There’s No Love In Loving-kindness

By Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero

Q: Our recent discussions have centred around cultivating the Brahmavihāras. From my perspective, it’s crucial to differentiate and comprehend each of the four components of an unobstructed Brahmavihāra mind – namely, mettā, karuṇā, muditā, and upekkhā – individually. But only after establishing and stabilising mettā, can one start discerning karuṇā, muditā, and upekkhā ‘one by one’.

Nm: Instead of saying that it’s developed ‘one by one’ it is more accurate to say that it’s developed ‘one within the other’. Through understanding what mettā is, you understand the principle of all four Brahmavihāras. Then within that understanding and development of mettā, you can develop karuṇā, and within karuṇā, you get to build muditā; which then results in the fulfilment of upekkhā. You don’t abandon mettā to develop karuṇā, or karuṇā to develop muditā, nor do you leave all three to develop upekkhā. Upekkhā encompasses them all. But to arrive at it, you have to go “through” them all. Upekkhā is founded upon mettā. It’s the same in terms of jhana; if you keep following the principle of the first jhana, you will arrive at the fourth.

Q: Regarding mettā specifically, it refers to an attitude of non-aversion rather than engaging in friendly social interactions or cultivating forms of love.

Nm: Correct. The framework of Brahmavihāra centres on cultivating a mind of non-aversion. This means that even when encountering unpleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, one does not have ill will towards them. The focus is on prioritising the protection of the mind of non-aversion, regardless of the content of one’s everyday experience.

Q: This differs from popular ideas of mettā practice, which usually consist of generating love and sending it in various directions.

Nm: The problem with this is that such a practice will not uproot craving, which is why that is not what is meant by the description of mettā in the suttas. People prefer that method because it is more palpable, and ‘nicer,’ and it’s certainly a helpful way of relating to people. In any case, it is better to think of people with loving kindness rather than hatred, because if you are not hating them, then more often than not they will not hate you back; which will help you out at that societal level. So I am not saying that you shouldn’t do it – by all means think positively about everyone, but don’t mistake that for practising the Dhamma.

It is dangerous to rely on personal feelings as the basis for one’s practice: simply because something makes you feel good, does not necessarily mean that it is the practice of Dhamma. Our emotions are shaped by our resistance to or indulgence in certain behaviours or experiences, and therefore, they cannot be relied upon to determine what is wholesome or unwholesome. So it is crucial to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the Buddha’s concept of metta, understand its deeper meaning and practise it with wisdom and discernment, rather than relying on subjective feelings.

The term mettā refers to the general framework or mind of non-aversion. It is important to emphasise this because one may not harbour aversion towards someone in particular, but still hold hatred towards another, indicating the lack of mettā in one’s general mindset. Even if one does not hate anyone specifically, the absence of that particular aversion alone does not signify the development of mettā. To truly cultivate this mindset, one must make a conscious effort to abandon all possibility of aversion in all directions and protect and maintain that, regardless of the circumstances or the people they encounter. Thus, it’s about removing the possibility of aversion, not the possibility of meeting disagreeable and unpleasant people and experiences.

The choice to prioritise immediate circumstances over the mind of non-aversion is a choice to abandon the framework necessary for the development of mettā. By protecting and cherishing the general mindset like a mother would protect her child, as stated in the Mettā sutta, one will prevent actions that stem from a mind of aversion, and thus protect all living beings as well.

Also, it is essential to note that the development of mettā does not result in having love for all: it leads to the development of upekkhā, or equanimity, which is the ability to maintain an unshakable mind toward all things without attachments.

Q: Love breeds infatuation, not equanimity.

Nm: Yes, and it also makes you susceptible to aversion, fear, and anxiety, because now you depend on it emotionally and existentially.

Q: So if you can’t see the direct connection between mettā and upekkhā, your definition of mettā needs redefining. And in terms of karunā, how can we get to that stage?

Nm: You just have to take the same principle of mettā a step further. Initially, when encountering something disagreeable, one may feel aversion towards it. Then, one can develop a mind of non-aversion towards the unpleasant, but there may still be some resistance. By further developing the mind of non-aversion, one begins to refine the principle of non-resistance that underlies all four Brahmavihāra. That non-resistance is the abandoning of craving, cruelty, and any conflict.

Q: Regarding whatever is felt, pleasant or unpleasant: if it’s unpleasant, you should practise non-resistance. And if it’s pleasant, you must not be trying to possess it?

Nm: People are inclined to pursue pleasant things because there is a simultaneous resistance to the pain of desire. The urge for pleasure stems from an aversion to one’s current state. One resists even pleasure and desires to change it when it isn’t sufficient (and it never is for one who craves it). Therefore, by cultivating Brahmavihāra, one can overcome sensuality too, which involves resistance.

Q: Maintaining a peaceful mind towards all feelings is the core practice.

Nm: Yes.

Q: With the Brahmavihāra practice, you cannot hurt anyone…

Nm: …because the intention to hurt, to engage in sensuality, or to be cruel, is always rooted in resisting whatever you are feeling at the time. Unwholesome actions require resistance to feeling as their necessary condition.

Q: Moreover, when individuals have established and stabilised their mind in mettā and karunā, a sense of contentment arises within them, irrespective of the feeling experienced. This contentment is known as muditā.

Then, a Bhikkhu might say thus: ‘I have developed and cultivated the liberation of the mind by muditā, made it my vehicle and basis, carried it out, consolidated it, and properly undertaken it, yet discontent still obsesses my mind.’He should be told: ‘Not so! Do not speak thus. Do not misrepresent the Blessed One; for it is not good to misrepresent the Blessed One. The Blessed One would certainly not speak in such a way. It is impossible and inconceivable, friend, that one might develop and cultivate the liberation of the mind by muditā, make it one’s vehicle and basis, carry it out, consolidate it, and properly undertake it, yet discontent could still obsess one’s mind. There is no such possibility. For this, friend is the escape from discontent, namely, the liberation of the mind by muditā. – An6.13

Nm: ‘Altruistic joy,’ which is the usual translation of muditā, is not accurate. Muditā stems from the principle we’re discussing here of non-resistance and non-contention towards others and whatever circumstances arise; safeguarding your mind of benevolence, which harms no other being. The result is that the mind becomes imperturbable to any circumstance.

So as a sense of joy, it’s similar to the joy you get in jhana – joy that you’re secluded and unaffected, free of concern regarding the entire world. You can see how equanimity regarding good or bad is developed from that.

Q: Another description of muditā can be found in An 3.95:

And what is the harmonious assembly? Here, the assembly in which the bhikkhus dwell in concord, harmoniously, without disputes, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with eyes of affection, is called the harmonious assembly.

“When the bhikkhus dwell in concord, harmoniously, without disputes, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with eyes of affection, on that occasion, they generate much merit. On that occasion, the bhikkhus dwell in a divine abode, that is, in the liberation of the mind through muditā. When one is content, pīti (happiness) arises. For one with a happy mind, the body becomes calm. One calm in the body feels pleasure. For one feeling such pleasure, the mind becomes composed.

Nm: The best way to cultivate a friendly attitude towards all is to focus on maintaining your mind of friendliness and non-resistance towards how you feel, and then protect it as a mother protects her child. When you don’t mind experiencing disagreeable feelings, it becomes inconceivable to hate the person who seemingly caused those feelings. You don’t need to manage all your various individual relationships or circumstances if the Brahmavihāra framework is developed—quite the contrary.

You find that mental “gateway”, through which other beings or circumstances have to arise and instead of chasing, managing, dealing with, or trying to prevent those circumstances, you realise, “All I need to do is protect the gateway and not lose sight of it”. And you protect it by not acting out of it.

Q: Which results in peacefulness?

Nm: Peacefulness will come as a result of it, as a culmination of the absence of your resistance towards what you feel. Peace is not about not feeling pain. Peace is about not being disturbed by pain or being pulled by pleasures.

Q: Non-conflict.

Nm: Yes, non-conflict internally. Can you have a conflict with anybody externally without already being conflicted with what you’re feeling internally? Impossible.

Trying to eliminate conflict from the external world is futile because the source of conflict is internal. It is by resolving your internal conflict that it becomes impossible for external events to disturb you, even if the whole world is conflicting with you.

Sutta Nipāta 1.8 Metta Sutta:

This is to be done by one skilled in his welfare

having fully understood the path of peace:

Let them be capable, honest and upright

Well-spoken, gentle and not boastful;

content and easy to support,

Living lightly, unbusy with duties,

Intelligent with calmed senses;

Not intrusive or greedy amongst families.

Let them not do the slightest thing

which others of wisdom would criticise.

Happy and secure,

may all beings be happy!

Whatever living creatures,

moving or unmoving, without leaving any out,

long or large, medium, short, coarse or subtle,

visible or invisible, living far or near,

those born or to be born:

May all beings be happy!

One should not deceive another, nor look

down upon anyone anywhere.

Out of anger and averse intention,

one should not wish suffering for another.

Even as a mother would protect her only

child with her life,

so too, in regard to all beings

should one protect an unlimited mind.

With benevolence (mettā) towards the entire world,

One should develop an unlimited mind.

Above, below, and all around,

unobstructed, friendly and without enemies.

Whether standing, walking, sitting

or lying down – while awake,

he would always remember this;

This, they say, is the way of the gods.

Being uninvolved in views,

Virtuous and accomplished with insight

Having dispelled greed for sensual pleasures,

He then never again returns to a womb.