by Bhante Mahinda
Metta, in Pali (or Maithri in Sanskrit language) means ‘loving-kindness’, or boundless love’. It is the wish for all sentient beings to be well and happy. It is also referred to as boundless or universal love, a love that transcends all barriers, such as caste, colour or creed.
Through the practice of metta meditation, we actively cultivate this wish for all sentient beings well and happy. But when we come out of our meditation and encounter the world, we see the manifestations of suffering all around us. If our metta is well developed, compassion – the wish that all suffering beings be free from suffering – will naturally arise when we encounter suffering.
As we develop the thought of compassion more and more, it will condition our speech and body actions. We will be moved to put love into action, to lend a helping hand in times of need and to counsel and console those in trouble.
When we see people respond to our help, overcome their suffering, and become well and happy, we will also feel happy. That is how compassion manifesting in speech and body action will lead to sympathetic joy.
However, despite all our good actions, there are those who are not able to respond to, or even refuse, our compassionate help. Sometimes we are even blamed or accused despite our kind intentions. It is then that we need to develop equanimity.
Equanimity comes when we begin to understand the nature of life, particularly the understanding of the law of karma. We see that some people can respond to our help but others cannot, because they have to go through their karma. Furthermore, our good intentions may be negatively received due to our own karma, or it could be our lack of skill in carrying out that action. The more we can see and understand this, the more we will be able to let go and not be disturbed by whatever happens. Thus we will be able to maintain an equanimous mind, and continue to work on perfecting our skills and abilities.
Loving-kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Sympathetic or Altruistic Joy (Mudita) and Equanimity (Upekkha) are known as the Four Divine Abodes (Four Brahma Viharas), or Four Immeasurable or Boundless Thoughts. The practice of metta underpins the other three ‘divine abodes’, and as your metta develops, so will your compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, which will in turn increase your loving-kindness. Eventually, when your practice reaches a very high level, each of these qualities will become boundless and unlimited, and you will really be living in a ‘divine abode’.
Developing these four qualities is essential, especially in the helping professions and the field of community service. Many people in these professions are affected in one way or another by the different sufferings of their clients, especially when they are not always able to remove or adequately relieve their suffering. This is because they do not fully understand the nature of life at a deeper level, and they are unable to remain equanimous in the face of such suffering.
For anyone who wishes to help and bring benefit to others, whether it be in your own family, your community, nation or the whole world, it is very important to develop these immeasurable qualities, beginning with a strong foundation in the practice of metta. The more we develop loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, the more this world will be a caring and peaceful place.