When I was taught the Metta Bhavna meditation practice it was suggested that I repeat the following to myself

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be free

Then again repeating the same again to other people. As the practice goes on then this can be dropped for more subtle methods. But this formulation and the practice in general has always struck me as been at odds with the idea of no fixed self (Anatta). If I am wishing well to myself and others - who exactly am I wishing well to? Who is this 'I' that I am wishing well to?

In general do these kinds of metta practice conflict with the annatta doctrine. I am assuming that they don't conflict as they are both fairly central in Buddhism. Given that, how are the two practices reconciled?

  • This is a long book - but it might be of some help. Brahmavihara Dhamma - Mahasi Sayadaw buddhanet.net/brahmaviharas/index.htm
    – Monk
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 9:57
  • Metta Meditation is more of a samatha meditation practice leading to samatha-jhanas. So, clearly you are dealing with concepts in this form of meditation and should not confuse it with insight meditation (Mahasi Sayadaw explains it better - he says, if you regard a person as the five aggregates while cultivating Metta - you will be unlikely to succeed, and gives good reasons for it too) .So, one should direct one's thoughts only in the direction of Metta to gain concentration. If the question you asked arises in meditation - it should be seen as the 5th hindrance(Doubt or vicikicchā).
    – Monk
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 10:07
  • 1
    This is where Mahasi Sayadaw speaks of Anatta with reference to Metta Meditation buddhanet.net/brahmaviharas/bvd063.htm
    – Monk
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 10:21

7 Answers 7


"In general do these kinds of metta practice conflict with the annatta doctrine. I am assuming that they don't conflict as they are both fairly central in Buddhism. Given that, how are the two practices reconciled?"

I think this is something of a linguistic issue mixed with prescription/description issues -- and often discussions about "conventional" and "absolute" terms come up, etc.

For example, I can see a conflict through an ordinary/abstract approach (eg. if one disregard all that is context sensitive and assume words and meanings are fixed across the texts). Thus, the following show conflict (disregarding translation traps):

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be free


To an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person, touched by experience born of the contact of ignorance, there occur (the thoughts): 'I am,' 'I am thus,' 'I shall be,' 'I shall not be,' 'I shall be possessed of form,' 'I shall be formless,' 'I shall be percipient (conscious),' 'I shall be non-percipient,' or 'I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient.'

-- SN 22.47:

This is a dead end. I think the issue is much like vaccine having the appearance of a contradiction: a person is cured by making her ill. The details that are important to make a better sense of it are implicit or words are too overloaded.

On a different approach, consider again an instruction to repeat the metta quote above:

  • If one repeats it without actively manifesting anything these words denote, one is probably exercising little more than memory by doing the repetitions.

  • On the other hand, if one directs the mind towards "giving" wellness, happiness and freedom, then a metta exercise is going on, in that it is expected the associated faculties to get stronger.

  • Now, if whatever is done while repeating, a reinforcement of a doctrine of "self" takes place, a reinforcement of wrong view happens, I guess this is the "contradiction".

So, even though the target of metta alluded to is "yourself", I believe it should be taken in the conventional sense (much as "you" and "I" are used by the Buddha), without reinforcing an illusory notion of "self". And it certainly is an important practice. For example, many struggle with self acceptance, remorse and lack of compassion towards oneself, which is not only a source of suffering but a crosscutting obstruction (may affect how one treats others, affects all kinds of things like health, humor, energy, obfuscate our views, makes it much harder to get into deeper meditation, or to jhana states, etc).


Buddhist view on Anatta is:

  • There is no solid core as everything in the physical and metal structure is changing and not permanent
  • There is noting that you can absolutely control
  • Hence there is nothing worthy of identifying as oneself

In contrary contemporary view was:

  • There was some small internal part which persists between lives
  • The 5 aggregates are self
  • Some or one of the aggregate is self
  • etc.

Regarding identity view, it is any perception or thoughts or view on self:

  • Result in misery when there is a negative / positive evaluation
  • Abandoning as opposed to clinging to the views and expectations result in you coming our of misery due to self related perceptions, thoughts and views

So when doing metta meditation you should look into the contact of the through with your mind sense door. Mere wishing some one does not cause you misery in most cases. Hence there is no issue with this perception.

Some times is you are giving metta to some on of the opposite sex who you consider beautiful then raga may arise. Sometimes if a loved one is in a bad situation then some negative feeling may arise with the craving to overcome the difficulty. Also when you bring up the perception of someone you hate to be well and happy.

Keep looking at the contact of the thought with the mind and the sensation it produces. If the thoughts, perceptions and views on oneself is creating unpleasant (based on aversion) / pleasant (based on craving) sensations then you are not doing the meditation the right way. (Also note neutral sensation can be based on perceptions and views also hence based on ignorance of reality but if they are not causing any thing other than neutral sensation then at least it is a start.) If you strengthening the perceptions (sanna) and views (ditti) then you are doing the meditation the wrong way. If it is lightening the perceptions and views then you are doing it the correct way. Your thoughts of metta should ideally proliferate to either karuan and / or mudita and then finally upekka. Every though should end in equanimity and understanding of its impermanence. Equanimity since you have no absolute control and any expectation are unsatisfactory hence strengthening your understanding Anatta and Sakaya.

Also this can be practice at three levels:

  • Physical level - by service, charity and action
  • Verbal fabrication level - You recite in terms of words or visualise
  • Mental fabrication level - by instilling the perception and view or metal concept sans words or visualisations (this is difficult at start unless you have some idea how perception and view work but can come to this later.)

At the last level you can progress to higher levels of concentration as you are just dealing with perception and sensations through as you progress you have to make this perception very subtle where there is hardly any perception (neither perception nor no perception).

Following two guides might also be very helpful:


This is a very subtle matter and can easily be misunderstood, even with proper references.

The doctrine of anatta, not self, does not state that nothing exists. It's just that the idea of what you think it exists is completely mistaken. So the idea has no correspondence in reality and it is in that sense that the self doesn't exist. And this selfless, ever changing process we label "I", is capable of feeling.

But since this is a very subtle point, maybe you can practice with the sentences

May this be well May this be happy May this be free

May that be well May that be happy May that be free

where "this", or "that" is the selfless, but sentient process.


In a way they seem to contradict each other since they are each others opposites. How is that?

Metta-Bhavana belongs to the practice of Samatha meditation. In samatha meditation one is only dealing with concepts in the sammuti-sacca, i.e. Conventional Reality. So its okay to wish good well being for oneself and other beings since we are here dealing with such concepts.

The anatta-doctrine deals with paramattha-sacca, i.e. Ultimate Reality. Here we have the 3 signs of existence and Anatta is one them. So here there exists no concepts such as I, Me, Self etc. in Ultimate Reality.

When viewed from the perspective of Conventional vs. Ultimate Reality then the difference becomes more clear. Another way to look at it is to see what the meditation object of the 2 methods are.

In Metta-Bhavana we have a concept as meditation object.

In Insight-Meditation we have reality as meditation object.

Hope this be of some help.



The Short Essence of Eloquence Tsongkhapa, the 13th century Buddhist Pandita

Who sees the inexorable causality of things
Of both cyclic life and liberation
And destroys any objectivity conviction
Thus finds the path
that pleases Victors

Appearance inevitably relative
And voidness free from all assertions –
As long as these are understood apart
The victors intent is not known.

But when they coincide not alternating
Mere sight of inevitable relativity
Secures knowledge beyond objectivisms
And investigation of the view is perfect

More, as experience dispels absolutism
And voidness clears away nihilism
You know voidness dawn as cause and effect
No more will you be deprived by extremist views

Buddhist philosophy is very subtle non-dualism - one mustn't be caught in either position i.e. the self is empty, or the self is non-empty. One goes beyond (gate gate paragate, parasamgate Bodhi svaha).

Wisdom and love are dualities, but enlightenment is non-dual yet includes both positions.

The Prajnaparamita Sutra - especially the bit about "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" is this paradox [Coinciding not alternating Madhyamika interpretations of paramartha and samvrti satya ("ultimate" and "superficial reality")]. The entire spiritual path is a paradox, and enlightenment is being completely comfortable with this paradox.


The concept of anatta does not assert that there is no such thing as a self at all, but rather that whatever self is, it's not permanent, separate, etc. So in your own formulation, "no fixed self", the operative word is "fixed". Given that, there is no contradiction since clearly -- a la Descarte's cogito ergo sum -- the mere fact that you practice metta and wish for the wellbeing of yourself (and others) itself shows that you exist. I suppose one could say beatifico ergo sum :-) Anatta then simply points to the fact that "you" whatever you are, aren't what you (assuming you are unenlightened) think you are


No because anatta doesn't conclusively say that we do not exist.

We do not exist nor do we not not-exist. (concept from Diamond Sutra)

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