What do you call metta?


Dalai Lama

What’s your preferred translation of “metta”?

As a kind of postscript to our recent Urban Retreat, which was on the theme of metta, I’m going to share my thoughts about some of the terms people use, and propose an uncommon, but I think good, English term.

1. Lovingkindness

The most common English term that people use for metta is “lovingkindness.” That’s pretty much the standard term. A search for “metta is loving-kindness” on Google brought up 17,200 results.

What’s good about it?

It’s an old and well-established term in English. You might be surprised how old it is; it’s found for example in a 1611 translation of the Bible (this example is from the Book of Psalms):

I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.
Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord:
Let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me.

What’s not so good about it?

Well, how often do you hear people who aren’t Buddhists talking about “lovingkindness”? It’s a rare term, and because it’s rare it doesn’t resonate much on an emotional level. And so it’s rather abstract, and ends up suggesting that metta is something remote from our everyday experience; something we’ve yet to experience.

2. Love

Love is again less common than lovingkindness. A search for “metta is love” on Google brought up 34,800 results.

What’s good about it?

We can all resonate with the word “love.” It’s a very warm and emotional term.

What’s not so good about it?

The word “love” is very ambiguous, and we’re always having to qualify it in various ways, by specifying that it’s “non-romantic love” for example (but even that’s very ambiguous, because there are many kinds of non-romantic love, including love of our children, love or our country, loving chocolate, etc.).

And even the “love they neighbor” kind of love doesn’t necessarily fit very well with what metta is. For example, can you love your neighbor but not like them? Possibly, but it’s not very obvious to everyone what that means. But you can have metta for someone you don’t like.

Also, “love” is very much understood as an emotion — something we feel — while metta is a volition or intention — something we want. Specifically, metta is wanting beings (ourselves included) to be well and happy.

Which brings up another problem. “Self-love” has a bad reputation in the west, and it conjures up narcissism and arrogance.

3. Friendliness

Friendliness is less commonly used than lovingkindness as a term for metta, but it’s not uncommon. A search for “metta is friendliness” on Google brought up 2,180 results.

What’s good about it?

Friendliness is a good translation of metta, because it’s related to the Pāli word mitta, meaning friend. Metta isn’t about friendship, but it is about friendliness. It has the advantage of being a word in common use, and it’s one that we can relate to more easily than lovingkindness. Friendliness again is more of an attitude or intention, which is closer to metta’s role as a volition.

What’s not so good about it?

The word friendliness sounds a bit weak, and metta can feel quite intense (although it doesn’t have to). What do you think of when you call the word “friendliness” to mind? What images do you see? I see someone at a party, socializing, which isn’t really what metta is about.

4. Universal Love

It’s a term that used, although “metta is universal love” brings up only 9 results on Google. It’s found in books going back to the early 20th century, and I think it used to be more common. In my early days of practice, people would often say that metta was universal love, or universal lovingkindness.

What’s good about it?

Well, technically metta is an unbounded (appamāṇa) state of mind, which is to say that it’s not “bounded” (pamāṇa) by conditional relationships, which the word “universal” tries to communicate.

What’s not so good about it?

However, anything that’s “universal” seems pretty much out of reach. What images come to mind when you think of “universal love”? Are those images related to your day-to-day experience? “Universal love” suggests a degree of love that’s almost unimaginable. Sure, you have days when you’re in a good mood and you feel affection for lots of people, but do you love everyone? Every single person? That’s what the term seems to suggest. And probably because that seems to unattainable, “universal love” isn’t very popular as a translation for metta.

5. Goodwill

Goodwill isn’t a common translation of metta, but Bhikkhu Thanissaro, who has contributed the bulk of translations to the wonderful Access to Insight, prefers it. I only found 172 results, however, for “metta is goodwill.”

What’s good about it?

“Goodwill” is having a friendly or cooperative attitude, so there’s a close correspondence with metta. Thanissaro describes goodwill as “wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.”

What’s not so good about it?

When was the last time you used the word “goodwill” or heard it being used? Perhaps on a Christmas card: “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men”? Perhaps in a business transaction: paying more for an asset than it’s worth? It’s just not a very common term. I certainly do talk about metta as wishing people well (which is another way of describing goodwill), but the term “goodwill” isn’t one I use much, or hear used, and it doesn’t really resonate with me. But perhaps it resonates more with you.

6. Kindness

Metta isn’t often translated as “kindness.” The phrase “metta is kindness” only brought up 88 results on Google.

What’s good about it?

Kindness is, like love, an almost tangible quality. It’s something we’ve all felt. We know we’ve experienced it within ourselves, and we can think of examples of people we know who are kind. And kindness is as much an attitude as an intention. What images come to mind when you think of kindness? I think of ordinary everyday situations, with one person being helpful and loving toward another person — perhaps someone who’s in trouble. So kindness is close to compassion, which fits with metta as well, since metta is the basis of compassion.

What’s not so good about it?

"My religion is kindness."

“My religion is kindness.”

Not much, in my opinion. Of all the terms we can use to translate metta, I think kindness is the most accessible, in that it’s part of our daily emotional experience. It’s easy to picture it. Think of the Dalai Lama’s smiling face: I think of his face as expressing great kindness. I think it’s closest in terms of describing a volition or intention: with both kindness and metta the intention is to help others find happiness. It does have a feeling quality about it — a sense of warmth and gentleness — but kindness is more defined by our intention and action than is the word love. Kindness is less ambiguous than love, and less over-used. It’s more palatable to think in terms of being kind to oneself as opposed to loving oneself.

So, out of all the possible options for words to translate metta, my vote is for that simple, accessible, appealing word, “kindness.”

What do you think?

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14 Comments. Leave new

  • I am happy to stick with “loving kindness”…for me this adds a sense of heart-felt warmth, authenticity and unconditionality.

  • What about “compassion”?

  • Just to throw in another iteration: John Peacock uses “boundless friendliness”.

  • I totally agree. In the last 5-6 years I’ve been associated with meditation and teaching for the last 2, I often had difficulty, gulping “metta” as loving kindness. So chose to teach “shamatha” only and have not delved in this form of meditation thus far. But I was about to embark on doing metta in the new year and this break down of the various words and what they translate to has come at an opportune time! Thank you. KIND regards ;-D

  • I added a section on “goodwill,” which someone had pointed out was missing from my list. I’d meant to include it but had forgotten to do so.

    Ben: “Compassion” is karuna, which is a quality that’s distinct from metta. Metta is wishing others well, and wanting them to be happy. Compassion is what you feel when people are suffering and you want their suffering to be removed.

    Amera: Metta bhavana is (generally) a samatha practice, so I’m not sure what distinction you’re making. Samatha is basically any approach to meditating in which we’re developing skillful qualities such as calmness, mindfulness, kindness, etc. It’s contrasted with vipassana approaches to meditation in which we’re analyzing the impermanent, unsubstantial, or unsatisfactory nature of our experience. Metta bhavana can actually be done in both ways, but most often it’s done as a samatha practice.

  • Dear B, Well it’s the Vipassana variety that I do then.. I am not a Buddhist (as such at this time). Although, my teachers have all been Buddhist.. I chose to teach, when my teachers left the country to another overseas posting, the Jon Kabat-Zinn’s method of “Mindfulness”. I have not delved into “metta” because it generates more emotion within – although good one’s definitely, yet still more into cultivating these good, positive emotions. I think that become purely aware of all things, all experiences, all thoughts, all emotions – whether “pleasant” or “unpleasant” is the way to go – at least for a good long time. For most human beings are good people within, without their own emotions, desires, attachments etc. getting in the way of their perceptions. And most human beings know what is right/wrong to do, to think without their own emotions, attachments clouded judgements. So then they are in content place within. This then leads them to see things for others. And leads them to see things/others with compassion also naturally. For when you feel you have everything, this leads you to see the needs of others…

    Where as metta i thought is seeking to cultivate a loving-kindness (or kindness, or boundless friendship etc.) so replacing the normal content state of mind as result of shamatha. Your seeking to impose a “mother Teresa-ish” state of mind. Which to me places more emotions within. The other way, just removes you from emotions in generally. Like the difference between a young intern surgeon who has graduated at the top his class and is motivated by good emotions during surgery to save lives. But he is motivated by positive emotions – so when his mother dies, or dog and experiences any other mishap in life, he still feels the negative repercussions and so his surgical performance could be adversely affected. On the other hand, a 30 year veteran surgeon veteran, who has been through all the initial stages experience (not unlike years of meditation) of having experienced many patients lives he could not save, has saved etc. had somewhat detached perspective on his work – he non-the-less, does his job/the right thing to do for the patient/non-emotionally motivated/stable and calm before he goes ahead with the procedure. So I see it as something like that… That meditation (without metta) does that…..

  • IMO kindness suffers from the same problem as “friendliness” – it’s not that strong. Be kind to everyone sounds a bit bland and boring – like something your schoolteacher would say. I see metta as powerful, indeed overwhelming. My favourite would probably be “unconditional love”.

    • In my observation, thinking of metta as powerful or overwhelming can often lead people to overlooking the metta they do experience, while they chase a mythical experience that rarely happens, if ever. The emotional nuances of language are very subjective, of course, but I find that kindness has a strong, heart-felt quality to it. I mentioned the Dalai Lama in this context because few people will think of him as emotionally weak, and yet kindness is one of his most noticeable attributes.

      I think one problem with “unconditional love” is that it doesn’t always fit how metta works. Bhikkhu Thanissaro tells of a monk who found a snake was living in his room. He certainly didn’t love the snake, but he didn’t want it to come to harm. He was afraid of the snake, and yet he wasn’t going to kill it or be violent in order to drive the snake away. I find it easier to think or him as being kind to the snake even while fearing it, but I find it harder to think of him loving it. In fact from my experience of rescuing worms, I definitely have metta for them and don’t want them to suffer, but there’s no way I would say I love them. I find them rather disgusting, in fact. Of course you can understand the word “love” in different ways, and no doubt you do interpret it very differently from me, but for me the word “love” is conceptually much more tied up with feelings than with volitions.

  • That’s a good point. Metta is asking us to be kind to those things we don’t like or ordinarily “love” – being kind to the mice in your home, to the bugs who bite you, to the loud and dangerous-looking youths.

    Maybe though we could see degrees of metta, with kindness being the first stage – “show kindness to what you dislike” and ending up with unconditional, universal love for every sentient being. We have to start where we are, which is disliking a lot of things and trying to be kind to them anyway. But the goal is to end up as a universally compassionate Bodhisattva who has overcome the self/other dualism and loves everything as his own self.

    So I see metta as beginning with an increase in kindness to others. But ending in complete oneness with all sentient beings. For that enlightened consciousness, a strong word like love is needed.

    • I don’t think of metta as “universal love” or “universal love for every sentient being” because that suggests that we can even try to conceive of all beings, which we can’t. And the more beings you think of, the more abstract the experience becomes. I think of it more as having love/kindness for any being that you happen to encounter, either in your thoughts or in the world. The mind is imbued with metta — this desire that beings be well — so that any being that is encountered is met with love/kindness.

      But if we’re talking about the emotional life of an awakened being, words aren’t very adequate. Given that any other being is in a state of suffering relative to an awakened person, the most appropriate term would seem to be karuna, or even maha-karuna — a term used in early Buddhism and also by the Mahayana to distinguish it from ordinary compassion. I actually have a theory that upekkha, in the sense of the brahmavihara, meant the same as maha-karuna, since its etymological root suggests a meaning of “watching intimately” rather than the rather bloodless “equanimity.”

  • I think it should be both abstract and concrete. In my experience both are powerful, but YMMV. So when I do metta bhavana I start with the self/friend/neutral/difficult stages – all of which are specific people – then in the final stage go through all the different continents on earth and send love to everybody who might live there. Finally I hold an image of the planet and send love to everybody on it, then send love to everybody on the space stations and whatever aliens may exist. Of course I don’t know them all personally but it’s very powerful to have a collective sense of everybody in existence, and loving all of them.

    I don’t know one way or the other whether upekkha used to mean maha-karuna, but I do like Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of it as “freedom” – freedom in the midst of compassion. So there is love (or kindness or goodwill) to any being, then karuna for suffering and mudita for happiness. There’s upekkha for the freedom from being caught up in all this.

    But with it becoming abstract, I would say that the abstract stage at the end can be very powerful. Like when we say “world peace” or “global harmony”, we don’t have to know every single person in every country. The idea of it happening collectively, for those you know and those you don’t, has a special power that would be lacking if you just focused on people you already know.

  • I agree with you both on what the metta can be translated as what is the best way to cultivate this state. Both abstract and more real to us. More imaginable for us. For we trying to cultivate this state of being and one in which on invisions those close around that one loves (attachment) already may be easier to get in the habit of cultivating this state. And then lead to a state that is able to envision all sentient beings.

    But I think it all depends on your inner state, how much meditation has already affected your ego, how much your own desires/wants have already been diminished (lack of craving, so a free-er state) how much awareness there is within you, either as a result of meditation practice or that which was already there – in other words where “you’re at” and your level of contentment (so no or very little cravings/attachments) that determines whether you’re easily able to give to love to all sentient beings or it’s easier to envision those around and expand this to other circles over time.

    Because in the end as I see it, if a being has no cravings, no desires, no attachments etc. (extreme eg. fasting Buddha) then he ACCEPTS ALL (despite likes dislikes because one has already let go of all your emotions/wants/desires/attachments, judgements etc.). So in the end loves all or accepts all. (not the romantic love or the feeling of love). Then kindness to all sentient beings is easy since when we need nothing, we automatically and naturally, seek to fulfill the needs of other and think of their needs – because we are in a state of mind, or egoless state, is of not wanting for anything, not having any opinions, likes dislikes etc. anyhow personally. That’s why when people refer religious leaders, they say Jesus or Buddha/Mohammad was a loving human being that was able to accept all, irregardless of what they had or had done.. So then in this state, one can think of all sentient beings and all of the universe since also in this state, you part of the universe, not separate from it. One and same thing. Something like that…

  • So pure love = pure acceptance all all
    Pure loving-kindness = Acceptance-giving to all
    unconditional-loving-kindness= Acceptance and giving without expecting. etc.

  • Pazinia Oliver
    June 28, 2018 4:23 pm

    P. R. Oliver.
    my grandmother’s name was Meattaugh (Me, tow, the way you pronounce town, towel, way, like the question what minus the t.)
    She was Native American, African, White. He name is Indian but it was shortened when she was a young girl to Metta. I was told the name means of flower a strong Foundation a beautiful foundation and so many other different beautiful things that you would love for your name to mean.


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