In Part 2 of my series on the Four Brahmaviharas, or the Sublime Social Attitudes, I explore teachings specifically about how to cultivate Metta, or goodwill, in an unlimited or boundless way. (Which is the idea.) As we try to extend Metta to everyone, we quickly recognize our internal resistance to feeling unqualified goodwill toward many people. I discuss the recommendations of Buddhaghosa, a 5th century monk and author of the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) regarding cultivating Metta for someone when it’s very difficult to feel it naturally.
This episode is Part 2 in my short series on the Brahmaviharas, or the Four Sublime Social Attitudes. In Episode 63, I introduced you to the teaching as a whole, including how it fits within the context of the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. I defined each attitude, including Metta (goodwill), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy), and Upekkha (equanimity) and talked about how each attitude is essential. They balance each other out and work together to provide a strong basis for our spiritual practice and also lead to beneficial and harmonious human relationships.
In this episode, I’m going to explore more specific teachings about how to cultivate Metta, or goodwill. This is the foundational Brahmavihara – none of the others work without it, and it can be the most difficult to sincerely feel unconditionally. It’s important to work on doing this, because that’s what makes the Brahmaviharas sublime and spiritually transformative, as opposed to just being nice feelings: We’re asked to extend them toward everyone, regardless of how we feel about them, what our relationship with them is like, what they’ve done in the past, or the harm they may still appear to be doing.
In Episode 63, I discussed why it’s so important to make our Brahmaviharas unlimited or boundless even though it’s definitely not easy to do so. In Episode 65 I talked about how cultivating goodwill and compassion toward people who are doing harm – people toward whom we may feel righteous anger and outrage – does not mean we condone their actions or let them get away with anything; in fact, the Brahmaviharas help us act more objectively and skillfully.
So, for today’s discussion, I’ll assume we’re already at the point where 1) we want to be able to extend the Four Sublime Social Attitudes to everyone, even though it can be really hard, and 2) we understand that this doesn’t mean always being accommodating, passive, or even nice, but is completely compatible with standing up for what we think is right and protecting living beings.
Recognizing Our Lack of Goodwill
To review, Metta can be translated as goodwill, friendliness, or loving-kindness. It’s an active, open-hearted sense of goodwill toward beings (including oneself), sincerely wishing for their welfare and happiness. Metta is the opposite of ill-will. Metta certainly can manifest as warm loving-kindness, but at times – such as with the case of someone who has caused a lot of harm and is unrepentant – appropriate goodwill may simply involve a wish for a person’s overall welfare, including the hope that they will change their ways. We can extend Metta while maintaining appropriate boundaries and expectations; it doesn’t have to involve a warm embrace, and that might not even be a good idea depending on the situation!
As we try to extend Metta to everyone, we quickly recognize our internal resistance to feeling unqualified goodwill toward many people. Metta for someone we admire, feel grateful to, or are in love with? No problem. Metta for our good and trusted friends? Usually… as long as they haven’t been annoying us lately, or as long as they haven’t sparked a competitive edge in us. Metta for our intimate partners or close family members? In theory, although we often tie quite a few “as long as” conditions to our goodwill when our own circumstances are likely to be impacted by another person’s actions. Metta for arrogant, rude, or selfish people? That’s quite a challenge. And sincere Metta for people who have hurt us, or who continue to cause harm in the world? Many of us find that just about impossible.
As I discussed in the first episode on the Brahmaviharas, our inability to extend goodwill to someone depends on the mistaken belief that withholding our full goodwill – or even nurturing our ill-will – will somehow influence the behavior of said person or punish them in some way. In order to protect ourselves or others, or even for said person’s own welfare, we feel obligated to hold on to our resentments or judgements. I argue at length in Episode 65 how the Buddha taught exactly the opposite – that unless we start our interactions with people from a basis of sincere goodwill, we will only arouse defensiveness, anger, and even hatred. If our desire is to influence someone’s behavior for their own good or for the sake of others, Metta is the place to start.
Buddhaghosa’s Instructions for Cultivating Metta
Still, it’s not always easy to feel Metta. I was encouraged and amused to discover, as I was conducting research for this episode, that a 5th century Indian Theravadin monk and scholar named Buddhaghosa wrote many, many pages on how to cultivate Metta, particularly when you’re trying to extend it to someone and finding it really difficult. To me, this is proof that even Buddhist monks from the 5th century had problems letting go of their resentments and sense of self-righteousness! In the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), Buddhaghosa defines Metta this way:
“…loving-kindness is characterized here as promoting the aspect of welfare. Its function is to prefer welfare. It is manifested as the removal of annoyance. Its proximate cause is seeing loveableness in beings. It succeeds when it makes ill will subside…”
In this definition, Buddhaghosa acknowledges how we spontaneously feel Metta for beings we perceive as “loveable.” When I think of “loveable” people, I think of kind, innocent, generous, people who aren’t, pretty much by definition, annoying. How many people would you characterize this way? Probably not enough to be able to extend Metta all that widely…
Buddhaghosa recommends a particular practice, then, for learning to extend Metta to people who we don’t find naturally loveable. First, he says we should try to feel Metta for ourselves. Ideally in a meditative kind of space, we think of ourselves and then silently recite phrases like, “May I be free from fear and anxiety. May I be at ease. May I be happy.” As we recite, we try to actually feel goodwill. Buddhaghosa goes to explain why we start with ourselves, inviting us to reflect, “I am happy. Just as I want to be happy and dread pain, as I want to live and not to die, so do other beings, too.” Once you’ve managed to summon a sincere feeling of goodwill, you next try to extend that same feeling toward a someone like a teacher (that is, someone for who you feel respect and gratitude), then a dear friend, then a neutral person, and then – only then – a hostile person.
The essence of this classical Buddhist “Metta” practice is to generate the attitude of Metta by calling to mind someone for whom it’s relatively easy to feel it, and then practice gradually extending it to people for whom it’s more difficult. Interestingly, many modern Westerners actually find it difficult to feel sincere Metta for themselves. On the one hand, of course, we’re deeply concerned about our own welfare, but we also tend to saddle ourselves with a lot of expectations. When we think of sending Metta to ourselves, we think, “May I be happy… once I lose weight, or fix this or that bad habit, or accomplish such-and-such, or [whatever – insert your condition here].” So, it may be better, for some of us, to start our Metta practice with a child, or even an animal – someone we find naturally loveable! (But don’t forget to practice extending sincere Metta to yourself – there’s a great deal to be learned and healed in doing so.)
You may be able to work all the way through the Metta list from a naturally loveable person to a hostile person right away, in one sitting… but it’s more likely it will take you many years of practice to get to the hardest people on your list. The Buddhist way is just to keep working at it, and never to give up and feel justified in holding on to your ill-will.
Fortunately, Buddhaghosa offers an almost humorously-long list of things you can do if you still can’t feel Metta for someone. I’ll spend the rest of this episode sharing ten of them with you. The message I get from the mere existence of this list, and from how long it is, is that, as human beings, we can find it very difficult to feel Metta unconditionally.
In Case You Still Feel Resentment Instead of Metta
1) Recall that your enemy wishes bad things upon you, and you bring them about for them by dwelling in anger and ill-will. In particular, when you’re angry and resentful you’re ugly, in pain, likely to drive away your friends, and more likely to make bad decisions that will bring about ill fortune for you. Buddhaghosa quotes the Buddha, “by repaying an angry man in kind you will be worse than the angry man and not win the battle hard to win; you will yourself do to yourself the things that help your enemy…” Thinking like this, maybe we’ll gain some determination to let go of our resentment and anger – if not for our own sake, then at least to deny our enemy the satisfaction of seeing us suffer.
If that doesn’t work?
2) Remember some “controlled and purified state in that person, which inspires confidence when remembered.” Buddhaghosa goes on at length about how some people may have good conduct in one area of their lives but not in another. Perhaps their verbal conduct is pretty shabby but for the most part their bodily actions are upstanding, for example. This recommendation makes me think of some people who may be doing something in the world I think is terrible, but they treat their own families with kindness and generosity. Sometimes, when I feel some ill-will or aversion toward someone, I also look for some evidence of innocence in them – the way they tend a plant on their desk or have a funny bumper sticker on their car. A glimpse of someone’s humanity can soften our resentment a little.
3) If someone seems to have no redeeming qualities, try to summon compassion for that fact. The idea is that bad behavior comes from greed, ill-will, or delusion, so someone totally caught up in these things will eventually suffer if they aren’t already. Sometimes compassion can awaken our sense of goodwill, because few of us actually enjoy seeing someone suffer.
4) Reflect on the damage anger does you. You’ve probably heard the saying that nurturing anger and ill-will is like concocting a poison to harm your enemy but then drinking it yourself. Similarly, Buddhaghosa offers a series of verses, including:
“Suppose an enemy has hurt
You now in what is his domain,
Why try yourself as well to hurt
Your mind?—That is not his domain…
If you get angry, then maybe
You make him suffer, maybe not;
Though with the hurt that anger brings
You certainly are punished now…”
5) Review the fact that, because of the law of karma, or moral cause and effect, we are the heirs to our deeds. Buddhaghosa observes, “Will not this kamma of yours that has anger as its source lead to your own harm?” By indulging in anger and resentment you just hurt yourself, and therefore “you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand [to do so] and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” The truth of this observation can be difficult to see in our own behavior, but you can probably think of other people you’ve listened to as they dwell on their resentments against someone. At a certain point, you see clearly how the subject of their resentment is more or less going merrily on their way while it’s the angry person that’s miserable.
6) Think about the Buddha’s words:
“When a fool hates a [person who] has no hate,
[Who is] purified and free from every blemish,
Such evil [s]he will find comes back on [her],
As does fine dust thrown up against the wind.”
Like one of the earlier suggestions, this approach seems to take subtle advantage of our natural resentment for someone, but the essence of this practice is, whatever works. If imagining yourself rising above the fray while the subject of your resentment continues to make a fool of herself helps you access some Metta for her, it’s worth it. Presumably the Metta itself will help you let go of your ulterior motive.
7) Think about the conduct of the Buddha, and other noble ones in the past, who manifested transcendent patience, boundless goodwill, and no trace of hate, despite persecution and misfortune. Buddhaghosa proceeds to share lots of stories about such noble forbearance in the past. Personally, it’s never helped me that much to compare myself to an ideal, but again, this about trying everything you can think of until something dislodges your ill-will.
8) Reflect on the advantages of cultivating Metta. According to Buddhaghosa, there are, specifically, eleven advantages:
(1) “A man sleeps in comfort,
(2) wakes in comfort,
(3) and dreams no evil dreams,
(4) he is dear to human beings,
(5) he is dear to non-human beings,
(6) deities guard him,
(7) fire and poison and weapons do not affect him,
(8) his mind is easily concentrated,
(9) the expression of his face is serene
(10) he dies unconfused
(11) if he penetrates no higher he will be reborn in the Brahmá-world.”
That last bit means you are reborn in a heaven realm if you don’t manage to attain Nirvana in this lifetime. Regardless of whether you believe in deities, immunity from fire, or rebirth, the point of this list is that Metta is very good for your own spiritual practice and well-being, not to mention your relationships.
9) Deconstruct who you it is you’re angry with. This is a fun one that Buddhist practice can help you with given its teaching of anatta or not-self. Buddhaghosa calls this exercise “resolution into elements” and tells us to ask ourselves exactly who or what is it we’re angry with? “Is it head hairs you are angry with? Or body hairs? Or nails?” Is it someone’s legs? Arms? Face? Liver? Kidneys? Eyeballs? Sensations? Thoughts? Consciousness? Generally speaking, as you contemplate each element of a person in isolation, it doesn’t make any sense to feel ill-will for it.
We may think we resent the person’s essence as manifested in all of their elements taken as a whole, but Buddhism challenges us to realize there is no such fixed and inherent essence in anyone or anything. There’s no one hidden inside we can ultimately find to blame. Buddhaghosa suggests that if we really do this resolution into elements, our “anger finds no foothold, like a mustard seed on the point of an awl or a painting on the air.” Again, this may or may not work for you, but I’ve personally found it somewhat helpful. Sometimes we’re holding on to a very fixed idea of someone in our minds in order have a focal point for our ill-will, but that fixed idea usually bears little resemblance to reality. In reality people are complicated, subject to change, and rarely share our view of whatever issues give rise to our resentment.
Finally, if none of these meditative, emotional, or mental exercises work to overcome your ill-will, Buddhaghosa has an eminently practical suggestion:
10) Give the subject of your resentment a gift! The idea is that, through this positive action, your ill-will subside, and it’s likely any ill-will of the recipient will be likewise mitigated. I think this is a sweet suggestion, because sometimes simply acting in a particular way, despite our internal thoughts and feelings, can have a powerful affect on our attitude. If the person for whom we’re trying to cultivate Metta is able to show any gratitude or appreciation, even better – it may melt our hearts a little.
Metta with No Barriers
After his list of suggestions for cultivating Metta when it’s particularly difficult, Buddhaghosa reiterates how goodwill with discrimination is just a worldly attitude, while it’s Metta without discrimination that’s transcendent and facilitates deep meditative absorption.
He quotes some verses from “the Ancients” (Metta here is “amity,” or friendliness):
“When [someone] discriminates between
The four, that is [her]self, the dear [person],
The neutral [person], and the hostile one,
Then ‘skilled’ is not the name [s]he gets,
Nor ‘having amity at will,’
But only ‘kindly towards beings.’ (That’s nice, but still limited…)
Now, when a [practitioner’s] barriers
Have all the four been broken down, (differentiation between the four categories of beings – self, dear ones, neutral people, and hostile people)
[S]he treats with equal amity
The whole world with its deities;
Far more distinguished than the first [kind of practitioner]
Is [s]he who knows no barriers.”
That’s it for today. Remember, if you’re wondering about whether it’s practical, wise, or compassionate to extend Metta (or any other Brahmavihara) with no barriers, I discussed that topic in Episode 65: Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist. In a future episode (not necessarily next week) I’ll discuss the remaining three Brahmaviharas – compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – in more detail.
 Buddhaghosa, and Ñāṇamoli (translator). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Berkeley, Calif: Shambhala Publications, 1976. Click here for a pdf. Page 312.
 Ibid, Page 294
 Ibid, Page 295
 Ibid, Page 297 (Dhammapada 125)
 Ibid, Page 300
 Ibid, Page 302