observed: the object should be a living person, and should not be one of the opposite sex.

The second prohibition is to guard against the feeling of 'metta' turning into its "near enemy," sensuality. Those whose sensual leanings have a different orientation must vary the rule to suit their own needs.

When the thought of 'metta' has been developed towards a friend, the next object should be someone towards whom one has no marked feelings of like or dislike. Lastly, the though of 'metta' is to be turned towards someone who is hostile. It is here that difficulties arise. They are to be expected, and the meditator must be prepared to meet and wrestle with them. To this end, several techniques are described in the 'Visuddhimagga' and elsewhere.

The first is to think of the hostile personality in terms of 'anatta' -- impersonality. The meditator is advised to analyze the hostile personality into its impersonal components -- the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the volitional formations and the consciousness. The body, to begin with, consists of purely material items: hair of the head, hair of the body, skin, nails, teeth and so on. There can be no basis for enmity against these.

The feelings, perceptions, volitional formations and consciousness are all transitory phenomena, interdependent, conditioned and bound up with suffering. They are 'anicca', 'dukkha' and 'anatta', impermanent, fraught with suffering and void of selfhood. There is no more individual personality in them than there is in the physical body itself. So towards them, likewise, there can be no real ground for enmity.

If this approach should prove to be not altogether effective, there are others in which emotionally counteractive states of mind are brought into play, as for example regarding the hostile person with compassion.

The meditator should reflect: "As he (or she) is, so am I. As I am, so is he. We are both bound to the inexorable Wheel of Life by ignorance and craving. Both of us are subject to the law of cause and effect, and whatever evil we do, for that we must suffer. Why then should I blame or call anyone my enemy? Rather should I purify my mind and wish that he may do the same, so that both of us may be freed from suffering."

If this thought is dwelt upon and fully comprehended, feelings of hostility will be cast out. When the thought of loving-kindness is exactly the same, in quality and degree, for all these four objects -- oneself, one's friend, the person toward whom one is neutral, and the enemy -- the meditation has been successful.

The next stage is to widen and extend it. This process is a threefold one: suffusing 'metta' without limitation, suffusing it with limitation, and suffusing it in all of the ten directions, east, west, north, south, the intermediate points, above and below.

In suffusing 'metta' without limitation ('anodhiso-pharana'), the meditator thinks of the objects of loving-kindness under five heads: all sentient beings; all things that have life; all beings that have come into existence; all that have personality; all that have assumed individual being. For each of these groups separately he formulates the thought: "May they be free from enmity; may they be free from enmity; may they be free from ill will; may they be rid of suffering; may they be happy. For each object he specifies the particular group which he is suffusing with 'metta': "May all sentient beings be free from enmity, etc... May all things that have life be free from enmity, etc." This meditation embraces all without particular reference to locality, and so is called "suffusing without limitation."

In suffusing 'metta' with limitation ('odhiso-pharana'), there are seven groups which form the objects of the meditation. They are: all females; all males; all Noble Ones (those who have attained any one of the states of Sainthood); all imperfect ones; all Devas; all human beings; all beings in states of woe. Each of the groups should be meditated upon as described above: "May all females be free from enmity, etc." This method is called "suffusing 'metta' with limitation" because it defines the groups according to their nature and condition.

Suffusing with 'metta' all beings in the ten directions is carried out in the same way. Directing his mind towards the east, the meditator concentrates on the thought: "May all beings in the east be free from enmity; may they be free from ill will; may they be rid of suffering; may they be happy!" And so with the beings in the west, the north, the south, the north-east, south-west, north-west, south-east, above and below.

Lastly, each of the twelve groups belonging to the unlimited and limited suffusions of 'metta' can be dealt with separately for each of the ten directions, using the appropriate formulas.

It is taught that each of these twenty-two modes of practicing 'metta bhavana' is capable of being developed up to the stage of a 'appana-samadhi', that is, the concentration which leads to jhana, or mental absorption. For this reason it is described as the method for attaining release of the mind through 'metta' ('metta cetovimutti'). It is the first of the Four Brahma Viharas, the sublime states of which the Karaniya Metta Sutta: "'Brahmam etam viharam idhamahu'" -- "Here is declared the Highest Life."

'Metta', 'karuna', 'mudita', 'upekkha': loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and detachment, these four states of mind represent the highest levels of mundane consciousness. One who has attained to them and dwells in them is impervious to the ills of life. Like a god he moves and acts in undisturbed serenity, armored against the blows of fate and the uncertainty of worldly conditions. And the first of them to be cultivated is 'metta', because it is through boundless love that the mind gains its first taste of liberation.


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