Here is a unique teaching on metta, or loving-kindness meditation, by Acharya Buddharakkhita from “Mettá: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love.”
In this teaching, Buddharakkhita focuses specifically on how to use visualization and thought-radiation to embrace others in universal love and goodwill.
This teaching presents the classic sequence of beginning with loving oneself, and then embracing in love spiritual teachers and helpers, working out to a wider and wider sphere of family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and then to those we have problems with or dislike. And of course, the loving-kindness need not stop there, but can expand to include and embrace all beings everywhere.
As other spiritual teachers have pointed out about metta, if we find it difficult to begin with loving ourselves, we should look to someone or something that we can love, and begin there. When we become more grounded in universal love, we can then return to bringing unconditional love to ourselves.
The same kind of skill and flexibility is wise when it comes to extending our thought-force of love to those who we consider “enemies” or “hostile”—or those who may have harmed us. If we are overwhelmed with anger or fear or hatred when we think of someone, it may be wiser to set aside such difficult metta work until we are stronger in ourselves and in our ability to love impersonally, without regard to circumstance or person.
In this instruction, as in all spiritual instruction, we must use wisdom and understand for ourselves what is skillful and what is not. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge ourselves to grow, but just as you cannot force a flower to blossom, we cannot force our hearts to open up. We need to develop patience and compassion. In the end, the warmth and nurturing love of metta will achieve what sheer human will cannot.
Here, now, is the skillful teaching of Acharya Buddharakkhita. May it bless you and help you open up your heart to universal love!
Steps of Metta or Loving-kindness Meditation
by Acharya Buddharakkhita
Sit down in a comfortable posture in a quiet place — a shrine room, a quiet room, a park, or any other place providing privacy and silence. Keeping the eyes closed, repeat the word “mettá” a few times and mentally conjure up its significance — love as the opposite of hatred, resentment, malevolence, impatience, pride and arrogance, and as a profound feeling of good will, sympathy and kindness promoting the happiness and well-being of others.
Now visualize your own face in a happy and radiant mood. Every time you see your face in the mirror, see yourself in a happy mood and put yourself in this mood during meditation. A person in a happy mood cannot become angry or harbor negative thoughts and feelings. Having visualized yourself in a happy frame of mind, now charge yourself with the thought; “May I be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may I live happily.” As you suffuse yourself in this way with the positive thought-force of love, you become like a filled vessel, its contents ready to overflow in all directions.
Next, visualize your meditation teacher, if living; if not, choose some other living teacher or revered person. See him in a happy frame of mind and project the thought: “May my teacher be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may he live happily.”
Then think of other people who are to be revered, and who are also living — monks, teachers, parents and elders, and intensely spread towards each one of them the thought of mettá in the manner mentioned already: “May they be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily.”
Thinking about Metta versus Projecting Real Loving-kindness
The visualization must be clear and the thought-radiation must be “willed” well. If the visualization is hurried or the wishing is performed in a perfunctory or mechanical way, the practice will be of little avail, for then it will be merely an intellectual pastime of thinking about mettá. One must clearly understand that to think about mettá is one thing, and to do mettá, to actively project the will-force of loving-kindness, is quite another.
Note that only a living person is to be visualized, not a dead one. The reason for this is that the dead person, having changed form, will be out of the focus of mettá-projection. The object of mettá always is a living being, and the thought-force will become ineffective if the object is not alive.
Having radiated thoughts of mettá in the order already mentioned — oneself, the meditation teacher and other revered persons — one should now visualize, one by one, one’s dear ones beginning with the members of one’s family, suffusing each one with abundant rays of loving-kindness. Charity begins at home: if one cannot love one’s own people one will not be able to love others.
An Expanding Circle of Impersonal Love
While spreading mettá towards one’s own family members, care should be taken to think of a very dear one, like one’s husband or wife, at the end of this circle. The reason for this is that the intimacy between husband and wife introduces the element of worldly love, which defiles mettá. Spiritual love must be the same towards all. Similarly, if one has had a temporary misunderstanding or quarrel with any family member or relative, he or she should be visualized at a later stage to avoid recalling the unpleasant incidents.
Next, one should visualize neutral people, people for whom one has neither like nor dislike, such as one’s neighbors, colleagues in one’s place of work, bare acquaintances, and so on. Having radiated loving thoughts on everyone in the neutral circle, one should now visualize persons for whom one has dislike, hostility or prejudice, even those with whom one may have had a temporary misunderstanding. As one visualizes disliked persons, to each one must mentally repeat: “I have no hostility towards him/ her, may he/she also not have any hostility towards me. May he/she be happy!”
Thus, as one visualizes the persons of the different circles, one “breaks the barrier” caused by likes and dislikes, attachment and hatred. When one is able to regard an enemy without ill-will and with the same amount of goodwill that one has for a very dear friend, mettá then acquires a sublime impartiality, elevating the mind upward and outward as if in a spiral movement of ever-widening circles until it becomes all-embracing.
What is Meant by Visualization and Radiation
By visualization is meant “calling to mind” or visualizing certain objects, such as a person, a certain area or a direction or a category of beings. In other words it means imagining the people towards whom thoughts of love are to be projected or spread. For instance, you imagine your father and visualize his face in a very happy and radiant mood and project the thought towards the visualized image, mentally saying: “May he be happy! May he be free from disease or trouble! May he enjoy good health.” You may use any thought which promotes his well-being.
By radiation is meant, as explained above, the projection of certain thoughts promoting the well-being of those persons towards whom one’s mind is directed. A mettá-thought is a powerful thought-force. It can actually effect what has been willed. For wishing well-being is willing and thus is creative action. In fact, all that man has created in different fields is the result of what he has willed, whether it is a city or a hydroelectric project, a rocket going to the moon, a weapon of destruction, or an artistic or literary masterpiece.
Radiation of thoughts of mettá, too, is the development of a willpower that can effect whatever is willed. It is not a rare experience to see diseases cured or misfortunes warded off, even from a great distance, by the application of the thought-force of mettá. But this thought-force has to be generated in a very specific and skillful way, following a certain sequence.
The formula for radiating mettá that is used here has come down from the ancient Patisambhidamagga: “May they be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may they live happily” (avera hontu, abyapajjha hontu, anigha hontu, sukhi attanam pariharantu). The commentarial explanation of these terms is highly significant. “Free from hostility” (avera) means absence of hostility whether aroused on account of oneself or others, or on account of oneself because of others or of others because of oneself or others.
Developing A Widening Circle of Universal Love
One’s anger towards oneself might take the form of self-pity, remorse or a gripping sense of guilt. It can be conditioned by interaction with others. Hostility combines anger and enmity. “Free from affliction” (abyapajjha) means absence of pain or physical suffering. “Free from distress” (anigha) means the absence of mental suffering, anguish or anxiety, which often follows upon hostility or bodily affliction. It is only when one is free from hostility, affliction and distress that one “lives happily,” that is, conducts oneself with ease and happiness. Thus all these terms are interconnected.
By order is meant visualizing objects, one after the other, by taking the path of least resistance, in a graduated sequence, which progressively widens the circle and therewith the mind itself. The Visuddhimagga is emphatic about this order. [The Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) is a Theravada Buddhist commentary written by the great Buddhist teacher Buddhaghosa approximately in 430 CE in Sri Lanka. It is considered the most important Theravada text outside of the original Pali canon of Buddhist scriptures.]
According to Acariya Buddhaghosa, one must start the meditation on mettá by visualizing oneself, and thereafter a person for whom one has reverence, then one’s dear ones, then neutral people, then hostile persons. As one radiates thoughts of love in this order, the mind breaks all barriers between oneself, a revered one, a dear one, a neutral one and a hostile one. Everyone comes to be looked upon equally with the eye of loving-kindness.