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Pali Canon - Karaniya Metta Sutta

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in Seminar

The Karaniya Metta Sutta Seminar
(Second Transcriptions Edition)
ld on: 29-30 July 1978Venue: Padmaloka, Norfolk.
Those Present: Sangharakshita, Lokamitra, Padmavajra, Priyananda, Mahamati, Kovida, Mike
Scherk, Mark Lane, Nick Nixon, Kularatna.
Sangharakshita: Karaniya Metta Sutta, or Metta Sutta as it’s also called; metta being translated
as loving kindness here. As you see, it consists of ten verses, and we’ve got two whole days, that
is to say four study sessions, to get through it in - two and a half verses per session. So this
means that we’re going to go through each verse really thoroughly and I suggest if anybody has
got any idea or any question or any doubt at any stage, to bring it up, bring it out into the open so
that we can thrash out that particular matter, and in this way go through the whole sutta really
thoroughly and in some detail. [Pause]
All right, first of all about the title. It’s called ‘metta sutta’, but what is metta? I think this is the
first thing really to be understood, at least in a provisional way, because metta is mentioned later
on. Metta is best translated as ‘friendliness’, and this is of course Pali. The Sanskrit equivalent is
maitri, and in each case the word comes from another word meaning friend, mitta or mitra - one
being Pali, the other being Sanskrit. So metta is the sort of feeling that you usually have towards
a friend, but carried, as it were, to quite a high pitch of intensity. We don’t really have any
English word to translate metta. Love is much too ambiguous. With us, love covers what in Pali
is covered by at least two distinct words, pema and metta. Pema is more attachment-love, and
metta is friendly love, or the love which is identical with friendliness. In metta there isn’t any
suggestion of the erotic, whereas in the case of pema there is. [Pause]
So metta is, as I have said, friendliness carried to the highest possible extent. It’s friendliness to
the nth degree. So one of the questions which arises, one of the questions which has to be
discussed is, - how can you tell metta? What are its characteristics? Its chief characteristic is said
to be an ardent desire for the welfare of the particular person, or creature even, sentient being,
that happens to be its object. The sign of metta, in a way the unfailing sign of metta is that you’re
deeply concerned for the well-being, the happiness, the growth, the prosperity of the person, or
even the living being, we might say, who is the object of your metta. In other words, your interest
in that particular person is not a self-interest, it is disinterested. You could even say, if you
wanted to use the word love, that metta is disinterested love, and [2] love as we usually
understand it is, of course, rarely disinterested. So, disinterested love. Friendliness is
disinterested love. It’s a desire for the well-being and the happiness of the person towards whom
you feel that disinterested love, or that friendliness, or that metta.
So do you begin to get some idea as to what it means? At the same time it’s very strong, it’s quite
ardent as it were. When we use the word friendship or friendliness in English it usually suggests
something quite warm or lukewarm, tepid, but the word metta doesn’t suggest that in Pali, it’s a
strong feeling. In our case, usually we don’t experience any strong feeling, any strong emotion,
unless there is an element of self-interest involved, or unless there is an element of attachment or
even of possessiveness. We rarely experience a strong emotion which is, as it were, disinterested,
which is calm. But metta is an emotion of that kind.
Mark: Doesn’t friendliness sometimes suggest an exchange - people are friends, but one person
can’t be friends with somebody else without...
S: One might say that you can’t be friends unless you feel friendliness to begin with, but because
you feel the friendliness you are not necessarily friends, because to be friends, as you say,
implies a sort of reciprocity For instance you can do the metta bhavana, and you can do it with
complete sincerity, and effectively, and feel metta, but the person towards whom you’re directing
it may not even know about that.
Mark: That’s why I think metta goes beyond friendliness in its usual...
S: It can manifest as friendliness in a sense. It can work out in practical terms as a reciprocal
thing, because you may quite sincerely devote yourself to someone else’s well-being, they may
have the same feeling for you, and may devote themselves to your well-being - in this way it
becomes reciprocal. You can speak about a friendly relationship, or a relationship based on metta
or even on kalyana mitrata, but to start with you have to have that friendly feeling, that feeling of
metta, as an emotion within you, and it can as it were just stop short there, so far as any actual
forming of a friendly relation is concerned. You could, for instance, help someone without their
knowing it by, say, putting in a good word for them here or there or even help them financially
by sending money without them knowing it. There wouldn’t be any friendly relationship, but
you’d be feeling friendliness and acting upon that So, you can have metta, you can have the
friendly feeling without the friendship in practical terms. But you can’t have the friendship in
this sort of [3] sense without the feeling of metta to begin with. And as you say, ordinary
friendship very often doesn’t involve metta in this sense. Although it may have a sort of germ of
it, a spark of it, a potentiality which could be developed. But certainly not anything like the
intensity of metta as it’s understood in Buddhism. One doesn’t want to make a complete split
between as it were ‘worldly’ friendship or friendliness, and this, because this is still mundane for
quite a long time. So it’s more a question of a difference of degree than a difference of kind.
Kovida: Maybe that links up with the Greek word philos as in philosophy.
S: It probably comes quite close to that, because it suggests philosophy is a disinterested love of
Kovida: They’ve got Eros for erotic love. (Unclear)
S: Yes, right, because in the case of wisdom, you’re not interested in wisdom, you don’t feel the
love of wisdom on account of any practical utility. Wisdom in a sense is completely useless, so
you’re not concerned with it for practical purposes, you’re concerned with wisdom as it were for
its own sake. So that is philea - that’s a bit similar to the metta. As far as I know, as far as I
remember, in Pali, one wouldn’t speak of metta directed towards any such abstract idea as
wisdom or truth. It does seem to be very much an emotion which is directed towards living
beings, especially human beings.
And another characteristic of metta that we’ll come across in detail shortly, is that it is not
limited; it doesn’t have any tendency to limit itself to a particular object. In other words, it isn’t
exclusive, whereas ordinary affection is usually exclusive - the more you feel towards one, the
less you feel towards another, or the less you have for one, the more you have for another, and so
on. But in the case of metta, the fact that you have it strongly towards one particular person
doesn’t mean you have it less towards somebody else. In the end metta has to become universal.
It has to be something you experience, at least as a feeling, towards all living beings equally.
That’s when metta develops to its full extent, its full intensity. So metta is an experience or an
emotion of friendliness which is disinterested and also universal and also very intense, and
characterised by a dedication to the welfare, the happiness and the well-being of its object, so far
as it lies in one’s power. This is what metta is. So it doesn’t really [4] correspond to what we call
love. It doesn’t even correspond, certainly in its more developed form, to friendship or
friendliness in the ordinary sense. So it’s strong, it’s intense, it’s disinterested, it’s universal, and
it has a tendency to fulfil itself in a practical kind of way.
Lokamitra: It has a tendency to fulfil itself in a practical kind of way?
S: Yes. That is to say that it doesn’t simply wish well towards other people, it doesn’t merely
wish that they may be happy, but so far as is possible it tries actually to help them to be well and
to be happy. [Pause] I think instead that it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if we sort of
naturalised this Pali word metta. We do often speak of the metta-bhavana, we don’t speak of the
cultivation of loving kindness normally, do we? - we just say metta bhavana. But probably this is
one of the few Pali words or Sanskrit words that we could well naturalise in English and use,
because we don’t really have a word which means this kind of thing.
Mike: I was told that mitrata means friendship too; what’s the difference then between mitrata
and metta?
S: Mitrata is Sanskrit, but mitra is the abstract noun. Mitra is friend in Sanskrit, so mitrata
would ...

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