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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






The Practice of Mettā Bhāvanā in Vipassana Meditation


The practice of mettā-bhāvanā (meditation of loving-kindness) is an important adjunct to the technique of Vipassana meditation - indeed, it is its logical outcome. It is a technique whereby we radiate loving-kindness and goodwill toward all beings, deliberately charging the atmosphere around us with the calming, positive vibrations of pure and compassionate love. The Buddha instructed his followers to develop mettā so as to lead more peaceful and harmonious lives and to help others to do so as well. Students of Vipassana should follow that instruction because mettā gives us a way to share with all others the peace and harmony we are developing.

The commentaries state: Mijjati siniyhati 'ti mettā - that which inclines one to a friendly disposition is mettā. It is a sincere wish for the good and welfare of all, devoid of ill-will. Adoso 'ti mettā - "non-aversion is mettā." The chief characteristic of mettā is a benevolent attitude. It culminates in the identification of oneself with all beings, a recognition of the fellowship of all life.

To grasp this concept, at least intellectually, is easy enough, but it is far harder to develop such an attitude in oneself. To do so, some practice is needed, and so we have the technique of mettā-bhāvanā, the systematic cultivation of goodwill toward others. To be really effective, though, mettā meditation must be practised along with Vipassana meditation. So long as negativities such as aversion dominate the mind, it is futile to formulate conscious thoughts of goodwill, and doing so would be a ritual devoid of inner meaning. However, when negativities are removed by the practice of Vipassana, goodwill naturally wells up in the mind; and emerging from the prison of self-obsession, we begin to concern ourselves with the welfare of others.

For this reason, the technique of mettā-bhāvanā is introduced only at the end of a Vipassana course, after the participants have passed through the process of purification. At such a time meditators often feel a deep wish for the well-being of others, making their practice of mettā truly effective. Though limited time is devoted to it in a course, mettā may be regarded as the culmination of the practice of Vipassana.

Nibbāna can be experienced only by those whose minds are filled with loving-kindness and compassion for all beings. Simply wishing for that state is not enough; we must purify our minds to attain it. We do so by Vipassana meditation; hence the emphasis on this technique during a course.

As we practise, we become aware that the underlying reality of the world and of ourselves consists of arising and passing away every moment. We realize that the process of change continues without our control and regardless of our wishes. Gradually we understand that any attachment to what is ephemeral and insubstantial produces suffering for us. We learn to be detached and to keep the balance of our minds in the face of any experience. Then we begin to experience what real happiness is; not the satisfaction of desire nor the forestalling of fears, but rather liberation from the cycle of desire and fear. As inner serenity develops, we clearly see how others are enmeshed in suffering, and naturally this wish arises, "May they find what we have found: the way out of misery, the path of peace." This is the proper volition for the practice of mettā-bhāvanā.

Mettā is not prayer; nor is it the hope that an outside agency will help. On the contrary, it is a dynamic process producing a supportive atmosphere where others can act to help themselves. Mettā can be omni-directional or directed toward a particular person. In either case, meditators are simply providing an outlet; because the mettā we feel is not 'our' mettā. By eliminating egotism we open our minds and make them conduits for the forces of positivity throughout the universe. The realization that mettā is not produced by us makes its transmission truly selfless.

In order to conduct mettā, the mind must be calm, balanced and free from negativity. This is the type of mind developed in the practice of Vipassana. A meditator knows by experience how anger, antipathy, or ill-will destroys peace and frustrates any efforts to help others. Only as hatred is removed and equanimity is developed can we be happy and wish happiness for others. The words "May all beings be happy" have great force only when uttered from a pure mind. Backed by this purity, they will certainly be effective in fostering the happiness of others.

We must therefore examine ourselves before practicing mettā-bhāvanā to check whether we are really capable of transmitting mettā. If we find even a tinge of hatred or aversion in our minds, we should refrain at that time. Otherwise we would transmit that negativity, causing harm to others. However, if mind and body are filled with serenity and well-being, it is natural and appropriate to share this happiness with others: "May you be happy, may you be liberated from the defilements that are the causes of suffering, may all beings be peaceful."

This loving attitude enables us to deal far more skilfully with the vicissitudes of life. Suppose, for example, one encounters a person who is acting out of deliberate ill-will to harm others. The common response-to react with fear and hatred-is self-centredness, does nothing to improve the situation and, in fact, magnifies the negativity. It would be far more helpful to remain calm and balanced, with a feeling of goodwill even for the person who is acting wrongly. This must not be merely an intellectual stance, a veneer over unresolved negativity. Mettā works only when it is the spontaneous overflow of a purified mind.

The serenity gained in Vipassana meditation naturally gives rise to feelings of mettā, and throughout the day this will continue to affect us and our environment in a positive way. Thus, Vipassana ultimately has a dual function: to bring us happiness by purifying our minds, and to help us foster the happiness of others by preparing us to practise mettā. What, after all, is the purpose of freeing ourselves of negativity and egotism unless we share these benefits with others? In a retreat we cut ourselves off from the world temporarily in order to return and share with others what we have gained in solitude. These two aspects of the practice of Vipassana are inseparable.

In these times of violent unrest, widespread malaise and suffering, the need for such a practice as mettā-bhāvanā is clear. If peace and harmony are to reign throughout the world, they must first be established in the minds of all the inhabitants of the world.

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