Loving-Kindness (Metta) - Four Immeasurables
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 15, 2010
Location: Mountain Rain Zendo / Vancouver
Transcribed and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum.
Editor's note: This talk contains guided meditations on loving-kindness. You might consider pausing during the reading of the talk to do this practice. The pauses and bells that end certain stages are indicated in the text.
May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong,
In high or middle or low realms of existence,
May all beings be happy.
It's always inspiring to chant these words of the Metta Sutta. This wish for happiness for all beings - which includes oneself, one's own happiness - is basic to the nature of our human mind. It's basic to how reality is, this wish.
Now with all the greed and violence and confusion in the world, and one can sometimes even notice these things in oneself, it's hard to believe that this is true. It's hard to believe. And yet, it really, really is true. I think we are all in the process of discovering for ourselves how true this is. You could say that that is what practice is. Practice is the process of discovering for ourselves, little by little, over our lifetime, how true this is. At the center of our minds, at the center of our hearts, is this wish to be happy, and the understanding that this wish for oneself to be happy is the same as the wish for everyone to be happy. When you think about Dogen's understanding of zazen, this is what he's talking about when he talks about resuming your original nature, resuming your buddha-nature. This wish to be happy and the wish for everyone to be happy are the contents of buddha-nature. They're what buddha-nature actually means.
Selfishness is painful. It actually hurts to be selfish. To do violence, to be mean-spirited, is literally painful. We know that it harms others and - little by little, by observing our own hearts - we come to realize that it hurts us as well when we behave in that way. We feel how the pain of those negative states and behaviors comes back to ourselves. And this is true for everyone, even if that pain is sometimes experienced only as closed-heartedness or narrowness of heart.
That's really the truth. We observe that. And yet, isn't it an incredible thing how much those behaviors still go on, and how common they are in this world? Why is that so? We all understand how painful these things are. Why is there so much confusion and injustice and violence in this world? I think the root of it is that we all share this wish to be happy, to be safe, to be protected, but sometimes we think that in order to be happy, we've got to be more powerful than everybody else, so we can frighten them into giving us what we need. Or we think that to be happy, we have to be safe and secure, and so we need a lot of money and property to make sure we are safe and secure, and if we have to grab that money and property at somebody else's expense - well, that's what it takes to be happy. We think like that.
In other words, when you analyze it in the end, the reason why there is so much negative emotion and so much negative action in the world is because of our wish to be happy. But then we begin to see this wish and this need to be happy in too narrow a scope, and then the essentially wholesome desire to be happy gets mixed in with a lot of fear, and it becomes distorted. That's what causes all this bad behavior. We begin to think and act in a fear-based, distorted way. We then begin to become twisted by our own habit of stupid thinking and stupid action, and that becomes our fixed position and our fixed way of living in the world. And then when you multiply that by billions of people, you have the world that we live in.
It's astonishing to think that the real root of all of this confusion is our own very natural, innocent wish to be happy, to be safe, to preserve our life. Everybody wants this - even the worst crook; even the biggest rip-off financier; even the most corrupt politician. In their heart of hearts, everyone simply wants to be happy, wants to be safe, and wants to preserve his or her life. So it is no wonder that when we sit down on our cushions for awhile, sometimes we experience a lot of this fear and a lot of this narrowness and a lot of this suffering, negativity, and trouble. Since it is there all around us, in our world, and in our own hearts, it's the most natural thing that when we stop and look within, a certain amount of it will well up. We might think that it is us - that there is something wrong with us, or we have these things in us. But really these things are not our fault, and whatever negativity and pain and suffering that we feel inside are not really our true characteristics.
Since most of the discussion that we have about loving-kindness is from the Pali tradition, we commonly use the word metta. In Sanskrit the word is maitri, which could be translated as loving-kindness, but it could also be translated as friendliness - to be friendly with oneself and to be friendly with everyone.
In the era in which we're living, this eon of time in Buddhist cosmology, the buddha is Shakyamuni Buddha. He is muni, the sage, of the Shakya tribe. So, in this era a person emerges from a particular group of people as a sage and teaches for this aeon. In the next aeon, the Buddha is going to be called Maitreya Buddha. Not a buddha who emerges from a particular people and takes the name of that people, but a buddha whose name means "friendliness". The buddha of the next eon is the buddha of universal friendliness. I think this is a wise insight of our Buddhist ancestors, because I think it really is true that friendliness is an evolutionary trend for humanity.
So, let's practice loving-kindness meditation together. If you would be so kind as to come back to your body, to your breath, let's just practice for about ten minutes, in a more direct way, these things that I have been speaking about.
So begin with your breathing and your body, returning to your heart, to your life in the present moment - to buddha-nature, the peaceful, empty, boundless nature of mind. I'll go through various stages of this practice. I'll ring one bell at the end of each stage, and at the very end, I will ring two bells.
Traditionally the practice of maitri begins with oneself. Think of yourself as a friend to yourself. As you exhale, repeat these phrases: "May I be happy. May I be safe and content. May my heart be open." If you find it difficult, or if there is resistance in your heart to practicing like that, just notice that. It's not necessary to make it go away, or to reject the practice if you feel that way. Just be patient with it and continue.
Now, letting go of the words, just feel, as you breathe, as if the breath itself were the love and the friendliness. Breathe in this friendly, loving feeling, and breathe out this friendly, loving feeling. Feel it circulating in your body as you breathe.
Now, think of someone dear to you. Someone whom you love and who loves you in an uncomplicated way. Maybe it is a family member, or a close friend, or a teacher, or a benefactor of some sort. Again, as we breathe out, we will practice these phrases. Imagining this person, may he or she be happy. May he or she be content and safe. May his or her heart be open.
Now, letting go of the words, just feel the friendliness and the love in your breathing. Feel it flowing out from you toward the person. Feel it flowing back from the person toward you. Feel it in the very breath as a direct experience without words.
Now we'll think of a more neutral person, maybe someone we know - or a group of people we know - at work, or we do business with somehow. Or, it might be better right now to think of everyone here in the room. People that we know to some degree, but maybe not as well as someone very close to us. Feel the presence of all of us in the room. "May all of us be happy. May all of us be safe and content. May our hearts be open."
Now, letting go of those words, without any words, as you breathe in, as you breathe out, feel the love and friendliness flowing out of you and back into you, as love and friendliness circulate throughout this room. Feel it right there in the breath. And that is what the breath is, after all.
Now let's imagine the walls of this room fall away; the outside walls of the building fall away; and the ceiling and the floor. We are open to the space around without limit - as far as the consciousness could reach, in all directions, above, below, and all around. May all the beings in this limitless realm - high and low, human and non-human alike - be happy. May all beings be safe and content. May all hearts be open.
And letting go of the words, feel this. As you breathe out, feel the love pouring out of you - filling space in infinite directions. Feel the love circulating through you as you breathe in, from limitless space, all around.
The next one is more difficult, and we'll all do the best we can, and study our resistance if it arises. Think of someone who is a pretty difficult person. Someone you know in your life now, or maybe someone long ago, who was mean to you, or hurt you, or someone toward whom you have strong antipathy. Bring that person to mind. May he or she be happy. May he or she be content and safe. May his heart, may her heart, be open.
Now, letting go of that, for the last moment, let's just return to sitting with the breath, with the body, with awareness. Empty, open awareness in the present.
Thank you very much for being willing to practice together like that. I hope that it was enjoyable. That's partly the point. It's so nice, isn't it? To feel love, loving-kindness - this is not an unpleasant experience. It's actually a wonderful experience. But perhaps also you could see that's it's not necessarily always so easy to generate a feeling of love, especially for someone who is not so lovable. When on our cushions, maybe, in this special environment, we could do it. It's not so hard to have that feeling when you are sitting on your cushion, as opposed to daily life when people, in general, seem not to be so lovable.
In the classical texts on metta or maitri, they talk about, "What is the proximate cause of this emotion?" The proximate cause of love is lovability - an object that is inherently lovable. So, for instance, it's not that hard to love a cute child or baby. Babies are designed to be loveable. It's a very pragmatic thing. It takes so much to take care of a baby. Imagine if babies were ugly and nasty creatures. The species would have long ago died out! So it's very practical that babies be loveable, so that we love them and want to take care of them.
So loveable creatures easily inspire love, but there are others who are not as loveable, right? Much more difficult to love the less loveable, and almost impossible to love the absolutely unlovable. You usually have to be very good at this, to love the unlovable one. Therefore, the practice of loving-kindness cannot be practiced without an honest encounter with the barriers to loving-kindness within ourselves. Just to think about generating loving-kindness, and not to consider the barriers - the natural barriers - to loving-kindness within ourselves, is not really going far enough.
So considering those barriers is a necessary part of the practice of loving-kindness, and that is a whole other conversation. But for today, I would just say one word, and that word is "patience." When you were sitting and practicing a moment ago, maybe you found it difficult at times to generate a feeling of loving-kindness. Maybe you thought, "This is stupid," or, "I can't do this," or, "I don't want to do it," or, "I don't feel anything." When that happens, you practice patience. You just turn toward that feeling, whatever it is, and know it's there; and you just breathe with it there and continue making the effort - but honestly noticing what is really happening. That is called the practice of patience.
Patience means at least two things. First of all, no matter how angry or upset or neutral or negative we may be feeling, no matter how impossible it may be at this moment to generate a feeling of love or friendliness, we have to be clear in our minds that that is what we would like to do. Because I think what happens if sometimes we don't feel love or friendliness, we think, "Well, that guy doesn't deserve it anyway. Why would I want to have any kind of love for that person? He doesn't deserve it." And then we start justifying our feelings. So the idea here is that even though we can't feel that right now, we know that we want to some time be able to feel it. That's our goal.
And secondly, patience means that we recognize that there is a great virtue and a great strength and a great dignity in simply being able to bear what we have to bear. To be able to bear our anger, our frustration, our rage, our pain, our hurt - all that stands in the way of our love. Just to be able to bear that is a strong and dignified practice.
In this great effort to practice the Way, patience may be the most important of all virtues. When we think about it, it's very obvious. Even though I would like to, at this moment I might not be able to prevent the feelings of frustration or rage - "I am angry, I am frustrated!" I understand that I can't prevent these feelings. And I also know that these feelings are not helping me. "This is not what I want, and this is not beneficial. If I indulge these feelings and make them into a theme for my life, what's going to happen to me? I'm going to become a very bitter person. I'm going to become a despairing person. I'm going to be a person who sees no goodness in humanity, and, therefore, in myself. And if I act on those emotions and those habits of mind, I'm not going to make the world better for myself or others. I'm going to make it worse."
In some ways you could say that rage is good. Maybe it is better than passivity. Passivity is also a kind of affliction - perhaps a worse affliction than rage. Sometimes rage can rouse our compassion and our action to do something good. So that could be a positive thing. But if we are just enraged, and we act and lash out, this is not good. We have to take the energy of the rage and transmute it with patience, and - as much as possible - temper it with kind thoughts, before we are able to act with this energy in some effective way.
The classical teachings say there are three aspects to the practice of patience: First, a kind of warrior spirit. Patience is not passivity. Patience is a warrior spirit that says, "Okay, something tough is coming, inside or outside. All right, I am ready. I like tough things. I am ready for it. I want that to happen. I'm okay with it. I'm eating difficulty for breakfast. That's what gives me strength for the day."
Resignation is not patience. When we feel resigned - "Oh, no, this is terrible. There is nothing I can do about it," - we can feel ourselves losing energy and losing strength. Patience is the opposite of that. Patience arouses our strength and our energy. It's a strong, positive step in overcoming adversity and generating loving-kindness when the time for that opens up. Patience is enduring with honesty and strength what's actually present, inside or outside, even if it's not good.
The second aspect of patience is something that we don't really like in our culture, because we always think - this so naïve to me - that something truly can be done. "Let's do something! Something can be done!" But sometimes nothing can be done. Nothing, sometimes, can be done, and that makes us feel impotent and confused. But, actually, we should have patience. "Yes, that is exactly what I am going to do right now: Nothing." That's a strong thing. This seems ridiculous, but it's not so ridiculous. When I work with caregivers for the dying, we learn that there are times in the dying process when there is absolutely nothing that can be done. Absolutely nothing. If, when absolutely nothing can be done, if you are freaking out, running around, trying to figure out what to do, this is not a good thing. But if you can come forth and say, "That is what I am going to do right now - absolutely nothing," that is a huge strength and a huge advantage. And that is a strong thing to do. I think that mostly we don't understand this.
That is the second aspect of patience. The third one is the one we are all familiar with, because we all have been kids going on long car trips - across the Canadian prairies, going to Calgary, or something like that. Mile after mile after mile, we are sitting in the back seat, saying, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" And our parents said, "Be patient! Be patient!" What they really meant was, "Shut up, and leave me alone."
So when we hear the word "patience", that's what we think: "Shut up, and leave me alone." Waiting is not that. The capacity to wait - "Now is not the time; I'm waiting for the right time," - is a huge skill that we don't even know is a skill, let alone are we interested in developing it. I wrote about this a lot in Sailing Home. There is a whole part in there about just waiting. The path requires waiting. Sometimes you just suffer for a long time, and you wait for the right time.
The point here is that we cultivate loving-kindness as an intentional practice on our cushions, and also in our hearts. As we go through our day, we cultivate loving-kindness in our actions, words, and thoughts. And when we find that - because of strong afflictive emotions, created often by bad external circumstances - we can't do that, we practice patience. The practice of patience is the gateway to the practice of loving-kindness.
The traditional teachings also say that each of these four brahmaviharas - loving-kindness, maitri, being the first - each one has a near enemy and a far enemy. The far enemy, of course, is the opposite. So the opposite of loving-kindness is hatred or antipathy. So now when we are practicing and have an intentional practice of maitri, when we see antipathy or hatred arising in us, we know, "This is the far enemy of loving-kindness, and I have to be careful now. This reminds me of my commitment to be kind." And then we practice patience.
The near enemy is sneaky, because it looks like the thing itself, the quality we are trying to develop, but it's not. It's obvious that when we hate somebody, that this is not loving-kindness. We know that. Everybody knows that. But the near enemy might look like loving-kindness and feel like loving-kindness. We might wish the person well, and so on, but it's not loving-kindness. It's not love. The near enemy of maitri is attachment, which can sometimes look a lot like love. Almost all human love has within it - appropriately and necessarily - a degree of attachment; but when it is more attachment than love, it's actually about us. Love has to do with other people. We love ourselves so that we can love other people. But when our emotion is all about ourselves, it is called attachment. When I want someone to be well and to be happy and content so that they can be there for me, when that's actually what I am after, this is not called love; this is called attachment. Even if I want them to be happy and I want them to be well so that I can make a big fuss over them, and I could buy them presents, and I could do things for them, and I could send them flowers on their birthday - even so, that is for me, because I like doing those things for her or for him.
We have to be able to see within our hearts the near enemy of love and true love. The trouble with attachment, of course, is that it is one small step away from hatred and antipathy. Love with a lot of attachment is very shaky, and it easily turns into hatred. I know this because among the people I work with in conflict resolution, many of them are divorce lawyers. They are very familiar with love that in a twenty-four-hour period turns into raging hatred that persists, sometimes, for the rest of one's life.
So, please, in our time together in the next couple days, if you want to, please do practice these loving-kindness meditations on your cushions. But, also, remember that simply doing zazen is the practice of returning to kindness - the kindness that is already present in the nature of each moment of time. That is the fundamental meditation that Dogen teaches. When he says in Fukanzazengi that we should let go of everything, of every wish to become a buddha, or anything else, that we should take the backward step, that we should practice non-thinking, and that we should illuminate the self, he is saying that just to do zazen is to re-enter the house of being. That house of being is inherently, by its nature - whether we say these words or not - a house of kindness and love. That's its nature. That's what Dogen is teaching us, even if he doesn't use the word "love."
So, with that spirit of love and support and friendship, let's continue to practice in this weekend. Thanks for your attention.