Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Metta Sutta

I've been reading Stephanie Dowrick's wonderful new book Seeking the Sacred all weekend, and was delighted to see her quote a section of The Metta Sutta when talking about love.
The Metta Sutta (Sutta being the Pali form for the more familiar word Sutra - used here because the Metta Sutta is part of the Theravada canon) is a brief but profound Buddhist sacred text explaining in detail how we are to love one another and all living creatures. In most Theravadin liturgies it is chanted toward the end of proceedings, and at the Dhammayut Thai monasteries here in Australia they even chant it in English, which I always love. It gives me a special thrill of recoginition when, after 40 minutes of enigmatic Pali chant, the monks sing that beautiful line "May they be free of suffering in mind and body."
The Metta Sutta sets out most concisely and poetically the Buddhist view of love - indeed, I always think it is a pretty good summation of the entire Buddhist doctrine, and its recital and memorisation could be a part of everyone's spiritual practice. Its demands are high, but it also describes a beautiful idea - a world in which we love, respect and care for all living beings as though they were our own children.
In Buddhism Metta is only one of the qualities of love. It is (or should be) always accompanied by Karuna, which is compassion. It is telling that the two should be saddled together like this, for it leaves no room for the great violence and tempest of romance as we sometimes envision it. If we are not being kind towards something, then we cannot love it.
Accompanying the Metta Sutta is a very specific, traditional exercise which describes the visualisation of people to whom we can transmit our love, progressing from the easiest to love to the most difficult. Doing this is not easy, and so it serves as a very strong moral lesson: we are obliged to love even those who we struggle to like.
Here is the Sutta:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in saftey,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
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.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

*This version of the Sutta from
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