As part of the series of briefings for parents on Panyaden Wise Habits, School Director Neil Amas writes about Metta-karuna.
Metta, often translated as loving-kindness, is perhaps better defined as goodwill, friendliness, benevolence towards all beings without discrimination. It is a strong, sincere wish for the happiness of others. Karuna is compassion, the sympathetic understanding of the suffering of others and the genuine wish to relieve them of that suffering.
In the teachings of the Buddha, metta and karuna are part of the four brahma vihara, or ‘divine abodes’, which to be effective, must be practised together. So in fact, we have four wise habits in one:
Metta: loving kindness
Mudita: sympathetic joy
Brahma means noble or supreme, and vihara means abode and also attitude of mind, and so those who practise the brahma vihara are said to be living in the noble way, or exemplary; they are considered to be sublime virtues, held in the highest regards by Buddhists as powerful antidotes to negative mental states such as greed, envy, anger and pride. The brahma vihara relate to attitudes towards and relationships with others. Because they can extend to an immeasurable scope of living things, they are referred to in Buddhist texts as the ‘immeasurables.’ Practising them also brings immeasurable benefits to ourselves and others.
Practising brahma vihara results in a set of virtuous actions, known as the sangahavatthu: metta leads to generosity, karuna to kind speech, mudita to useful service and upekkha to impartiality and evenness when dealing with others. As such, the relationship between the brahma vihara and sangahavatthu is the basis for sila, Right Speech and Right Action, the end results of which are a generous, harmonious and community-minded society.
Practising metta, in daily life or by sending out kind thoughts during meditation, generates welfare and well being by seeing the good qualities in others and removing annoyance and ill-will. This cultivates a tremendous inner strength which preserves, protects and heals both oneself and others and which grows with practice. Like a parent’s love, metta only gives and never wants anything in return. It is devoid of self-interest. Like all wise habits, it needs to be practised with wisdom. When a child complains of being bored, our impulse is to give her attention and find her some form of entertainment. This might provide immediate comfort but will not help her develop patience, self-motivation or independence in the long term.
Metta is a tool to facilitate resolution. If a child has fallen out with a classmate, we can encourage him to focus on that child’s loveable qualities, to imagine them when they are laughing or playing or something which emphasises their simple human qualities, like sleeping or even eating breakfast!
Ajahn Pasanno explains in Broad View, Boundless Heart that there are both near and far ‘enemies’ to the brahma vihara. We should be cautious of the near enemies which are more insidious. Metta’s far enemy is anger. It’s near enemy is greed or attachment. We should be careful not to cling to feelings of joy generated by metta. When the heart moves close to something it can easily shift from loving kindness to desire and clinging.
Karuna motivates the desire to help when others suffer. It moves us to act and does not allow complacency. Most of us have experienced the feeling of compassion upon seeing the pain or misfortune of a relative, a schoolmate or even a pet and the earnest wish to free them from that suffering. Compassion’s far enemy is cruelty or causing harm and so karuna succeeds when it makes such feelings subside. It fails when, faced with the suffering of others, one is overwhelmed by grief or pity, the near enemies of karuna. If the mind is affected by grief or sadness then we are not able to respond in a clear and open hearted way. True compassion has a positive and uplifting effect. To cultivate karuna in daily life we can create opportunities for children to go outside school or home and help the community so that they experience the differences in society.
Mudita means sympathetic joy or rejoicing at others’ happiness and success. It is closely connected to gratefulness and humility and gives us a good emotional attitude towards those who are doing well or better than us. It is the opposite of jealousy or envy, and as such cultivation of the virtue helps one overcome it. Grabbing at the smallest opportunity to be pleased for others, such as when a family member says they had a good night’s sleep, or a classmate wins a game, encourages an ever increasing sense of joy.
While metta and karuna seem obviously beneficial and good to practise, Ajahn Pasanno notes that we often struggle with mudita or dismiss it altogether. It can be particularly hard for young children. Our unwillingness to rejoice when someone succeeds or receives good fortune comes out in the snappy remark, or perhaps a cynical explanation of a person or situation: “It’s easy for them, they have lots of money,” for example. Such responses do not come from a place of gladness but rather from a sense of self; one attempts to lift oneself up by putting someone else down. To be able to rejoice in the success of others is the antithesis of what is the norm is a modern, competitive society, but a great deal of joy arises when we are able to let go of the sense of self and tap into this quality. Venerable Jayasaro cautions that without wisdom the feeling of gladness for another’s fortune can lead to one’s own desire for material gains and then mudita deteriorates.
Upekkha is learning to accept loss and gain, praise and blame, and success and failure, all with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others. It succeeds when it becomes aware of the movement of the mind – the wanting and not wanting, approval and disapproval – and is able to establish an evenness and clarity that sees things as they really are. As our children grow up and begin to lead more independent lives with responsibilities of their own, although we still have feelings of metta, karuna and mudita towards them, they are now combined with a new feeling of upekkha. We recognise their new independence and do not cling to them. Upekkha’s near enemy is indifference, not caring, such as when we don’t want to deal with a situation because there is too much effort required. Upekkha does not preclude an interest in ordinary worldly affairs but rather enhances a balanced perspective on things so that we can get involved where appropriate.
Different brahma vihara are suitable for different situations. With awareness of this we can encourage children to call up mudita, for example, when there is jealousy around. As we do in assembly each morning, encouraging our children to send kind thoughts to themselves, their parents, relatives, teachers and friends every day, perhaps before bedtime, can be very beneficial in helping them to find tools to reduce negative feelings when they arise. Encouraging reflection also helps cultivate such virtues, such as by asking, ‘how did you feel when you congratulated the winning team?’ The success of practicing these virtues depends on our ability to see the benefits or lack of benefits of them, their near and far enemies, and then make use of them in daily life. They will not develop by themselves. This is where Wise Habit yoniso manisakara comes in: using the reflective quality of the mind.
Each brahma vihara works to develop blameless, favourable or balanced relationships with others and can bring much peace and happiness in a world which is torn by ignorance, pride, jealousy, stinginess, greed, anger and so on. However, to create a truly sublime state of mind, they have to reach beyond the limited group of individuals or beings whom we love or care for. Benevolence, compassion and sympathetic joy have to be extended to all living things. This is a challenging task, especially in this lifetime! But if we can help our children to cultivate these virtues, they will not only create a happy life for themselves, but a better world for all of us.
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