The Buddhist Practice of Loving Kindness (Metta)

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The Buddhist Practice of Loving Kindness (Metta)Loving-kindness is defined in English dictionaries as a feeling of benevolent affection, but in Buddhism, loving-kindness (in Pali, Metta; in Sanskrit, Maitri) is thought of as a mental state or attitude, cultivated and maintained by practice. This cultivation of loving-kindness is an essential part of Buddhism.

The Theravadin scholar Acharya Buddharakkhita said of Metta,

"The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others (parahita-parasukha-kamana). ... True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love."

Metta often is paired with Karuna, compassion. They are not exactly the same, although the difference is subtle. The classic explanation is that Metta is a wish for all beings to be happy, and Karuna is a wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Wish is probably not the right word, though, because wishing seems passive. It might be more accurate to say directing one's attention or concern to the happiness or suffering of others.

Developing loving kindness is essential to doing away with the self-clinging that binds us to suffering (dukkha). Metta is the antidote to selfishness, anger, and fear.

Don't Be Nice

One of the biggest misunderstandings people have about Buddhists is that Buddhists are always supposed to be nice. But, usually, niceness is only a social convention. Being "nice" often is about self-preservation and maintaining a sense of belonging in a group. We are "nice" because we want people to like us, or at least not get angry with us.

There's nothing wrong with being nice, most of the time, but it's not the same thing as loving-kindness.

Remember, Metta is concerned with the genuine happiness of others. Sometimes when people are behaving badly, the last thing they need for their own happiness is someone politely enabling their destructive behavior. Sometimes people need to be told things they don't want to hear; sometimes they need to be shown that what they are doing is not okay.

Cultivating Metta

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is supposed to have said, "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness." That's great, but remember that we're talking about a guy who gets up at 3:30 a.m. to make time for meditation and prayers before breakfast. "Simple" isn't necessarily "easy."

Sometimes people new to Buddhism will hear about loving kindness, and think, "No sweat. I can do that." And they wrap themselves in the persona of a lovingly kind person and go about being very, very nice. This lasts until the first encounter with a rude driver or surly store clerk. As long as your "practice" is about you being a nice person, you are just play-acting.

This may seem paradoxical, but unselfishness begins by gaining insight into yourself and understanding the source of your ill will, irritations, and insensitivity. This takes us to the basics of Buddhist practice, beginning with the Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Eightfold Path.

Metta Meditation

The Buddha's best-known teaching on Metta is in the Metta Sutta, a sermon in the Sutta Pitaka. Scholars say the sutta (or sutra) presents three ways to practice Metta. The first is applying Metta to day-to-day conduct. The second is Metta meditation. The third is a commitment to embody Metta with full body and mind. The third practice grows from the first two.

The several schools of Buddhism have developed several approaches to Metta meditation, often involving visualization or recitation. A common practice is to begin by offering Metta to oneself. Then (over a period of time) Metta is offered to someone in trouble. Then to a loved one, and so on, progressing to someone you don't know well, to someone you dislike, and eventually to all beings.

Why begin with yourself? Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg said, "To reteach a thing its loveliness is the nature of Metta. Through loving-kindness, everyone and everything can flower again from within." Because so many of us struggle with doubts and self-loathing, we must not leave ourselves out. Flower from within, for yourself and for everyone.

By Barbara O'Brien