Love, compassion, and peace—these words are at the heart of spiritual endeavors. Although we intuitively resonate with their meaning and value, for most of us, the challenge is how to embody what we know: how to transform these words into a vibrant life practice. In these times of conflict and uncertainty, this is not an abstract exercise. Peace in the world begins with us, and there are different ways we can manifest these values as wise and skillful action in the world. These teachings are based on the Buddhist traditions of the East, but their defining characteristic is not Eastern or Western, but an allegiance to pragmatism and the very simple question: What works? What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender the heart of compassion? What works to awaken us from ignorance?
This pragmatism also illuminates an age-old question that continues to plague religious and other traditions: How can we hold strong differences of view in a larger context of unity, beyond discord and hostility? The answer is of vital importance, especially now, as we see the grand sweep of religious traditions often in violent conflict with one another.
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY
The Sanskrit word maitri and the Pali word metta both mean “lovingkindness” or “loving care,” and refer to an attitude of friendliness, goodwill, and generosity of heart. When we are filled with lovingkindness, we have a very simple wish: May all beings be happy. This kind of love has many qualities that distinguish it from our more usual experiences of love mixed with desire or attachment. Born of great generosity, metta is a caring and kindness that does not seek self-benefit. It does not look for anything in return: “I will love you if you love me,” or “I will love you if you behave a certain way.” Because lovingkindness is never associated with anything harmful, it always arises from a purity of heart.
One of the unique aspects of metta is that it does not make distinctions among beings. When we feel love mixed with desire, this feeling is always for a limited number of people. We may love and desire one person, or maybe two or three at a time, or maybe several in series. But does anyone in this world desire all beings?
Lovingkindness, on the other hand, is extraordinary precisely because it can embrace all; no one falls outside of its domain. That is why, when we encounter people who have developed this capacity to a great extent—the Dalai Lama, for example—we sense their tremendous kindness toward everyone. Lovingkindness is a feeling that blesses others and oneself with the simple wish, “Be happy.” The Japanese poet Issa [1763–1828] expresses this openhearted feeling so well: “In the cherry blossom’s shade, there’s no such thing as a stranger.”
Although we may not always live in a steady state of loving feeling, through practice we can learn to touch it many times a day.
Related: What is Metta Meditation?
THE PRACTICE OF LOVINGKINDNESS FOR ONESELF
One way to develop metta within us is through the following meditation practice, which we start by extending loving feelings toward ourselves.
It’s very simple: At first, sit in some comfortable position, and keeping an image or felt sense of yourself in mind, slowly repeat phrases of lovingkindness for yourself: May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free of suffering. Say these or like phrases over and over again. We do this not as an affirmation, but as an expression of a caring intention. As you repeat the words, focus the mind on this intention of kindness; it slowly grows into a powerful force in our lives.
Although the practice is straightforward, it can be extremely difficult. As you turn your attention inward and send loving wishes toward yourself, you may see a considerable amount of self-judgment or feelings of unworthiness. At these times, proceed gently, as if you were holding a young child. A line from an old Japanese samurai poem expresses well this part of the practice: “I make my mind my friend.”
THE PRACTICE OF LOVINGKINDNESS FOR A BENEFACTOR
After strengthening feelings of lovingkindness for ourselves, we send these very same wishes to a benefactor, someone who has aided us in some way in our lives. This may be a parent, a teacher, or even someone we don’t know personally, but whose life has nonetheless had a positive influence on our own. One person who was having difficulty connecting with lovingkindness said that she opened to the feeling of metta most easily when she thought of her dog—a being who always gave her unquestioning love. Benefactors can take many forms.
In this part of the practice, hold the image or sense of that being in your mind, as if you were talking directly to them, and then direct your intention of metta toward him or her: Be happy, be peaceful, be free of suffering. This stage is often easier than directing metta toward ourselves because we usually already have warm and caring feelings for those who have helped us.
THE PRACTICE OF LOVINGKINDNESS FOR ALL
We then move on to other categories of people. We send loving wishes to those very close to us; then to those who are neutral, about whom we have no strong feelings one way or another; and then to “enemies” or difficult people. Finally, we send lovingkindness to all beings everywhere, repeating, May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering.
It’s important to move through this progression at your own speed. Some categories may be easier than others. Whenever you feel that you’re able to generate genuine feelings of lovingcare for one, move on to the next.
This can be practiced intensively in the solitude of a meditation retreat, in our daily practice at home, or even as we’re walking down the street or driving to work. In all cases, it begins to change how we relate to others in the world.
As an experiment, the next time you are doing an errand, stuck in traffic, or standing in line at the supermarket, instead of being preoccupied with where you’re going or what needs to be done, take a moment to simply send loving wishes to all those around you. Often, there is an immediate and very remarkable shift as we feel more connected and more present.
When I first began the practice of metta, I had an experience that revealed a lot about my mind and the way I was relating to others. I was developing lovingkindness toward a neutral person—although I wasn’t really sure what a “neutral person” meant. My teacher, Anagarika Munindra [1914–2003], simply said to pick someone nearby for whom I didn’t have much feeling, one way or another.
I was in India, and there was an old gardener at the little monastery where I was staying. I saw him every day, but I had never really given him any thought. He was just somebody I noticed in passing. It was quite startling to realize how many such people there were around me, beings for whom I had completely neutral feelings. That in itself was an illuminating discovery.
So every day for weeks, I began visualizing this old gardener in my meditation, repeating phrases like “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering.” After a while, I began to feel great warmth and caring for him, and every time we passed my heart just opened. This was a great turning point in my practice. I understood that how I feel about someone is up to me, and that my feelings do not ultimately depend on the person, his or her behavior, or the situation. The gardener remained the same. But because of a turn in my own understanding and practice, my heart began to fill with genuine feelings of kindness and care.
WHAT LEADS TO TRIUMPH OF THE HEART?
There is an important lesson here about the sustaining power of lovingkindness. Because it does not depend on any particular quality in the other person, this kind of love does not transform easily into ill will, anger, or irritation, as love with desire or attachment so often does. Such unconditional love comes only from our own generosity of heart. Although we may recognize the purity and power of this feeling, we may fear or imagine that this kind of love lies beyond our capacity. But metta is not a power that belongs only to the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa or some extraordinary being categorically different from ourselves. We can all practice it and learn to love in this way. The question for us is, how can we do it? What makes this inclusiveness possible?
A number of years ago, the Harvard Medical Journal included an article about a Tibetan doctor named Tenzin Chodak, who had been a personal physician to the Dalai Lama. In 1959, Dr. Chodak was imprisoned by the Chinese. For seventeen of the twenty-one years he remained in prison, he was beaten and tortured daily—physically and psychologically—and his life was continually threatened. Astonishingly, he emerged from this horror virtually free from signs of post-traumatic stress.
In the article, Dr. Chodak distills the wisdom we need to understand into four points of understanding, which made possible not only his survival—people survive horrendous conditions in many ways—but also the great triumph of his heart. A short biographical sketch of him by Claude Levenson describes him in this way: “Dr. Chodak could easily pass unnoticed, until you meet his gaze—a gaze filled with the perception of one who has seen so much that he has seen everything, seeing beyond the suffering he has experienced, beyond all the evil and the abuses he has witnessed, yet expressing boundless compassion for his fellow human beings.”
Related: Cultivating Compassion
FOUR INSIGHTS IN TIMES OF DISTRESS
First, we must endeavor to see every situation in a larger context. Like the Dalai Lama—who often speaks of how one’s enemy teaches one patience—Dr. Chodak saw his enemy as his spiritual teacher, who led him to the wisest and most compassionate place in himself. Accordingly, he felt that even in the most dreadful and deplorable circumstances some human greatness, some greatness of heart could be accomplished. Of course, thinking this is easy; the challenge is to remember and apply this understanding in times of difficulty.
Second, we must see our enemies, or the difficult people in our lives, as human beings like ourselves. Dr. Chodak never forgot the commonality of the human condition. The “law of karma” means that all our actions have consequences: actions bear fruit based on the intentions behind them. People who act cruelly toward us are actually in adverse circumstances, just as we are, creating unwholesome karma that will bring about their own future suffering.
But we mustn’t fall into thinking of karma as “they’ll get theirs,” as a kind of vehicle for cosmic revenge. Rather, seeing the universal human condition can become a wellspring of compassion. The Dalai Lama said, “Your enemies may disagree with you, may be harming you, but in another aspect, they are still human beings like you. They also have the right not to suffer and to find happiness. If your empathy can extend out like that, it is unbiased, genuine compassion.” Understanding karma—that we all reap the fruit of our actions—as a vehicle for compassion is the wisdom we could now integrate into our lives. We’re all in the same situation with regard to the great law of karmic cause and effect.
Third, we must let go of pride and feelings of self-importance. These attitudes, which can arise so easily in times of conflict, become the seeds of even more difficulty. It doesn’t mean that we should adopt a stance of false humility or self-abnegation. Rather, we let go of the tendency toward self-aggrandizement, whether interpersonally or within the framework of our own inner psychology. A story from ancient China uses nature to illustrate the great protection of true humility:
The sage Chuang Tzu was walking with a disciple on a hilltop. They see a crooked, ancient tree without a single straight branch. The disciple says the tree is useless, nothing from it can be used, and Chuang Tzu replies, “That’s the reason it’s ancient. Everyone seems to know how useful it is to be useful. No one seems to know how useful it is to be useless.”
Dr. Chodak actually attributed his survival to the ability to let go of self-importance and self-righteousness. This insight provides a tremendous lesson on the spiritual journey, a lesson that can come up for all of us again and again. Finally, the insight that nourished Dr. Chodak’s amazing triumph of the heart, and one we must truly understand ourselves, is that hatred never ceases through hatred; it ceases only in response to love. Many spiritual traditions acknowledge this truth. In situations of conflict, lovingkindness and compassion grow when we understand them to be the most beneficial motivation for responsive and effective action.
Can we hold these perspectives, even in less trying circumstances? When someone is very angry with you or you’re in some difficult situation, remember that this difficulty itself can strengthen patience and love. In these situations, we can investigate what greatness of heart we might accomplish, remind ourselves that everyone involved shares the common bond of humanity, let go of pride, and understand that, in the end, hatred and enmity will only cease by love.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.