2021-06-07 Mettā Sutta (1 of 5) Foundations for Goodwill
2:29AM Jun 8, 2021
For this week I would like to focus on mettā, loving kindness, in a particular way. On Friday, I heard my friend Paul Haller, (who spoke here a few weeks ago for the 7am. for a week), give a wonderful talk. He divided up the discourse on loving kindness into four parts. It was very nice to hear him and I was inspired by this four part division. I thought I would do that for this week – take a look at the foundational teachings attributed to the Buddha on loving kindness.
There is a particular poem that can be divided into four parts – a poem on loving kindness. If you want to read my translation, which is what I will use, you will find it in the What's New section, on the homepage of IMC's website under Reflections from Gil. You will also find it, the part we are going to talk about today, in the YouTube description of what is happening here, underneath the video, if you click Show More. Please do not read it now and get distracted – we will go through it. (Paul's talk is not recorded for public use.)
We find in the ancient teachings of the Buddha, that loving kindness gets emphasized a lot. Of the four brahmavihārās, the four kinds of love that were championed in the ancient world, loving kindness gets the most attention. It encompasses quite a bit – the desire to be friendly and all the good qualities of that flow out of friendliness. Helping people when they are in trouble, our friends in trouble. Supporting people when things are going well, caring for them. Being kind. The fundamental way of seeing mettā is goodwill, what comes out of our goodwill. Goodwill is a nice translation, because the opposite of loving kindness is sometimes seen to be ill will, a certain kind of hostility towards others.
This discourse on loving kindness can be divided into four parts. The first part is not really about loving kindness itself, but can be seen as the support for it. The way of being in the world and being with ourselves, that makes room for the ability to have goodwill grow in us and develop. Some people will refer to this section as being an ethical teaching. But so much of what is talked about is not ethical in the sense of how we relate to other people, but how we are in ourselves. The words integrity and ethics are sometimes considered near synonyms of each other, so maybe this section involves the qualities of integrity. I like to think of it as different things that make room for the heart qualities to come.
If we want to have more mettā, more kindness in our life, more friendliness, it is not just a matter of drumming it up, as if we can just call on it, evoke it automatically. Rather create the conditions where it is more likely to flow out of us, more likely to be here for us. It is an indirect way of cultivating loving kindness – not to do it directly, but to prepare the ground for it. Many things that are important to do in life, we prepare for, adjust ourselves accordingly. So we are ready for this situation that we are going to do.
I am going to put in the Chat this section of it. It is not formatted very well this way, but I have told you different places you can get it, or you can just listen to me as I read. I will read it first, and then we will discuss it.
The discourse on loving kindness: "To reach the state of peace those skilled in the good should be capable and upright, straightforward and easy to speak to, gentle and not proud, contented and easily supported, living lightly with few duties, wise and with senses calmed, not arrogant and without greed for supporters. And they should not do the least thing that the wise would criticize."
The explicit discussion here is not about loving kindness, but to reach the state of peace. With a more close reading of the mettā sutta, it can be understood as utilizing, or being supported by, loving kindness on the path to liberation and freedom. Rather than loving kindness being an adjunct or different from the path of freedom, liberation, it is actually very much on it. The cultivation of this form of love supports the movement towards liberation.
"Those skilled in the good." There are a lot of words in the suttas that are related this word "good". My favorite is the word "beautiful", "kalyāṇa." Skilled in what is beautiful, beneficial, and wholesome, which was a topic for the last week. The word "skill" is related to the word "wholesome", "kusala." They are skilled in the good. What follows are some of the skills that we can develop. I like to think of it as skills, because we do not have to listen to this and think we should automatically be this way – this is an ideal and therefore you should be this way. Rather these are things to cultivate, to develop, to work towards. These are valuable states that should not be overlooked. If you want to live a purposeful life, cultivating these is phenomenally supportive.
Being "capable and upright." I think the word "capable" here means – able to apply oneself. That is how I understand it. Not so much that we are capable of doing a lot of different things. Rather, we are capable of engaging in the practice of cultivating skills, cultivating ourselves in ways. "Upright" – I think in the ancient world, this idea of being upright, like sometimes in English, has the meaning of having a certain kind of integrity. Integrity allows a person to stand upright, without feeling diminished, belittling themselves, feeling shy or less than because of who they are. The kind of integrity, that allows them in a very simple way to be upright. Hold themself straight and confidently.
"Straightforward" means to be direct in how we speak. Not go round about. Just say things as they are in a simple, straight way. "Easy to speak to" means that if someone needs to give us feedback about something that is difficult, we receive that easily. We are not automatically defensive. We do not go into the attack mode. If someone has to say something to us, we are there to listen and be there without automatically defending ourselves. Not automatically agreeing or being pushed over by the other people, but it is easy for you to come to us and say, "By the way, I need to talk to you. I want to talk to you about something that was difficult for me."
"Gentle and not proud," so upright but not proud. Sometimes in modern English, the word "pride" has very positive connotations. What "proud" here means is to be puffed up – a certain kind of conceit. "Gentle" (which was kind of the topic for the meditation we had) – certain kinds of gentleness. The reference point for gentle for me, to understand it better, is to appreciate the opposite of it. To not be gentle makes the heart and mind crowded usually. To be harsh, mean, rough with people – a kind of engagement and involvement that does not make room for freedom, love, kindness, or the kind of inner cultivation of the heart that the path of freedom involves.
"Contented and easily supported" – these are values that are more focused on monastics but they can be for anyone. Monastics are supposed to be very contented with having just a few things, just enough to be comfortable. Through the eyes of modern world, the monastic life can be seen as ascetic, but in time of the Buddha it was clearly not ascetic. There were people who were much more seriously ascetic than the Buddhists. The Buddhist monastics had just enough to be comfortable – just enough clothes, housing, food, and medicine. Not more than what is needed. Contented with what keeps the basics comfortable. That is a fascinating reference point – content with just enough to keep us alive healthily. "Easily supported" – for a monastic not to want a lot from other people, their supporters. Trying to acquire more and more from the donors who support them. Similarly, "living lightly and with few duties," not being so busy. Having a lot to do and lots of responsibilities does not make space and time that these heart qualities need to flower.
"Wise and with senses calmed." The senses calmed. The eyes are calm. We see the world in a calm way – we are not always darting about looking. The ears are calm. The taste buds are calm – we do not want more and more food.
"Not arrogant and without greed for supporters." "And they should not do the least thing that the wise would criticize." For the people in your life, who you respect and value for being wise people, you do not do something that they would be critical of. Mostly it means do not be unethical. Do not be mean. Do not have ill will. Use the reference point of those who are wise, for how to care for yourself, and how to relate to yourself. Do not do the least thing that the wise would say, "That's not quite right." It is a tall order.
It is a call, to be careful also with how you are when you are alone, in the privacy of your own life. Are you also there, living in a way that those who you respect would not be critical of? Your life is transparent or harmonious, whether you are alone or not. Ready to bring these qualities, all these qualities, to your life when you are living alone, quietly in the privacy of your own situation, or when you are in the world, public with others.
You would be capable and upright, straightforward and easy to speak to, gentle and not proud, contented and easily supported, living lightly and with few duties, wise, and with senses calmed, not arrogant and without greed for supporters. And not doing the least thing that the wise would criticize.
This sets the stage for an attitude, an orientation towards others, that can be said to be that of kindness or friendliness, goodwill, mettā. That will be the topic for the next section of the mettā sutta tomorrow. Thank you.
If you are at all inclined, you might want to memorize this section today. Some people find tremendous benefit from memorizing the mettā sutta. This version is not the one we usually use here at IMC. We use the monastic one that comes out of the monastery Abhayagiri, or Amaravati in England, because that has a nice chanting quality, but either one. Thank you.