The Intention of Good Will

The intention of good will opposes the intention of ill will, thoughts governed by anger and aversion. As in the case of desire, there are two ineffective ways of handling ill will. One is to yield to it, to express the aversion by bodily or verbal action. This approach releases the tension, helps drive the anger "out of one's system," but it also poses certain dangers. It breeds resentment, provokes retaliation, creates enemies, poisons relationships, and generates unwholesome kamma; in the end, the ill will does not leave the "system" after all, but instead is driven down to a deeper level where it continues to vitiate one's thoughts and conduct. The other approach, repression, also fails to dispel the destructive force of ill will. It merely turns that force around and pushes it inward, where it becomes transmogrified into self-contempt, chronic depression, or a tendency to irrational outbursts of violence.

The remedy the Buddha recommends to counteract ill will, especially when the object is another person, is a quality called in Pali metta. This word derives from another word meaning "friend," but metta signifies much more than ordinary friendliness. I prefer to translate it by the compound "lovingkindness," which best captures the intended sense: an intense feeling of selfless love for other beings radiating outwards as a heartfelt concern for their well-being and happiness. Metta is not just sentimental good will, nor is it a conscientious response to a moral imperative or divine command. It must become a deep inner feeling, characterized by spontaneous warmth rather than by a sense of obligation. At its peak metta rises to the heights of a brahmavihara, a "divine dwelling," a total way of being centered on the radiant wish for the welfare of all living beings.

The kind of love implied by metta should be distinguished from sensual love as well as from the love involved in personal affection. The first is a form of craving, necessarily self-directed, while the second still includes a degree of attachment: we love a person because that person gives us pleasure, belongs to our family or group, or reinforces our own self-image. Only rarely does the feeling of affection transcend all traces of ego-reference, and even then its scope is limited. It applies only to a certain person or group of people while excluding others.

The love involved in metta, in contrast, does not hinge on particular relations to particular persons. Here the reference point of self is utterly omitted. We are concerned only with suffusing others with a mind of lovingkindness, which ideally is to be developed into a universal state, extended to all living beings without discriminations or reservations. The way to impart to metta this universal scope is to cultivate it as an exercise in meditation. Spontaneous feelings of good will occur too sporadically and are too limited in range to be relied on as the remedy for aversion. The idea of deliberately developing love has been criticized as contrived, mechanical, and calculated. Love, it is said, can only be genuine when it is spontaneous, arisen without inner prompting or effort. But it is a Buddhist thesis that the mind cannot be commanded to love spontaneously; it can only be shown the means to develop love and enjoined to practice accordingly. At first the means has to be employed with some deliberation, but through practice the feeling of love becomes ingrained, grafted onto the mind as a natural and spontaneous tendency.

The method of development is metta-bhavana, the meditation on lovingkindness, one of the most important kinds of Buddhist meditation. The meditation begins with the development of lovingkindness towards oneself.[19] It is suggested that one take oneself as the first object of metta because true lovingkindness for others only becomes possible when one is able to feel genuine lovingkindness for oneself. Probably most of the anger and hostility we direct to others springs from negative attitudes we hold towards ourselves. When metta is directed inwards towards oneself, it helps to melt down the hardened crust created by these negative attitudes, permitting a fluid diffusion of kindness and sympathy outwards.

Once one has learned to kindle the feeling of metta towards oneself, the next step is to extend it to others. The extension of metta hinges on a shift in the sense of identity, on expanding the sense of identity beyond its ordinary confines and learning to identify with others. The shift is purely psychological in method, entirely free from theological and metaphysical postulates, such as that of a universal self immanent in all beings. Instead, it proceeds from a simple, straightforward course of reflection which enables us to share the subjectivity of others and experience the world (at least imaginatively) from the standpoint of their own inwardness. The procedure starts with oneself. If we look into our own mind, we find that the basic urge of our being is the wish to be happy and free from suffering. Now, as soon as we see this in ourselves, we can immediately understand that all living beings share the same basic wish. All want to be well, happy, and secure. To develop metta towards others, what is to be done is to imaginatively share their own innate wish for happiness. We use our own desire for happiness as the key, experience this desire as the basic urge of others, then come back to our own position and extend to them the wish that they may achieve their ultimate objective, that they may be well and happy.

The methodical radiation of metta is practiced first by directing metta to individuals representing certain groups. These groups are set in an order of progressive remoteness from oneself. The radiation begins with a dear person, such as a parent or teacher, then moves on to a friend, then to a neutral person, then finally to a hostile person. Though the types are defined by their relation to oneself, the love to be developed is not based on that relation but on each person's common aspiration for happiness. With each individual one has to bring his (or her) image into focus and radiate the thought: "May he (she) be well! May he (she) be happy! May he (she) be peaceful!"[20] Only when one succeeds in generating a warm feeling of good will and kindness towards that person should one turn to the next. Once one gains some success with individuals, one can then work with larger units. One can try developing metta towards all friends, all neutral persons, all hostile persons. Then metta can be widened by directional suffusion, proceeding in the various directions -- east, south, west, north, above, below -- then it can be extended to all beings without distinction. In the end one suffuses the entire world with a mind of lovingkindness "vast, sublime, and immeasurable, without enmity, without aversion."

From The Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Copyright © 1994 Buddhist Publication Society

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