mettaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. mettañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yo byāpādo so pahīyissati.
“Develop the meditation of good will. For when you are developing the meditation of good will, ill-will will be abandoned.”
Loving-kindness, or mettā, is the first of the four sublime abodes (cattāri brahmavihārā) taught by the Buddha, and often the first meditative cultivation (bhāvanā) undertaken by those practicing the brahmavihāras.
Like all of the brahmavihāras, loving-kindness is immeasurable (appamaññā), an infinite quality of the heart that crosses all boundaries. This type of boundless love knows no limits and extends throughout the entire cosmos, touching every being equally. Universal love of this nature may seem to be a lofty ideal, almost impossible to actualize, but its cultivation is strongly encouraged by the Buddha at every opportunity.
Mettā carries the connotation of wholehearted warmth and friendliness, being closely related to the word mitta, meaning friend. This warm sense of friendliness is infused with love, boundless and immeasurable, filled with the deepest, most unbiased and unconditional loving-kindness. It holds no expectations of others or standards for reciprocation. Mettā is unconditional love.
An entire discourse known as the Metta Sutta is devoted purely to mettā, loving-kindness. Part of this discourse, in the Buddha’s words, is excerpted below.
mettañca sabbalokasmi, mānasaṃ bhāvaye aparimāṇaṃ.
uddhaṃ adho ca tiriyañca, asambādhaṃ averamasapattaṃ.
mettasuttaṃ (KN 5.8)
The meaning of this passage is profoundly moving, reflecting the universal, boundless, and immeasurable nature of heartfelt loving-kindness. Two translations are as follows.
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Cultivate an all-embracing mind of love
For all throughout the universe,
In all its height, depth and breadth —
Love that is untroubled
And beyond hatred or enmity.
In the cultivation of whole-hearted loving-kindness, no one is excluded. All beings are worthy of mettā, whether friends, lovers, family, mere acquaintances, animals, insects, or enemies, unpleasant people, “the unbeloved,” and so on.
In this sequence of ever-expanding loving-kindness, some seem to forget another important recipient of love: ourselves. Of all beings, we are most worthy of our own love.
sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci.
evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo
mallikāsuttaṃ (SN 3.8)
Though in thought we range throughout the world,
We’ll nowhere find a thing more dear than self.
So, since others hold the self so dear,
He who loves himself should injure none.
Loving oneself, one can love all other beings. Of course, love of self here should not be confused with selfishness, self-absorption, or love of the imagined selfhood (ātman) that is thought by some to exist infinitely. It instead refers to caring for oneself selflessly, in the same way that one cares for others who are dear.
In the original story surrounding these words of the Buddha, the Buddha listens in on a conversation between King Pasenadi, a prominent ruler of part of present-day India where the Buddha spent much of his time, and the king’s wife Queen Mallika. When both the king and queen declare that there is no one more dear to them than themselves, the Buddha recites the above-quoted verse. Only when one respects and cares deeply for oneself can one truly love another.
The same loving approach and ethical sentiment of caring for others in the same way that one cares for oneself is expressed in the following verse from the Dhammapada:
sabbe tasanti daṇḍassa, sabbesaṃ jīvitaṃ piyaṃ.
attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā, na haneyya na ghātaye.
All tremble at violence; life is dear to all.
Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
For many people, King Pasenadi and Queen Mallika included, caring for oneself and wishing well of oneself comes naturally. We all wish for happiness in life. We all wish to avoid suffering. We wish to experience that which is positive – freedom, bliss, success. We wish to not experience that which is negative – oppression, sorrow, failure. At the deepest, most fundamental level, our wishes are the same. Our hearts are connected.
In the verses above, the Buddha notes that caring for oneself with boundless love should lead to caring for others, reflecting the natural expansion of heartfelt loving-kindness. Similar to the Golden Rule (treat others how you wish to be treated) yet expressed differently (care for others in the same way that you care for yourself), one who loves oneself should harm none, practice loving-kindness, and uphold non-violence.
This is why, in the practice of mettābhāvanā (the cultivation of loving-kindness), it is often recommended that one starts with oneself by generating self-directed loving-kindness as a solid foundation of love. This is practiced prior to gradually radiating loving-kindness outward to others in order of increasing difficulty. The usual progression is to offer mettā to oneself first, next to those for whom it is easy to feel loving-kindness, then a neutral person, followed by difficult people, and finally all beings, moving on to progressively more challenging recipients at one’s own pace.
The value in cultivating deep-seated loving-kindness is far-reaching. Its results correspond to its depth of cultivation. The Buddha described some of the benefits of mettā thus:
Monks, when universal love leading to liberation of mind is ardently practiced, developed, unrelentingly resorted to, used as one’s vehicle, made the foundation of one’s life, fully established, well consolidated and perfected, then these eleven blessings may be expected. What eleven?
One sleeps happily; one wakes happily; one does not suffer bad dreams; one is dear to human beings; one is dear to non-human beings; the gods protect one; no fire or poison or weapon harms one; one’s mind gets quickly concentrated; the expression of one’s face is serene; one dies unperturbed; and even if one fails to attain higher states, one will at least reach the state of the Brahma world.
Monks, when universal love leading to liberation of mind is ardently practiced, developed, unrelentingly resorted to, used as one’s vehicle, made the foundation of one’s life, fully established, well consolidated and perfected, then these eleven blessings may be expected.
These blessings, whether taken literally or metaphorically, reflect the sense of safety, ease, and well-being derived from the cultivation of loving-kindness in meditation and in everyday life. Universal love leading to liberation of mind (mettā cetovimutti) itself is quite an accomplishment, not just in one’s own practice, but for all beings whose lives it touches. Thus, the cultivation of universal love, when undertaken, leads to immense happiness for both the givers and receivers of such unconditional loving-kindness.
Love can never be extinguished. It can only grow.