Loving Kindness and Insight

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by Bhante Mahinda

Buddhist meditation practice is usually classified as two types: samathā - meditation which develops calmness and tranquillity; and vipassanā – meditation which cultivates wisdom or insightMeditation on loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) is considered a samathā practice. When we radiate thoughts of wellbeing for ourselves and others, our minds gradually become more and more calm and peaceful.

Vipassanā, or insight meditation, on the other hand, trains the mind to observe and realise the three characteristics of existence: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-self).  This develops our insight into the reality of our lives, promoting the growth of wisdom.

In fact, these two practices, samathā and vipassanā, complement each other.  A skilful meditation instructor will prescribe a meditation object for his or her students according to each individual’s temperament and inclination.  Some people may need to develop a certain degree of calmness before proceeding to the cultivation of insight. Others may need to cultivate insight before they can develop calmness.

In the absence of such skilful masters and in view of the stress of modern living, we would generally recommend the practice of mettā as a foundation that will support the cultivation of wisdom and insight.

When our minds become more and more calm and quiet, we will be able to focus better and see things more clearly – that is how calmness will support the development of insight.  Loving-kindness and compassion will also make us more aware of the realities of life: the fragility of our lives (impermanence) and the manifestations of suffering around us (unsatisfactoriness).  The more we understand these realities, the more we will be able to go beyond our limited perception of our self (leading to the understanding of anatta, non-self).

Thus we can see how mettā is complementary to vipassanā practice: one supporting the development of the other. In the teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path[1], wisdom comprises Right Understanding and Right Thoughts.  Loving-kindness and compassion are two important ingredients of Right Thoughts and therefore mettā is an essential component of wisdom.

Mettā also provides a strong motivation for enlightenment.  When we sincerely generate the thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion for all sentient beings, we become more conscious of the suffering and unsatisfactoriness in life, thus motivating us to gain enlightenment for the welfare and happiness of the many.

[1]The Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha taught in his very first sermon, lays out the path to Enlightenment.

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