Loving-Kindness in Plain English

1. Metta: Our Natural State

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Metta: Our Natural State

Loving-kindness is the most common translation of the Pali word metta — and it’s a major component of Buddhist practice. The teachings of the Buddha were transmitted orally from generation to generation for nearly five centuries before monks in Sri Lanka wrote them down in 29 b.c.e. in the Pali language. The word metta is derived from another word, mitta, which means “friend.” Mitta also means “sun.” We depend on the sun’s warmth to survive, and we rely on loving friendship to thrive. Accordingly, my own preferred translation of metta is “loving-friendliness” — and that’s the term I mostly use throughout the rest of this book.

Each year during his forty-five-year teaching career, the Buddha led a three-month retreat during India’s rainy season. Monastics from all over the country came to the Jeta Grove, which had been gifted to him by his generous supporter, Anathapindika, to meditate together with the Buddha. On one occasion, he asked sixty of the monks to go to a remote forest and practice meditations there.

When the monks arrived, nearby villagers built huts for them, but the forest’s spirits (the story goes) weren’t happy to have their lives interrupted by these men. Instead of welcoming them, the spirits conjured ghostlike images near the footpaths and scattered corpses throughout the forest to frighten them away. Seeing the ghosts and2 smelling rotting flesh, many monks fell ill. And so they all went back to the Jeta Grove to ask the Buddha what to do.

After they described their experience, the Buddha encouraged them to return to the forest. “You went without a weapon,” he told them. “This time you’ll need to be armed.” Then he gave them a “weapon” — the Discourse on Loving-Friendliness (Karaniya Metta Sutta, or Metta Sutta for short) — and advised them to recite it eight times each month.

The monks went back to the forest and began reciting the Metta Sutta twice weekly. The spirits were transformed, and instead of causing trouble, they began protecting the monks from the dangers of the forest. Villagers continued to offer patronage, feeling especially appreciative of the monks’ peaceful demeanors and kindness. The practice of loving-friendliness offers us protection.

The Buddha taught practices for the cultivation of loving-friendliness. These entail sending loving energy inward, then outward, while reciting certain phrases such as “May I be happy,” and “May all beings be happy” — but these are not mere wishful thoughts. They are part of a practice that can truly transform your heart — and your brain! Research shows that loving-friendliness meditation has significant benefits ranging from enhanced well-being to relief from illness and improved emotional intelligence.

Metta is not ordinary love. It is the quality of love we experience in our whole being, a love that has no ulterior motive — and no opposite. It can never become hatred; the love-hate dichotomy simply does not apply. When we say that we love such-and-such a person or thing, we usually mean that his or her appearance, behavior, ideas, or attitudes fill a perceived deficiency in us. We don’t actually see the other person. If their traits change, we might no longer feel love. When our tastes, whims, or fancies change, we might also fall out of love. We love now, but perhaps later we’ll hate. We love when3 everything is smooth and easy, but we may feel the opposite when things get difficult. When our love is that situational, what we call “love” is not metta, but lust, greed, or even exploitation.

One American vipassana teacher, Joseph Goldstein, explains metta this way:

This kind of love has many qualities that distinguish it from other more usual experiences of love mixed with a desire or attachment. Born of great generosity, metta is caring and kindness that does not seek self-benefit. It does not look for anything in return or by way of exchange: “I will love you if you love me,” or “I will love you if you behave in a certain way.” Because loving-kindness is never associated with anything harmful, it always arises from a purity of heart.

This purity of heart that allows us to feel a warm-hearted friendliness to all beings is natural to us. When we cultivate loving-friendliness, we are simply allowing our innate generosity to grow and flourish.

When I was eight years old, I lost my night vision, probably because of malnutrition. After dark, it was as if I were blind. I couldn’t see anything at all, even with the light from a kerosene lamp. My brothers and sisters teased me about it, saying I was pretending, but my mother was quite concerned. She consulted the village medicine man, who gave her a bitter-tasting potion for me. It was made from an herb, but he wouldn’t tell her its name. Many people in Sri Lanka believed herbal medicines had mystical powers, and their components were often kept secret.

My mother was supposed to grind the herb into a paste and feed it to me every day until my eyesight improved. The paste tasted wretched, and to make matters worse, I was supposed to take this4 foul concoction early in the morning, when my stomach was empty. To get me to take that medicine, my mother used the power of love.

Before anyone else in the house was awake, she would take me onto her lap, hug me, kiss me, and tell me stories in a low whisper. After a few minutes, I was so relaxed and happy that I would have done anything she asked. That was the moment she would put the medicine in my mouth and tell me to swallow it quickly. She always mixed the bitter paste with sugar, though it still tasted awful. After several months of that daily ritual, I completely recovered my eyesight.

Now, many years later, I understand the power of loving-friendliness. It helps us swallow the bitterness of life.

The Buddha used the power of metta to “conquer” many of his enemies. In one story, the Buddha was returning from his alms round with his retinue of monks when his evil and ambitious cousin, Devadatta, let loose a fierce elephant. As the massive mammal rushed toward the Buddha, trumpeting aggressively, the Buddha projected thoughts of metta toward it. Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, ran in front of the Buddha to shield him, but the Buddha asked him to step aside, knowing the projection of love would be sufficient. The impact of the Buddha’s metta radiation was immediate and overwhelming. By the time the elephant neared the Buddha, it had been completely tamed and knelt before him respectfully.

Loving-friendliness is a natural faculty concealed beneath our greed, hatred, and delusion. It is cultivated through wisdom and mindfulness. No one can grant it to us. We have to find it in ourselves and cultivate it mindfully. When the ego gets out of the way, loving-friendliness arises naturally. Joseph Goldstein adds, “Metta does not make distinctions among beings. It embraces all; there is no one who falls outside of its domain.”


Loving-friendliness is a warm wash of fellow-feeling, a sense of interconnectedness with all beings. Because we wish for peace, happiness, and joy for ourselves, we know that all beings must wish for these qualities. Loving-friendliness radiates to the whole world the wish that all beings enjoy a comfortable life with harmony, mutual appreciation, and appropriate abundance.

Though we all have the seed of loving-friendliness within us, we must make the effort to cultivate it. When we are rigid, uptight, tense, anxious, and full of worries and fears, our natural capacity for loving-friendliness cannot flourish. To nurture the seed of loving-friendliness, we must learn to relax. In a peaceful state of mind, such as we get from mindfulness meditation, we can forget our past differences with others and forgive their faults, weaknesses, and offenses. Then loving-friendliness naturally grows within us.

Loving-friendliness begins with a thought. Typically our minds are full of views, opinions, beliefs, ideas. We have been conditioned by our culture, traditions, education, associations, and experiences. From these mental conditions, we have developed prejudices and judgments. These rigid ideas stifle our natural loving-friendliness.

Yet within this tangle of confused thinking, the idea of our warm and friendly interconnection with others does occasionally come up. We catch a glimpse of it as we might glimpse a tree during a flash of lightning. As we learn to relax and let go of negativity, we begin to recognize our biases and not let them dominate our minds. Then the thought of loving-friendliness begins to shine, showing its true strength and beauty.

As I’ve said, the loving-friendliness that we wish to cultivate is not love as we ordinarily understand it. When you say you love someone, what you conceive in your mind is generally an emotion conditioned by the behavior or qualities of that person. Perhaps you admire the person’s appearance, manner, ideas, voice, or attitude. Yet should6 these conditions change, or your tastes, whims, and fancies change, what you call love might change as well. In extreme cases, this kind of dualistic love is related to hate. You may love one person and hate another. Or you love someone now and hate them later. Or you love whenever you feel like it and not when you don’t. Or you love when everything is smooth and rosy and hate when anything goes wrong.

If your love changes from time to time, place to place, and situation to situation in this fashion, that which you call love is not what the Buddha taught, not the skillful thought of loving-friendliness. It may be lust, greed for material security, desire to feel loved, or some other form of greed in disguise. True loving-friendliness has no ulterior motive. It never changes into hate as circumstances change. It never makes you angry if you do not get favors in return. Loving-friendliness motivates you to behave kindly to all beings at all times and to speak gently in their presence and in their absence.

When it has fully matured, your net of loving-friendliness embraces everything in the universe without exception. It has no limitations, no boundaries. Your thought of loving-friendliness includes not only all beings as they are at this moment, but also your wish that all of them, without any discrimination or favoritism, will be happy in the limitless future.

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