Reflections On Metta
by Ajahn Sumedho
“Metta is not blinding; it means that you are willing to admit weaknesses, faultswithin your experience of life, without making that into anything. It’s a clarity: the mind is clear, radiant, bright and reflective, rather than just a pink cloud that we blot out every ugly thing with. That’s not metta, that’s projecting a pink cloud from your mind”
WHEN WE USE THE REFLECTIVE CAPACITY, we can see the way things are – even in the most ordinary things. If we forget and get caught up in our desires and fears, we don’t really notice the obvious; we’re just caught up in a world of our own creation. Things can be wonderful on a conditioned plane sometimes, but if we’re too lost in fear or desire, we’re not even aware of it. I see that in many people; everything’s perfectly all right, nothing wrong, but they’re completely caught in a mood, lost in some kind of desire or fear. So they’re not aware any more, not mindful of the way things are; they’re lost in proliferations which they create. Because our tendency is to do this, we need to keep reminding ourselves, establishing mindfulness around the way things are right now.
Reflection allows us to see that all our hopes or fears for the future are merely what they are in the present: they’re perceptions that go through the mind. They’re not anything to give any great importance to. Some things seem more significant than others, but that’s just the way it is; it’s not anything we need to grasp. So our way is always being fully with the way it is now, with the body the way it is now, with the world the way it is now; the mood, the conditions of the mind, to know them as they are now, for what they are. Anger is just anger, it’s no longer a person, it’s just what it is. If there’s anger in the present, then it’s just that.
In your meditation, as you feel calm and your mind starts feeling very peaceful and serene, then maybe nasty thoughts, or angry, irritable thoughts enter your mind; and of course, in contrast to the more exalted feelings that one might be having, these are not wanted, are they? Especially if you’ve been abiding in rather peaceful and serene mental states, then these rather selfish, unkind, irritable, unpleasant thoughts are unwanted. But ‘reflection’ means that we see them as just what they are, whether it’s an exalted thought – some lovely, altruistic thought – or some selfish, petty thought. When we reflect on it, it’s just what it is: it arises and it ceases. So we can bear with the pettiness and the irritations. We can be patient and reflect on it rather than suppress it or react to it.
As we begin to understand the mind more and more, and abide in the purity of being in the present, we can feel a kind of goodwill, or metta, towards all creatures. I like this word ‘goodwill’, because metta is a very positive radiance of mind where you’re radiating goodwill outwards, you’re wishing people well and what is good. It’s a generous act, a giving forth – willing that which is good towards people. We have this power to will things, don’t we? We have the will-power, and this can be used as a radiance from the mind, from the heart, towards all beings. When our life isn’t a reaction any more to pleasure and pain, when it’s not conditioned by indulgence and suppression, then we find we can use our will-power, not for any personal gain, but for the welfare of all others – compassion. The radiant heart radiates outwards because there’s no personal interest in it any more, it’s all-encompassing, it goes towards everything, the whole, rather than just to selfish interests. It’s like praying, isn’t it? Willing good, the best and the kindest, the finest, the most beautiful wishes and feelings, to those we feel gratitude towards. If we want to offer something to those that we feel grateful to, then metta is radiating from our hearts, a radiant quality.
The universe is energy. The sun is energy and it radiates. It’s a radiant star that is the focal point for our solar system; the sun itself is a symbol of this for us. Its warmth, its brilliance, its radiant quality is what keeps things alive and growing, and if the sun went out, it would all fall apart.
But when we’re introverted into selfish desires and fears, then of course we have no radiance, we turn sallow, our faces go flat and we become quite ugly. We become masks of desire and fear, because selfishness means the radiant quality can’t get out any more – it’s all locked up in miserable states of selfish desire and fear. You notice that selfish people, people who are caught into their desires, have no radiant quality to them, and they’re repulsive. They have more of a repelling quality than an attractive one. When you go to London you can see how people are so heedless with their bodies: in the way they try to make them attractive for lustful reasons, or for ego reinforcement. And that looks gross, doesn’t it? When you see the true radiance of the heart, then that other thing is quite repulsive, because it’s a mask, it’s low, it’s not truly generous, it’s still coming from the self view, sakkayaditthi.
As a spiritually developing being, one has to really contemplate in one’s own life how to develop the right relationship with people: with one’s parents and relatives, friends, and with society. This includes the willingness to forgive any wrongs done, the willingness to completely let go. Even though emotionally these things might still be painful, we accept the pain. With the heart, now, we’re willing to suffer, accept this unpleasant feeling in the heart. We learn how to bear with that, how to even welcome it, so it’s no longer something that we dread or resent but something that we fully accept and embrace. So then, on the conventional level – of mother and father, husband, wife, children, friends, enemies, all this – we practise metta. We can radiate this quite intentionally in the sense of actually sitting and concentrating at the heart to radiate outwards goodwill, good thoughts.
This isn’t clinical Buddhism. This is a practice, a devotional practice from the heart rather than from the intellect. But we need both: one doesn’t cancel out the other. Sometimes in religion we tend to think that either it’s all love or it’s all wisdom. ‘God is love, everything is love, the way is love’ – that’s the heartfelt form of religious experience. And then, the way of wisdom: that can seem like impersonal, cold-hearted analysis of the mind, and we feel a sense of loss in regards to the intuitive feelings of love, compassion. But remember that we’re transcending, we’re not attaching to love and compassion as ends in themselves, nor to wisdom. It’s the way of non-attachment, so that both are valid practices. If you have just a practice of love and compassion alone, without wisdom, there’s no way of understanding things as they are. You’re merely developing a way of loving-radiance. So when it comes to being able to explain, or to fully understand the truth of the way it is, you don’t know it. All you can do is practise your devotions, and that often tends towards to a sliding back into superstition, rites and rituals. If it’s not combined with wisdom, it becomes merely a series of rituals and rites, and one starts feeling guilty if one isn’t praying every day, or radiating metta throughout the universe. All these can become very fixed in the mind if you haven’t developed wisdom to understand the nature of the mind.
But then, wisdom without love: if we’re just looking analytically, then we can understand everything theoretically, but on the level of feeling we’ve repressed, we don’t have a radiance, we just have a brilliant understanding. You can figure it all out and come out with some really impressive theories, insights even. But on the level of everyday life, we can’t live in an abstract world. We have to relate to unknown things, to changing nature, the movement and flow and flux of being, to the infinite variety of the sensory world of changing conditions, and types of people and personalities, and qualities. You can’t spend your time trying to fit everything into rational terminology, thinking that that’s the way to understand.
The opening of the heart allows us to be in the flow and movement, and the change: to be with conditions as we perceive them. Conditions are impermanent, aren’t they? They arise and cease. So that to be fully open to the arising and cessation of the conditioned world, you have to be with it rather than trying to perceive it. Because you can perceive the beginning and the end, but most of what we are actually experiencing is beyond perception, it’s just as it is. Like the perceptions we have: they arise, and fix on a certain quality, a certain position; but mindfulness means that we can actually be with the changing-ness of the sensory world which has no perception. That’s why we have to use words like ‘suchness’ and ‘as-is-ness’ to remind ourselves to be with the flow and movement rather than to be attached to perceptions as reality.
Now, the rational mind tends to think: ‘Well, I’m spreading metta to my mother over in California, but is she really benefiting from that? If we could get some kind of electronic instrument, we could hook it up to my old mother, and then, while I’m spreading metta over here at Amaravati, see if there’s any visible qualitative effect upon her.’ The rational mind wants to measure, because if there’s nothing, if she’s not feeling it, then why bother, why delude ourselves, why pretend? The rational mind thinks in terms of quantity and quality – and if something doesn’t have a quantity or quality, then it’s worthless, useless! But I know this: that if I tell my mother I love her, I don’t have to keep telling her, calling her on the telephone three times a day – she’s not a stupid person – if I say, ‘I’ve spread metta to you every day, I send my goodwill to you every day.’ I know that makes her feel happy, I see it in her face when I visit her and I don’t have to have a special instrument to measure it.
It’s just good sense, isn’t it? Mothers like to be told that they’re loved. I like to be told I’m loved and I’m not even a mother! So, when I’m sending goodwill every morning to my mother in California and wondering if she’s really feeling it – that doesn’t matter, does it? That’s just the desire to have a result and to know for sure about something; it’s not the quality of faith (saddha) and trust. To me, it’s a lot better use of time to send metta to my mother, or to other beings, than to sit around thinking of myself. To spend all the time just thinking about me, and worrying about this and that . . . that really is the way towards depression and despair. And yet we might think it’s worth spending the whole day thinking about ourselves rather than radiating metta, because we find ourselves probably more significant than anyone else.
At first metta needs to be something we radiate to ourselves, willing good to this being here, because this creature is the most significant one for us. Maybe we’d rather have metta for our mothers, or for some inspiring figure. It’s easier sometimes to send goodwill to some wonderful person or to masses of people like Ethiopians or a billion Chinese. But we have to admit that, in this lifetime, this being is the most significant being for ourselves. This is the being that was born, that we are with all the time. So we admit that. It’s not a selfish practice, metta for oneself; it’s not for selfish gain, it’s just the willingness to respect and to learn how live in the right way with these conditions.
Metta has no limits: first it’s directed towards oneself, and then it radiates outwards to all beings. And so we can visualise in our minds: our parents, our teachers, the rulers of the country, friends, enemies, the sun and moon, the seen and the unseen. It has no limit – anything you can imagine: all the unfortunate beings in the world, the miserable, unwanted, unloved beings; the beautiful, loveable beings; the animal kingdom, the fish in the ocean, the birds in the sky; the heavenly beings and the devils. Using these terms is a way of expanding our consciousness to where the thoughts can’t reach. The Buddhist cosmology really takes thought to its limit in extremes, from the highest formless realm of ‘neither perception nor non-perception’ to the lowest, most miserable, painful realm of hell. And that’s about where your ability to perceive stops.
The Buddhist cosmology is a kind of scheme of perception, taking us to the extremes of positive and negative, of ultimate refinement, and ultimate coarseness. And because metta is using our ability to radiate thoughts of goodwill, then of course thoughts are what we’re using. We’re thinking of, say, the animal kingdom, of animals like cats and dogs, budgies and horses; the animals that we don’t eat, but that we love. We don’t eat cats, do we? We wouldn’t eat our favourite horse, it would be unthinkable! So it’s very easy to have metta for animals we love. Cats and dogs are easier to like than people: some people prefer cats to people! Then there are the animals that we eat and that we exploit, like sheep and cattle, goats and chickens. Just think of battery chickens, thousands of wretched hens caught in hell, unmitigated misery for their lifetime. But then these chickens are providing eggs, so we eat their eggs. And then there are sheep, we eat their meat and we use their wool; and the cows’ milk, and pigs – all these are animals that we use just for survival in the human community. So, metta for them – they give a lot to us, don’t they? But how many people really think of thanking them for it, of sending goodwill to them and expressing gratitude for all the good things we get and the benefits we have from these animals?
Gratitude is a beautiful quality to have in our mind, to really bring into consciousness what a benefit these animals are to us and how little we ever fully recognise or do anything for them. Well, we could get a kind of rebellious, revolutionary impulse and go over some night, raid the battery houses in the nearby farm and let all the hens out. Free them! Liberate them! That’s it, that’s real metta! But all those poor wretched creatures wouldn’t know what to do, they’d die if you just let them out. So it might be a seemingly kind act, this idea of liberating them, but those chickens are not ready for freedom because they wouldn’t know how to survive, they would just be terrified and lost. But we can reflect and send goodwill to them – nobody can stop us from doing that. And we can develop a way of life so that eventually this sort of unkind, exploitative activity will lessen. The more we are aware and compassionate, the more we realise there are all kinds of ways and means of letting go of those kinds of exploitative activities and unnecessary cruelty.
Here in Britain we can reflect that this country allows us to live as Buddhists; it’s a benevolent country. Even though we might have a lot of views and opinions about it on the negative side, overall it’s all right, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it, even if it’s not perfect. But now we’re no longer looking at it critically. We’re not saying what’s wrong with Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservative Party, or British politics, or the social problems of the country, the economics and all that – because that’s endlessly complicated and gets you nowhere, if that’s all you do. Thinking about all the political, economic, social problems of any country whatsoever will take you to despair, because they’re just endless. But an overall reflection isn’t denying what’s wrong, or the faults and flaws in the system. The government here tends towards being benevolent, and the majority of people would rather have goodwill for each other, they’d rather be fair to each other, they want justice and fairness, mercy. Whether they actually feel like that all the time under every situation is something else; but that’s the general ideal of the population as far as I can tell.
So how can we help the government of this country? Metta is something we can spread every day: sending goodwill to the government, to Mrs. Thatcher, to the Members of Parliament, House of Commons, House of Lords; willing good to them so that as we approach each other with goodwill, then all the fears and anxieties and threats diminish. If we just look at Mrs. Thatcher with a critical eye and hate her because she doesn’t agree with our views, and want to get rid of her, and complain, then of course she reacts very strongly to that kind of treatment. Just as if I just criticise you and pick away at you all the time, then what happens? You dig in your heels and become more stubborn; unless you’re really mindful, you become more difficult. Because even if I’m right about it – even if you are doing things wrong – if I’m always on your back nagging away at you, it’s not providing you with any kind of opportunity to rise up to a situation. All you’re doing is feeling worse and worse, and then your rebelliousness is just a reaction, so you might do even worse things just to spite me! This tendency to dwell endlessly on what’s wrong and blame others, creates the very conditions for the increasing of misery. But when we regard people as intelligent, mature beings – even if they aren’t that way all the time – we give them the benefit of the doubt, and most people will rise to a situation if they have the opportunity to do so.
Metta is not a blinding kind of quality, it’s the willingness to admit the fault without dwelling on it, without being obsessed with what’s wrong. Like metta for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you say: ‘I’m all right and I’m perfect and there’s nothing wrong,’ it means that you are quite willing to admit weaknesses, faults within your experience of life, without making that into anything. It’s a clarity: the mind is clear, radiant, bright and reflective, rather than just a pink cloud that we blot out every ugly thing with. That’s not metta, that’s projecting a pink cloud from your mind!
In the course of your practice, you can start contemplating your relationship with your parents. It would really be good to let your parents know that you love them, which doesn’t mean that you agree with them or like everything that they do. Metta means that you’re not going to create a problem about the flaws and the weaknesses they have. You’re not going to say, ‘I love you, but I don’t like the way you do this and I don’t like the way you do that,’ because that’s just aggravating, isn’t it? ‘Yes, I love you. But you did this, and then you did that, and I didn’t approve of it, and it was terrible, and you’ve ruined so many things – but I still love you, yes!’ What does that do to your heart? Now this will release things within you, to be able to say these things quite openly and honestly. You’re not asking for them to even like it. You’re not saying, ‘I love you,’ and then expecting them to change suddenly overnight and be what you want, because that isn’t love, is it? That’s a deal! ‘I love you if you love me; if you don’t love me, I don’t love you.’ But this metta isn’t a kind of deal we’re making with anyone: we’re not expecting anything back from it, we’re not demanding any good result, even for ourselves. We’re not practising metta just to have a happy mind. There’s no radiance to that, because that kind of metta – although it’s better than nothing – still lacks the radiance of a mind which makes no demand. With that mind you’re not even asking to be happy or have any happy moments in your life whatsoever, because you’re willing to just work with life, to forgive, and give forth goodwill.
When we relate to each other like this, it has a good effect on our minds. But that’s not what we’re doing it for, it’s worth doing in its own right, just as it is. If we’re doing it for a good result, it will be disappointing, because immediately selfish thoughts come in (and that’s not a good result!); there will always be some form of suffering, or dukkha. We become discontented about it: ‘Well, I’ve been sending goodwill to that person for years now, and they still hate me. Haven’t got anything out of it, better stop!’ Then our goodwill is being sent with the idea of gaining something, of demand, expecting that they will appreciate it. That’s why it’s important to understand the nature of the mind, so that you begin to see the problem of selfish view (sakkayaditthi). That is going to put a damper on every experience; it’s always going to spoil every moment of your life as long as you’re deluded in this way. You could be with the Buddha himself, and yet, with sakkayaditthi, you wouldn’t even know it, you’d still be wretched. If Gotama Buddha came in here right now and sat down, and you were filled with selfish view, you’d be saying, ‘Venerable Sir, why aren’t there any Buddhas around?’
With people whom we have a lot or resentment of bitterness towards, metta is a way of forgiving and reminding ourselves to let go of it. It’s not dismissing or suppressing, but a reflection in forgiving and letting go of the perception. Start perceiving these people with metta, rather than just being overwhelmed with bitterness and resentment. Even if you can’t feel any real positive thing, metta needn’t be all that magnificent. It can be just being patient and not making any kind of problem about it. It doesn’t mean you like people who have been really rotten and unfair to you, or those whom you can’t like. Yet you can be kind to them; you can forgive, you can do what is right and generous to them – even if you don’t like them.
‘Liking’ is something else. To like somebody, you have to feel attracted. You don’t like your enemies. If somebody wants to do you in, you’re not going to want to be with them. If somebody wants to stab you, that perception isn’t one that makes you like them. If somebody wants to do me in, I’d rather keep a distance; that’s only natural. But then we can rise above the sensory reaction, towards metta, which is a way of being patient, forgiving, doing what is right to do, what is appropriate to that situation. If somebody whom I don’t like comes in, and I start thinking, ‘I don’t like you, and I don’t like this and I don’t like that,’ then I’m creating something onto the scene, I’m getting caught up in a mood of aversion to them and being carried away with it. But if somebody comes in and I feel this impulse of dislike, I can be fully aware of it, not denying it; I can accept it without adding anything to it. Then I can do what is appropriate, what is kind or generous in this circumstance. That’s from the cool mind, from the mind that is open, receptive, not caught up in selfish view. Sakkayaditthi will say, ‘You did this and you did that and you shouldn’t have, and you should have, and you don’t really like me, you never understood me . . .!’ When sakkayaditthi rants away, don’t trust that. Sakkayaditthi is totally untrustworthy.
It is important, in our lives, to straighten out any wrongs we’ve done. When I became a samanera (novice) in Thailand one Thai monk told me: ‘Before you take on the samanera training, you should try to straighten everything out. Anybody you’ve done any harm to, or any wrong to, you should write to them, or see them, and ask forgiveness.’ I thought, well, having had a very unhappy marriage in which I did a lot of unkind things, I’d better write to my former wife – so I did. I used to blame her a lot for everything, but I realised then that it wasn’t a matter of blaming her, because that would just end up in arguments, so I just wrote this letter and apologised for any wrongs that I did, and wished her well. I wasn’t expecting any kind of reply, or for her to respond in any positive way – which she didn’t, not for ten years, anyway. Ten years later I got a letter from her! She apologised to me – a very lovely letter.
In this way, even if we are one per cent wrong and they are ninety-nine per cent wrong, even if we are one per cent at fault and the other person is ninety-nine per cent definitely at fault, then we apologise. We take the attitude that we are totally at fault, and we apologise for that and say, ‘Please forgive me for being so stupid and selfish and foolish.’ Because if you say, ‘I apologise for my one per cent, can you forgive me for that? I was only one per cent at fault and you were ninety-nine per cent, but I want you to forgive me for that niggling, not-very-important one per cent.’ that would make them even angrier!
It’s not as if you’re lying about it, it’s not a matter of weighing how much, the quantity isn’t the important thing any more. It’s the way it’s done, the expression, the sincerity, the metta behind it; it’s a thing of the heart, not of the head. That usually helps to really change situations, and people will suddenly say, ‘Oh yes, well I wasn’t so good myself, I really did some pretty horrible things, I want you to forgive me.’ It gives them the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
You’re giving them the opportunity – whether they take it or not is up to them – but at least you’re not putting them in a corner by making any demands. You’re just asking for forgiveness, apologising. And that’s a relief for the heart, because if you don’t release its tensions, the body just gets more and more tense and miserable. It’s only through this going to the heart of the matter, this practice of metta, goodwill, of being able to forgive and ask for forgiveness in humility, that this whole formation is allowed to relax. Then we can really develop our spiritual life and not be caught in these terrible, unresolved, worldly problems.
There’s pride involved, isn’t there? You can see pride arising, and that’s not easy to admit, especially if you feel that someone else was at fault: ‘His fault mainly – of course I did a little bit, but it was really him, I mean, he was really . . .. I mean, why should I apologise to him . . .?’ That’s pride, isn’t it? That’s selfish view, sakkayaditthi. ‘Why should I apologise to her? What she did to me! She should be apologising to me, shouldn’t she?’ That is sakkayaditthi operating. Because in any relationship there’s no black and white. As long as we’re coming from ignorance, then even if we’re not the one who does the most wrong, we certainly do a lot of foolish things, a lot we can apologise for.
I was talking to my mother a couple of years ago; she’s in her eighties and a very calm and peaceful woman now, very clear in her mind, although she hasn’t always been this way. She told me that, about ten years ago when she was in her seventies, she decided that she would try to straighten out everything in her life; so that things she was feeling guilty about, or anything that she’d done wrong to anybody, no matter how long ago, she wrote to them and asked forgiveness. I remember when I was a child, I was aware of a lot of tension between my mother and the woman in the next house. And I knew that there was something that happened, and somehow it was one of those neighbourhood problems. Anyway, I’d forgotten all about it until my mother told me that she had written to this woman and asked forgiveness for her stupid behaviour. The woman wrote back and said she’d forgotten all about it, but was so glad to hear from my mother and would certainly forgive anything! You could see the effect on my mother was that she has a very easy mind now. She’ll probably die in a little while, but her mind is clear and there’s no bitterness in it. Her heart is peaceful.
And this is the result of really looking at one’s life and seeing what we need to do, how to set things right. Then, rather than having anxiety, guilt and remorse in our heart, there’s a fullness and peacefulness.