An Adorned and Beautified Mind

Western religion has always taught that human nature is inherently flawed and inclined to evil, while Eastern spirituality, that of Persia, India and China, has generally taken the opposite view. Zoroastrianism teaches that the whole universe is involved in a continual struggle between good and evil and that humanity’s natural leaning towards virtue will tip the balance so that good ultimately triumphs. The Buddha maintained that the human mind was by nature pure and luminous (pabhassara citta) and that defilements were alien to it. [1] Later Buddhist thinkers built upon this idea. The Milindapañha asks the question: “Which is stronger? Goodness or evil?” The answer is that goodness is stronger because virtue and kindness are intimately linked to happiness, and humans naturally gravitate towards what makes them happy. [2] Later still, the Tathagathagabhra school evolved the idea that enlightenment, the supreme good, is imminent in every human being, indeed in every living being.

Confucianism took a position similar in some ways to that of Buddhism. Mencius used the famous example of the child hovering on the edge of a well to argue that kindness and compassion come naturally to people. “No-one can bear to see the sufferings of others. My meaning may be illustrated with this example. If people suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, without exception they will experience alarm and distress. This will not be because they wish to gain some favour from the child’s parents, be praised by their neighbours and friends, or because they fear getting a reputation for callousness. From this example we can say that sympathy is innate in humans.” [3]

Unfortunately Mencius’ argument starts to look less convincing when we recall the atrocities that have been committed during serious civil strife or wars, even within living memory. People have thrown children into wells, into gas chambers and worse, while others stood by and did nothing, or even applauded. Mencius and those who agree with him are perhaps not seeing the full picture. The Buddhist understanding is more realistic. The mind is naturally pure but this purity is obscured by psychological defilements – and these defilements are very real, very tenacious and very destructive. The luminosity is there but it will only shine through if we consciously come to terms with the defilements while at the same time nurturing the good.

But why should we bother trying to be good at all? What is the justification for being good and loving? Motzu said we should love others because it was “the will of Heaven”, adding that it also contributed to creating a happier and more humane society, goals he considered to be intrinsically worthwhile. The great Hebrew sage Hillel said that treating others as one would like to be treated was the epitome of the Law and that we must follow God’s commandments and laws. For him love was an obligation, a duty. According to Christianity we should love others because God loves us. [4] Added to this is the idea that our ability to love only becomes possible when we give ourselves to God, who then uses us as a conduit for his love. [5] Some biologists have argued that altruism, the closest they come to discussing love, is an evolutionary strategy that gives the individual a survival advantage. There may be some truth in this, although it demotes fellow-feeling and empathy to the status of an exercise in prudence. For social scientists and psychiatrists, love- at least the conjugal, familial and friendship varieties- should be promoted because of its social and psychological benefits.

The Buddha saw love within the context of his understanding that ordinary conditioned existence is dukkha, physical and psychological suffering, stressful and characterised by conflict. The whole purpose of his Dhamma is to help us free ourselves from this dukkha. While dukkha will only be completely and finally overcome by ending the rounds of birth and death, in the interlude we can minimise some of the great suffering in the world by being more loving. When we love our partners, our offspring, friends, strangers and even humble creatures we are happier and so are they. When our hearts are animated by mettā we do not inflict suffering on others and are motivated to try to soothe any pain they may be suffering. It may be that in doing this we benefit by helping to create a society in which we are less likely to be abused and more likely to be helped if we are, but I doubt very much that the person with mettā ever gives such considerations much thought.

There are other compelling reasons for being loving. In one of his discourses the Buddha enumerated a range of possible reasons for being generous – to belittle the recipient, to placate them, to repay a favour they have done, in the hope of getting something in return, because it is simply a good thing to do, out of a desire to share, because it might inspire others to be generous, and finally, because it “adorns and beautifies the mind” (cittālaṅkāra cittaparikkhāratthaṃ). [6]

This list is hierarchical and thus the Buddha considered the last reason to be the most desirable. If generosity “adorns and beautifies the mind” then mettā does so even more. As it gradually becomes more significant in our personality, those states usually recognised as mean and ugly fade. At the same time those qualities the Buddhist thinker Anuruddha called attractive or radiant (sobhana cetasika) – faith, generosity, a sense of proportion, serenity, compassion, being compliant and flexible, rectitude, sympathetic joy and so on- become more pronounced. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is not to have a beautiful mind but to realise Nirvana, the final and irreversible cessation of greed, hatred and delusion. Having a mind beautified by mettā is an important step leading to the realisation of this goal.

Apart from its several spiritual benefits, love imparts a variety of other advantages. Love is good for us whatever the variety: the romantic or the friendship type, familial love, the love of animals, or mettā, whether bestowing it, receiving it or both. Research shows that those involved in close loving relationships live longer, get sick less often, recover quicker when they become sick, are less likely to abuse drugs, and so on. [7] There is even some scientific evidence that patients recover quicker when they are surrounded by their loved ones and attended to by a caring physician or nurse. Of course doctors have known this for centuries. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, is quoted as saying: “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.” The Buddha too pointed out that physicians and nurses needed more than a knowledge of medicines in order to help their patients. He said that they also had to tend their patients “with a heart of mettā”. [8]

In one of his discourses the Buddha listed some of the positive things we would experience by making mettā more a part of our lives. “If freedom of mind through mettā is practised and developed, emphasised and mastered, made a foundation and set in motion, made familiar and firmly established, it has these eleven advantages. What eleven? One sleeps happily, wakes happily, has no nightmares, is loved by humans, loved by non-humans, and protected by the gods. Fire, poison and swords do not affect one, the mind concentrates easily, the complexion becomes radiant, one dies without bewilderment, and if one develops no further, one will be reborn at least in the highest heaven.” [9]

I cannot vouch for the Buddha’s claim that we will be protected by heavenly beings if we have a loving heart but it certainly is a very widely held belief. [10] Nor can I verify that a loving heart will give immunity from the effects of fire, poison or swords, although perhaps this means that loving people are less likely to have enemies who might assault or try to kill them. But most of the other advantages mentioned by the Buddha would seem to be self-evident.

The idea that a loving disposition affects the complexion is an example of this. Popular wisdom says that a person’s heart is written on his or her face, and there is an element of truth in this saying. The complexion is influenced by physical factors such as genetics, health, diet and climate. However, our psychological state has some influence on our complexion and our countenance. Our emotions make the facial muscles expand or contract and this influences blood flow to the skin and thus skin colour. Emotions that have become habitual can cause some muscles to be permanently tight or loose, changing the contours of the face so that the skin becomes smooth or wrinkled. An explosive temper can make the face red and in time cause the capillaries to become visible so that the skin has a blotchy appearance. A persistently angry, critical or haughty outlook can give the skin a dark hue and make the ends of the mouth turn down into a permanent sneer. When love has become a significant part of the personality it gives the eyes and the mouth a particular quality indicative of happiness, contentment and inner peace.

In numerous places throughout the scriptures the Buddha is described as having a golden coloured complexion, exceptionally smooth skin, and clear and radiant features. [11] This outer beauty was a direct result of his inner transformation. The experience of enlightenment had dissolved all the mental defilements creating space for the unrestricted expression of mettā, kindness, even-mindedness and clarity. This in turn gave him a beautiful complexion and countenance that lasted even into his old age. He specifically said that being more mindful and practising mettā would give the face a radiant colour. [12] The iconography of nearly all religions depict saints with halos around their heads, probably a way of suggesting the radiant complexions such individuals actually had.

For most people loving their parents or children, falling in love, being devoted to their friends, etc. comes easily. It even happens without them trying. What about mettā? It might be possible to have a warm nurturing feeling towards all mankind or the whole world in the abstract, when mankind and all beings are at a distance, when they are not making our life difficult or when we are in a good mood. But is it really possible to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, to keep forgiving wrongdoers up to 77 times, or to feel no hatred towards criminals even as they are cutting us limb from limb? [13] Admittedly there have been individuals who have demonstrated an almost superhuman capacity for forgiveness and non-hatred despite terrible cruelty being inflicted on them or their loved ones.

Such a person came to public notice recently, the Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso. After the uprising against Chinese rule in his country in 1959 he was arrested and spent over 30 years in prisons and labour camps. He endured endless re-education sessions, backbreaking labour, deprivation and abuse, all designed to break his spirit. Despite this, in his autobiography he expressed no hatred for either his tormentors or the Chinese people in general. In fact, he stated that the only thing he feared through all those dark years was that he might give in to hatred. [14] Nelson Mandela emerged from years of bleak imprisonment without any rancour or ill-will and a cheerful readiness to reconcile with those who had oppressed him, his family and his supporters. But the majority of us get annoyed at even the smallest slights. We have difficulties keeping our anger in check when another driver cuts in front of us or our neighbour mows his lawn on a Sunday morning. If someone fails to thank us with sufficient gratitude when we do them a favour we secretly vow never to help them again. Can we who are not arahats, bodhisattvas or saints, be animated by mettā and live with others “like milk and water mixed”? The Buddha, Motzu, Jesus, Buddhaghosa, Santideva, St. Francis and the Dalai Lama all said we could, and invited us to consider this as an option. However history tells us that few people have ever done so, although they have read, praised and espoused the words of these and other great spiritual teachers. Whether we can or not, we can certainly be kinder, more giving, more forgiving, and more loving than we are.

To this end the Buddha left us these words of encouragement: “Cultivate the good. It can be done. If it were impossible, I would not urge you to do so. But since it can be done, I say to you: ‘Cultivate the good’. If cultivating the good brought you loss and sorrow, I would not urge you to do so. But since it conduces to your welfare and happiness, I say to you: ‘Cultivate good’.” [15]


  1. A.I,10. [back]
  2. Mil.81. [back]
  3. The Mencius 2A-6 [back]
  4. I John 4,7-21. [back]
  5. There are some problems with this claim. It implies that the highest love is the exclusive preserve of Christians, which is certainly not the case. It could also be asked why, with the world in such desperate need of it, God chooses to channel his love through so few individuals. Most people would probably admit that the highest love is far from common. Another problem concerns those aspects of God’s nature that seem to be contrary to love. The theologian A. W. Pink correctly said in his The Attributes of God (1968, p.75): “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness.” Does God channel these aspects of his nature through believers also? [back]
  6. A.IV,236. [back]
  7. For some recent research on this matter see Christopher Germer’s The Mindful Path to Self-compassion, 2009. [back]
  8. A.III,144. [back]
  9. A.V,342. [back]
  10. The Bible sometimes mentions guardian angels, an equivalent to the Buddhist idea, e.g. Matthew 18,10; Acts 12,12-15. [back]
  11. A.I,181; D.III,143; Sn.551. [back]
  12. S.I,5. [back]
  13. Luke 6,27-30; Matthew 18,21-2; M.I,129. [back]
  14. Palden Gyatso, Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, 1998. [back]
  15. A.I,58. [back]