I've often seen the question asked: "How can we have metta for murderers, terrorists, criminals, etc.?"

Though there are many good answers to these questions, I've noticed that few of them tend to highlight the difference between 'having metta for something or someone', versus 'condoning, endorsing, or even simply tolerating their actions'. Most answers stress that the wicked be viewed as individuals, who -- if they were truly happy -- would not do such terrible things. Therefore, we should wish that they attain that very true happiness. But that doesn't seem to change the fact that by generating metta towards these people, I often feel as though I am passively accepting their terrible deeds, which caused tremendous suffering to others. Do not the wicked "deserve" suffering for the suffering they've caused?

When we generate metta for the "wicked", how do we thus distance ourselves from the horrible actions of our metta-recipients? How do we have unconditional loving-kindness for them without taking on their negative qualities and actions that make the metta so difficult to generate in the first-place?

5 Answers 5


I think your question contains an implication that one practicing metta will be inclined to do nothing for the person they feel friendly towards. This is not the case at all. A person with metta is inclined towards the benefit of others:

For among these, loving-kindness is the way to purity for one who has much ill will, compassion is that for one who has much cruelty, gladness is that for one who has much aversion (boredom), and equanimity is that for one who has much greed. Also attention given to beings is only fourfold, that is to say, as bringing welfare, as removing suffering, as being glad at their success, and as unconcern, [that is to say, impartial neutrality]. And one abiding in the measureless states should practice loving-kindness and the rest like a mother with four sons, namely, a child, an invalid, one in the flush of youth, and one busy with his own affairs; for she wants the child to grow up, wants the invalid to get well, wants the one in the flush of youth to enjoy for long the benefits of youth, and is not at all bothered about the one who is busy with his own affairs. That is why the measureless states are only four as “due to paths to purity and other sets of four.”

One who wants to develop these four should practice them towards beings first as the promotion of the aspect of welfare—and loving-kindness has the promotion of the aspect of welfare as its characteristic; and next, on seeing or hearing or judging that beings whose welfare has been thus wished for are at the mercy of suffering, they should be practiced as the promotion of the aspect of the removal of suffering—and compassion has the promotion of the aspect of the removal of suffering as its characteristic; and then, on seeing the success of those whose welfare has been wished for and the removal of whose suffering has been wished for, they should be practiced as being glad—and gladness has the act of gladdening as its characteristic; but after that there is nothing to be done and so they should be practiced as the neutral aspect, in other words, the state of an onlooker—and equanimity has the promotion of the aspect of neutrality as its characteristic; therefore, since their respective aims are the aspect of welfare, etc., their order should be understood to correspond, with loving- kindness stated first, then compassion, gladness and equanimity.

-- Vism IX.108-9 (Nyanamoli, trans)

Clearly a person with a mind of metta is more likely to work to help those most in need; not just to end the suffering of victims, but to end the evil of perpetrators that is the cause of suffering for both.

Do not the wicked "deserve" suffering for the suffering they've caused?

Certainly, this seems reasonable, but does not relate to one's own state of mind. Anger is still evil even when it is based on true assessment of the situation; two wrongs don't make a right.

When we generate metta for the "wicked", how do we thus distance ourselves from the horrible actions of our metta-recipients?

We do it by beginning with lovable beings, then slowly working our way up to neutral, then finally hostile individuals. Any time we find our state of friendliness slipping, we revert back to an easier object.

If resentment arises in him when he applies his mind to a hostile person because he remembers wrongs done by that person, he should get rid of the resentment by entering repeatedly into loving-kindness [jhāna] towards any of the first-mentioned persons and then, after he has emerged each time, directing loving-kindness towards that person.

-- Vism IX.14 (Nyanamoli, trans)

There is much more detailed info on dealing with anger in chapter nine of the Visuddhimagga, along with quotes from the Buddha.

Is there any concept of "condemnation with metta"?

I think you are under the impression that metta is a mind state to be dwelt in constantly. Buddhism doesn't espouse such a view; constant attention to metta will lead to rebirth in the brahma realms, not enlightenment. No, it is not possible to condemn someone while absorbed in the practice of metta meditation, but it is possible for a person free from anger, who often practices metta, to do so. Metta may in fact lead someone to condemn others, thinking that the condemnation will help them overcome their evil deeds, or help keep others from falling prey to their evil deeds (which would probably be karuna).

‘Then Sunakkhatta came to me, saluted me, and sat down to one side. I said to him: “You foolish man, do you claim to be a follower of the Sakyan?” “Lord, what do you mean by this question?” “Sunakkhatta, did you not go to see Kaḷāramuṭṭhaka and ask him a question he could not answer, and did he not thereupon show signs of anger, rage and petulance? And did you not think: ‘I might cause this real Arahant ascetic offence. I don’t want anything to happen that would be to my lasting harm and misfortune’?” “I did, Lord. Does the Blessed Lord begrudge others their Arahantship?” “I do not begrudge others their Arahantship, you foolish man. It is only in you that this evil view has arisen. Cast it aside lest it should be to your harm and sorrow for a long time! This naked ascetic Kaḷāramuṭṭhaka, whom you regard as a true Arahant, will before long be living clothed and married, subsisting on boiled rice and sour milk. He will go beyond all the shrines of Vesālī, and will die having entirely lost his reputation.” And indeed all this came about.

-- DN 24 (Walshe, trans)

  • 2
    appreciate this answer. clarification request: though anger towards evil may be something to be unconditionally avoided, is there any concept of "condemnation with metta"? my problem is that metta seems "naive" in that it appears to ignore things which are bad.
    – Ian Taylor
    Jun 19, 2015 at 19:24
  • @IanTaylor answer updated. Jun 19, 2015 at 20:54
  • @IanTaylor In case the distinction matters, imo that DN 24 is another example of condemning behaviour (in this case, a wrong or evil view) and not condemning the person who has that behaviour (unless you think that reproving someone by calling them "foolish" is a condemnation).
    – ChrisW
    Jun 19, 2015 at 21:23

Hatred feelings spoils your mind, results in bad Karma, and this is despite it's being towards someone who has done something bad. Metta is for your mind and for your benifit. Fellings you get justifying being Hatred towards someone who has done something bad is refefferd as "Wanchaka Dhamma", basically meaning deceiving thoughts. Makes your belive your are doing the right thing. It's quite subtle.


If you think beyond this very lifetime, to the endless rounds of lifetimes, with the endless rounds of suffering through samsara amidst our greed, hatred, and delusions, it becomes a little easier to view everyone with one of the other brahmavihāras, Karuṇā.

I've heard it said that when someone kills another, the person they killed had killed them in a previous life. It's hard to imagine how many times we've lived and all the effects of our kamma we are burning off and will continue to burn off.

This is not to sympathize with evil actions. Evil actions continue this cycle of suffering. Those who continue to do evil actions just add to their own kammic burden; while those who are on the receiving end of evil actions may have finally burned off some of their own kammic burden.

Evil is to be avoided. When people don't understand this and they engage in evil, they should be viewed with pity. It's very sad really.

Viewing everyone involved in a tragic incident with both Karuṇā and with Mettā can help your own mind state to recover from the shock of evil (and the greed, hatred, and delusion behind it) that we experience in samsara.


When practicing metta on anyone we can focus on what is good in the person. If nothing good can be found then maybe compassion would work. When we cause suffering, we suffer ourselves and we can be compassionate to those that suffer by causing suffering. Compassion is a good replacement for any anger we might have for "the wicked". Ultimately we practice metta for ourselves and not so much for the other person because when we help others, we help ourselves.


I believe if knowledge advances totally we will come to see that negative mind states like anger, fear, envy, jealousy are all signs of ill health. Just as a perfectly bodily healthy human doesn't fall ill often because of a strong immune system; similarly a perfectly emotionally healthy human doesn't fall ill often to negative emotions because of a well developed immune system of mindfulness.

The modern legal system does not punish murders committed under insanity; the Geneva convention states prisoners of war should be treated fairly; the modern hospital does not blame the ill, or consign those with infectious diseases to leper colonies. These are a few examples of how our relatively unenlightened society has already come to change its views and habits superficially.

To not punish a murder committed in a fit of insanity is pretty new in human history: it required two things: one, an advancement in science that led to a better understanding of insanity that allayed our fear of the insane, and two, wealth to build safe places to house the insane humanely.

With leper colonies of the past the case is the same, even if society felt sorry for the affected, it couldn't afford to care for them without the money and the knowledge to not fear the disease. Likewise, in the past, a country at war could ill afford to feed prisoners of war. Obviously, today we have the wealth to care for prisoners of war, but we are still struggling with our anger resulting from fear, so we hear of cases of prisoner abuse.

In order to be compassionate while operating within a conventional view of the self, we need affordability (time, money, natural resources, physical strength) and absence of fear.

With the case of holy men and women, who have gone beyond a sense of self and the resulting fears, they must nevertheless still deal with scarce resources.

The Buddha is often seen prioritising among his flock. Even if he has total lack of fear or care for his safety, he is constrained by time, because he wants to help as many people as possible before his death. So there are suttas where he says he doesn't waste time on people of lesser capacities. Whereas, if he sees a deserving person, he is ready to walk for several days to reach that deserving person and rescue him or her from samsara. This is purely a tactical problem - despite being enlightened he must chop wood and carry water, as the Zen saying goes.

It is thus possible to develop compassion for all when we see our anger results from fear, which results from a broken emotional immune system. However, being able to do something about it practically, other than sending metta energy is a different thing.

  • I think the OP is afraid that unconditional loving-kindness for a criminal is "passively accepting" their criminal actions. Don't the wicked "deserve" to suffer? How can we generate "metta" for the criminal while "distancing" ourselves from their actions?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 27, 2015 at 10:58
  • +1 for the "well developed immune system of mindfulness" analogy.
    – user2424
    Jun 27, 2015 at 11:03
  • @ChrisW I point out that that line of thinking is flawed. Being wicked is no more evil than catching a cold. Wickedness comes from a weak emotional body, just as falling ill comes from a weak physical body. Before cigarettes were well understood, many thought they were harmless. Likewise many today think greed, anger, and a whole host of negative emotions are harmless. We readily help someone with a broken leg to cross the road, but we blame an angry person for his actions.
    – Buddho
    Jun 27, 2015 at 11:09

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