Mettā Practice

When I first came to Sōtō Zen from Tibetan Buddhism, I was surprised to note the lack of explicitly compassion-based practices.  Tibetan Buddhism talks a lot about compassion, and it is also a significant part of Theravada practice, making Zen a seeming outlier in this way. 

Later, I understood that compassion is woven throughout Zen, and we are all the hands of the bodhisattva Kannon (Sanskrit. Avalokiteśvara), but I still think that there is room to have a practice which explicitly works to generate compassion.  As Tibetan Buddhist teachers say on the balance of wisdom and compassion, a bird needs two wings to fly.  Theravada teachers also emphasise that insight practice without compassion can become hard (and that compassion without insight can be lacking in direction). 

At Treeleaf Zendo, where I trained for ten years, we did recite metta verses, and I also led Tonglen which is another compassion led practice.  Out of preference, I like the Theravadin practice of Mettā Bhāvanā (contemplation of loving kindness) which was one of the first Buddhist meditations I was taught. 

So, what is mettā? 

Mettā is a Sanskrit word (the Pali equivalent being maitrī) which has been variously translated as friendliness, kindness, love and goodwill.  So, from that it can be seen that it does not mean romantic love but rather a more unconditional and universal positive regard and friendliness.  The term which seems to have most caught on in western Buddhism is loving kindness, and I see no reason not to use that, as people generally understand its meaning. 

In the Karaniya Metta Sutta (The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness)   the Buddha sets out the importance of loving kindness, stating that:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded.

We can imagine that if we radiate this kind of kindness to all other beings, the world would be a very different place, and we would treat all beings as most people wish to be treated, with unconditional kindness.  Unsurprisingly, it has been noted that the exhortation of Jesus to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39) comes from a very similar place.

Perhaps a difference is that in Buddhism, generating loving kindness is not just seen as a way of reducing hatred and tension between people, but also as a practice to reduce ego and the sense of self by understanding our interconnectedness and reliance on each other and on other sentient and insentient beings. 

Another Metta Sutta talks about mettā in terms of what are known as the four Brahma-Viharas (‘divine abodes’) in early Buddhism, and the Four Immeasurables in Mahayana Buddhism.  These are four qualities believed to be associated with an awakened state of mind, and venerated as such: 

  1. Mettā (loving kindness)
  2. Karuṇā (compassion)
  3. Muditā (sympathetic joy)
  4. Upekkhā (equanimity)

The cultivation of these qualities are believed to have first been practices first associated with Brahmanism (hence the Brahma-Vihara name) but were incorporated into Buddhism, and used for similar purposes. 

The way I was taught is that mettā is the primary of the four qualities and leads to the three others. 

When mettā meets suffering, it becomes karunā.
When mettā meets happiness, it becomes muditā. 
When mettā meets with all experience, it manifests as upekkhā, responding to everything that aruses with the same open friendliness.

So, whereas some people teach practices to generate each of the immeasurables, I tend to focus solely on mettā, and use the method outlined in the Theravadin text, the Vishuddimagga (Path of Purification) written by Buddhaghosa in 5th Century India).