maitrī (P. mettā; T. byams pa བྱམས་པ་; C. ci/cibei 慈/慈悲) is translated as "love," "loving kindness," "goodwill," "benevolence," etc. Maitrī is the wish for the welfare and happiness of all living beings. It helps to eliminate ill will.
The cultivation of maitrī is an important factor of the spiritual path in all Buddhist traditions. It is emphasized repeatedly in the discourses of the Buddha and in later commentaries. Maitrī can be practiced in daily life by acting with benevolence and kindness to others, and it is incorporated into meditation practices such as the four immeasurables (apramāṇa).
Contemplating or reciting passages on maitrī is said to provide protection (paritta) from fear, physical illness, or harmful spirits.
Meaning of maitrī
The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Vol 5.) states:
- The Path of Purification says love (maitrī) “has the aspect of friendliness as its characteristic. Its function is to promote friendliness. It is manifested as the disappearance of malice and annoyance. Its proximate cause is seeing others as lovable. When it succeeds, it eliminates malice. When it fails, it degenerates into selfish affectionate desire.”
- Love views one, many, or all beings as lovable and wishes them well. We may begin with one or just a few people. By gradually increasing our ability to love, we will be able to extend love to more and more living beings until it spreads to all beings without exception. It will spread to both those who treat us well and those who disparage or harm us, to those who have good values and those who do not, to those we approve of and those we don’t, to those who are well-liked by all and those who are despised. This love does not seek anything for ourselves; the pleasure is in loving. Such love is strong, not fickle according to either our mood or how others treat us. It is ready to help, but does not have an agenda or coerce others to fulfill our expectations.
- Many movies, novels, and other art forms deal with romantic and sensual “love.” From a Buddhist viewpoint, this emotion should more accurately be called “attachment” (rāga), as it is generally based on exaggerating someone’s good qualities or projecting excellent qualities that aren’t present. Attachment also gives way to emotional neediness and possessiveness that lead to making demands or having high expectations of the other. Immeasurable love is free from such complications.
- Combining the understanding of selflessness (nairātmya) with love demolishes any sense of possession. Love infused with a sense of selflessness knows that ultimately there is no possessor or person to possess. There is no independent soul or essence in a person to love or to be loved. The highest love wishes beings to have the highest happiness and will show others the path to the end of suffering, the path realized and taught by the Buddha.
Meditation on maitrī
- Since animosity is the opposite of love and prevents its development, it is essential to reduce anger and ill will. We begin this process by reflecting on the disadvantages of animosity and the benefits of patience and fortitude (kṣānti). This step occurs at the outset, because we “cannot abandon unseen dangers and attain unknown advantages” (Vism 9.2).
- Anger and hatred destroy trust and tear apart valued relationships; they destroy the merit created with great effort; they compel us to act in ways we later regret, bringing on guilt and remorse. Fortitude (kṣānti), on the other hand, is like a soothing balm on a wound and a beautiful piece of jewelry that attracts others to us. It protects our virtue and all that is valuable to us in this and future lives.
- Initially it is important to cultivate love toward specific people in a definite order. It is recommended not to begin the cultivation of any of the four immeasurables toward someone to whom you are or could be sexually attracted. There is the amusing but unfortunate story of a man who was meditating on love for his wife and, confusing love with sexual attraction, tried to leave his meditation room to get to his wife. However, so blinded was he by lust, he couldn’t see the door and so spent all night fighting with the wall! Also, the people we initially cultivate love toward should be alive. Since the deceased are no longer in the form in which we knew them, cultivating love for them is difficult. However, out of concern for our deceased relatives and friends, we can make offerings to the Three Jewels on their behalf and imagine that they rejoice in the merit dedicated for them.
- First cultivate love toward yourself. Contemplate repeatedly, “May I be happy and free from suffering. May I be free from animosity, affliction, and anxiety, and live happily.” Add whatever other good wishes you would like, such as, “May I be generous and kind,” and “May I be free from internal and external obstacles on the path.” Focusing on yourself first is important to develop the feeling of what it is like to wish someone well. In the process of doing this, you will realize that being happy and peaceful and avoiding pain are everyone’s fundamental wishes.
- Some people may wonder if generating love toward themselves is selfish or self-indulgent. Cultivating love toward yourself is not selfish because the goal is to generate love toward all beings, which includes yourself. You are no more or less important than others; you are also worthy of love and kindness. Since many people suffer from self-hatred, this meditation is an excellent counteracting method. While cultivating love for yourself alone does not bring meditative absorption, it does get you going in the right direction. Conversely, following selfishness and self-indulgence is unkind to yourself and causes misery. Self-centeredness, which makes you greedy, easily offended, and vindictive, does not bring you happiness, whereas developing mental tranquility that is free from afflictions does.
- Having generated love for yourself, extend love to others by contemplating, “Just as I want to be happy and never experience suffering, so too do other beings.” The next person to send love to should be someone you respect and for whom you have positive feelings. It is recommended to consider the qualities of your spiritual mentor, preceptor, or another teacher and recall the help you have received from them. With awareness of his or her kindness, cultivate love by contemplating, “May he be happy and free from suffering. May he be free from animosity, affliction, and anxiety and live happily.” By recalling the inspiring example of this person’s virtuous conduct and learning, it is possible to attain meditative absorption on love with respect to him.
- Continue to extend love more broadly. Doing this involves breaking down the barrier in your mind that puts people into narrow categories and believes stereotypes. Now cultivate love toward a very dear friend, thinking in the same way as above. Generating love for a dear friend is done after generating it for a respected person because focusing on a dear person can easily make attachment arise under the guise of love, whereas this doesn’t happen toward a person you respect and appreciate.
- When the mind is malleable, turn your attention to a neutral person and, seeing her as a dear friend, generate love. When your mind is compliant with this, go on to develop love for a hostile person, seeing him as neutral. A hostile person is not someone who is hostile toward you — although he may feel that way — but someone for whom you have hostile feelings. Those fortunate few who do not see others as harmful or threatening and who do not get upset with uncooperative people can skip generating love toward hostile people.
This text presents the following sequence of reflections, based on the above explanation:
- 1. Cultivate love for yourself by reflecting again and again, “May I be happy and free from suffering. May I be free from animosity, anxiety, and live happily.” Add whatever other good wishes you would like, such as “May I be generous and kind” and “May I be free from internal and external obstacles on the path.” Do this slowly so you feel the change in your attitude for yourself.
- 2. Contemplate in the same way, wishing the same good circumstances for someone you respect.
- 3. Contemplate in the same way, wishing the same good circumstances for a friend.
- 4. Contemplate in the same way, wishing the same good circumstances for a neutral person — for example, a stranger you see at the store.
- 5. Contemplate in the same way, wishing the same good circumstances for someone you usually feel hostile toward. Imagine that person being happy and because of that their actions and speech change.
- 6. Rest your mind in the feeling of wishing everyone happiness and imagining them as being happy.
The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Vol 5.) states:
- Many of us find it difficult to wish happiness and well-being to those who have harmed us, because our mind is chained by resentment and grudge-holding. We may wish to retaliate for the harm we received or hope the government does it for us, through imprisonment, capital punishment, or military strikes. If we see ourselves as civilized, we may simply wish that those who harmed us encounter misfortune that will teach them a lesson or give them a taste of their own medicine. If you cannot get past these negative feelings, return to generating love toward one of the previous persons, and when the mind is drenched in that feeling, then return to the difficult person.
- If animosity persists, apply an antidote, such as the ones offered below. If one doesn’t release the anger, try another. Practice these antidotes repeatedly over time; don’t expect that simply changing your thought once will change it forever.
- Reflecting on the disadvantages of anger is a worthy antidote. The Buddha said (MN 128.6.):
- He abused me, he struck me,
- he defeated me, he robbed me” —
- In those who harbor thoughts like these
- hatred will never be allayed.
- For in this world hatred is never
- allayed by further acts of hate.
- It is allayed by nonhatred (compassion) —
- That is the fixed and ageless law.
- Bhikkhu Anuruddha explains how he lives in harmony with other bhikkhus (MN 128.12):
- I think thus: “It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life.” I maintain physical acts of love toward these venerable ones both openly and privately. I maintain verbal acts of love toward them both openly and privately. I maintain mental acts of love toward them both openly and privately. I consider: “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?” Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, but one in mind.
- Imagine practicing like Anuruddha does with your family, colleagues, and community members.
- The Buddha detailed seven disadvantages of anger in Sutta on the Wretchedness of Anger (AN 7.64) by describing what someone wishes for his enemy and showing that anger accomplishes his enemy’s wishes. For example, an enemy may wish us to be ugly, to have an unfortunate rebirth, to experience pain, or to lack prosperity, wealth, a good reputation, and harmonious relationships. We accomplish all these things for him, through our own anger, without him harming us at all.
- 1. Even if we have bathed in fragrant water, wear stylish clothes, and are adorned with luxurious jewelry, we become ugly when angry.
- 2. Even if we are lying on a comfortable bed snuggled in luxurious blankets, we are in pain when we’re angry.
- 3. We may have prosperity, but when we ruminate with angry thoughts, we make bad decisions that destroy our prosperity.
- 4. We may have wealth, but a mind bound by anger cannot enjoy it. Although we may work hard to procure wealth, it is dissipated in fines due to unwise actions motivated by anger.
- 5. We may have a good reputation, but lose it by falling prey to anger.
- 6. We may want friends and good family relations, but dreading our temper, others stay away from us.
- 7. Although we wish for a peaceful death and a fortunate rebirth, anger fuels destructive physical, verbal, and mental actions, creating the causes for the opposite.
Benefits of maitrī
The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Vol 5.) states:
- The Buddha speaks of eleven benefits accruing to those who practice the liberation of mind with love regularly (AN 11.15):
- They sleep well, free from restless sleep and apnea.
- They awake well, without groaning, yawning, and rolling over to go back to sleep.
- They do not experience nightmares but have auspicious dreams, such as paying respects at a stūpa or offering homage to the Three Jewels.
- They are dear to humans, who appreciate and respect them.
- They are dear to nonhumans, who are grateful for their serenity that brings peace among them.
- Deities protect them.
- Fire, poison, and weapons do not affect them. Here a story is told of a hunter who threw a spear at a cow who was nursing her calf. The spear bounced off her due to the power of her love that wished for the well-being of her calf.
- Their minds are easily concentrated, not subject to sluggishness.
- The expression on their face is serene.
- They die without confusion, as if they were simply falling asleep.
- If they do not attain a supramundane realization, after death they will be born in the Brahmā world (brahmaloka) in the form realm. Meditators who have attained any of the four immeasurables — that is, a mind of dhyāna with any of these four as its object — during their life will have the intention associated with this immeasurable arise as they die. This is an invariable karma that will ripen by the person being reborn in the corresponding level of the Brahmā world.
- The cultivation of love benefits our own mind as well as the society around us. At the time of the Buddha, a murderous bandit named Aṅgulimāla terrorized the land. Having killed 999 people and made a necklace of their finger bones, he was seeking his next victim when the Buddha intervened. The power of the Buddha’s peace and love subdued Aṅgulimāla, who became one of his monastic disciples. Then one day when King Prasenajit went to visit the Buddha, the Buddha introduced him to Aṅgulimāla. The king reacted with terror and dread, but the Buddha assured him that there was nothing to fear. Conversing with Aṅgulimāla, the king was astounded by the change and relieved that his subjects could now live without fearing this serial murderer. Addressing the Buddha, King Prasenajit said (MN 86.13):
- It is wonderful, venerable sir, it is marvelous how the Blessed One tames the untamed, brings peace to the unpeaceful, and leads to nibbāna those who have not attained nibbāna. Venerable sir, we ourselves could not tame him with force and weapons, yet the Blessed One “has tamed him without force or weapons.
- Love is also effective at stilling disturbance by spirits, negative energy, and threats from human beings. The Buddha taught the famous Sutta on Love because his disciples’ meditation was being disturbed by antagonistic spirits. By the monastics cultivating profound love for all beings, the spirits were subdued and their interference ceased. When Devadatta released a wild elephant with the hopes it would trample the Buddha, the Buddha’s meditation on love soothed the elephant, who bowed to him instead. The laywoman Sāmāvati was protected from the actions of her jealous husband by meditating on love. The Buddha also instructed monastics to contemplate love for snakes, scorpions, centipedes, spiders, lizards, and rodents, and to speak of the excellent qualities of the Three Jewels to protect themselves from being bitten by these creatures.
- Cultivating love in a dangerous situation cannot be done out of fear or anger, for such emotions are the antithesis of love. Rather, understanding the suffering of these beings and wishing them well, cultivate love and compassion for them. Love, particularly in a mind of dhyāna, protects you from external and internal disturbances. Furthermore, the liberation of mind with love energizes practitioners to reach out and directly help others whenever the possibility arises. In the process of helping others, it is important not to transgress whatever precepts we have taken.
- Meditating on love reduces interferences and increases conducive circumstances so that meditation on other topics will proceed smoothly. Here a practitioner generates love for members of the Dharma community where she lives; this results in their living harmoniously together. Then she meditates on love for the deities in the area, who respond by protecting her. She continues by cultivating love for her benefactor, who, feeling her genuine concern, wishes to provide her with the requisites to continue her Dharma practice. She expands her love to include all the sentient beings in the area, which is conducive to having good relations with them such that they do not feel malice toward her and do not cause problems or interfere with her Dharma practice. In modern-day Thailand, some disciples cite the power of their spiritual mentor’s love as creating peaceful and conducive circumstances to meditate in that monastery.
- The cultivation of love aids in the three types of abandonment of defilements: temporary abandonment, abandonment by suppression, and abandonment that eradicates. Developing love toward others can be used as an antidote to anger, resentment, spite, and other hostile emotions, and leads to temporary abandonment or abandonment by substitution of the opposite. For example, when we become angry because someone criticizes us or when resentment surges when remembering a harsh event from years ago, we can cultivate a loving feeling that replaces the disturbing emotion. This temporarily removes the affliction.
- By attaining the full concentration of dhyāna on love, the five hindrances are suppressed by the power of concentration and cannot manifest.11 This is abandonment by suppression, and it lasts as long as the meditator remains in dhyāna or until the strength of the dhyāna has diminished to such a point that gross afflictions arise again.
- By using the liberation of mind with love as the basis for developing insight, a meditator can attain arhatship, a state of abandonment that eradicates the defilements so that they can never return. This is done by meditating in a dhyāna, then leaving the dhyānic state and analyzing its components. Through this method, the meditator sees that even the blissful state of concentration is impermanent, unsatisfactory in nature, and selfless. This understanding of the three characteristics in turn leads to the realization of nirvāṇa, in which the fetters are forever eradicated.
Near and far enemies
The Library of Wisdom and Compassion (Vol 5.) states:
- Each of the four immeasurables has a “near enemy” and a “far enemy.” The near enemy is an affliction (klesha) that is similar in some way to that virtuous immeasurable; the far enemy is an affliction that is the opposite of the emotion we are trying to cultivate.
- The near enemy of love is attachment (rāga) because both love and attachment see the good qualities in the other person. However, attachment clings to others with unrealistic expectations; it wants something from others, and thus the affection we feel is polluted with possessiveness and neediness. Malice (vyāpāda) is the far enemy of love. We must ensure that our love is free of both these dangers.
Karaniya Metta Sutta
The Karaniya Metta Sutta (Sn 1.8), aka Metta Sutta, is one of the most frequently recited texts in Theravada communities. This discourse extols the virtuous qualities of mettā, and includes a well-known passage for contemplation and recitation.
Perfection of love (mettā-pāramī)
- Love is the aspiration to give happiness to all sentient beings and create the conditions whereby they will be happy. Bodhisattas think, “It is good to wish others happiness, but that alone will not give them happiness. I must act with love and joyous effort to accomplish this.” They also reflect that sentient beings are the incomparable field of merit with which they are able to cultivate virtue and fulfill the collections. In that way, bodhisattas consistently maintain a mind that cherishes sentient beings and never abandons them. With an unbounded heart they reach out to give happiness to others. To do that, they must eliminate sentient beings’ misery and its cause, the afflictions. In this way they generate compassion wishing sentient beings to be free from suffering and its causes.
The Sanskrit term maitrī is derived from mitra which, states Monier-Williams, means "friendly, amicable, benevolent, affectionate, kind, good-will", as well as a form of "love, amity, sympathy".
Thanissaro Bhikkhu states:
- ...metta is not necessarily an attitude of lovingkindness. It's more an attitude of goodwill — wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.
- This understanding of metta is borne out in the Pali Canon, first of all in the word itself. The Pali language has another word for love — pema — whereas metta is related to the word mitta, or friend. Universal metta is friendliness for all. The fact that this friendliness equates with goodwill is shown in the four passages in the Canon where the Buddha recommends phrases to hold in mind when developing thoughts of metta. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the emotional quality that underlies metta, but also to the understanding of happiness that explains why it's wise and realistic to develop metta for all.
- loving-kindness (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001); Walshe (1995); Warder (2004); Princeton Dictionary)
- loving kindness (Gethin (1998); Salzberg (1995))
- lovingkindness (Harvey (2013))
- love (Thubten Chodron, In Praise of Great Compassion)
- kindness (Princeton Dictionary)
- good will (Gombrich, Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
- benevolence (Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005))
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter IX. Meditation Subjects.
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2020, s.v. Chapter 1:The Four Immeasurables.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mettāsutta.
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 11:The Four Immeasurables.
- Monier Williams, 1964, p. 834, entry for "Maitrī," retrieved 2008-04-29 from "U. Cologne" at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/cgi-bin/serveimg.pl?file=/scans/MWScan/MWScanjpg/mw0834-meSUraNa.jpg.
- Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 540. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2013), Metta Means Goodwill, Dhammatalks.org
- Richard Gombrich (1988, reprinted 2002), Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge: London. ISBN 0-415-07585-8.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (2000), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2020), In Praise of Great Compassion, The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Volume 5, Wisdom Publications
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2014), Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, Wisdom Publications
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Gombrich, Richard (1988; reprinted 2002). Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge: London. ISBN 0-415-07585-8.
- Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press
- Monier-Williams, Monier (1899, 1964). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-864308-X. Retrieved 2008-04-29 from "Cologne University" at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/index.php?sfx=pdf.
- Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
- Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5). The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary. Chipstead: Pali Text Society. Retrieved 2008-04-29 from "U. Chicago" at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/.
- Salzberg, Sharon (1995). Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-176-4.
- Walshe, Maurice (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
- Warder, A. K. (1970; reprinted 2004). Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi. ISBN 81-208-1741-9.
- Ñanamoli Thera (ed., trans.) (1987/1994). The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon (The Wheel No. 7). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society (1987). Retrieved 2007-11-25 from "Access to Insight" (1994 transcription) at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel007.html.
- Ñanamoli Thera (trans.) & Bhikkhu Khantipalo (ed.) (1993/1994). Saleyyaka Sutta: The Brahmans of Sala (MN 41). Retrieved 2007-12-23 from "Access to Insight" (1994 transcription) at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.041.nymo.html.