Metta is the first of the four brahma-viharas in Buddhism. The brahma-viharas are commonly known in the West as the heart practices, and the actual term translates to heavenly abodes. These are qualities of the heart that we cultivate both in formal meditation practice and in our daily lives.
What is Metta?
Metta is a Pali word and lacks a perfect English translation. The most common translation used is the term loving-kindness. We prefer to use the term “gentle friendliness” as a translation. The word met actually comes from the word for friendliness, and shares a root in Pali with the word for gentleness. As such, we can look at what these two English words mean to us in order to better understand what metta is.
What does it mean when somebody is gentle? When you think about a time that a friend or loved one was gentle with you, what comes to mind? Metta has this quality of gentleness to it. When we speak, act, and think with metta, we behave in a way that is gentle both to ourselves and those around us. This doesn’t mean we cannot set firm boundaries or should not be assertive. Sometimes the most gentle thing is not the softest and fluffiest. A gentle disposition is one that doesn’t wish to cause harm, that cares for the wellbeing of others, and is aware of what others are experiencing.
The other word worth investigating here is friendliness. Friendliness is a quality of kindness, caring, and goodwill. When we think of a time that someone has been friendly toward us, we may think of something simple like somebody holding the door open for us, offering us a smile, or just listening. Metta can be understood by looking at this quality of friendliness and recognizing the open heart.
As we cultivate lovingkindness in metta practice, we allow the heart to open to both others and ourselves. We find ourselves responding with this friendliness to experience. It doesn’t happen overnight; it is a practice that takes time. When we are present with metta, the mind is gentle and caring. It may come and go at times, but metta is a quality that is unconditional. Metta is not dependent upon others actions or behavior, nor upon what is happening in our experience. We extend the open heart to all of life’s experience.
The Near Enemy of Metta
Each of the four brahma-viharas has both a near enemy and a far enemy. The near enemy is a quality that seems similar to the specific brahma-vihara, but is actually harmful. The near enemy of metta is attachment. When we care deeply for somebody, we can become attached to their wellbeing or happiness. This is harmful because somebody else’s wellbeing is not dependent upon our wishes for them. We can care and extend metta toward beings without trying to control or attaching. This doesn’t mean metta is a removed or distant caring. It simply means that we care, and recognize the truth that other beings are in charge of their own karma.
The Far Enemy of Metta
The far enemy of metta is a quality that is essentially the opposite of metta. It’s important to be aware of this because we often run into the far enemy while trying to cultivate any heart practice. The far enemy of metta is ill-will or hatred. This is fairly plain to see. Goodwill is the opposite of ill-will, and love is the opposite of hating. When we sit in metta meditation, we often find ourselves faced with feelings or thoughts of ill-will. It doesn’t have to be as strong as “hate.” It can be a simple thought of unfriendliness. This is perfectly normal, and we are just to be aware of it and notice it when it arises. As we continue to practice cultivating metta, ill-will naturally subsides.
Metta Practice and Metta Meditation
We cultivate metta through formal metta practice. This is traditionally done by the repeating of phrases. These phrases are repeated in order to continually set the intention to open the heart. When we sit in metta, we bring to mind somebody in our lives and offer them these wishes of wellbeing. We don’t always have an experience of kindness and friendliness, but this doesn’t mean that the practice is not working. Even when it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, the heart is often opening slowly. It takes repeated effort and continual practice to cultivate the quality of metta.
Commonly used metta phrases include:
-May you be happy
-May you be healthy
-May you be safe
-May you be at ease
We repeat these phrases slowly and deliberately, recognizing the intention behind the words. At the bottom of this post, you can find a few guided metta meditations.
Metta Sutta and Origin
It can be helpful to know the origin of the practice of metta, and what the actual metta sutta says. As with many stories from the suttas, the story of the Buddha teaching metta may be understood either literally or allegorically.
The Buddha had sent a group of monks off to sit in silence on a retreat in a forest. When the monks arrived and began their meditation practice, they quickly realized that the forest was inhabited by all kinds of spirits. With great fear, the monks ran back to the Buddha to tell him that the forest was full of evil spirits and they did not want to meditate there. The Buddha then gave the monks the practice of metta, telling them to return to the forest and offer the practice to the spirits. When the monks returned to the forest, they sat in metta meditation, offering wishes of wellbeing to these “evil” spirits. They came to grow friendly with the spirits over time, and the spirits even began protecting the monks while they sat in meditation.
This story illustrates how metta practice can help us change our relationship with experience. What was initially scary became friendly and gentle. The spirits themselves didn’t change; the monks’ perspective and experience changed.
There are many translations of the Karaniya Metta Sutta, the supposed original words of the Buddha on metta. Here is one translation from the monks at Amaravati Monastery:
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living 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.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.
This sutta is very insightful. We can learn a lot about metta by investigating the words carefully in the metta sutta. Each line carries with it an important message and teaching.
One of the best ways to begin investigating metta is to sit with guided instruction. You can enter your email below and we will send you a metta guided meditation which you can stream any time or download to your computer or phone!