The Practice of Metta Bhavana

by Francis Story

Metta bhavana is the most universally beneficial form of discursive meditation, and can be practiced in any conditions. Thoughts of universal, undiscriminating benevolence, like radio waves reaching out in all directions, sublimate the creative energy of the mind. With steady perseverance in metta bhavana a point can be reached at which it becomes impossible even to harbor a thought of ill-will. True peace can only come to the world through minds that are at peace, If people everywhere in the world could be persuaded to devote half an hour daily to the practice of metta bhavana, we should see more real advance towards world peace and security than international agreements will ever bring us. It would be a good thing if, in this new era of the Buddha Sasana, people of all creeds could be invited to take part in a world-wide movement for the practice of metta bhavana and pledge themselves to live in accordance with the highest tenets of their own religion, whatever it may be. In so doing they would be paying homage to the Supreme Buddha and to their own particular religious teacher as well, for on this level all the great religions of the world unite. If there is a common denominator to be found among them, it is surely here, in the teaching of universal loving-kindness which transcends doctrinal differences and draws all being together by the power of a timeless and all-embracing truth.

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) [See appendix]. 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, 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: [see Nyanaponika Thera, The Four Sublime States, Wheel 6.] 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.

Loving Kindness as a Contemplation

Metta Sutta


From the Sutta Nipata, verses 143-52
(Spoken by the Buddha)

What should be done by one skillful in good
So as to gain the State of Peace is this:

Let him be able, and upright, and straight.
Easy to speak to, gentle, and not proud,
Contented, too, supported easily.
With few tasks, and living very lightly,
His faculties serene, prudent, and modest,
Unswayed by the emotions of the clans;
And let him never do the slightest thing
That other wise men might hold blamable.

(And let him think:) "In safety and in bliss
May creatures all be of a blissful heart.
Whatever breathing beings there may be,
No matter whether they are frail or firm,
With none excepted, be they long or big
Or middle sized, or be they short or small
Or thick, as well as those seen or unseen,
Or whether they are dwelling far or near,
Existing or yet seeking to exist,
May creatures all be of a blissful heart.

Let no one work another one's undoing
Or even slight him at all anywhere;
And never let them wish each other ill
Through provocation or resentful thought."

And just as might a mother with her life
Protect the son that was her only child,
So let him then for every living thing
Maintain unbounded consciousness in being,
And let him too with love for all the world
Maintain unbounded consciousness in being
Above, below, and all round in between,
Untroubled, with no enemy or foe.
And while he stands or walks or while he sits
Or while he lies down, free from drowsiness,
Let him resolve upon this mindfulness
This is Divine Abiding here, they say.
But when he has no trafficking with views,
Is virtuous, and has perfected seeing,
And purges greed for sensual desires.
He surely comes no more to any womb.