That Love of Which there is None Higher

The Buddha called the highest, most spiritual and sublime love mettā. The word mettā, maitri in Sanskrit, is rather difficult to render into English and attempts to do so have included “benevolence”, “goodwill”, “friendliness”, “love”, “loving-friendliness”, “loving-kindness”, and “altruistic love”. The word itself is derived from mitta meaning “a friend”, so friendliness would seem to be a good translation. But nowadays, at least in the West, friendship can mean little more than polite amiability, sometimes not even that. Rendering mettā as love would be appropriate except that in English this word can mean everything from dreamy adolescent attachment to God’s essence. Loving-friendliness and loving-kindness would again be suitable except that they are too long and the hyphen deprives them of a certain grace that mettā is worthy of. So in this chapter mettā will be left untranslated and later use interchangeably with love. But whether it is translated or not, it is clear from how the Buddha and later Buddhist writers used the word that mettā is the most exalted type of love.

Mettā is an extension and maturation of the natural affection felt by people towards their family and friends. But while erotic, familial and conjugal love come easily, even naturally, at least to most people, mettā has to be willed into being, cultivated or developed (bhāvanā). It may be imminent within us but it is blocked or restricted by the ego and all its ugly offspring – sensual desire, lust and vanity, greed and dominance, jealousy, resentment, and so on. As we make an effort to modify these defilements mettā begins to fill the space they leave behind. As we commit ourselves to cultivating the qualities that make up mettā, what have been called its defining characteristics, its presence becomes more apparent. Buddhism can agree with Erich Fromm, M. Peck-Scott and others who say that love is an art, something that has to be nudged awake, consciously brought into being.

Mettā has all the characteristics of the other types of love although in a harmonised and unified form and to a much higher and more enduring degree. Like them it has its own unique features. All other types of love have a projective quality, while mettā is pervasive. Erotic and conjugal love, love of animals, etc., are projected towards one or a small number of beings, whereas mettā includes everyone within its warm beam, even animals. Like a light turned on in a room, mettā illuminates everything equally. The other types of love are inevitably influenced by prejudice or disgust, favouritism or self-interest. The Buddha often spoke of mettā as being immeasurable or boundless (appamaṇa), [1] and of it leaving “no noticeable kamma remains or persists there” (na taṃ tatrāvasissati na taṃ tatrāvaṭṭhati). [2] Other types of love can and often do co-exist with very negative states. A mother may cherish her child while disliking the neighbour’s children, or she may even pointedly love one of her children more than another. To the degree that a person has mettā, negative states of mind are absent. It is, as the Buddha reiterated many times, “void of hatred or enmity” (averena avyāpajjena). [3]

Love is often thought of as a need and to many people it is, as necessary for their psychological well-being as food is to their physical health. People in love do not just say that they “want” their beloved, but that they “need” them. Some parents depend entirely on their children to give their lives meaning. Strongly religious people insist that those without belief in a loving god must lead purposeless, empty lives, presumably because their own lives would be like this without belief. The need or dependency element in most types of love can give them a certain desperate quality. When our happiness or sense of self depends entirely on another person, they are to that extent fragile. People can be devastated if the person they love rejects them or falls out of love with them. They can become irrational, enraged or plunge into despair. The Buddhist scriptures describe a father’s reaction to the death of his beloved son like this: “He had no interest in work or food and he kept going to the cemetery and crying: ‘My only son where are you? My only son where are you’?” [4] Mettā does not need someone or something to love, nor does it need to be reciprocated or even acknowledged. Its pervasive quality means that if it is rejected by one object it can be just as happy giving itself to another. Ordinarily we love “someone”. Mettā just loves and any being that comes into its embrace receives its warmth.

The Buddha did not define mettā but his many dialogues on the subject made it clear what he meant by the word. He said to his disciples: “You should train yourselves like this: ‘Our minds shall not be perverted nor shall we speak evil speech, but with kindness and compassion we will live with a mind free from hatred and filled with mettā. We will live suffusing firstly one person with mettā and starting with them, suffuse the whole world with mettā that is expansive, pervasive, immeasurable and utterly devoid of hatred or enmity’.” [5] On another occasion he said: “There are six things that foster mettā and respect, helpfulness and agreement, harmony and unity. What six? When one acts with mettā towards one’s companions in the spiritual life, both in public and in private; when one speaks with mettā towards them, both in public and in private; when one thinks with mettā towards them, both in public and in private; when one shares with them, without reservations, whatever one has acquired justly, even if it be no more than the food from one’s alms bowl; when one possesses together with them virtues that are complete, unbroken and freedom-giving, praised by the wise and conducive to concentration; and when one possesses with one’s companions in the holy life, both in public and in private, the understanding that is noble, leading to freedom and which conduces to the complete destruction of suffering; then will there be mettā and respect, helpfulness and agreement, harmony and unity.” [6]

So the person who is committed to cultivating mettā will think, speak and act in a kindly and friendly manner towards all they come into contact with, whatever their origins, their status, or however they have acted in the past. No-one will be excluded from their attempts to be loving. “Whatever beings there be, animate or inanimate, long, large, middle-sized or small, significant or insignificant, seen or unseen, living near or far, existing or not yet come into existence, let them all be happy … Just as a mother would protect her one and only child with her life, so should you cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings and mettā towards the whole world.” [7]

The person who speaks and acts with mettā or who embodies it has a profound effect on those around them. When the Buddha asked Anurudha how he was able to live in such harmony with his fellow monks he replied: “I always consider what a blessing it is, what a real blessing, that I am living with such companions in the spiritual life. I think, speak and act with mettā towards them, both in public and in private. I always consider that I should put aside my own wishes and acquiesce in what they want, and then I do that. Thus we are many in body but one in mind.” [8] Appreciating one’s fellows, speaking and acting with consideration towards them, and putting aside one’s own needs and wishes for their sakes is not always easy. But this is how the loving person relates with others, and one who makes a commitment to this is laying the foundations of authentic mettā.

Unfortunately we are not always surrounded by people who are easy to like, let alone love. Sometimes our attempts to be accommodating and friendly are ignored, rebuffed or seen as an opportunity to take advantage of us. Occasionally we encounter ornery, hostile or downright nasty people. What then? When confronted with hostility or abuse the mettā-filled person does not repay evil with evil but remains patient, unhating and ready to forgive. The Buddha said: “If you repay anger with anger you only hurt yourself. It is by not retaliating with anger that you win the battle. Aware of the other’s anger and maintaining a peaceful mindfulness you act in yours and the other’s best interest. You heal yourself and the other, although those who know not the Dhamma think you are a fool.” [9] Ultimately, meeting the harshness of the world with mettā protects us, protects others and makes a meaningful contribution to healing some of the unpleasantness in the world. The Buddha said: “ ‘He abused me. He struck me. He overcame me. He robbed me’. Those who hold on to such thoughts never still their hatred. Those who give up such thoughts do still their hatred. For in this world hatred is never stilled by yet more hatred. It is by love that hatred is stilled. This is an eternal truth.” [10]

It is not just the nastiness or cruelty of others that can evoke our ill-will. The artificial distinctions between groups created by religious beliefs, skin colour, social origins or perceived “strangeness” or “otherness” are probably responsible for even more. The Buddha’s idea that we should extend fellow-feeling to everyone without distinction is all the more remarkable considering that he was brought up in a society where caste divisions were not just taken for granted but had religious sanction as well. The different ways of treating people according to their caste were clearly defined and rigorously enforced. These divisions and the prejudice they engendered in Indian society were as deep-rooted as those between freemen and slaves in Greek society, Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time, Han and barbarian in ancient China, and the numerous other divisions that plague us even today.

The Buddha used a range of arguments to critique caste distinctions. [11] One of these was to point out that so-called out-caste people are as capable of being virtuous and of having mettā as other castes are. [12] He also did practical things to break down caste discrimination. He said that caste differences had no legitimacy within his spiritual community and that when someone became his disciple they lost their caste just as rivers lost their separateness when they flowed into the ocean. [13] That all humanity is one was implied in the Buddha’s rejection of caste: “The differences between animals are numerous while those amongst humans are few…The differences amongst humans are conventions only.” [14] This was the first emergence of the idea that humanity is a single community.

It seems that while humans have had the potential for mettā ever since they became psychologically distinct from other animals, it took centuries for it to emerge from raw survival instinct, tribal identity and the general brutality of life. Although the Buddha was the first person to make mettā central to his message, he was to be followed by many others. The next person to do so was the Chinese sage Motzu, who lived some 150 or 200 years after the Buddha. The accepted understanding of love in Chinese society before Motzu was what Confucius called ren, sometimes translated as benevolence or human-heartedness. A person’s ren was supposed to vary in its warmth, closeness and manifestation according to whom it was directed. One’s family was worthy of most ren, superiors next, then subordinates and finally humankind in general. But even within the family situation ren had a certain aloofness and distance about it. A son’s unquestioning deference to his father and older brother hemmed in his and their love to some degree, and animals were not seen as worthy objects of ren. The Analects say of Confucius: “One day the stables burned down. The Master went out of the court and asked: ‘Was anyone hurt?’ But he did not inquire about the horses.” [15] This must have been because he had no concern for them.

Motzu contrasted Confucius’ idea of what love should be with what he called jian ai or universal love. [16] This love, Motzu said, should be expressed to all equally and unreservedly, no matter what their relationship with you or their station in life. Jian ai should take no account of social conventions, and is unconcerned with reciprocation. “The goal of the humane person is surely to seek to promote the benefit of the world and eliminate harm to the world, and to take this as a standard in all things. Does something benefit people? Then do it. Is something to the detriment of people? Then stop it.” [17] Most of Motzu’s contemporaries and many later Chinese thinkers dismissed his idea of universal love as admirable but impractical. Some even criticised it as contrary to human nature. Consequently it has had little influence on Chinese culture. This is not to say that no-one ever felt jian ai but only it was not held up as the ideal to be aspired to.

By the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, the great Jewish sages such as Hillel and Simeon the Just were moving towards the realisation of a higher and more universalised love and this had its culmination in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus spoke of the importance of rakhma, later translated into Greek as agape, a love that is strong, caring and self-sacrificing. [18]

Rakhma is sometimes described as being “undiscriminating” or “unconditional” but this is not quite what Jesus envisaged. He taught that moral and social outcasts, down-and-outs, the neglected, the poor and the persecuted were more in need of love and thus more worthy of it. The father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son seems to favour his reprobate offspring more than his obedient and responsible one. [19]

The famous Parable of the Good Samaritan is emblematic of Jesus’ idea about love. A man once asked him how he could be saved. Jesus replied: “What does the Law say?” In reply the man quoted two verses from the Old Testament about loving God and loving one’s neighbour. Jesus agreed with this and then the man asked: “And who is my neighbour?” In answer to this Jesus told this story: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee’.” Then Jesus asked his inquirer: “Which of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The man said: “He that showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said: “Go, and do thou likewise.” [20]

Reminiscent in some ways of Jesus’ famous parable is this incident in the life of the Buddha. “Now at that time a certain monk was suffering from dysentery and lay where he had fallen in his own excrement. The Lord and Ananda were visiting the lodgings and they came to where the sick monk lay and the Lord asked him: ‘Monk, what is wrong with you?’

‘I have dysentery, Lord.’

‘Is there no-one to look after you?’

‘No, Lord.’

‘Then why is it that the other monks do not look after you?’

‘It is because I am of no use to them, Lord.’

Then the Lord said to Ananda: ‘Go and fetch water so we can wash this monk.’

So Ananda brought water and the Lord poured it out while Ananda washed the monk all over. Then taking the monk by the head and feet, the Lord and Ananda together carried him and laid him on a bed. Later, the Lord called the monks together and asked them: ‘Why monks, did you not look after that sick monk?’

‘Because he was of no use to us, Lord.’

‘Monks, you have no mother or father to look after you. If you do not look after each other who will? He who would care for me, let him care for the sick’.” [21]

Jesus’ answer to his inquirer was that if you act lovingly towards your neighbour when he or she is in need you will be saved. The Buddha’s instruction to his monks was that if you care for him when he is in need you should care for others when they are in need. The love you have for him you should have for others. The motives in both cases are different but the purpose is the same, to encourage a loving, caring concern for others. Commenting on the Buddha’s words, the Saddhammopāyana says: “Nursing the sick was much praised by the Great Compassionate One and is it a wonder that he would do so? For the Sage sees the welfare of others as his own and thus that he should act as a benefactor to others is no surprise. This is why attending to the sick has been praised by the Buddha. One practising great virtue should have love for others.” [22]

Like Motzu’s jian ai and Jesus’ rakhma, the Buddha’s mettā is challenging and radical. Not only are hatred and vengeance completely incompatible with mettā but so are resentment, brooding and wounded pride. “If anyone abuses you, hits you, throws stones at you or strikes you with a stick or a sword, you must put aside all worldly desires and considerations and think: ‘My heart will not be moved. I shall speak no evil words. I will feel no resentment but maintain kindness and compassion for all beings’. This is how you should think.” [23]

In the Jatakas there is a story about a group of friends who did practical things for the benefit of travellers, the very things the Buddha encouraged. [24] They repaired the roads, cut down trees that struck and broke the axles of passing vehicles, constructed bridges, dug wells and built wayside rest houses. This aroused the jealousy of a corrupt local official, who then made false accusations against them to the king. Without investigating the matter the king ordered the friends to be trampled to death by an elephant. Immediately dragged off to their grim fate, they had no chance to defend themselves. As they lay before the elephant that was to crush the life out of them, their leader- actually the Buddha in one of his former lives- urged them to maintain mettā to those who had brought about their situation. “Remember that you have always upheld the Precepts and have mettā towards the liar, the king and the elephant, just as you would towards yourself.” [25] Of course the story deliberately places the friends in an extreme predicament. Apart from counselling forbearance and forgiveness its purpose is to encourage us to contemplate how easily we are provoked to animosity and how we bear grudges over the most petty wrongs done to us.

On one occasion the Buddha said: “Even if low-down criminals were to cut you limb from limb with a double-handled saw, if you filled your mind with hatred you would not be practising my teachings.” [26] This passage is significant in that it does not say we will never feel hatred or vengefulness, but that if we do we must know that we will not be upholding or adhering to the Buddha’s Dhamma. Here the Buddha is anticipating the common justification: “Well, she started it!” and the excuse: “How do you expect me to be nice to him when he acts like that?” We may not yet have the courage or the spiritual maturity to have mettā in all circumstances or to this degree, but this should be our goal, to aspire to an all-embracing mettā. Ultimately the only sane way to respond to abuse and injustice is with the forgiving and letting go aspect of mettā.

Mettā does not just transform the individual who has it; mettā has a social significance too. The Buddha said that mettā allowed individuals to relate to others “as a mother would… her one and only child”, to “look upon each other with the eyes of love” (piyacakkhuhi sampassanta) and to live together “like milk and water mixed” (khīrodakībhūta). [27] This third simile is particularly powerful and beautiful. Tip oil into water and they will immediately separate. Churn the mixture vigorously and the two will combine, but let it stand for a while and they will separate again. Milk and water by contrast blend together perfectly. Each takes on the qualities of the other – the water becoming opaque, the milk less white. The distinctions between them disappear.

People with mettā or who are cultivating it do what they can to promote harmony and togetherness between people. To this end, they are not always trying to get their own way, they relate to others tactfully and respectfully, they are willing to apologise should it become necessary, and they will not talk disparagingly to one group about another. “Thus he becomes a reconciler of those who are divided and encourages further those already united. Rejoicing in harmony, delighting in harmony, promoting harmony, harmony becomes the motive of his speech.” [28] Sometimes all it takes for a group to break up into angry, discordant factions is one difficult or obstructive individual. The person with mettā is never responsible for such happenings. When divisions do occur, sometimes just one person with mettā can heal the divisions and bring a group back together again by remaining calm and civil and by urging compromise.


  1. Sn.149-500. [back]
  2. D.I,251. [back]
  3. D.III,224. [back]
  4. M.II,106. [back]
  5. M.I,127. [back]
  6. M.I,322. [back]
  7. Sn.146-50. [back]
  8. M.III,156. [back]
  9. S.I,162. [back]
  10. Dhp.3-5. [back]
  11. See K. N, Jayatilleka, Buddhism and the Race Question,1958. [back]
  12. M.II,151. [back]
  13. Ud.55. [back]
  14. Sn.607, 611. [back]
  15. Lun yu 10,117. [back]
  16. Sometimes jian ai is translated as inclusive care or inclusive love. [back]
  17. Book 32, “Rejecting Music”. [back]
  18. Agape is not used in the Bible only for the highest love. The love between a husband and wife is also called agape (Ephesians 5, 28; Colossians 3,19). Sometimes the word is even used in a negative sense. You can love darkness (John 3,19), you can love honour and praise (Luke 11,43), you can love the world (1 John 2.15; 2 Timothy 10), you can have a deficient love (Luke 7,47) and your love can even grow cold (Matthew 24,12). Agape is used in all these cases. Throughout the Buddhist scriptures mettā is used exclusively for the highest love. [back]
  19. Luke 15, 11-32. [back]
  20. Luke 10,25-37. [back]
  21. Vin.I,301-2. [back]
  22. Saddhammopāyana 557-60. [back]
  23. M.I,129. [back]
  24. See page 40. [back]
  25. Ja.I,199-200. The friends were all saved at the last moment. [back]
  26. M.I,126. This passage is always referred to as the simile of the saw. The monk Brahmadatta admonished his readers thus: “If anger should arise in you, reflect on the simile of the saw,” Th.445. [back]
  27. M.III,156. [back]
  28. D.I,4. [back]