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Lions Roar : July 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2012 42 Another set of metta phrases, in the famous Karaniya Metta Sutta, includes a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness: Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere, or through anger or resistance wish for another to suffer. In repeating these phrases, you remember that for people to find true happiness they have to understand the causes of happiness and act on them. They also have to understand that true happiness is harmless. If it depends on something that harms others, it’s not going to last. So again, when you express goodwill, you’re not saying you’re going to be there for them all the time. You’re hoping that all beings will wise up enough to be there for themselves. The same sutta goes on to advise protecting this attitude in the same way that a mother would protect her only child: As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. It’s important not to misread this passage. The Buddha’s not telling us to cherish all living beings the same way a mother would cherish her child. He’s drawing a parallel between pro- tecting the child and protecting your goodwill. This is to make sure that your virtuous intentions don’t waver. Harm can hap- pen most easily when there’s a lapse in your goodwill, so you do whatever you can to protect this attitude at all times. For this rea- son, as the Buddha says toward the end of the sutta, you should stay determined to practice this form of mindfulness, keeping in mind your wish that all beings be happy, to make sure that this motivates everything you do. This is why the Buddha explicitly recommends developing thoughts of metta in two situations where it’s especially impor- tant—and especially difficult—to maintain skillful motivation: when others are hurting you, and when you realize that you’ve hurt others. In the Middle Length Discourses, the Buddha advises that if oth- ers are harming you with their words or actions, you should spread thoughts of goodwill to them and then out beyond them, to the entire cosmos, making your mind as expansive as the River Ganges or as large as the earth—in other words, larger than the harm those people are doing or threatening to do. When you can maintain this enlarged state of mind in the face of pain, it doesn’t seem so over- whelming and you’re less likely to respond unskillfully. You provide protection—both for yourself and for others—against any unskill- ful things you otherwise might be tempted to do. As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm. So if an apology is appropriate, you apologize, and in any case you resolve not to repeat the harmful action. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions. This accomplishes several things. It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t—in defense of your self-image— revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit harm was done. It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm again. And it forces you to examine all your actions to see their actual effect. If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm. In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with—to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness that’s harmless for all. Finally, in the Numerical Discourses, there’s a passage in which the Buddha taught the monks a chant for spreading goodwill to all snakes and other creeping things they encounter in the wilds. Strikingly, the chant concludes with the sentence, “May the beings depart.” This reflects the truth that living together is often difficult—especially for beings of different species that can harm one another—and the happiest policy for all concerned is often to live harmlessly apart. THANISSARO BHIKKHU (Taan Ajaan Geoff) is a senior monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism and the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California. Free digital versions of his teachings are available at Dhammatalks.org.