METTA

a talk by Ven. Ayya Khema
Santa Fe, New Mexico
April, 1992

The four supreme emotions are an essential part of spiritual practice because they are the means to purify our inner reactions. The first one is named "metta" in Pali and is usually translated as "lovingkindness." I'm not that convinced that that's the best translation; it's correct, there's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't have the impact that the word "love" has, so I'm going to use the word "love" as a translation for "metta," and try to show you what the word "love" and the emotion of love actually is all about.

It's not what we have been seeing in the movies and on television for these past decades: where "they lived happily ever after" -- or not; where it concerns one special person that has appeared by accident, or just fell out of the sky, or whatever kind of fanciful ideas the filmmaker happened to have. That's what has been designated as love, in our society. And people have believed it. They haven't really tried to look behind it. Some people might not have been very fortunate at it -- I would say most people haven't -- because that isn't what love is all about.

What has been lacking has been a determined effort to see that such fanciful ideas are actually not love at all. The Buddha calls this type of emotion "the near enemy of love." The far enemy of love is hate -- anybody can tell you that, and that's not very difficult to understand. But the near enemy of love is attachment. And that's what all this business in our fairy tales is all about. The fairy tales, which most people, at one stage in their lives, would like to make reality. After we find out that the fairy tale does not lend itself to reality, then we have several options. We can become angry; some people do. We can try again; most people do -- a third or fourth time. And we can become totally disillusioned and want nothing to do with this kind of emotion because it's only disappointing. We try to close ourselves up so that it doesn't come near us. But underneath all that, there's still that valiant hope: somebody's going to come around and prove it's possible. Well, needless to say, it's all nonsense. And needless to say, it doesn't work. I mean, everybody knows that by now. And yet, underlying that knowing that it isn't working, there's still that little bit of hoping: "Maybe I can do better next time. I've learned all those lessons already." It's a totally wrong approach to the whole thing, and that's why it doesn't work. It's a mistake in thinking, and it's a mistaken viewpoint of our emotional makeup.

So we'll have a look at it and see what the Buddha actually meant when he talked about love. He talked about it on many occasions, and this emotion underlies all his teaching. He was enlightened at the age of thirty-five, which means there was nothing left that he had to do. Yet he taught every single day of his life until he was on his deathbed at the age of eighty. Why? For the simple reason that he had so much love and compassion for the suffering that everybody experiences that he wanted to share his understanding which can alleviate and eliminate all that suffering. So underlying the teaching is always love as the foundation, whether he talked about it or not. We'll have a look at what he actually explained it to be.

Instead of "lovingkindness," we can call it "unconditional love," which is probably a more succinct statement of what it is all about. When we have a look at the kind of emotion that we already have discussed -- which is always connected with attachment -- we can see quite easily that, if this is really love, we are diminished by it. Because what we're doing is looking at only one, two, three people -- and that's the whole extent of love. There are six billion of us, so why diminish ourselves to one, two, or three? And not only that, the whole problem lies in the fact that because it is attachment, we've got to *keep* those one, two, or three in order to experience any kind of love. We are afraid to lose them: to lose them through death, through change of mind, to leaving home, to whatever change happens. And that fear discolors our love to the point where it can no longer be pure, because it is hanging on.

Now fear is always connected to hate. It doesn't mean that we hate those people, those one, two, or three, or four, or five, or how many there happen to be in the house, it means that we hate the idea that we could be losing them. So there's never that kind of open-hearted giving, without any demand behind it that a certain person is also there to receive it. Therefore it's always dependent, and as long as we are dependent, we're not free. This kind of love is doomed from the beginning and we all know that. We can change that kind of attachment to something else, but most people do not have that ability. Some people do, they manage; but it's a rare case.

Actually, love is something entirely different. Just like intelligence is a quality of the mind, so love is a quality of the heart. We don't just have intelligence when we have to solve a difficult mathematical equation; we don't just have intelligence when we have to make logical connections; the mind remains intelligent whether we do that or not. It's the same with love. The loving quality of the heart remains with us whether there's anybody in front of us that we can actually extend that love to or not. That quality of the heart needs to be cultivated.

The intelligence of the mind is cultivated in our society from the time we can understand what our parents are saying. Certainly in all our learning institutions, from kindergarten on upward through university and post-graduate studies, it's always the quality of the mind that is being cultivated. It's highly prized, usually gets paid quite well, and also has a certain possibility for fame and acclaim. Very few if any institutions in the world teach the quality of the heart: love. We've got to learn it by ourselves. Very few people can even demonstrate it, never mind teach it. We don't have kindergarten for it, nor do we have high school, graduate or post-graduate studies in love. This type of training is not available at any price. And yet, it has made people very famous -- but it doesn't pay in the coin of the realm. So that's probably the rub. But once we have seen that materiality and all of the worldly things that we concern ourselves with actually cannot be fulfilling, then it stands to reason that we have to look elsewhere. And this is one of the directions in which we *must* look.

We all have the loving quality within us. There's no doubt about it. Nobody is exempt. But we've done all sorts of things to it. I've mentioned a few already. We were disappointed that the one we picked out didn't love us back, so we decided we're not going love anybody. Or, somebody that we thought was trustworthy betrayed that trust, so we decide we're not going to love. That decision is made in the mind; it's not made in the heart -- all decisions are made in the mind. But when that decision is made in the mind, we are able to close up our heart, and when we do that, we're only half alive. Why do that to ourselves? We're making ourselves dependent again on the good will and the lovingness of other people. There's only one thing to depend on: upon our own goodness and our own lovingness. We've got enough work to do to get that going, never mind what others do. We're constantly -- through our reactions -- buying into the actions and thoughts and deeds of other people. What for? There's no need for that; we've got enough to do with ourselves.

By buying into other people's thoughts and speech and actions, we also do not leave enough room for introspection. We're too busy looking at what others are doing to us which is totally irrelevant. They can only do it to us if we allow them to do it to us. If we don't allow it, what can they possibly do? If somebody gets angry at us and we feel upset by that, we've allowed that person to enter into our own being. If we see that the anger belongs to the other person, all we need is compassion for that person's anger. That's all that's necessary.

If we really want to know what love is all about, we need to recognize that love is not dependent upon another person being lovable. If we want to find somebody who is totally and utterly lovable, we have to find an arahant, an enlightened person. And since we ourselves are not enlightened, we wouldn't recognize such a person. We can only recognize what we know about ourselves. That's all. When somebody comes into the room who is quite angry -- doesn't say anything, is just angry -- we recognize that immediately because we've been angry ourselves. But if somebody comes into the room, doesn't say anything (or might even say something), and is fully enlightened, we wouldn't have a clue. How would we know? They don't wear badges; they don't have any halos or anything. So a fully and totally lovable person is not really within our realm. Are we ourselves totally and completely lovable? So, to look for that is a lost cause, and also it makes life very difficult because we're looking for something outside of ourselves before we are willing to extend love.

To look for people who would like to be loved by us is also silly, because love is the kind of emotion which connects people with each other, and there's no one exempt. Everybody would like to have a loving relationship with another person. But what we're mostly looking for is somebody who loves us, and that's the most absurd thing in the world to do, because that love belongs to the other person. The only reason we like it so much is because it proves something. It proves that we are actually lovable, all indications to the contrary. And since that is the best ego-support we can find, that's what we're looking for. It's totally useless on the spiritual path, and if we're looking for that, we may be disappointed, we may not find anybody. That's the first thing that may happen. We may actually find somebody, but what good will that do us? The love is in the other person's heart. We may deign to return it of course, but then again we're dependent upon the fact that the other person keeps on loving. And then if the other person decides that they don't want to keep on loving, then all of a sudden that's a tragedy: we're no longer lovable.

That's the whole business of the one-to-one relationship in a nutshell. I mean, we all know that it doesn't work, but why don't we change our approach to the whole matter? Well, the reason for that is of course quite simple. We really need a spiritual genius like the Buddha to show us the way. There are very few people in the world who have that kind of ability to find the way by themselves. There are always some, but very very few. Most of us need to be shown the way.

If we stop looking for somebody to love us, we can immediately turn that around and just start looking for people to love. And since there are so many people everywhere, there's no shortage at all; they're constantly available. Every one of us has constant daily contact with other people. This is our constant daily learning situation. It's not too difficult to have a sort of friendly feeling toward those people that are halfway acceptable. But that's not quite enough if we really want to cultivate this heart quality which then becomes like a safety zone within us. Fear is a human condition, but it's greatly alleviated if we find within us the certitude that we're going to be loving no matter what happens. This is such a basis for safety, where fear is so much diminished, that our whole inner being changes. Every person we meet is a challenge: a challenge to love. But particularly those who are unpleasant are the greatest challenge. If we want to actually work on this cultivation of the heart, this is where we have that opportunity.

Now mind you, it doesn't always work. Obviously. It does work for an arahant. The word arahant actually also means a saint, so obviously that's a bit far removed from our daily activities. But we can try, and this is the challenge that we are facing in our daily lives. Those people whom we find difficult, who are obstructing our path, who are against us are the ones for whom we need to find a way to open our hearts and love them in spite of all those difficulties. Now it's obvious that there can come a moment when we are convinced that we can't do it -- on the contrary, we're becoming more and more negative. We can give in then, but not by blaming the other person. We can give in and give up and say, "I'm not developed enough. I can't handle this. I've got to try another way." We must try for a long time, but it is not an absolute that we have to make it work with every person. But it is an absolute that we must *try* with every person. Now with those people that are close to us, it sometimes is even more difficult because we know them better, and they're around so much to disturb us. And seeing that we are looking for scapegoats, the nearest one is the obvious one. This makes life very difficult.

There is another way of tackling this by looking at our own faults and difficulties and realizing that only the ones we have ourselves are the ones we see in another. Our surroundings, our environment, is like a mirror. We wouldn't know what the other person has unless we know it ourselves already. Now there is a possibility that we have actually practiced long enough to have overcome some of those difficulties in ourselves. Then these same ones which we see in another person no longer bother us because we haven't got them anymore. All we need is a bit of compassion that the other person is still working at it (or maybe not working at it). But as long as those traits in another person are very bothersome to us, we can be quite sure we've got them ourselves.

We can be very grateful that we are given this learning opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. It's terribly difficult to see ourselves clearly, because the mirror image is only in other people. But it's very useful to see that, and then use that understanding about the other person, or the things we don't like about the other person, to check out ourselves. "Do I do that too? Do I talk like that? Do I act like that?" We should try to find these same things within. There's no blame involved. If we start blaming ourselves or others for all the things that we do wrong, we'll never stop blaming. It's a totally useless activity, because for any negativity that we have and heap blame on top of, it means we've then got two negativities. What we would like is to get rid of negativity. So instead of blaming we look at it, accept it, and change it.

The more we have this loving feeling for ourselves of contentment and satisfaction about all our endeavors in our own heart, the easier it is to love others. The love has to come from our heart. So if there is no love for ourselves, no understanding for our own difficulties, how can we love another? We always think we do, but it is the kind of love that demands something. It wants something back. Maybe it doesn't even want love back, but it wants something back. It wants the right kind of attitude from the other person, the right kind of behavior, the right kind of being together -- there's some demand being made. As long as we're demanding something -- be it ever so subtle -- so long our love cannot be pure. Love can only be pure if it's given without any payment. Very often in one-to-one relationships we also have this absurdity of trying to figure out whether the other person loves us as much as we love them. In other words, we put it on a little scale and see whether it evens out, and if ours is a little heavier, we'll take a little bit off so it's even. [laughter]

These are the absurdities that human nature is prone to, and it's not necessary because it makes life far more difficult than it has to be. The Buddha said as the first noble truth that there's dukkha. There *is* difficulty. It wasn't meant to be without any difficulty. Because dukkha is our best teacher. In fact, it's our only teacher. All other teachers, if you tell them, "I've had enough, I'm going home," they say, "Well, if that's the case, sorry you're leaving, but have a good trip." But if you say that to dukkha, you say, "Look, I've had enough, I'm going home," dukkha says, "That's fine, but I'm coming along." [laughter] So it's the one teacher that you can be quite sure of, totally reliable, always there. In our relationships with other people, we experience a lot of dukkha at times. Sometimes they're quite all right, but other times there's a lot of dukkha. And if there has been enough dukkha we become so accustomed to it, that our whole inner being reacts to it and we don't even try anything new anymore. That is, of course, a great mistake -- on the spiritual path we do have to try something new. In fact, the spiritual path takes quite a lot of courage because it means chucking the old without knowing what the new one is actually like. If we don't have that courage, we can't go on such a path, because the old stuff needs to be chucked out the window as quickly as possible -- or more likely, put in the garbage can.

Our work on the purification of our heart lies in our daily encounters with anyone, particularly human beings. It's not so difficult to love a little bird that has by mistake strayed into our room and we're trying to get him out again, poor little bird, nice little bird. But somebody who has strayed in our room and wants to sit there and talk while we're sleepy, well, there needs to be a little more determination to love that one. It's human beings that we need to work with. All of us have that opportunity constantly, and there's no excuse not to do it, because this is actually what our life is all about. It's an adult education class. We've asked the question already: "What am I supposed to do with my life?" Well, it's very simple: this is an adult education class. That's all life is all about. Now, if we were going to school still, we would have exams, wouldn't we? In school they were usually kind enough to tell us when the exam would be, and they usually also told us what the exam topic was, so we could at least bone up on it and try to learn as much about it as possible. Well, we've got exams in daily life all the time, but nobody tells the date nor the topic, so we've got to be constantly ready. And just as in school, if we don't pass the exams, we going to be put back and have to do the class over again. Daily life is the same -- if we don't pass the exam, we get the whole thing over again. Next time it might be called Mary instead of Pauline, or John instead of Tom -- whatever it may be, but it's the same lesson over again. So instead of being unprepared when all these exams come about, the best thing to do is to use our daily lives as an adult education class and see what we can learn from each encounter.

Now in order to do that, we have to practice mindfulness. Without that, nothing happens. Mindfulness is the attention to ourselves that gives us a clue to what's going on within. If we practice it, it will become habitual. Then we will always know what's going on within. And we will always know whether it's helpful or whether it's unwholesome. And we will always be able to change it if necessary.

This is one important aspect of love, but another is to understand that love is the basis, the foundation for a peaceful life. We always think (if we at all think about it) that peace is the absence of war, that nobody's shooting. Well, obviously that's one kind of peace. But that isn't what we really want. That's not really what we're looking for. What we want is inner peace, and that has nothing to do with a shooting war. They're always shooting somewhere, I'm quite sure. They haven't stopped shooting since the Second World War ended. Recently they were shooting in Yugoslavia, not so far away from my center in Germany. There's always somebody shooting. They might be shooting at us. What is it? It doesn't matter. It's that inner peacefulness that makes all the difference. It's that inner experience that we live in. We don't live in those outer experiences; they're just triggers.

One of the formulas that's important to have and to remember, and maybe hang over your bed or somewhere you can see it is: Don't Blame the Trigger. Out there, they're all triggers. What this cultivation of this unconditional love means is that within us we have acquired a peaceful zone. We have acquired a zone without pollution. We have acquired a feeling of safety and security, which will be with us no matter what happens. But that's the result; the work toward that goes on day after day, moment after moment.

At the same time, we also need to realize that we only have this one moment. The past is gone, irrevocably gone. We can learn from it. We can see some of the things that we might have done differently, and could do differently now, but that's all. The future is a hope and a prayer. It never exists. When it exists, it's called the present. Tomorrow never comes; when it comes, it's called today. And if you have been labeling during your meditations, you will find that a lot of the labels are called "future." It's an escape mechanism. The present isn't nice enough, so I'll do something in the future. It's the same escape mechanism that we have in the movies and the television and the novels -- we've got that down to a fine art. But it doesn't help us because that escape mechanism is only momentary. When we've thought of the future and the thought is finished, because it's very impermanent, we've got to start all over again. If we cultivate the loving quality in our heart (and we all have that quality and we can all cultivate it), then we can be very happily in the present. And when we are happily in the present, then we can also happily meditate, because we can only meditate in the present. We cannot watch a breath that is gone, nor can we watch a breath that's yet to come. We can only watch the breath that is now. Digital clocks are actually a wonderful mechanism to show us how each moment goes by. One little blip and it's gone. And another blip, and another blip. And yet, it's only now that we can live. The future is a thought process and so is the past, but the experience is now, this moment. It's the only experience we will ever have. If we think of the future, we're thinking of it now. So anything that will help us to create an experiential life is of the greatest value. The best experiential life that we can create for ourselves is the loving quality in the heart.

If we find it easy to love others, we also find it easy to have faith and confidence. And finding it easy to have faith and confidence also makes it easy to meditate. If we find it difficult to be loving, then those things are difficult for us. But on the other hand, if we have a great deal of hate, it's so painful that we know *we've got to do something.* So these are the two sides of the coin. Some people who have more love than others find it easier to fall into the meditative path. But because there is always that which can be loved, and unless one has practiced very long, what one loves, one wants to have -- so there is greed attached. And because that promises happiness, people who have a lot of greed often find it difficult to practice. Those people who have a lot of hate in them find it more difficult to fall into the meditation, but because it hurts inside, they are *determined* to do something about it. So each side has its advantage and disadvantage. The one who has a lot of dislike and resentment and disquiet knows that there is something that can be done, and will, in many cases, practice so diligently that it does really change. That diligent practice has to be connected, though, to the inner understanding, that what happens within -- all of our resentments, all of our dislikes, all of our negations, all of our resistances -- are just mind-made obstacles. They have no reality to them other than what we give them.

If there's any person in your life whom you don't like or whom you have difficulty with, just put that person in front of your mental eye for a moment. Now just imagine for a moment whether the person sitting next to you has any difficulty with that person. [laughter] None whatsoever! Couldn't care less! So it's a mind-made obstacle without any basis in truth. And when we can remember that, we will see that we're only hurting ourselves, we're hurting nobody else. We're making life very difficult for ourselves. The whole world does that. Everybody makes life difficult for him- or herself. There doesn't seem to be any rational answer why we do that. But why do we make life so difficult for ourselves? It seems we constantly want to prove something that's unprovable. Very often we want to prove that we're right. Very often we want to prove that we know better. Sometimes we want to prove that we have real discrimination of who's lovable and who isn't. Why do we want to prove anything? What's there to prove? Don't we just want to be happy? With all that proving, we're never going to be happy, because there's always going to be somebody who's going to disprove it.

So what we can do is remember that the spiritual path means letting go. Letting go of what? Primarily, most importantly, of all views and opinions. The less of those we have within us, the easier it is to practice, the easier it is to meditate, and the easier it is to love. Because if I have views and opinions -- and we all have them, of course -- about other people, they're most likely going to be on both sides: positive and negative. And then our love cannot be pure.

Love in the heart is the purest quality that we can possibly think of, and it is that which connects us not only to other people, but it connects us to the whole of existence. It connects us to all that is around us: to nature, to the other realms, such as the animals, it connects us to everything in a totality where there is no barrier or bondage. That is the beginning of freedom. Without that, we'll never be free. We have that Statue of Liberty standing in New York, but if we'd really like to be free, the freedom is inside us. We can have it. It's available, but it's work. We've got to work at it, every single day. It's very interesting to work at it while we're in a meditation course, where people like and dislike each other without anybody saying anything. It's a very interesting phenomena; it happens always. Investigate it in yourself. Can I start loving without any kind of viewpoint or opinion, just feeling that warm connection, that embracing, caring feeling, that feeling of likeness, that feeling of being together in the same boat at the same time? We all share that togetherness -- we share so much which we never think about -- and if we don't love each other, we're rocking the boat, and is it ever being rocked! We share the same air to breathe. We can't live without that. We share the same earth that we walk on and use to grow our food -- even though it gets all mixed up in packages, it's still grown somewhere first. We share the same dukkha of wanting to be somebody, and particularly of wanting to be. We share the same dukkha of decay, disease and death. We're sharing everything... except love.

St. Theresa de Avila, who was one of the great mystics of Christianity in the Middle Ages, told her nuns: "Less thinking, more loving." And it's been repeated by so many spiritual leaders. But nobody listens. Yet it's part of the Path; this is why we do the loving-kindness meditation, which is one of the Buddha's methods for spiritual growth. Methodology helps us, but it doesn't do the whole thing. Love is a feeling within us that we can cultivate and develop to where we see ourselves as just being part of everything else that goes on. If I don't love everything else that goes on, obviously I can't love this part either, so what am I doing? I'm living in hate, or in indifference. If I can't love everything else that's going on around me, people and nature and whatever, I'm also lost in this unloving feeling. That's the way most of the people in the world live: lost in an unloving feeling.

Now we deliberately start every lovingkindness meditation with ourselves. Many people find it difficult to love themselves -- sometimes because they know themselves too well. [laughter] Which means that they're judging. We don't have to judge ourselves, we can just love ourselves. Judging ourselves and loving ourselves do not have to be in the same breath. We can first love this manifestation of universal existence which we call "Me." And then, if we really want to make some changes, we can find out what needs to be changed, but we don't have to mix up those two, we don't have to mix up our bad qualities with our love for ourselves. They don't have anything to do with each other. But because we do mix those two things together in ourselves, we do that with everybody else, too. They're quite nice, but... they've got all these other qualities which aren't that nice. Or we can see that they're ok, but only if they are just doing something that we're also doing, going along with our ideas. This is totally unnecessary. This is a totally different track -- the mind's track, that's where the mind comes into its own. That's when we are discriminating between that which we find useful and helpful, and that which we don't. But the heart has nothing to do with that. The heart just has to love; it doesn't have to discriminate. And when we can see the difference between the usual judgments and just loving -- not discriminating -- we have taken a very important step.

Another important step is seeing, not only that we share everything, but also that our own difficulties need to be treated with compassion. Not with the idea, "I should have known better, I could do better, or somebody else has done it to me." Just compassion. Compassion is a very important entry into love. The two are very connected, and they're also interchangeable. The far enemy of compassion, of course, is cruelty, but the near enemy is pity. We're not sorry for ourselves or for others. We need to have empathy, not pity. "Com" is "with," "passion" = "feeling," with feeling. Empathy. Being sorry for ourselves or being sorry for others just aggravates the dukkha, making more dukkha out of it. So compassion for ourselves goes hand in hand with love for ourselves. Some people find it difficult to get at their feelings, not because they haven't got them -- everybody's got them, but because they've put a wall, a barrier, sometimes an iron safe around them. People do this for many different reasons, but mostly because there has been a situation in life which has not worked out the way it should have done. Every situation in life which doesn't work out the way it should have done is nothing but another learning experience.

That's what this adult education class is all about, nothing else. That's what we're here for. That's how we use this precious human rebirth, with all the dukkha it entails, but also all the sukha. Sukha is obviously the opposite of dukkha, it's the pleasure. This adult education class is where we can learn to deal with both dukkha and sukha on a totally different level, where we don't have a judgmental attitude. We weren't brought here into this life to be engaged as judge and jury. Nobody gave us that job. It's self-appointed. [laughter] And this self-appointment is not even pleasurable -- doesn't pay anything in the first place -- and it only makes difficulty. But we can drop all this judge and jury business; at least try. In the beginning, one does it a little. It's much easier to love.

Transcribed by Brian Kelley
Edited by Leigh Brasington


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