Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby zavk » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:21 pm

Dear friends,

As you know, when we practice metta we direct lovingkindness to all beings and especially to those who are suffering. Now, if non-Buddhists were to ask me what metta is, I would point them to the metta sutta. And if they were to ask me why I practice metta bhavana or what I hope to achieve when I practice metta bhavana I would tell them that it is a means for me to cultivate wholesome states of mind and to promote wholesome volition. I think it shouldn't be too hard to explain to them the aims of metta in this way.

But in the case where I'm directing metta to someone specific, to someone who is experiencing difficulties, how does one explain the practice?

If someone were to say, 'OK. I can see how you practice metta to cultivate wholesome state of mind. I can accept that. But how does your practice actually affect someone else, especially someone whom you do not have direct contact with? How would your practice actually benefit the person whom you are directing metta to? How would it actually alleviate that person's illness or circumstances or whatever? Are you suggesting that metta would actually generate some kind of cosmic energy that would somehow 'touch' that person in question? If you choose to talk about Buddhism in term of its 'scientificity', in terms of its pragmatism and rationality, how then would you explain this supposed beneficial and helpful effect of directing metta to others, something which cannot be 'verified'?

I'm not quite sure how I would respond to these questions. In fact, to be honest, whilst I practice metta everyday and whilst I would direct metta to people I know who are suffering (e.g. just recently when Retro was in the hospital), I wouldn't know how to explain it to others. I mean I can of course explain it in terms of how metta helps me cultivate wholesome states of mind but how would I explain its supposed effect on others?

Perhaps these questions miss the point of metta. But they would not be unreasonable questions for non-Buddhists to ask. How would you respond?

Metta,
zavk
With metta,
zavk
User avatar
zavk
 
Posts: 1161
Joined: Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:04 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby thecap » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:31 pm

Hi zavk

What's wrong with "wishing someone well"?
thecap
 
Posts: 96
Joined: Thu Jan 01, 2009 9:19 am
Location: Germany

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby clw_uk » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:34 pm

Hi zavk

What's wrong with "wishing someone well"?


Excellent answer

:clap:

:goodpost:
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised." Verses on the Faith Mind, Sengcan
User avatar
clw_uk
 
Posts: 3550
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 2:36 am
Location: Wales, United Kingdom

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby jcsuperstar » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:47 pm

just compair it to praying that the person be well, most people understand prayer, and then theres the whole power of positive thinking new age mumbo jumbo, i think it would be hard in fact to find someone who didnt understand metta.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat
User avatar
jcsuperstar
 
Posts: 1915
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 5:15 am
Location: alaska

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby zavk » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:53 pm

Hi thecap,

Yes, that would be a respond. In fact I have explained metta in this way to people.

But for a non-Buddhist this might not be a satisfactory respond, given how much emphasis is placed on metta in the tradition. I mean there are several discourses and teachings devoted to metta.

In light of how much emphasis is given to metta and how much I have felt the positive effects of metta myself, I don't wish to simply reduce it to just another 'good wish'. I think this presents a risk of over-simplifying things and thus stripping the dhamma of its deeper implications. Say for example, I can explain my meditation practice as a means of 'balancing my mind', but to simply speak of it in those terms is to risk reducing dhamma practice to just another strategy for coping with the stresses of life. I don't think we Buddhists would want to do that. If we simply explain metta as a 'good wish', what if someone retorts, 'How is that different from wishful, infantile 'New-Age' thinking?'

So in terms of metta, when pressed for a fuller response, how can we explain it in a more 'robust' fashion? Is there a way to convey what we as practitioners feel about metta? Or are we brushing up against a certain limit when we attempt to do this?

Metta,
zavk
With metta,
zavk
User avatar
zavk
 
Posts: 1161
Joined: Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:04 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby clw_uk » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:58 pm

I would state that first its wishing some one well

then if pressed further i would ask do they consider kindness a happy feeling or negative feeling (of course its a good feeling)

Then i would say it allows one to develop kindness to all so it increases positive feelings and how many times you experience it so it makes one happier in life

It also lets one become more understanding of others, so when people are abusive to you, you know how to raise metta so you dont experience anger or hate and since anger and hate are unpleasent, it again makes one happier
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised." Verses on the Faith Mind, Sengcan
User avatar
clw_uk
 
Posts: 3550
Joined: Sun Jan 11, 2009 2:36 am
Location: Wales, United Kingdom

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby mikenz66 » Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:06 am

Hi zavk,

I see metta meditation as purely developing my own mind (as Craig says). I don't expect it to help anyone else directly (of course if I become a better person that helps others indirectly). At one level it's just one of the possible concentration objects, but developing those feelings has a usefulness beyond just meditative absorption because it helps our interactions with others.

Hmm, that's a bit technical for non-Buddhists, but before we explain it to non-Buddhists we'd better agree amongst ourselves. :group:

Metta
Mike
User avatar
mikenz66
 
Posts: 10775
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:37 am
Location: New Zealand

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby thecap » Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:29 am

zavk wrote:In light of how much emphasis is given to metta and how much I have felt the positive effects of metta myself, I don't wish to simply reduce it to just another 'good wish'.


Indeed.

On the other hand, what do you wish to accomplish by (over-)analyzing it? Do you feel like having to explain yourself as a Buddhist?

If we simply explain metta as a 'good wish', what if someone retorts, 'How is that different from wishful, infantile 'New-Age' thinking?'


For one, "New-Agers" (as far as this generalization applies) might believe in what they do not directly know. For example, only because someone read about some "cosmic energy" and "felt something", he may explain wishing-well as "inducing positive cosmic energy".

We as Buddhists, however, I assume know that "all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind". Before speech and action, there is intention. Ideally, right intention. Isn't metta part of right intention, and thereby one step on the eightfold middlepath? (Serious question, I have no clue. :pig: )
thecap
 
Posts: 96
Joined: Thu Jan 01, 2009 9:19 am
Location: Germany

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby zavk » Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:55 am

Thanks for your responses Craig, Mike and thecap.

I feel the same about metta myself. As I've mentioned in my OP, I see it primarily as a means of cultivating wholesome states of mind. Whilst this does not directly affect others it may still benefit others in the sense that it allows me to better relate to others. I don't think non-Buddhist would have any problems with such an answer. To this extent thecap is right to point out that

We as Buddhists, however, I assume know that "all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind". Before speech and action, there is intention. Ideally, right intention. Isn't metta part of right intention, and thereby one step on the eightfold middlepath?


But I'm referring to another scenario. What I'm curious about is something else that takes place when we direct metta to others. Again, let's take the case of Retro's hospitalisation as an example. Upon learning that he was in the hospital, many of us felt that the best thing to do is to direct metta to him. We intuitively feel that this is what we ought to do. Speaking more generally, I have encountered situations where a dhamma teacher calls upon a group to direct metta to a member of a group who is experiencing difficulty.

What I am curious about is when we practice metta as a kind of 'intervention' (<--- this may not be a good word but I can't think of another one at the moment), when we practice metta almost as a kind of obligation or duty, when we practice metta out of a certain sense of responsibility. In such cases, we obviously still recognise that we are benefiting ourselves by cultivating altruistic states of mind. But yet, the fact that we feel impelled to direct metta to the person in question suggests that we are hoping to generate on some level or another some positive effect on the person in question.

Maybe I shouldn't speak for others. But I have certainly felt this way. I have certainly felt the need to 'intervene' in the situation of others by directing metta to them. I 'intervene' out of a certain assumption that my practice would somehow benefit the person in question. And this is what I'm getting at: If pressed, I don't think I can explain why I feel my efforts would actually benefit that person, for I really have no basis to say that it would indeed benefit that person. Still, I'd do it anyway.

thecap wrote:On the other hand, what do you wish to accomplish by (over-)analyzing it? Do you feel like having to explain yourself as a Buddhist?


Yes, there is certainly some analysis going on here. But I am not analysing metta per se. Nor do I feel like I have to explain myself as a Buddhist. Rather, what I am doing in positing all these questions from a hypothetical 'non-Buddhist' is to analyse the assumptions I may or may not have about metta, and by implication, the assumptions I may or may not have about dhamma practice on the whole.

Thinking along these lines, I find that I am coming up against an aspect of dhamma practice that seems to elude rational explanation but which I cannot deny is a vital component of the dhamma. And I wonder if has to do with 'faith'?

Metta,
zavk
With metta,
zavk
User avatar
zavk
 
Posts: 1161
Joined: Tue Jan 20, 2009 12:04 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby AdvaitaJ » Thu Feb 19, 2009 1:44 am

I have certainly felt the need to 'intervene' in the situation of others by directing metta to them. I 'intervene' out of a certain assumption that my practice would somehow benefit the person in question.
Perhaps that is because this is all that can be done, regardless of its efficacy or lack thereof? Also, wouldn't generating these feelings in yourself somehow leave a "positive residue" that subtly shows when next you do have actual communications with the recipient of the directed metta? No matter what, trust your instincts.

I'm probably the least qualified person out here to be proffering opinions on metta, but I will add that my agnosticism on various issues includes the possibility of some form of human-human transmission. As a species, we've only known magnetism, electricity, and gravity for about three hundred years. Who's to say what other forms of "conveyance" we may yet discover. I was listening to an Ajahn Brahm talk on reincarnation last night and he presented an example where the abbot of a monastery in Asia "witnessed" the transfer of consciousness from one dying being nearby to another in the womb. If you can accept that the transfer of consciousness can be observed by a highly trained monk in deep mediation, why not metta? :coffee:

Regards: AdvaitaJ
The birds have vanished down the sky. Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.
Li Bai
User avatar
AdvaitaJ
 
Posts: 234
Joined: Sat Jan 24, 2009 1:17 am
Location: Michigan, USA

Re: Explaining metta to non-Buddhists

Postby thecap » Thu Feb 19, 2009 2:01 pm

Hi zavk, AdvaitaJ

...Let alone mind-training and esoteric theories. At the very least, "sending" metta to a certain person would make that person not feel separated and alone with his or her own suffering self (if it is honest 'right intention' anyway, then the equivalent 'right action' would follow whenever required). That is real energy in and as information transferred to a person. And that's enough reason for me "to metta" someone. :meditate:
thecap
 
Posts: 96
Joined: Thu Jan 01, 2009 9:19 am
Location: Germany


Return to General Theravāda discussion

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Anagarika, clw_uk, identification, paul and 3 guests