Metta Bhavana – The Cultivation of Loving-Kindness
The good symbol for Metta (loving kindness) is the mother cradling her baby to sleep. The baby cradled to sleep will be the result. I can still remember that it was a good feeling when I was cradled to sleep by my mother. There is also a lot of joy when one is unselfishly caring for a friend. Such is loving kindness and its results.
In the texts metta is characterised by the promoting of the aspect of welfare. Amity, goodwill, friendliness and loving kindness are some words used to describe this mental state. There is no better way to know it than to study it as it occurs in one’s own mind and others’. It is a totally unselfish and pure state of mind that brings profit to oneself, others now and hereafter.
The cultivation of this state of mind is called Bhavana or normally translated as meditation. When we cultivate it, it becomes strong, powerful and useful. It brings us abundant, deep and intense peace and happiness.
The cultivation of it involves the following:
1 The concentration of metta. Concentrated, it becomes strong and powerful.
2 Metta is also trained so that it can be given to anybody. That is, it is flexible, versatile, universal and boundless.
3 When this potent force has become powerful we can make use of it to produce many marvels to make everyone’s life better.
To do this effectively one needs the method. Acquiring the skill requires patience. With experience one improves.
Metta and its place in Buddhism
Metta in Buddhism is a state of mind. Its object is the lovable being. It is the state of wishing to promote the welfare of the lovable being. In the Buddhist teachings, the doctrine of anatta – or non-self – occupies a position of prime importance. As such it may seem to be conflicting. This is because there are two types of truths, conventional (sammutti) and ultimate (paramattha).
Conventional truths are conceptual, and true only at the conventional level. When seen in an ultimate point of view (i.e. a mind freed from ideas, concepts) they do not exist. They are like shadows cast by realities. Therefore the “person” exists only conventionally. Ultimately, “he” can be experienced as mental and material processes. If you see things in this way you are looking at things as they really are, which is actually insight (vipassana). To develop this direct vision into reality is to practise insight meditation – vipassana bhavana.
At such a time, we cannot be having metta as the nature of the objects differs. Moreover, when we return to conventional realities or switch back to conceptual objects then we may have the metta again. That is why, comparatively, vipassana is more profound and superior. It frees one utterly from all sufferings of samsara (cycle of birth and death).
Metta, however, must not be underestimated, although it has its limitations. Most of us will need a lot of time before we have completed the work of insight cultivation. And even after that metta will still play a great role. Even Buddhas are not always without conceptual objects. Concepts occur together with the mental formations and processes.
In the discourse to Subha, the Buddha answers questions posed to him as to the reasons for long life and so forth. From the answers, we find that the kammic results that lead to long life, good health, beauty, following, wealth, noble birth can be attributed to acts connected with loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy.
Therefore the Four Sublime Abodes (Brahmavihara: i.e. loving-kindness, compassion, altrustic joy and equanimity) act as a soothing balm to those still within the cycle of birth and death.
Besides these, we also see metta as an effective means:
1. to overcome anger – as it is the opposite of these violent and destructive mental states,
2. to build up the required concentration base for the development of insight, because with metta, our mind concentrates rapidly,
3. for a healthy relationship with every living being – so important for a happy family, society and the world.
From this we can see that Metta Bhavana is something that should be practised to some degree by everyone. Without it one not only tends to fail in social and personal relationships but is also at a great disadvantage when involved in spiritual practice.