Understanding Buddhist Metta

Recently, I was reading a good essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu about the meaning of mettā in Buddhism.  Usually, metta is translted as “loving kindness”, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains how a more suitable translation is “goodwill”, which makes sense after reading the article. In particular, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s story about his teacher and the snake really makes an important point: while you don’t wish harm or ill-will toward another being, sometimes you just have to accept the fact that the differences in thinking are simply too great to have any kind of relationship or friendly terms.

The term “loving-kindness” implies a sentimental, emotional, perhaps even “mushy” frame of mind, but as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, there are times when that is simply not appropriate. For example, I once had a heated argument1 with my neighbor regarding property and a certain tree that leans ominously in the direction of my home. About a year later, I tried to patch things up, but she simply blew me off very rudely. I debated maybe doing more to make amends, then I realized that probably the best remedy is to simply leave her in peace. The immediate issue with the tree was addressed, and further reconciliation would have been difficult given our personality differences. So, it was simply better to drop it, and wish the neighbors free from harm, and that’s been my policy since.

But on the other hand, the Buddha was very clear that even if you can’t really get along with someone, harboring any kind of ill-will is out of the question. In the Kakacupama Sutta (MN 21) the Buddha states:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding….”

This is kind of forbearance is a lot harder than it sounds, though.  When I think about the argument a few years ago, I still catch myself sometimes feeling bitter toward that old lady.  Sometimes I also think mean thoughts when someone, usually a young guy (a.k.a. “Cool Guy”) with an expensive car, rides too close behind mine on the freeway, then races past.  I am not proud of it though.  Angry words and thoughts just sort of arises without warning, but then I have to calm myself down and keep the Buddha’s words in mind.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu shows, the Buddha’s teaching even included a simple formula that is still recited among Theravadin communities from the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta (AN 10.176):

May these beings — free from animosity, free from oppression, and free from trouble — look after themselves with ease.

But this sense of goodwill does not just extend to other beings. In a lengthy essay, Acharya Buddharakkhita suggests first starting with oneself. One can wish themselves to be happy and feel free from harm, and gradually this turns outward toward other beings in a sincere, not forced, sort of way.  So, even when I feel I’ve been wronged by someone, and ill-will arises, I try to remember this simple formula.  I don’t think I can be friends with everyone in my life, especially those who I’ve conflicted with, but the least I can do is wish them well and free from harm.  Maybe in a future life we can be friends.  Who knows?

Until then, I can at least wish them well and free from harm.

1 Probably one of the very few times in life when I really blew my top and yelled at someone. I do get angry and frustrated sometimes, but I can’t remember the last time I was yelling at someone to go away. Even then though, I am glad I didn’t use any profanity or anything.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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