What's Brahma got to do with Buddhism?
Recently I wrote about four dimensions of cultivation in meditation practice. Someone in my Wednesday night class expressed an interest in more on heart-opening practices, and so a couple of weeks ago we took another look at loving kindness practice, aka metta. In this week's class we'll be revisiting the second of the so-called Brahmaviharas, compassion practice, and looking at the role of compassion in early Buddhism.
Before we get to that, though, why are these practices called 'Brahmaviharas' anyway? A 'vihara' is an 'abode' or 'dwelling place' - Buddhist monasteries are sometimes called 'viharas' - so 'Brahmavihara' means 'Abode of Brahma'. But isn't Brahma a Hindu god? What does that have to do with Buddhism?
Let's find out!
The relationship between Buddhism and other Indian religions
Buddhism didn't come into being in isolation. Like everything else, it arose partly in response to its environment. In fact, scholars who've really done their homework have found quite a few places where Buddhist teaching is clearly a direct response to something else which was being taught at the time. On many occasions in the Pali canon (the earliest record of the life and teachings of the historical Buddha), we see a follower of another tradition come to speak to the Buddha, and it's obvious from the Buddha's response that he was well versed in that person's tradition as well as his own.
So when he disagreed with something put forth by another teacher, he wouldn't just say 'No, it isn't like that, here's my teaching instead.' Instead, he'll very often reply in the language of the questioner, but putting a subtle spin on the discussion to reveal the weaknesses in the other person's position. Then, when the other person admitted defeat, the Buddha was well placed to give his own teachings.
We can see one example of this in Majjhima Nikaya 99 (I've included the link so you can read the whole thing if you want, but I'll cite the relevant excerpts below), and in the process we'll find out what Brahma has to do with Buddhist heart-opening practices.
The story begins
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery.
Now at that time the brahmin student Subha, Todeyya's son, was residing in Sāvatthī at a certain householder's home on some business. Then Subha said to that householder, "Householder, I have heard that Sāvatthī does not lack for perfected ones. What ascetic or brahmin might we pay homage to today?"
"Sir, the Buddha is staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery. You can pay homage to him."
Acknowledging that householder, Subha went to the Buddha and exchanged greetings with him.
As usual, the discourse begins with 'thus have I heard'. These discourses were preserved in oral tradition for hundreds of years before ever being written down. So they start with an acknowledgement that this is the version of the story received from whoever had previously memorised it, generation after generation. (Remember this - we'll come back to it later!)
The story begins with Subha, a 'brahmin student'. Brahminism was a major religion prevalent at the time of the Buddha, based on the Vedas, the very earliest Indian texts (the oldest of which are thought to date back to 1400 BCE). Brahminism can be thought of as a precursor to classical Hinduism. One of the core ideas in Brahminism is a supreme being, Brahma, who created everything, including living beings; each of us, according to Brahminism, possesses an atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit), a kind of fixed, immortal, perfect 'divine nature' which transmigrates from life to life. Conversely, one of the core tenets of early Buddhism is anatta, or anatman - the Buddha said on many occasions that whatever we examine in our experience, through any of the senses, we cannot find this unchanging, utterly reliable 'essence' of selfhood.
Here already we can see a way in which Buddhism was reacting to its environment. Brahmins promoted the atman, but Buddhism was saying 'Nope, ain't no atman to be found, look for yourself.' When modern teachers talk about anatta or anatman, we tend to explain it rather differently, because it's time-consuming to have to explain the classical Indian world view which probably means nothing to our listeners today, only to challenge something that people didn't believe in anyway. But when we go back to the early texts to try to figure out what's going on, it's helpful to know some of this stuff - otherwise it just doesn't really make any sense.
Anyway, Subha, the brahmin student, hears about the Buddha and decides to go and visit him. Subha is pretty confident that Brahminism is the real deal, and so he opens strong, telling the Buddha that the brahmins say that renunciates like the Buddha don't know what they're talking about - which the Buddha effortlessly shoots down, of course. But Subha isn't done - he keeps challenging the Buddha, again and again. This part of the discourse is really, really long, so I've omitted it, but it's worth a read if you like that kind of thing.
Eventually, though, Subha finally cracks.
"Master Gotama, I have heard that the ascetic Gotama teaches a path to companionship with Brahmā. Please teach me that path."
"Well then, student, listen and pay close attention, I will speak."
"Yes, sir," replied Subha.
('Master Gotama' here refers to the Buddha, 'Gotama' being his family name.)
Subha has admitted defeat - he's tried every strategy he can think of to find a flaw in the Buddha, and none of it's worked. And so, as he starts to realise that he's actually in the presence of a pretty wise person, he decides to ask a real question for the first time - a question which is about his own spiritual practice, rather than one intended to expose a weakness in the Buddha.
Now, at least as far as we can see from the Pali canon, the Buddha didn't spend his days talking about hanging out with Brahma. Famously, the Buddha focused instead on one central matter: suffering, and what could be done to alleviate it. Nevertheless, here Subha is showing the first sign of a genuine openness to what the Buddha has to teach, and so rather than shoot him down, the Buddha instead goes with it, and says that yes, he does know a path to companionship with Brahma.
And what is that path?
Seeing the world as Brahma does
“And what is a path to companionship with Brahmā? Firstly, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of loving kindness to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of loving kindness to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. When the heart's release by loving kindness has been developed like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They'd easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart's release by loving kindness has been developed like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. This is a path to companionship with Brahmā.
Furthermore, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of compassion …
They meditate spreading a heart full of appreciative joy …
They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. When the heart's release by equanimity has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They'd easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart's release by equanimity has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they've done don't remain or persist there. This too is a path to companionship with Brahmā."
These are our familiar heart-opening practices - loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, equanimity. But whereas in other places they're called the 'heart's release through loving kindess' (etc.), here the Buddha presents them as a 'path to companionship with Brahma'.
Isn't this deceitful? Is this really a 'path to companionship with Brahma'?
The Buddha was a big fan of upaya, 'skilful means'. He believed that there was no one-size-fits-all teaching, but instead each person had their own unique obstacles in spiritual practice, and thus a range of techniques and presentations were required to reach everyone. Sometimes this meant giving one practice instead of another, and sometimes it meant dressing up the Dharma in different language.
This kind of 'Trojan horse' approach could perhaps be seen as deceitful. On the other hand, when we're deceitful, it's usually because we're looking to get something out of it. Perhaps you could make the case that the Buddha's looking to get a new student out of it, but the Buddha would most likely have countered that he was simply intending to help as many people as he could to find the end of suffering.
This is a big topic, and one which I'm not going to resolve in this article - maybe I'll come back to it in the future. For now, though, we might consider how it would be to dwell with Brahma, to see the world as an omnipotent being like Brahma might. Because if we can learn to see the world the way Brahma does, that's a form of companionship - right?
An omnipotent being would have no need for hatred, cruelty, jealousy or agitation - no need to protect 'me and mine' from threats, because when you're omnipotent, nothing can threaten you. So we might imagine that a being like Brahma would instead see the world through a lens tinted with the opposites of those qualities - loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. By dwelling in these states ourselves, then, we too can come to see the world as Brahma might.
And if you want to know what it's like to see the world that way - well, head over to the Audio page and try the guided meditations!
So how does Subha respond to this bait-and-switch?
When he had spoken, Subha said to him, "Excellent, Master Gotama! Excellent! As if he were righting the overturned, or revealing the hidden, or pointing out the path to the lost, or lighting a lamp in the dark so people with good eyes can see what's there, Master Gotama has made the teaching clear in many ways. I go for refuge to Master Gotama, to the teaching, and to the mendicant Saṅgha. From this day forth, may Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone for refuge for life."
He seems pretty satisfied with what he's heard. The discourse ends with Subha going home, meeting people along the way and telling them how great the Buddha is.
A closing note on compassion
Compassion can be a surprisingly slippery notion. I've written about it previously, so I won't go into too much detail here, but to recap briefly, compassion is the recognition of suffering in oneself or another, coupled with the earnest desire to alleviate that suffering. It is not the same as pity (which distances us from 'that poor person over there'), nor an excessive empathy for others (which leaves us overwhelmed with their emotions), and it doesn't always mean 'being nice to people' (which in some cases may actually perpetuate their suffering rather than alleviating it).
Compassion is a very big deal in Mahayana Buddhism, the later tradition of which Zen is a part. Sometimes, though, it can seem like compassion is not such a big deal in the early teachings. Later writers have portrayed the early Buddhist path as one leading only to personal liberation from suffering - and to hell with everyone else.
I don't see it that way, though. Starting right at the beginning, we have the example of the Buddha. According to the Pali canon, in the immediate aftermath of his enlightenment, he briefly considered cutting himself off from the noisy, troublesome world of people and simply enjoying the bliss of enlightenment for the rest of his life. But he didn't - clearly not, otherwise we wouldn't have a 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition today. In fact, the Buddha devoted the rest of his life to sharing his path, trying to help people find an end to their own suffering, devising numerous practices and skilful means in an attempt to reach as many people as possible.
Furthermore, if his followers really had only been interested in dealing with their own suffering and didn't care about anyone else, there would have been no reason to preserve the tradition. Remember I said that these discourses were preserved in oral tradition for hundreds of years - that's many generations of people dedicating themselves to memorising inconceivably vast amounts of information by modern standards, and finding enough people in the next generation to ensure the continued survival of the teachings. This is also a form of compassion - it might not look like exactly the compassion of a charity aid worker flying into a conflict zone, or whatever might come to mind when you think of 'compassion', but these are people dedicating their lives to a path leading to the end of suffering, and I personally feel immense gratitude toward them for doing so.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
The primacy of direct experience in Buddhist practice
This week we're looking at case 31 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Zhaozhou investigates a woman.' (For those of you who like details, I've slightly tweaked Thomas Cleary's translation to sound better to modern ears, at least in my opinion. Sorry, Dr Cleary.)
This koan makes me chuckle every time I read it. The trolling game is strong here, both from the unnamed old woman, and from Zen master Zhaozhou, who we've previously seen in quite a few koans now (case 1, case 7, case 11, case 14 and case 19). As usual, though, there's more going on here than meets the eye - both teachers are making the same point, in slightly different ways, and even the title of the koan itself is a similar tactic. So let's take a look at the koan and see what's going on.
Encounter 1: A monk meets a woman
We start with a monk on a pilgrimage, heading to the sacred mountain Taishan. Mount Tai is a real mountain in China (the highest point in Shandong province according to Wikipedia), but in a Zen context it also represents enlightenment, or certain transformational peak experiences along the spiritual path. Koans are usually more symbolic than literal, so we can interpret this as a monk who is figuratively searching for enlightenment and asking for someone to point him in the right direction.
The nameless woman is an interesting character. In Zen koans, women often represent intuitive wisdom, as contrasted with the more scholarly, intellectual learning of men, and the woman generally 'wins' the exchange - the man's head is too clouded with received ideas about what's 'supposed' to be going on, whereas the woman is unburdened and thus freer to see clearly what's actually there. (You find a similar dynamic between 'northerners' and 'southerners' - again, the north of China was associated with a scholarly approach to the Dharma, whereas the south was considered rough and uneducated - and as a result southerners often have an easier time with Zen. See, for example, the story of the sixth ancestral master of Zen, Huineng.)
In any case, here we have a chance encounter with someone who remains nameless, but who is in touch with some kind of deep, intuitive wisdom. If we look at our own lives, we may start to notice that we have these kinds of experiences too - little interactions which disclose wisdom from unexpected sources. If we limit ourselves to learning only from 'my teacher', and look down on everyone else, we close ourselves off to a powerful source of insight in the midst of daily life. So one implication of this koan is that we should stay alert - who knows when we'll meet a Buddha in disguise?
Getting back to the story, the monk asks the woman which is the way to the mountain. Her answer is also pretty interesting - 'go straight ahead'. There's no funny business here, no seventeen-stage process to enlightenment - just go straight. Some of the Buddhist traditions offer complex systems with many levels, stages and moving parts, but Zen tends to offer a simpler approach. Just sit; or just ask one question, over and over. Ultimately, all of spiritual practice is about letting go, not accumulating more and more, and although Zen's stark simplicity can sometimes come across as austere, it's all in the service of reminding us of this basic truth. Just go straight ahead. Keep it simple.
So the monk carries on down the path, following the woman's instructions - so far, so good. But here's where the koan has a sudden plot twist. As the monk walks away, suddenly the woman says - in what we can imagine to be a pretty disdainful tone of voice - 'A fine monk - and so he goes!' In other words, 'There he goes, just like all the rest - hopeless!'
Clearly this dismissive statement had an impact on the monk, because it would appear that he repeated the story to one of the other monks at the temple, who felt strongly enough about it to take the matter to his teacher, in the second 'chapter' of the koan.
Encounter 2: Another monk goes to Zhaozhou
I can relate to this (presumably) second monk's confusion. What did the first guy do wrong? He asked for advice, he took it - and then the advice-giver had a go at him! What's up with that? As a person who tends to be very keen on following rules, I can easily imagine myself in the position of either of these two monks, confused and a bit distressed to see someone criticised for doing what they were told to do. Surely doing what you're told (provided what you're told is ethical, of course!) is the one guaranteed strategy to avoid blame?
So the second monk goes to his teacher, and asks him what's going on here. Zhaozhou says 'OK, leave it with me, I'll go and check it out.' And he's true to his word - he goes and meets the woman, and has the same interaction with her that the monk did.
But then we get our next and final plot twist. Zhaozhou comes back to his group, who have been waiting expectantly to hear what happened when he met the woman - and he merely says 'Yep, I've investigated that for you.' Mic drop, end of koan.
The importance of direct personal experience
Changing the subject for a moment, I don't have a driver's licence. I had maybe two driving lessons with my Dad about 25 years ago, which didn't go enormously well - Dad's knowledge of driving was sufficiently intuitive to him that he didn't really know how to explain what he was doing, and so his advice for how to operate the clutch wasn't actually particularly accurate, and I kept stalling. Eventually a couple of local lads came and stood outside the car, making fun of me for not being able to drive off. Good times.
Anyway, the point is that I have not undergone any particular training to drive a car, nor spent very much time doing so - roughly an hour of practice across two sessions two and a half decades ago.
But how important is that, actually? I mean, I've seen people drive cars. I've sat in the passenger seat many times, in all kinds of different weather conditions. I know the rules of the road, I know what the pedals do, and my granddad taught me quite a bit about how the engine works, so I probably know more about cars than many drivers. I have tons of knowledge about driving, really. That should be good enough, right? So you'd be happy to jump in a car with me and let me drive you down the motorway, at night, in the rain?
(This is not a real offer of transportation.)
Hopefully this example makes clear that there's a huge difference between first-hand practical experience and second-hand knowledge. I might know a great deal about pistons and whatnot, but that doesn't translate into the practical skill of being able to change lanes on a motorway in a blizzard.
In the same way, meditation is, first and foremost, something that you do. Reading books and articles, listening to talks, absorbing and debating Buddhist theory and so on can be a very enjoyable and interesting way to spend one's time if you're so inclined (which I am) - but it's not the same thing as practice. Indeed, this distinction is so important that you'll often find Zen teachers (who are prone to taking things to extremes to make a point) saying that if you actually do Zen practice, you'll gain all the understanding of the sutras without having to read them, and if you don't do Zen practice, the sutras are totally worthless. Personally I wouldn't go quite that far, but there's definitely a valid point behind the hyperbole.
Coming back to the koan
In the koan, then, we see two different attempts to point this out. First, we have a monk who wants to know the way to enlightenment, and asks a random stranger for advice, then blindly does what she says. That isn't always a good plan - and so the woman decides to needle him a bit, criticising him for his blind willingness to follow the lead of someone he doesn't even know. Just like all the other monks - following what someone else says, like a herd of sheep!
Again, here's that Zen tendency toward exaggeration to make a point. Of course we need to take advice from other people, ideally those who are wiser than us. It's important to have access to a teacher when we're getting started, so that we learn good, time-tested practices and don't fall into bad habits that will only get harder to train ourselves out of as time goes on. After a while, we find that we start to develop a kind of 'spiritual intuition' about how our practice is unfolding and what we might need at any given point in time, and so we can become a bit more independent. (One of the criteria that the Buddha sometimes gave for a stream enterer, someone who had reached the first stage of awakening, was that they had become 'independent in the Dharma'.) However, it's still really important to have a relationship with a teacher! Our capacity for self-deception is vast, and it's very often the case that someone else can see things in us that we're totally blind to ourselves. Our teachers won't always get it right, won't always understand where we're coming from and won't always give us the right advice, but it's still much, much better than not having that input at all. We've seen many spiritual 'guru' figures who've gone completely off the rails, and they're almost always operating in a context without any challenging feedback, either from their own teacher or from a peer. Not a great idea.
So we have this first encounter, where the woman is essentially teasing the monk for being too willing to follow someone else's lead blindly, rather than working things out for himself. But the koan isn't done yet - we have a second part.
What happens next is that another monk becomes concerned. 'This weird, unpleasant thing happened - what's up with that? I'd better ask my teacher.' And so he goes to Zhaozhou and asks him to check it out. And Zhaozhou does - but when he comes back, his report is spectacularly unhelpful. How come?
Actually, this second monk is making a variation of the same mistake. Something has come up which has troubled the monk - but, rather than figure it out for himself, his first instinct is to run to the teacher. That's an instinct which runs directly counter to developing that 'independence in the Dharma' that the Buddha spoke about, a self-reliance based on personal experience. To make matters worse, the monk is trading a first-hand, personal exploration of the issue for a second-hand report of what's going on. Rather than learning to drive for himself, he's reading a book about cars.
Zhaozhou's deliberately minimalist reply underscores the point that personal experience is, ultimately, a private affair. Zhaozhou went and had his own encounter with the woman at the side of the road - and that was his experience. No amount of description can give someone else that experience. If you want to meet the woman at the side of the road, you have to go there yourself, not look at someone else's Instagram photos.
Go and have your own adventures
The final sting in the tail is the title of the koan itself: 'Zhaozhou investigates a woman'. This title prepares us to hear a story about Zhaozhou's latest wacky adventure - who's he going to meet this time, what crazy Zen thing is he going to say? We know Zhaozhou by now, so we're sure it's going to be good. Let's grab some popcorn and see what happens!
But that very instinct that arises within us at the sight of the title is basically the same 'mistake' made by both monks in the koan. Rather than doing our own practice - having our own adventures - we instead sit back and consume someone else's experiences second-hand.
Like I said before, I do believe there's value in this kind of second-hand Zen. (If I didn't, I wouldn't be writing these articles. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't, actually!) Personally, I love reading about this stuff - it's interesting, it's inspiring, and when I'm actually doing my practice I'll often find that something I read will slot into place and become clear. My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, the venerable Ayya Khema, used to say that insight is an 'understood experience' - there's no point having an experience if you don't understand it sufficiently for it to impact the way you see the world, and learning some of the 'theory' stuff can help with that understanding. The point is rather that intellectual understanding is no substitute for practical experience - and, actually, without the practical experience, we may think that we've understood something when really we haven't. I can't tell you how many times I had some kind of insight or experience which I only realised many days later was actually pointing to something that I thought I'd understood previously. (Actually, that's happened often enough that these days I reserve a healthy scepticism toward everything I think I really have now understood! For all I know, another insight is just around the corner, waiting to turn the whole thing on its head all over again.)
So how do we do this - how do we explore these things for ourselves? It's actually pretty simple.
1. Get a teacher. You don't have to like everything about them, but it helps if you can tolerate them and they don't appear to be totally crazy.
2. Get one or more practice methods. Maybe that's Silent Illumination, or working with a koan. Or maybe you prefer early Buddhism, with their concentration, insight and heart-opening methods. It doesn't really matter, but you'll need something that you can tolerate well enough that you're willing to keep doing it.
3. Do the practice. Use your methods. Keep going, day after day, week after week, year after year. The methods might appear to do nothing at first. Give them time to work. Check in with a teacher if you're not sure, but don't be surprised if the teacher says 'Yep, sounds fine, just keep going.'
4. Keep a question mark in mind. Buddhist practice is designed to change the way we see the world - and that means letting go of the way we currently see it. We have to be willing to question our experience. Different methods will approach this in different ways - the question mark may be quite subtle in Silent Illumination, whereas it's right there in a koan like 'Who am I?' Either way, though, it's important to maintain a sense of investigation in your practice - looking to see what's really going on, rather than allowing yourself to assume that you already know.
That's it - like I said, simple. Of course, 'simple' and 'easy' are not the same thing, and this path can be pretty challenging at times. Again, teachers can be a great support when we're going through a rough patch. And despite what the koan says, don't be afraid to ask for help. A good teacher will ultimately help you to become independent in the Dharma, rather than making you dependent on them - but we all have to start somewhere.
May you have many wonderful Dharma adventures of your own!
Letting the light of your heart shine forth
A few weeks ago I published an article setting out four possible dimensions of cultivation in a meditation practice: samadhi (focusing the mind), wisdom (investigating who and what we really are), energy practices (promoting good health and longevity), and heart-opening practices. Over the next few weeks we'll take a closer look at this last category of practices.
I've previously written about the Big Four heart opening practices in early Buddhism (most commonly known as the Brahmaviharas) - loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) - so, rather than repeat what I've already said in those articles, I'll see if I can find something fresh to say. Let's see how I get on!
Why bother with heart opening - isn't Buddhism all about enlightenment?
In the Buddha's earliest recorded discourses, those of the Pali Canon, he says over and over that he teaches one thing and one thing only - suffering and the end of suffering. (If you wanted to nitpick, you might say that's two things.) Indeed, what seems to have been the Buddha's primary 'curriculum' for his monastic students, the so-called 'gradual training', is very much focused on the alleviation of personal suffering, starting with ethical behaviour (to live a wholesome life and remove the immediate causes of suffering both for oneself and others), to focus the mind with the jhanas (providing a mind which is well suited to insight practice), and then the cultivation of wisdom aimed at uprooting the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion which give rise to suffering. Opening the heart doesn't usually feature in that scheme at all - in fact, my teacher Leigh has a chart on his website showing the various presentations of the Gradual Training, and the Brahmaviharas only feature once in 32 discussions of the path.
So can we infer from this that heart-opening practices are not really a big deal, not really favoured by the Buddha, not really something of interest? Nope! Because when the Buddha does talk about heart-opening practices - and he mentions them frequently - it's invariably in glowing terms.
Here's one example, taken from (appropriately enough) the Discourse on the Cultivation of Loving Kindness (Iti 27):
Mendicants, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
It’s like how the radiance of all the stars is not worth a sixteenth part of the moon’s radiance. Surpassing them, the moon’s radiance shines and glows and radiates. In the same way, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
It’s like the time after the rainy season when the sky is clear and cloudless. And when the sun rises, it dispels all the darkness from the sky as it shines and glows and radiates. In the same way, of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth a sixteenth part of the heart’s release by love. Surpassing them, the heart’s release by love shines and glows and radiates.
OK OK, but I still don't like metta meditation - I don't like the phrases, they're stupid!
It's true, the traditional formulation of loving kindness practice is a barrier for many people.
The instructions for metta in the early discourses are pretty sparse - essentially, the Buddha just says 'meditate spreading love in all directions', which is all well and good if you can just do that, but if not, it doesn't give you a lot to go on. So when a later generation of Buddhist commentators came along and tried to expand and explain the Buddha's sometimes cryptic teachings, they developed a more systematic way of generating loving kindness, based around the repetition of certain phrases, such as 'May you be happy', 'May you be well', 'May you be at peace' and so on. The basic idea (as detailed on my Brahmaviharas page) is that you work with a series of people, starting with those you already feel warmly towards, then gradually increasing the difficulty until you can send loving kindness even to your enemies, using the phrases to evoke the feelings.
The trouble is that many people find that the phrases don't evoke the feelings! If anything, they can have the opposite effect, coming across as a bit cheesy, a bit artificial, a bit make-believe, with the result that the heart actually ends up more contracted. Oops.
So many teachers (including my teacher Leigh, and his teacher, the venerable Ayya Khema) instead teach metta using visualisations. For example, you might imagine a golden light shining in your heart, and as that golden light touches the people around you, it transmits loving kindness. Or you might imagine a flower garden in your heart, and each person you bring to mind gets a bouquet of your heart's flowers. (For a big list of visualisations, complete with full written instructions and, in most cases, guided audio by Ayya Khema, check out this page on Leigh's website.)
That's no good either, I can't visualise!
Tough customer, huh? Actually, I can relate - while most people seem to be naturally fairly skilled at visualisation, a small minority of us, myself included, are much less visual. Personally, I find that I can get a brief flash of a mental image, but I can't sustain it for any length of time - certainly not long enough to do some of the very elaborate mental image-based meditations I've sometimes attempted.
However, a tip that's really helped me with these kinds of meditations is that you don't actually have to see what's going on in your mind's eye. If you're able to imagine something, whether or not you 'see' it, that actually works well enough in the vast majority of cases. So although I can't necessarily 'visualise' the flower garden in my heart, I can 'imagine' what it would be like to have a flower garden in my heart, and how it might be to give flowers to people, one after another. And when I'm calm and focused on keeping this imaginary scenario going, I find that it will often help to spark a feeling of loving kindness - which is, after all, the point!
The phrases and visualisations in metta meditation are really just a means to an end, the end being to get in touch with the emotional quality of loving kindness - so anything you can do which gets the feeling going is good enough. For me, I'll often skip the more elaborate phrases and visualisations entirely and instead just call to mind a memory involving a positive interaction with someone dear to me - that's usually enough to light the flame of metta in my heart, after which I can simply stay with that feeling for the rest of the meditation session. Sometimes I'll bring in people one after another, sometimes I'll rest directly in a non-specific, universal sense of metta - both are beautiful practices.
OK, I'm convinced, I'll give it a try - do you have a guided meditation I can use?
As it happens, I do - check out my Audio page, where you'll find a whole host of metta/loving kindness guided meditations. There are two ten-minute recordings in the shorter practices section - one using phrases, the other using a golden light visualisation - and two fifteen-minute recordings in the heart-opening practices section which are slightly more elaborate.
Give them all a try and see how you get on - and maybe you'll find out why the Buddha said that of all the grounds for making worldly merit, none are worth even a sixteenth part of a well-cultivated loving kindness practice.
May all beings be happy!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!