More About Metta Meditation

People sometimes comment that it is insincere to say “May you be well and happy” in our mind to someone we do not really care about, or even like. A sceptic once put it to me like this: “I’m saying ‘May he be well and happy’ but actually I’m feeling ‘May he be sick and unhappy’.” This is an interesting observation. However, the point of Metta Meditation is not what we feel about a person, at least not in the beginning, but rather what we aspire to feel about them. If we did not want to be more friendly to someone or heal any ill-will between us, we would not include them in our meditation. What we are saying may well contrast with our present attitude towards them, but we are making an effort to change our attitude towards them, and to that extent we are being sincere.

It is common to think that with a few weeks of meditation all life’s problems will be solved, that everything will be smooth sailing from then on. This is not correct. Regular meditation certainly brings about positive changes in us but this does not mean that we will never have problems again. We will. Likewise, some people think if they practise Metta Meditation, ill-will, resentment, angry brooding, vengefulness, or petty irritation will never besmirch their hearts again. This is not the case either.

Back in the early 90s I spent a few months in a temple in Delhi. I had been given a room with an old Tibetan monk who had been living there for several years. He was a kindly old man and we got on well together. He meditated for an hour every morning and I would join him. We had interesting talks about Dhamma and although he was not very learned he had a lot of meditation experience. At this time I was focusing a lot on Metta Meditation and making a point of being as compliant, helpful and considerate as I could be to everyone in every situation. This proved easy with Lamaji (what everyone called him) and most of the others in the temple. But even out in the street, encountering people, purchasing things and using transport I did the same, with a fairly high degree of success. As a result of my practice I had achieved a state of considerable serenity, with occasional periods of bliss. It was very encouraging.

One day I decided to visit the New Delhi Zoo. When you know how poor people in India live, it is not surprising that the conditions of animals are so dreadful. The animals in this zoo were confined in tiny cement cages or squalid compounds and they looked mangy and miserable. When I got to the chimpanzees’ cage there was already a bulky man there with his little daughter. She had a bag of dried chapattis and he was carrying a long, thin, sappy stick. The chimp had seen the food and, expecting to get something to eat, had come up against the bars of its cage and was staring intently at the little girl. The man took a piece of chapatti from his daughter, held it out, and when the chimp reached for it he whipped its hand with the stick. The chimp screamed in pain and then jumped up and down with rage. The little girl squealed with delight and then her father lashed his stick back and forth across the bars, driving the chimp to the rear of its cage. I was utterly horrified, not just by the man’s viciousness, but also by the appalling example he was setting for his daughter. In a frenzy of indignation I snatched the stick from him and told him what I thought of him. He stared open-mouthed at me for a moment and then began loudly shouting back at me. This ugly altercation continued for some time, a small crowd gathering to watch, until eventually we stomped away from each other, exchanging accusations as we did.

All the way home I was in a state of enraged agitation, my mind racing with angry thoughts. Back at the temple, I buttonholed the first monk I saw and recounted the whole incident to him. His failure to be as indignant as I was did nothing to soothe my rage. I went to my room, sat on my bed and tried to calm myself down. As my anger receded it began to dawn on me that all my previous months’ practice had completely failed. “Good God! What have I done? What must those people at the zoo have thought when they saw me, a monk, red-faced, shouting and waving his arms around?” I began to feel rather miserable. By the time Lamaji returned, I was thoroughly depressed. He sensed that something was wrong, asked me what the problem was and I told him. I finished by saying: “I should have never opened my mouth.” “No Bhantji, you did the right thing,” he said. “But you did it in the wrong way. It’s hardly a surprise. You’re not an arahat or a bodhisattva. You still have defilements and you will have for a long time to come. But you’re growing, you’re changing and you’re sincere. I have seen it even in the short time you have been here. That man at the zoo probably still doesn’t realise the wrong he has done and he might even be proud of shouting you down. You’re sitting here feeling sorry for what you did. That means the Dhamma is changing you. In the future, you’ll continue making mistakes, you’ll give in to provocations. Don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you keep your resolve, as long as you keep your faith in the Dhamma, you’ll be okay.” He got up, patting the top of my head as he did, and made us both a cup of tea. Lamaji’s words did not make me feel much better but in the next few days I thought more about them and I knew he was right.

The Buddha said: “Just as the great ocean slopes away gradually, inclines gradually, without any abrupt precipices, likewise this Dhamma and discipline is a gradual doing, a gradual training, a gradual practice.” [1] It is unrealistic to think that just because we do Metta Meditation and try to act with kindness that we will never again lose our temper, get irritated or find ourselves making harsh judgements of others. Each of us commence our journey on the Noble Eightfold Path carrying different baggage, we all proceed along it at a different pace, and we all pause to rest in different places. While maintaining our commitment to the spiritual life, we should also be patient with ourselves and not overestimate our progress. When we find ourselves bored by a neighbour’s problem, being sarcastic towards someone or angry with them, as will sometimes happen, we should be aware of the work we still need to do. But we should also remind ourselves that we are slowly but surely moving forward.

The Buddha said: “The carpenter or his apprentice sees that the handle of his tool is being worn away by his fingers and thumb, but he does not necessarily know how much has been worn away today, how much yesterday and how much at another time. In the same way, one living devoted to the practice of meditation does not know how much of the defilement has been worn away today, how much yesterday and how much at another time. He merely has the knowledge that it is being worn away.” [2]

Another misunderstanding some have about mettā and the practice of Metta Meditation is the impression that a loving person has to accept every situation smilingly, never raise their voice, never put their foot down, never stand up to anybody or for anybody. While most people try to observe normal, acceptable codes of behaviour, there are always a few who do not. In any group of people there will be one or two who have no compulsions about bullying others, putting them down or taking advantage of them. A person with mettā can ignore tactlessness, opportunism, rudeness, snide comments, queue jumping, and other little acts of everyday selfishness and thoughtlessness. They slip off him or her “like water off a lotus leaf”, causing no grumbling or annoyance and leaving no resentment.

But a person with mettā cannot countenance cruelty or rank injustice, either to themself or when they see it being inflicted on others. Averting one’s eyes in such circumstances, pretending not to see or saying “It’s none of my business” is not mettā. Such responses show a deficit of mettā. What one does in such situations will differ according to the individual’s powers and abilities and to the circumstances. However it is possible to express disapproval of someone, to correct them, disagree with them or reprimand them, without rancour or rudeness. It is possible to point out someone’s mistakes without spite or feeling superior. It is possible to distance ourselves from someone because of their repeated offensiveness while always being ready to reconnect with them should they change.

A large number of people became the Buddha’s disciples. Some were tractable and others less so. Inevitably some misbehaved or were disruptive and, when they were, the Buddha had no hesitation in straightening them out. When asked if he could ever say anything that might upset others, the Buddha affirmed that he could. He then added that if it became necessary to do this, his words would always be motivated by compassion and he would always chose the right time to deliver them. [3]

He only expelled people from his Sangha for the most serious offences. As for others, he would put up with their failings and foibles for as long as they were sincere and willing to learn. The monk Tissa came to him once saying he was so disappointed in himself that he was ready to give up. The Buddha counselled him and then told him that for as long as he was prepared to try he would always be there for him. “Rejoice Tissa! Rejoice! I am here to encourage, I am here to help, I am here to instruct.” [4] If a contrite disciple came to the Buddha admitting his or her wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness, the Buddha would say: “Truly a fault has overcome you … But since you have acknowledged it and confessed it as is proper, I forgive it.”

Some people actually object to trying to be kind and helpful, maintaining that if you are, people will take advantage of you. This objection is usually raised by those who have had a string of bad experiences with others which have left them bitter and suspicious, or by those wishing to justify the aggressive and selfish way they conduct their dealings with others. However, this objection is based on two misunderstandings. The first one is the idea that a loving person must meekly, even obsequiously accept everything that is dished out to them. As pointed out previously, one can be fully aware of another person’s bad behaviour and deal with it firmly, without hatred and without wanting to get back at them.

Once the Buddha was accosted by an extremely belligerent Brahman furious that a member of his clan had become a Buddhist monk. After the Brahman had finished his tirade, the Buddha said to him: “Do you receive visits from friends and acquaintances, kith and kin or other guests?” “What if I do?” snapped the Brahman. “Do you prepare food both hard and soft for them and give them rest?” “I do.” “And if they do not accept the things you give them, whose do they become?” “They become mine.” Then the Buddha said: “Well it is the same here. Those words with which you revile, scold and abuse me, who neither reviles, scolds or abuses you, I do not accept. So they are yours, Brahman. You can keep them.” [5] It is not certain why this angry man would enter into even this short dialogue with the Buddha, but clearly the Buddha did not meekly accept his abuse. He calmly but firmly told him that he considered his rude language to be unacceptable.

On another occasion the Buddha had just made himself comfortable in a particular location only to discover that it was the “turf” of a yakkha named Alavaka, yakkhas being a type of troll or goblin. Alavaka confronted him and snarled: “Get out!” The Buddha said: “Yes friend” and obliged. As he did so Alavaka blocked his way and demanded: “Get in!” Again the Buddha said: “Yes friend”, and complied. This went on a few more times until finally the Buddha said: “I will not go out. Do what you will.” The Buddha’s refusal to be either frightened or to retaliate led to a more reasonable dialogue between him and Alavaka. [6] The point is that the Buddha was prepared to accommodate this bully, but only so far. He did not accept continually being pushed around any more than he cowered before the Brahman’s verbal attack. The alternative to meekly submitting to threats or aggression on the one hand, or retaliating to them on the other, is to try to skilfully deal with them without anger or the impulse to “give as good as you get”.

The second misunderstanding with the “if you are kind and gentle others will walk all over you” objection is that only nice people are taken advantage of or pushed around. The reality is that anyone can be victimised by others. Just because you are tough-minded, assertive and quick to stand up for yourself does not mean you will never encounter someone more aggressive or more wily than you are. Kindly people can be taken advantage of and so can forceful people. The main difference is that those who are pleasant, kindly and accommodating are sure to have more friends to support them, stand by them and sympathise with them should they be bullied or abused. There are very few situations where the person whose guiding star is mettā and kindness does not benefit in the long run.


  1. Ud.53. [back]
  2. S.III,154. [back]
  3. M.I,393-5. [back]
  4. S.III,109. [back]
  5. S.I,161-2. [back]
  6. Sn.181-92. [back]