According to some commentaries/abhidhamma, all unwholesome states are rooted in ignorance; that ignorance is, according to Pa Auk Sayadaw, the ignorance that sees things as concepts, e.g., a man a woman etc. However, it seems like in order to do mettā and similar practices, one must take a concept as object. My question: Since wholesome states like mettā are said to be incompatible with unwholesome states like ignorance, why does it seem like mettā is rooted in ignorance?

  • Enlightenment is rooted in Ignorance like the Lotus flower rises up from the mud and muck to bloom effortlessly on the surface of the water. I cannot take credit for these words.
    – sova
    Feb 6, 2016 at 8:35

5 Answers 5


The important thing about metta is not the "object", but the result of the practice; it's point is so one becomes kind when kindness is not present.

Notice that Saying benevolence (metta) is rooted in ignorance if a particular practice is described in conventional terms is like saying dhamma is rooted in ignorance because it's also exposed in conventional terms.

Also, as a side note, Metta practice with a person as an object is a later development.

It would be problematic if, in this or any exercise, one nurtures and develops a wrong view (e.g. believing that a person has an eternal soul).

I'd guess the Ven. meant "seeing things as concepts" as something very specific: substituting reality for some concept. Conceptual thinking is largely intrinsic to thinking. it's problematic because it requires skill to not be confused, to not take something imagined as something real, to not develop wrong view (e.g believing an object is detached, eternal, subsisting without conditions).


Saying "That's a man" may be ignorant, but saying "that's not a sentient being" might also be wrong.

I noticed this yesterday, from Ajahn Chah,

At one point, he went to Achaan Chah and complained, noting that even Achaan Chah himself was inconsistent and seemed often to contradict him self in an unenlightened way.

Achaan Chah just laughed and pointed out how much the monk was suffering by trying to judge others around him. Then he explained that his way of teaching is very simple: "It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, 'Go left, go left' Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, 'Go right, go right!' That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, 'Let go of that too.' Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma."

I think the two views (or two "truths") you describe are called "conventional" and "ultimate" ... but another way of describing that is to say that one is one is "skillful means" and the other is "wisdom".

They are two extremes. Seeing someone as a person (as a man or a woman, as a sentient being) is conventional ... but might it also be skillful, or perhaps related to having a skillful relationship with them?

I think that the story Nothing Exists warns against an extreme or naive version of the "a 'man' is just a concept and doesn't exist" doctrine. To the extent that suffering can exist maybe metta is appropriate.

In various ways, Metta and so on (the Brahmaviharas) are skillful.

For example, The Four Sublime States by Nyanaponika Thera starts with,

These four attitudes are said to be excellent or sublime because they are the right or ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti). They provide, in fact, the answer to all situations arising from social contact.

Also we were looking into the Metta Gatha recently. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta it's only saying "may they be happy", in the commentary (in the Visuddhimagga, as well as in the above article by Nyanaponika Thera) it explains why it's right to start metta bhavana with, "may I be happy", and then extend outwards from there.

A self-centred (or informed-by-experience) practice of metta reminds me of the Dhammapada,

"All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill".

Also, the 'people' (or 'sentient beings') who need Metta, who are able to suffer, are presumably those who are not enlightened, and who are to that extent (themselves) ignorant. Perhaps it's for that reason that you could say that metta is rooted in ignorance?

Even so, compassion (teaching for the sake of 'beings' with little dust in their eyes) seems to have been the motive of the Buddha himself: I don't think compassion can be seen as rooted only in ignorance.

One more comment. I suppose that metta bhavana is (like) a 'concentration' practice, whereas Sayadaw and the Abhidhamma and so on is to do with 'insight' practice.

I'm not sure what the best quote is on that subject but here's one from Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha,

There is a lot of confusion on the differences between concentration practices and insight practices. [...] Concentration practices (samatha or samadhi practices) are meditation on a concept, an aggregate of many transient sensations, whereas insight practice is meditation on the many transient sensations just as they are. When doing concentration practices, one purposefully tries to fix or freeze the mind in a specific state, called an “absorption,” “jhana” or “dyana.” While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity and stability certainly can be cultivated, and this is concentration practice.

The eight-fold way is sometimes described as a three-fold training: virtue, concentration, and wisdom.


In Abhidhamma totality of all phenomena is in 5 categories.

  • Ultimate realities - or realities that are atomic or do not lose meaning when broke down to lower level of abstraction
    1. Mind states
    2. Metal content
    3. Materiality
    4. Nirvana
  • Conventional realities - abstracted or compounded concepts which the meaning is lost when break down to lower levels of abstraction
    1. Concepts

A person is a concept as you say which is used for Sublime meditation. But there you use this concept to break the concept of one being a dear person or being (agreeable object), a foe / dangerous being (disagreeable object) and neutral person or being (neither agreeable nor disagreeable object). When you practice Metta you break these conceptual boundaries about beings. This is discussed on page 102, Knowing and Seeing by Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw.

Ignorance is not knowing the 4 Noble Truths and Dependent Origination (DO). If you take the 1st which is Dukkha, you experience this with beings. Meeting a loved one is a pleasure or give pleasant sensation, parting is displeasure, meeting a unloved being is a displeasure or gives unpleasant sensations, meeting someone neutral is neither pleasurable or displeasurable. All the above covers the full spectrum of Dukkha or sensations or what is felt. By being equanimous towards the sensation knowing it is impermanent and not totally controllable and breaking the Perceptions you remove Ignorance. This also related to DO through Ignorance and Feeling / Sensation link.

If you have a polarity or temperament like being hot tempered then the Sublime Meditation can help you reduce these tendencies at the conceptual or perceptual level. This is more at the surface level.

Also concept of person has the notion of beauty which also results in similar notion as beautiful (agreeable hence pleasant sensation), ugly (disagreeable hence unpleasant sensations), neither (neither agreeable nor disagreeable hence neutral sensations). Here you have to look at a person as anatomical parts, materiality, and decay to break the perception of beauty.

Concept on its own is not Ignorance but can lead to Ignorance due to Corruption of Insight (Vipallasa) which covers you from seeing the 4 Noble Truths, DO or the true characteristics of the object (change, unsatisfactoriness, non self). So if your meditation object is a concept you have to note that is it either impermanent and not in one's control hence Dukkha. Dukkha as mentioned before links up with the 4 Noble Truths and DO.

Finally, you will realise evaluating a being as friend, foe, attractive, attractive or neutral creates sensation which in himself burden and unsatisfactory as sensations are impermanent and not in one's control. The will lighten your clinging to concepts regarding beings and the associated sensations of a being as an entity with fixed attributes which will lead to breaking the fetter regarding identity view. This does not mean you will not have any concepts as they are needed to relate to other in conventional terms, it is just that you do not cling to them. Likewise, with deeper understanding you will develop revulsion towards all the aggregates as they are linked with aggregability, disagreeable, neutral disposition hence pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensation which in term is not permanent or in one's control which means you cannot maintain them as it is agreeable to continuously experience the pleasantness associated with them you will let go of such expectation from the aggregates and the aggregates as an instrument in seeking of pleasures. What is said about the aggregates here can be extended to the world and 6 sense doors.


this is good question. this is how i put it together. I hope i hit the mark.

Buddha told ven. Ananda that vinnaya is concious of 4 things only. vinnana is conscious of; rupa, vedana, sanna, and sankhara (together form 5skandha). We only aware one of those 4 things one at time tho switching from one to another really fast. Now, where is Metta in 5 skandha? Metta is in one of those 4 which is sankhara. From Pratītyasamutpāda (another way of explaining how 5 skandha comes to be).

  • avijja paccaya sankhara. With Avidya as condition, Samskara arise.

Metta, like everything else, is dukka subject to decay and destruction since it is in sankara. an arahat do not see self in metta or anything in 5 skandha for that matter.


The practise of metta is not rooted in ignorance but the idea of 'beings' ('satta') is rooted in ignorance. To quote the scriptures:

Mara, why now do you assume 'a being' ('satta')? Have you grasped a view? SN 5.10


'A being,' lord. 'A being,' it's said. To what extent is one said to be 'a being' ('satta')? Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness, Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be 'a being.' SN 23.2


And what is dependent co-arising? From ignorance as a requisite condition comes...birth. And what is birth? Whatever birth...of the various beings ('satta') in this or that group of beings, that is called birth. SN 12.2

Therefore, when metta is practised, when it is reflected: "May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering", this really means: "May all aggregates subject to ignorance be free from delusion & find happiness & peace".

If the scriptures are read with ignorance, they can be interpreted materialistically. The same as Mara, ignorance will misinterpret terms such as "beings" ('satta') to mean "people" and "worlds" ('loka') to mean "planets" or "reincarnation".

The term "beings" ("satta"), in the language of ultimate truth, means: "aggregates trapped in the delusion of attachment".

(However, in conventional language, the term "beings" can mean "people", such as when the Buddha is called a 'great being').

Similarly, the idea of 'man' & 'woman' is also what Mara believes. To quote the scriptures, again:

One to whom it might occur, 'I'm a woman' or 'I'm a man' Or 'I'm anything at all' — Is fit for Mara to address. SN 5.2

It is quite amusing when Mara attempts to teach dharma of materialism (such as 'beings', 'men', 'women', 'worlds of reincarnation') to noble disciples.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .