We all want to be loved, yes, but our most heartfelt wish is to love,
deeply and universally. If this seems like an unreachable ideal, says THANISSARO BHIKKHU, the place to start—and often the most skillful
response—is the simple attitude of goodwill.
is a word that contains multitudes. It covers some of the finest
qualities of the heart—such as the care and attention that parents give
to their children—as well as a multitude of sins, such as the
possessiveness of clinging and craving, or the urge to take
responsibility for others’ happiness. That is one reason why the Buddha
talked about universal metta instead of universal pema, meaning love. “Metta” is usually translated as loving-kindness, but often it is more helpful to think of it as goodwill.
is a wish for happiness—true happiness. The difference between goodwill
and love is well illustrated by a story I was told by my teacher, Ajaan
Fuang. He once discovered that a snake had moved into his room. Every
time he entered the room, he saw it slip into a narrow space behind a
storage cabinet. Even though he tried leaving the door to the room open
during the daytime, the snake wasn’t willing to leave. So for three days
they lived together. He was careful not to startle the snake or make it
feel threatened by his presence. Finally on the evening of the third
day, as he sat in meditation, he addressed the snake quietly in his
mind. “Look,” he said, “it’s not that I don’t like you, but our minds
work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a
misunderstanding between us. Now, there are plenty of places out in the
woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.” And
as he sat there spreading thoughts of goodwill to the snake, the snake
Ajaan Fuang had shown overt love for the snake, trying to embrace it
with intimacy, the snake would have attacked him. The simple attitude of
goodwill was just right for the situation. And, when you stop to think
about it, goodwill is right for all situations. The idea of expressing
love for everyone sounds very noble and emotionally satisfying, but
sometimes that is not the skillful thing to do. Many beings in the
cosmos, like the snake, would
react to your love with suspicion and fear; they’d rather be left
alone. Others might try to take unfair advantage of your love, reading
it as a sign either of your weakness or of your endorsement of whatever
they want to do. In none of these cases would your love lead to anyone’s
is why goodwill is so often the best place to start— wishing the other
person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of
us ultimately will have to find for ourselves.
attitude is borne out in passages from the Buddha’s discourses, in
which he recommends phrases to hold in mind when developing thoughts of
metta. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the
emotional quality that underlies goodwill, but also to an understanding
of happiness that explains why it’s wise and realistic to develop
goodwill for all.
first set of phrases comes in a passage where the Buddha recommends
thoughts to counter ill will. These conclude with the wish that all
beings “look after themselves with ease.” In other words, you’re not
saying that you’re going to be there for all beings all the time,
because most beings would be happier knowing that they could depend on
themselves rather than having to depend on you.
Another set of metta phrases, in the famous Karaniya Metta Sutta, includes a wish that all beings avoid the causes that would lead them to unhappiness:
Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or resistance
wish for another to suffer.
repeating these phrases, you remember that for people to find true
happiness they have to understand the causes of happiness and act on
them. They also have to understand that true happiness is harmless. If
it depends on something that harms others, it’s not going to last. So
again, when you express goodwill, you’re not saying you’re going to be
there for them all the time. You’re hoping that all beings will wise up
enough to be there for themselves.
The same sutta goes on to advise protecting this attitude in the same way that a mother would protect her only child:
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
important not to misread this passage. The Buddha’s not telling us to
cherish all living beings the same way a mother would cherish her child.
He’s drawing a parallel between protecting the child and protecting
your goodwill. This is to make sure that your virtuous intentions don’t
waver. Harm can happen most easily when there’s a lapse in your
goodwill, so you do whatever you can to protect this attitude at all
times. For this reason, as the Buddha says toward the end of the sutta,
you should stay determined to practice this form of mindfulness, keeping
in mind your wish that all beings be happy, to make sure that this
motivates everything you do.
This is why the Buddha explicitly recommends developing thoughts of metta in two situations where it’s especially important— and especially difficult—to maintain skillful motivation: when others are hurting you, and when you realize that you’ve hurt others.
In the Middle Length Discourses,
the Buddha advises that if others are harming you with their words or
actions, you should spread thoughts of goodwill to them and then out
beyond them, to the entire cosmos, making your mind as expansive as the
River Ganges or as large as the earth—in
other words, larger than the harm those people are doing or threatening
to do. When you can maintain this enlarged state of mind in the face of
pain, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming and you’re less likely to respond
unskillfully. You provide protection—both for yourself and for others—against any unskillful things you otherwise might be tempted to do.
for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha
recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the
harm. So if an apology is appropriate, you apologize, and in any case
you resolve not to repeat the harmful action. Then you spread thoughts
of goodwill in all directions.
This accomplishes several things. It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t—in defense of your self-image— revert
to the sort of denial that refuses to admit harm was done. It
strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm
again. And it forces you to examine all your actions to see their
actual effect. If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to
abandon them before they cause further harm.
other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded,
floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of
all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes
honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop
this attitude to begin with—to make sure that it truly animates our
thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness that’s
harmless for all.
Finally, in the Numerical Discourses,
there’s a passage in which the Buddha taught the monks a chant for
spreading goodwill to all snakes and other creeping things they
encounter in the wilds. Strikingly, the chant concludes with the
sentence, “May the beings depart.” This reflects the truth that living
together is often difficult—especially for beings of different species that can harm one another—and the happiest policy for all concerned is often to live harmlessly apart.
different ways of expressing metta show why goodwill is often a more
skillful attitude than overt expressions of love, and for three reasons.
The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone
without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. If the people around
you haven’t been acting lovably, it’s good to remind yourself that
although you don’t condone their behavior—you don’t even have to like
them—you still wish them well.
second reason is that goodwill is a more skillful feeling to have
toward those who would react unskillfully to your love. There are
probably people you’ve harmed in the past who would rather not have
anything to do with you ever again, so the intimacy of love would
actually be a source of pain for them, rather than joy. There are also
people who, when they see that you want to express love, would be quick
to take advantage of it. In these cases, a more distant sense of
goodwill—that you promise yourself never to harm those people or those beings—would be better for everyone involved.
third reason is that goodwill acts as a check on your behavior toward
those you love to keep it from becoming oppressive. It reminds you that
people ultimately will become truly happy not as a result of your caring
for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the
happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness coming from
dependency. If you truly feel goodwill for yourself and others, you
won’t let your desire for intimacy render you insensitive to what would
actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.
this way goodwill protects you from the unskillful excesses of both
your ill will and your love—and protects everyone around you as well.
Meditation: Metta Practice
the start of the day, take time to spread thoughts of goodwill to
yourself and others. Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true
happiness—and that, in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing
that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You
establish the intention to further true happiness in any way you can,
within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not
everyone will act in line with your wish, which is why it’s important
also to develop thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people
refuse to act in the interests of true happiness. That way you won’t
suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can stay focused on
the cases where you can be of help.
Begin by stating in your mind the standard formula for expressing goodwill for yourself:
May I be happy.
May I be free from stress and pain.
May I be free from animosity, free from trouble,
free from oppression.
May I look after myself with ease.
spread similar thoughts to others, in ever-widening circles— people
close to your heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, and
people you don’t like. In each case, say to yourself,
May you be happy.
May you be free from stress and pain.
May you be free from animosity, free from trouble,
free from oppression.
May you look after yourself with ease.
Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.
make this a heart-changing practice, ask yourself—when you’re secure in
your goodwill for yourself—whether there’s anyone for whom you can’t
sincerely spread thoughts of goodwill. If a particular person comes to
mind, ask yourself what would be gained by this person’s suffering. Most
of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are suffering and
fearful. Only rarely do people who have been acting unskillfully react
skillfully to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they
do just the opposite. They want to make others suffer even more. So the
world would be a better place if, instead of trying to sort out who’s
right and who’s wrong, we could all follow the path to true happiness by
being generous and virtuous, and by training the mind. With these
thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for such a person:
May you learn the error of your ways,
learn the way to true happiness,
and look after yourself with ease.
expressing this thought, you’re not necessarily wishing to love or have
ongoing contact with this person. You’re simply making the
determination not to seek revenge against those who have acted
harmfully, or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift both to
yourself and to those around you.
the session by spreading goodwill for all beings you’ll meet during the
day, and then all beings everywhere. But also remind yourself that all
of those beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their
actions. This is how you develop equanimity as a protection for your
Repeat this practice before going to bed.
Bhikkhu (Taan Ajaan Geoff) is a senior monk in the Thai Forest
tradition of Theravada Buddhism and the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery
in San Diego County, California. Free digital versions of his teachings
are available at Dhammatalks.org.