Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Friendliness v loving-kindness

The Buddha identified four characteristics or signs of an awakened mind and these are experiences that are helpful to recognise and cultivate. The idea here is that these experiences are the natural result of an increasingly awakened mind, but also that we can train our body/mind to more easily notice and access these experiences when we have them.

The four characteristics (brahma viharas in Pali) are usually stated as loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. There are two of these translations that don't sit quite right for me. The first, and the one I want to focus on here, is 'loving-kindness' (metta in Pali). I've even heard this translated, or should I say mis-heard as love and kindness :-).  Jason Siff and others translate it slightly differently as 'friendliness'. For me, this is a much more helpful translation for the secular world. (For completeness' sake, the other one I'd like to adjust for the modern world is 'sympathetic joy' - I think 'empathic joy' communicates the meaning slighly better.)

There are two main reasons I prefer 'friendliness' to 'loving-kindness'. First, loving-kindness sounds pious to me and therefore inaccessible. It sounds like something only saints feel. It is a very strong term - not only are you feeling kindly but you're feeling loving towards the person you're being kind to. It actually conjures images for me of someone in flowing robes with a halo sitting softly above their head, gazing gently at a child. It doesn't feel realistic or accessible for a normal human being. It also feels like something that is only appropriate to show to certain people - children and other lesser beings. The idea of showing 'loving kindness' to a burly biker for example doesn't seem to fit. However being friendly with him, I can do.

That brings me to the second reason. If I don't know that feeling, if it's not accessible to me, then it's pretty hard to cultivate it. My guess is most people could point to some interaction in the past day, or at least the past week, that was motivated by and characterised by friendliness. As I've observed my own experience over the past few years I've found that whenever I'm not caught up in my own hungers for things, my natural state is actually quite friendly. This is an important point because it means I can observe the causes and conditions of friendliness in my own life, I can focus on and really take in the feeling when it's present (see some practical tips for this in Rick Hanson's 'Buddha's Brain'), and in doing so naturally incline my body/mind to that attitude. That feels very do-able because I know the feeling of friendliness. When I think of 'loving-kindness' I have nothing to work with as I just don't feel saintly enough.

There is a well known Buddhist guided meditation that focuses on metta. It too, has never felt quite right to me. It says things like 'may all beings be well and happy'. As I hear these words I always feel incredulous because I know darned well that all beings are not well and happy - indeed the very wellness and happiness of many creatures relies upon other creatures being captured and eaten. My understanding is that the idea of this meditation is to strengthen the well-wishing muscle (neural connections in our brain really). This idea isn't without its merit but I think I need to find other words that feel more realistic.

Has anyone written their own 'metta meditation' that works for them? If so, I'd love to hear it.

For more on cultivating friendliness naturally (as opposed to trying to manufacture it), see Jason Siff's recent post:


  1. Namaste,

    I think perhaps you have too many unresolved feelings from Catholicism you are bringing into Buddhism. Buddhism is an Eastern practise and will always be different to Western society. I understand what you are saying, don't get me wrong, but I'm really hesitant to "westernise" Buddhism for convenience's sake.

    In metta,

  2. Actually I need to clarify because upon re reading the above, I feel it is coming off a tad arrogant which is so NOT my intention - so I apologise for my unskillful post.

    I think sometimes we have to accept there are things in the path we choose to walk that while we may not agree with or like, are there and need to be dealt with or understood. For example, I have a hard time accepting anatman. It goes against my predisposition to believe that life is connected to a "higher power". But anatman is a stalwart of the Buddha's teaching so I _HAVE_ to accept that and try to reconcile that with how I feel. I can't change the wording of that teaching to make it sit better with me or feel better about it.

    I think metta/loving kindness is a similar thing for you (I admit to assuming here so I am well aware I could be way off target there). Maybe it would be better not to investigate metta meditation until you feel more comfortable with the concept? That's just a thought, I apologise if it's of absolutely no help at all.

    In metta,

  3. Hi there Raven. Thanks for your response and for your care with the tone.

    There are a couple of points I'd like to respond to. First, I'd like to clarify that I'm not struggling with the concept of metta (as you are with the concept of 'annata' - see my post 'Bloody not-self' for more on this). If you know anything about Pali (the language in which the Buddha's teachings were first recorded) you'll know that most Pali words have several English translations. I'm not ditching the real meaning and substituting an incorrect one that suits me better; 'friendliness' is a legitimate translation. I'm simply suggesting that one legitimate translation of the word 'metta' (friendliness) is more accessible and helpful than another more common one (loving-kindness) for westerners.

    If I understand you correctly I think you are also objecting to the adaptation of the dharma to western society, preferring instead that we take it in a particular form that's already been adapted to a specific Asian culture. That adaptation is what this blog is all about (see my inaugural post 'Taking care fearlessly' for more on that). The Buddha was all for adaptation and instructed his followers to go off and teach in a way that their audience would understand. To insist that we use another culture's adaptation (Tibetan? Japanese? Chinese? Korean? - not sure which one you currently practice) rather than adapt it to our own is not consistent with the Buddha's own approach, nor his instructions to his followers.

    Warm regards

  4. Namaste Lenore,

    Thanks for clarifying for me and giving me some good food for thought (as this post and subsequently "Bloody not-self" did also :) )I really enjoy reading your blog.

    I can see what you're saying in the Buddha's approach to adaptation (as in your clever blog title topo, which I think is great btw), I guess I'm very wary due to the trend amongst a lot of Westerners I've personally met or interacted with who try to adapt other paths that they have discovered during their spiritual quest for truth to suit them. Granted, a lot of them were not open to being flexible in regards to learning more about WHY things are done that way in the path of their choice. I can see you ARE very keen to learn the why's, so that, to me, is a huge difference.

    I follow a Tibetan path, I guess it suits me given my upbringing (Jewish mother and Roman Catholic father, Catholic education). And I stand corrected on the point with Pali translations into English. I also stand corrected with your clarification that you are not trying to replace the meaning. Thank you for being so gracious in your reply.

    I shall continue to read your blog with interest and anticipation of learning another viewpoint.

    In metta,

  5. I absolutely agree with you Raven - adapting without understanding the core teachings can end up in nothing more than idiosyncratic theories anchored in nothing more substantial than whatever feels good at the time. If you're interested, there are two excellent downloads on my sangha website relevant to this topic: Buddhist Manifesto by Glenn Wallis, and Adaptation and Authenticity by Winton Higgins. The site is

    Thanks for your words of appreciation too. I feel quite uplifted when I hear that others have found the stuff I've shared valuable.

    Warm regards

  6. If you're interested, there are two excellent downloads on my sangha website relevant to this topic: Buddhist Manifesto by Glenn Wallis, and Adaptation and Authenticity by Winton Higgins. The site is

    Namaste Lenore,

    I will check these out tonight. Thanks so much for the links.

    In metta,

  7. I recommend this article "Universal Loving-Kindness"

  8. Interesting comments. I guess I naturally lean towards 'freedom of translation'. Actually, it probably goes beyond that. It's freedom of adaptation and also freedom of acceptance, rejection and addition.

    There's nothing I consider sacred about what the Buddha said. If, in my limited and imperfect understanding, I come to the view that he was wrong, or that what he said does not quite work for me, well, I just discard it with no qualms. I feel Siddharta himself would have been quite comfortable with this approach. Remember that story about the raft that is for crossing and not for grasping...

    Also, I don't believe that Mr Gotama ever said that he had reached a thorough and absolutely correct understanding of the nature of reality, did he?

    I think he was a revolutionary thinker and got a first glimpse of the nature of the human mind, what makes us suffer, what makes us truly happy/content, but there's no reason why we can't build on his footsteps, alter them, subtract a few things. Things evolve, no?

    Now, of course this doesn't mean that there is no benefit in first trying to understand exactly what he was trying to say. Actually, without that effort it is difficult to dissent in a thoughtful manner.

    Also, since the time of the Buddha there have been many other thinkers along the same vein that have indeed altered, built on, etc what the Buddha said, and we can greatly benefit from studying their views too.

    For me, the most important is that you never 'close the door', ie never think that now you got it and there's nothing more left to understand or question.


  9. Winton Higgins said:
    I agree with the basic thrust of what Anonymous has written, except the symptomatic absence of the communal (or ‘sangha’) element, which I picked up from her phrase, ‘If…it doesn’t work for me’. It’s not immediately obvious to many westerners that meditation is a communal practice. And so is dharma practice as a whole. We are social animals, so we associate with each other in every significant endeavour we undertake. The ideology of individualism does us no favours in suppressing this truth.

    So yes, Anonymous, the Buddha (‘Mr Gotama’) confirms, in the Kalama sutta, just about everything you’ve written. Except that one’s own experience is not the practitioner’s sole guide in checking out a teaching: the opinion of ‘the wise’ is the fail-safe the Buddha also mentions in the sutta. As isolated individuals we might well delude ourselves, or fail to effectively mine the riches our predecessors and contemporaries make available to us.

    Where do we meet ‘the wise’ to compare our perceptions with what they think? Our very own dharma group is where we might start, and other trails to additional sources of wisdom lead on from there. In other words, our own efforts to understand and practise the dharma have inescapably communal starting points.

    There’s a good reason for this, as a philosopher called Alasdair MacIntyre explains in his After Virtue. Every practice worthy of the name is held and informed by a tradition. A living tradition usually starts with some inspired founder, like the Buddha, asking certain basic questions and proposing a practice around provisional answers to them. The succeeding generations in the practice and tradition keep suggesting refined answers and modified ways to formulate the questions, and new ways to practice, helped along by their own cultural knowledge and their own predicaments.

    Continuous adaptation, in other words. That’s how each new generation contributes to and benefits from the tradition in its own time and place. It keeps it alive. But it can only do that by knowing the questions the founder began with, and how the conversation has developed since then, so it can edit and renew the tradition skilfully. Needless to say, all this presupposes a community dedicated to practice, study, and healthy debate (listening to others receptively, expressing oneself clearly).

    So you’re right, we must never ‘close the door’. To close the door would be to suffocate the tradition, to end up (sooner rather than later) with a dead one that’ll stunt our own development. The dharma is still very new in the west, and like the Chinese converts two millennia ago who started to adapt it, we have heaps of our own cultural, intellectual and scientific resources with which to add value to it, as well as to hone its relevance to our own 21st century way of life. It’s a big job, it’ll mean coordinating many hands and minds. To ‘keep the door open’ in the Buddha’s tradition, we’ll need communal processes and shared understandings of this tradition more than ever.

    Winton Higgins