”It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.'” – – Aldous Huxley

When I first began my Buddhist practice, the idea behind loving-kindness meditation wasn’t all that attractive to me.  I couldn’t make any sense out of it.  What did it mean to chant ”May all beings be happy?”  Did saying or thinking that somehow magically make beings happy?   How could all beings be happy, since happiness is a mental state  dependent on causes and conditions?  Isn’t suffering an inherent part of life?  If you had to wish for something, wouldn’t it be better to wish for everyone to be mindful?  There was a fairy-tale element to loving-kindness meditation that didn’t jibe with my empirical-pragmatic approach to life.

It took me a long time to come to terms with loving-kindness.  The first step on that journey was understanding how Western notions of feeling and emotion interfere with  understanding what loving-kindness actually is.  Western notions of feeling and emotion have been colored by nineteenth-century Western Romanticism in art, music, poetry, philosophy, and psychology.  Novels of sentiment first emerged in the late eighteenth century with the publication of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther — novels in which the protagonist was intimately in touch with a powerful and often tormented emotional life.  Music underwent a metamorphosis from the sacred beauty and mathematical elegance of Bach to the powerful emotional drama of Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler.  Poetry was transformed by Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelly.  German Romanticism provided the underpinnings for Freud’s theories of the unconscious, the passions, and the will.  The ideal of romantic love transformed Western marriage, often trumping the importance of familial obligations and financial considerations.  It all came down to being in touch with feeling — being genuine and true to one’s emotional life.

So I was surprised years ago when I heard Sharon Salzberg quip that (in regards to teaching loving-kindness) she wanted the following words engraved on her tombstone: ”It doesn’t matter what you feel.”  What she meant by that was that you didn’t have to feel anything special as you practiced loving-kindness.  The point was to just do it.

I’ve been told there’s no word corresponding to our Western category of ”Emotion” in Pali, Sanskrit, or Tibetan.  There are words for individual emotions — compassion, anger, greed, happiness — but no category of ”Emotion” to which they all belong.  In the Abhidharma, for example, there are just the categories of skillful and unskillful mental factors.  Emotions are lumped together in the same category with other mental factors relating to volition, perception, and concentration.

It’s better to think of loving-kindness as an attitude we’re trying to cultivate than a feeling we’re trying to ”have,” with all the issues of false consciousness and inauthenticity that arise when we try to ”create a feeling.”  It’s unrealistic to think we can actually ”love” everybody in the same way.  How can I feel the same way emotionally about my insurance broker as I do to my wife or my children?  That’s crazy.  And then try to think about other people who are even harder to love —  you can make your own list, ending with someone like Hitler, for example.  No way that’s going to happen.

On the other hand, I can cultivate the idea that all beings deserve my non-hatred.  I can disapprove of them and their actions, and do what I can to stop them from inflicting harm, but I don’t have to afflict myself and the world with the venom of my hatred.  I can work on the idea that all sentient beings should be treated humanely.  I can start working on that with the people nearest and dearest to me.  Then I can work my way up to my insurance broker.  I can save working on Hitler for last.

Motherly love, and love for one’s mother, play a significant role in traditional Asian descriptions of loving-kindness.  The Metta Sutta states, ”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.”  Tibetans argue that we should treat all beings like we would treat our mother.  The argument that accompanies this is that since we have already lived an infinite number of lifetimes, and since all other beings have also transmigrated over infinite lifetimes, then every other being has at one time or another already actually been our mother. We should therefore treat all beings with impartiality as if they were our mother.

This argument sometimes falls on deaf ears in the West. Besides the issue of non-belief in reincarnation, we’ve been through the Freudian revolution in which all our troubles have been laid at our mothers’ doorsteps.  It’s hard to remember a time in our culture when mothers were unalloyed objects of veneration.  This veneration is still present, however, in Indian culture.  You can see it reflected in the Indian cinema, from classic films like ”Mother India,” to Bollywood hits like ”Kahbi Kushi Khabi Gham.”







Mothers  in Mother India (L) and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (R)

However you may personally feel about your actual mother, this imagery is intended to serve as an encouragement to take the person who best embodies love or is most worthy of love, and use this person as the standard for the kindly treatment of others.

One beautiful aspect of traditional metta practice (see below) is that one begins by extending loving-kindness to oneself.  For some people, this is the hardest aspect of loving-kindness to cultivate.  Airplane flight attendants advise us that, should an emergency arise, we don our own oxygen masks before putting them on our loved ones.  People who are the most demanding and unforgiving of others are often, first and foremost, the most demanding and unforgiving of themselves.  If we are to be truly kind to others, we need to first extend the same courtesy to ourselves.

Loving-kindness is not just an attitude, but a complex skill set with many component facets: generosity, attentiveness, caring, patience, open-heartedness, forgiveness, gentleness, abstaining from expressions of irritation and anger, expressing appreciation, offering advice and assistance, sympathetic joy, and trustworthiness.  We have the good fortune in this life to be surrounded by a sufficient number of imperfect and irritating people to practice and develop these skills daily.  While traditional meditations like reciting metta verses or practicing tong-len can be helpful in developing loving-kindness, they are no substitute for putting it into practice in real life with real people.  You are provided with the opportunity to do so every single day of your life.

”Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”  —  Henry James



Imaya dhammanu /By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Buddham pujemi /I honor the Buddha.

Imaya dhammanu/ By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Dhammam pujemi /I honor the Dhamma.

Imaya dhammanu /By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Sangham pujemi /I honor the Sangha.


Aham avero homi /May I be free from enmity

Abapajjo homi /May I be free from mental suffering

Anigho homi /May I be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharami /May I take care of myself happily.


Mama mata pitu /May my mother and father

Acariyaca Á±atimittaca/ And teachers, relatives, and friends,

Sabrahma carinoca/ And fellow brahma farers,

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu /May they take care of themselves happily.


Imasmin arame, sabbe yogino/ In this grove, may all yogis

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.

Amhakham arakkha devata /May our guardian deities

Imasmim vihare /In this temple

Imasmim avase /In this dwelling

Imasmim arame /In this place

Arakkha devata /May the guardian deities

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu/ May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.


Sabbe satta /May all beings

Sabbe pana /All living things

Sabbe bhuta/ All creatures

Sabbe puggala/ All individuals

Sabbe attabhava pariyapanna/ All personalities

Sabbe itthiyo /All females

Sabbe purisa /All males

Sabbe ariya /All nobles ones

Sabbe anariya /All who are not nobles

Sabbe deva /All deities

Sabbe manussa/ All humans

Sabbe vinipatika /All those in unhappy states

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.


Dukkha muccantu /May they be free from suffering

Yatha laddha sampattito/ May they enjoy safety and abundance

Mavigacchantu Kammassaka/ Have Kamma as their true property.

Idam no puÁ±Á±a bhagam /May this merit of ours be apportioned

Sabba sattanam /To all beings.

Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu! /Well spoken! Well spoken! Well spoken!


Credit: Top Photo courtesy of Nancy Zarider

7 Replies to “Loving-kindness”

  1. Great post, Seth.

    It’s interesting that we hear people (myself included) talk about freeing various aspects of Buddhism from its Asian cultural trappings, and yet, often our own Western cultural notions make it difficult for us to get what dharma is about.

    Secondly, this should be everyone’s mantra: Don’t think about it, just do it!

    Thirdly, a wise teacher of mine once said that the people who are the hardest for you to send thoughts of loving-kindness to should be the ones you should start with. I guess that means you have to do Hitler first.

  2. Thanks, David! Your teacher obviously believed in making big gestures towards Enlightenment! I appreciate his sentiment, and there’s a case to be made for his “Hitler First” policy. On the other hand, it’s the people who are actually in the little circle of our lives that we can actually practice loving-kindness on rather than merely wishing them happy: the annoying coworker, the thoughtless neighbor, the Tea Party relative. Hitler and other Paragons of Evil usually either live far away or are dead and gone. It makes real practice with them much harder. Better to start where you are.

  3. I really appreciate this post. It is sometimes very hard to do kindness when feeling is not there, but a worthy ideal to practice doing anyway. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, have complicated rather eclectic thoughts about religion. For me, the religious practices I do engage in are aimed toward cultivating feelings of loving kindness, so that when the situation to enact loving kindness arises, it’s easier to do so.

    For me, it is harder to cultivate loving kindness with many people who are close to me than even with someone like Hitler. He did horrible things, but not to me. (I’m thinking here of Tea Party relatives.) Perhaps most of us have the hardest time being kind with the person closest to us: ourselves. Perhaps that is the place to start.

    1. What you say makes sense, Leah. Being kind to real people is often harder than being kind to hypothetical people since real people have the capacity to bump against us with all their rough edges. There’s more experiential reality there. More raw stuff. Also more involvement of the “self” and all that implies: the whole aggrieved narrative of what they did to “me,” the story of “my suffering,” “my hurt,” “my right to be angry,” and so on. Potent stuff. Starting with yourself is an excellent place to start. Good luck with expanding your heart.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post, Seth. I really must read Salzburg. I like your idea that loving-kindness should be thought of as an attitude rather than a feeling – a wish for others not to suffer, whatever we feel about them! But I think you need to extend that to hatred as well. It’s not too hard not to feel hatred towards your insurance broker. But Hitler?

    Hating Hitler involves feelings of dislike about Hitler *and* wanting to do something to harm him. How can you stop disliking Hitler? That would be like trying to stop the feeling of dislike for the sight, smell, taste, and touch of a mountain of human corpses in the worst state of decomposition while walking across them.

    What you can do is, like Sharon suggests, “not minding what you feel”, and decide to not want Hitler (or anyone else) to suffer. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind – so stop taking out eyes.

    Of course, even just disliking Hitler will lead to suffering in yourself, but less suffering than hating him ferociously. Maybe if you get to Buddahood even that dislike will go out like a flame, and you can walk on the mountain of decay with total equanimity.

    For me, for now, I will try *just* to dislike Hitler, wish him not to suffer, and detach from dislike as effectively as I can during meditation – if he comes to mind (as, fortunately, he doesn’t often…)

    1. Well said. Of course, one way to not hate Hitler is to see Hitler not as the author of his own destiny, but as the outcome of 100,000 bio/psycho/social/historical precursor events. Historical monsters need to be removed from access to power, neutralized so they can cause no harm, punished to serve as examples to future would-be wrong-doers, but our hatred of them benefits no one — neither the monster, ourselves, nor their numberless victims. Hatred is “something extra” — something unnecessary in preventing future

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *