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I'm wondering what these terms, mettā and karuṇā (loving-kindness and compassion), mean.

  • Are there suttas in which they're defined, otherwise where do the definitions come from?
  • Is there any important difference between these two terms, or do they mean the same thing?

    The words in the metta chant are translated into English as being "free" from various forms of suffering. I think the Pali is just saying things like, "May I be with no-emnity" etc.

    Given these definitions, is "free from suffering" more a type of karuna rather than a type of metta, if so why is it in the "chant of metta"? Are they simply exact opposites, therefore the same thing?

  • In a translated phrase like "May you be well" or "May all beings be at ease", is that always the word Sukha being translated? Or are there other adjectives (states of being) that are wished for?

  • How is metta (having desire for someone's well-being) compatible with equanimity?

    These Dhamma Lists warn that "indifference" is the "near enemy" of "equanimity"; but could you maybe explain briefly what the right view is, how to distinguish indifference from equanimity, or to make equanimity compatible with metta?

    1. Lovingkindness, good-will (metta): Near enemy – attachment; far enemy – hatred
    2. Compassion (karuna): Near enemy – pity; far enemy – cruelty
    3. Sympathetic joy, Appreciation (mudita), joy at the good fortune of others: Near enemy – comparison, hypocrisy, insincerity, joy for others but tinged with identification (my team, my child); far enemy – envy
    4. Equanimity (upekkha): Near enemy – indifference; far enemy – anxiety, greed
  • How is metta compatible with anatta and dukkha? Doesn't metta imply that there are people and that they can be happy, whereas anatta and dukkha being characteristic of all compound things kind of implies the opposite?

  • Do you agree with the following statement, copied from here:

    People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk. If there is food on the table, a comfortable place to sleep, and they have no complaints about their daily routine, then our jobs as Buddhists is to rejoice in their success (mudita).

In summary, is metta necessarily a wish that other beings be enlightened, or could it mean something other than that?

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    Funny, I just read curiously with the intent of possibly give an expected answer, but when I arrived at your point "How is metta (having desire for someone's well-being) compatible with equanimity?" I got the strong impulse to simply react: "you should practise this/explore your emotions when practizing" - just what the vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Tanh once said to me on my question in a sangha-meeting. Perhaps there is something similar- not to try to understand the termini technici but to bring out and clear up the inner instance and then see, whether the given words agree with this.. – Gottfried Helms Mar 1 '16 at 16:37
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The answer below draws from early buddhism material: from the four nikayas/agamas and ven. Analayo's studies on the subject (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, CEEBM from now on).

"I'm wondering what these terms, mettā and karuṇā (loving-kindness and compassion), mean."

First, on matters of translations, while mettā is frequently translated as "loving-kindness", alternatives include "benevolence" and "amicableness"1. According to CEEBM, etymologically, it's root is mitra, "friend", thus conveying the idea of being friendly (and it favors "benevolence" over "loving kindness").

This contrasts with karuṇā/compassion which is a desire for others [in suffering] to be free from suffering. More on that below.

"Are there suttas in which they're defined, otherwise where do the definitions come from? Is there any important difference between these two terms, or do they mean the same thing?"

It seems there's no sutta that really defines compassion. The essence of it is the "concern for others to be relieved from suffering and affliction" (CEEBM). A simile that illustrates it (in the context of a teaching on how to subdue hatred) can be found in AN 5.162:

Just as when there is a sick man — in pain, seriously ill — traveling along a road, far from the next village & far from the last, unable to get the food he needs, unable to get the medicine he needs, unable to get a suitable assistant, unable to get anyone to take him to human habitation. Now suppose another person were to see him coming along the road. He would do what he could out of compassion, pity, & sympathy for the man, thinking, ‘O that this man should get the food he needs, the medicine he needs, a suitable assistant, someone to take him to human habitation. Why is that? So that he won’t fall into ruin right here.’

In terms of practice, while contemplating other people's suffering would be contemplation of dukkha, contemplating the wish for others to be free from dukkha would be contemplation of compassion and both "should be undertaken with a positive or even joyful mind [and] steer clear of sadness" instead of "commiserate to the extent of suffering along with the other" (CEEBM) -- as the Visuddhimagga formulations of "near enemy" indicate.

Furthermore, it's said in the suttas that it is "impossible, it cannot be that cruelty remains pervading the mind of one who has practiced, cultivated, and made much of the concentration of the mind by compassion" (AN 6.13). That is, cultivating the desire for others to be free from suffering eliminates the desire for others to suffer.

Ven. Analayo, in CEEBM, further clarifies that:

  • Moral conduct is an expression of compassion

    For example, abstaining from killing beings.

  • Right speech is an expression of compassion

    For example, evaluating if something to be said is benefical.

  • Both learning dhamma (seeking freedom from dukkha) and teaching dhamma can be expressions of compassion

    If one does not think of harming oneself, does not think of harming others, does not think of harming both; and instead ... one thinks of benefiting others, benefiting many people out of compassion for the affliction in the world, seeking what is meaningful and of benefit for devas and humans, seeking their ease and happiness; then in this way .. one is bright, intelligent, and with vast wisdom

    -- AN 4.186 (Analayo trans.)

    Also see AN 3.60 where the Buddha counter-argument a Brahmin who says that one who goes forth on the dhamma only benefits oneself.

    Finally, ven. Analayo concludes that, in early buddhism, teaching dhamma is the compassionated action par excellence.

  • Accordingly, going into seclusion can be an expression of compassion

    [ven. Mahakassapa]: "Considering two benefits, venerable sir. For myself I see a pleasant dwelling in this very life, and I have compassion for later generations, thinking, ‘May those of later generations follow my example!’ For when they hear, ‘The enlightened disciples of the Buddha were for a long time forest dwellers and spoke in praise of forest dwelling … were energetic and spoke in praise of arousing energy,’ then they will practice accordingly, and that will lead to their welfare and happiness for a long time. Considering these two benefits, venerable sir, I have long been a forest dweller ... and have spoken in praise of arousing energy."

    -- SN 16.5

    ...and seclusion, being a necessity to build a strong foundation and practice, is then a requirement for correct teaching: "if one is not tamed oneself and wishes to tame someone else who is untamed, that is impossible" (MN 8). Also "One should first establish oneself in what is proper; then only should one instruct others." (Dhp 158)

  • Early buddhist discourse on compassion practice does not focus on a specific person (as elaborated on Visuddhimagga); instead, it's a practice of "boundless radiation in all directions" (MN 7).

On mettā, ven. Analayo comments on a passage of the Mettā sutta (Sn 1.8) that uses a simile of the love of a mother for her only child to illustrate the practice of mettā: "Her love of her son is not the main theme here -- the main point is protection. The providing and receiving o protection is in fact a recurrent aspect in the conception of mettā in the early discourses. [...] In contrast to the bounded love of mother for her child, which easily comes with an admixture of attachment, mettā should be boundless and free from attachment." (CEEBM).

In MN 104 we also find mettā associated with cordiality:

"Here a bhikkhu maintains bodily acts of loving-kindness both in public and in private towards his companions in the holy life. This is a principle of cordiality that creates love and respect, and conduces to cohesion, to non-dispute, to concord, and to unity."

Thus, mettā has a broad role in the daily activity establishing the modes of interactions with everyone around toward wholesome actions of body, speech and mind mind with a sense of appreciation for them (MN 31 illustrates it beautifully).

Furthermore, mettā is the very antidote for subduing (and is the opposite of) ill will, anger and aggression (MN I 424). It's also related to physical/mental beauty (and lack of it, associated to ugliness). Finally, it seems to have a proeminent role compared to other seemingly compassionate practices ("If one were to develop even just one whiff of a heart of good will, that would be more fruitful than...",AN 9.20).

So, briefly, I understand mettā to be the desire for others to be well and attitude that promotes wellness, in contrast with compassion: the desire for others to be free from dukkha -- and attitudes that extinguish existing dukkha.

"How is mettā (having desire for someone's well-being) compatible with equanimity? These Dhamma Lists warn that 'indifference' is the 'near enemy' of 'equanimity'; but could you maybe explain briefly what the right view is, how to distinguish indifference from equanimity, or to make equanimity compatible with mettā?"

In CEEBM, ven. Analayo writes: "Equanimity or equipoise, upek(k)ha, from the etymological perspective suggests a mental attitude of 'looking upon', not an indifferent 'looking away'. The term thus conveys an awareness of whatever is happening combined with mental balance and the absence of favoring or opposing" and also "equanimity is [...] a mental equipoise that rounds off a systematic opening of the heart which has been brought about through cultivation of the other three divine abodes".

As an illustration of the function of equanimity, consider teaching dhamma with the attitude of compassion to an uninterested audience. In such situations, equanimity (or lack of it) comes into play. The same could be said about the role of equanimity when we treat others with mettā and find ourselves being treated with aggression (and, conversely, when we find ourselves being praised). In this way, equanimity helps with subduing aversion and lust. Moreover, it helps putting compassion "on track", which can steer out to unwholesome mental states (by being affected by the suffering of others, or by being inflated with sense of superiority for others, etc).

The suttas have the Buddha reacting equanimous in many of these situations (see MN 137, MN 65, MN 128 and SN 7.2).

"How is mettā compatible with anatta and dukkha? Doesn't mettā imply that there are people and that they can be happy, whereas anatta and dukkha being characteristic of all compound things kind of implies the opposite?"

Other related questions I found here:

As I understand, mettā is not the idea that "other beings should be happy" (opposing dukkha), not does it reify a conceptual construction of a (everlasting) person. From mettā alone, I don't think we can infer anything, doctrinally or otherwise, about someone else (or any "object" of mettā), it's about us. It is the inclination and attitude that promotes wellness (freedom from suffering) for all beings. Like cleaning up a bathroom after using it to have it ready for the next person that need it.

The way I see it, "whishing for others to be well" is just a practice, a way to create the mental habit of such inclination and attitude -- culminating with one actually becoming a friendly, kind, "easy to be with", person.


1 from http://dictionary.tamilcube.com/

  • I didn't think it means that "other beings are happiness" but rather "other beings can be happy" -- but I often fear that it's not possible for other beings to be or to remain happy, and so I fear that hoping that they might is kind of questionable. Maybe it's foolish of me to think that way though, because many people do seem happy. @БаянКупи-ка's comment is quite helpful: that I might vary between metta and karuna depending on the circumstance (depending on the current/observed state of others), – ChrisW Mar 2 '16 at 9:28
  • (Sorry I'm being slow to upvote your answer -- it's not because it's an inadequate answer, it's that it's taking me a while to read it thoroughly). – ChrisW Mar 2 '16 at 9:33
  • I just revised the last paragraph based on your comments. Yeah, "wish" might imply some "hope". But this is not about hoping (an expectation) for others to be something. I think its about becoming, oneself, a kind, friendly, compassionate person. While manifestations of metta or karuna can be visible on certain occasions (and these can put us "to test" these modes), this answer shows how these aspects, when cultivated (e.g. with the aid of brahmavihara meditations), really permeate the entire day-to-day, and, say, "become second nature". – Thiago Mar 2 '16 at 15:26
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    (it's fine, it was a great question, and researching and writing the answer made me learn a lot :) – Thiago Mar 2 '16 at 15:28
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How is metta (having desire for someone's well-being) compatible with equanimity?

These Dhamma Lists warn that "indifference" is the "near enemy" of "equanimity"; but could you maybe explain briefly what the right view is, how to distinguish indifference from equanimity, or to make equanimity compatible with metta?

i entertain three possible explanations of equanimity as brahmavihara:
a) impartiality, i.e. directing the other three equally at everyone irrespective of their qualities - mine
b) lack of involvement with and attachment to others - Laurence Khantipalo
c) watching carefully and ready to act (in helping others) - suggested by some other person

How is metta compatible with anatta and dukkha? Doesn't metta imply that there are people and that they can be happy, whereas anatta and dukkha being characteristic of all compound things kind of implies the opposite?

with dukkha easily: everyone is subject to dukkha and so it's only natural that one would sympathize with them being in the same boat

[The Blessed One was at Saavatthii]

At this time King Pasenadi of Kosala was on the upper terrace of the palace with Queen Mallikaa. And the king asked her: "Mallikaa, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"1

"Your Majesty, there is no one dearer to me than myself. And you, sire, is anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

"Nor is there anyone dearer to me, Mallikaa, than myself."

Then the king went down from the palace and visited the Blessed One [and told him the whole story.] And the Blessed One, understanding, thereupon uttered this verse:

Though in thought we range throughout the world,
We'll nowhere find a thing more dear than self.
So, since others hold the self so dear,
He who loves himself should injure none.

Mallika sutta (SN 3.8)

in the aspect of existence of other beings i don't think it's contradictory to the concept of anatta, otherwise the concept of dukkha would as well be at odds with it, because if there's no self there's supposedly no one to experience suffering

also such understanding would effectively undermine the concept of kamma, because if everything is suffering anyway, there's supposedly no point in securing for oneself a happier future life by moral conduct in the current one

In summary, is metta necessarily a wish that other beings be enlightened, or could it mean something other than that?

i see it as a wish of good for other beings, wish of their freedom from suffering, and not only a wish but a mode of practical relation to them, much like Christian agape

in my opinion brahmaviharas are more about the person themself than about other people, it's about how one relates to the world regardless of whether the aim of that relationship is fulfilled.

Do you agree with the following statement:

People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk. If there is food on the table, a comfortable place to sleep, and they have no complaints about their daily routine, then our jobs as Buddhists is to rejoice in their success (mudita).

i do agree with it

i don't agree however with the initial supposition, rejoice in the happiness of other beings is still Dhamma (i prefer it over the term 'Buddhism'), so one needs it at all times

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There are clear definitions given in Chapter IX -- The Divine Abidings of the Visuddhimagga:

  1. Now, as to the meaning firstly of loving-kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity: it fattens (mejjati), thus it is loving-kindness (mettá); it is solvent (siniyhati) is the meaning. Also: it comes about with respect to a friend (mitta), [318] or it is behaviour towards a friend, thus it is loving-kindness (mettá).

    When there is suffering in others it causes (karoti) good people’s hearts to be moved (kampana), thus it is compassion (karuóá). Or alternatively, it combats (kióáti)11 others’ suffering, attacks and demolishes it, thus it is compassion. Or alternatively, it is scattered (kiriyati) upon those who suffer, it is extended to them by pervasion, thus it is compassion (karuóá).

    Those endowed with it are glad (modanti), or itself is glad (modati), or it is the mere act of being glad (modana), thus it is gladness (muditá).

    It looks on at (upekkhati), abandoning such interestedness as thinking “May they be free from enmity” and having recourse to neutrality, thus it is equanimity (upekkhá).

  2. As to the characteristic, etc., loving-kindness is characterized here as promoting the aspect of welfare. Its function is to prefer welfare. It is manifested as the removal of annoyance. Its proximate cause is seeing loveableness in beings. It succeeds when it makes ill will subside, and it fails when it produces (selfish) affection.

  3. Compassion is characterized as promoting the aspect of allaying suffering. Its function resides in not bearing others’ suffering. It is manifested as noncruelty. Its proximate cause is to see helplessness in those overwhelmed by suffering. It succeeds when it makes cruelty subside and it fails when it produces sorrow.

  4. Gladness ... (etc.)

  5. Equanimity is characterized as promoting the aspect of neutrality towards beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds (kamma) thus: “Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose [if not theirs] is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?” It succeeds when it makes resentment and approval subside, and it fails when it produces the equanimity of unknowing, which is that [worldly-minded indifference of ignorance] based on the house life.

  • You do not practice Metta and Uppekkha together. As per the definition, Upekkha is characterized as promoting the aspect of neutrality towards beings.

  • An example for worldly-minded indifference of ignorance is thinking that breaking the five precepts is ok.

  • Metta meditation is a Samatha (concentration) meditation. Which means the object of meditation is a concept.

    Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta are the 3 natures you come to see in Vippassana (insight) meditation. Vipassana meditation deals with ultimate realities.

    Metta meditation is usually recommended to people who are irritable, before they practice Vipassana.

  • "People need Buddhism when their current raft has sunk." - People do not realize that their rafts were never above water in the first place. First noble truth doesn't mean sadness. Even happy feelings are instances of suffering. But ignorance covers it up. That is why the first noble truth is something to be realized. Lord Buddha has compassion towards all beings, including gods. Because he sees suffering in all unenlightened beings, regardless of their living conditions.

    "In summary, is metta necessarily a wish that other beings be enlightened, or could it mean something other than that?" - Wishing enlightenment towards others is just one instance of Metta(or Karuna depending on the context). There are many other forms of promoting the aspect of welfare. Ex: Using pleasant words, giving a cup of tea to a guest, helping your parents with chores, smiling, greeting etc.

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Metta is a feeling of love or loving-kindness and is cultivated in a variety of ways. You can listen to various techniques and talks on dharmaseed or find a teacher with whom you vibe with and watch a video or read it in a book.

The earliest reference is the Metta Sutra, as far as I know, and it is all about engendering a mind of good-will and loving, dearness, and fondness directed at sentient beings (and eventually all phenomena).

Karuna is often translated as compassion. Karuna means you are aware of what suffering is / how you yourself do not wish to experience it, and therefore when you see it in another you wish for them to not have to carry it. Karuna is also the yearning to remove suffering and its causes. Compassion literally means "to suffer with" so it is based on an understanding of our equality as beings and our mutual striving towards happiness.

They are not opposites. In the teachings I have been studying lately, it is stated that from the field of loving kindness a mind of compassion can easily blossom, so they are mutually helpful. When we have love for beings then it is a natural extension that we wish them to not suffer and to be free of any cause that could lead to future suffering.

Anatta implies that what benefits one can and shall benefit us all, and dukkha is simply what needs be abandoned.

Metta and Karuna, as you may know, are two of the four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes or Divine Dwellings. Also known as the Four Immeasurables, they are called Dwellings or Abodes because a mind steadily accustomed to their contemplation and saturation easily "dwells" of "finds home" in such wonderful states.

  • When I wrote, "exact opposites, therefore the same thing", what I meant was -- is "may you be well" an example of metta, and is "may you be free of suffering" an example of karuna, and are these two exactly the same wish or motive? Are metta and karuna always, not just in this one example, the same thing? – ChrisW Mar 2 '16 at 8:12
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    @ChrisW i see 'metta' as a more proactive and a blanket quality, whereas 'compassion' is relevant specifically for when other beings are in trouble and suffering, while 'mudita' - when they're in good spirits and rejoicing, being kind of modes of 'metta' – Баян Купи-ка Mar 2 '16 at 10:21

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