The Noble Eightfold Blog

Metta and the Brahma Vihāras

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


...metta is related to the word mitta, or friend. Universal metta is friendliness for all. The fact that this friendliness equates with goodwill is shown in the four passages in the Canon where the Buddha recommends phrases to hold in mind to develop thoughts of metta. These phrases provide his clearest guide not only to the heart-quality that underlies metta, but also to the understanding of happiness that explains why it’s wise and realistic to develop metta for all.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "When Goodwill is Better than Love: The Meaning of 'Metta'", Shambala Sun, JULY 10, 2011]

The cultivation of metta is part of a larger practice, that of the "brahma vihāras". The word "brahma" means “noble”, and the word "vihāra" means “dwelling place”. Thus "brahma vihāra" is usually translated as something like “noble abiding”.

The brahma vihāras are loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuṇā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (uppekhā). The Buddha describes them in this way:

Then, with his heart filled with loving-kindness, he dwells suffusing one quarter, the second, the third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upwards, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with loving-kindness, abundant, unbounded , without hate or ill-will.

Just as if a mighty trumpeter were with little difficulty to make a proclamation to the four quarters, so by this meditation, Vasettha, by this liberation of the heart through loving-kindness he leaves nothing untouched, nothing unaffected in the sensuous sphere. This, Vasettha , is the way to union with Brahma.

Then with his heart filled with compassion,... with sympathetic joy , with equanimity he dwells suffusing one quarter, the second, the third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upwards, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with equanimity, abundant, unbounded, without hate or ill-will. [DN 13.76-78]

Here the Buddha describes all four of the brahma vihāras, however, as a formal practice, metta is the quality that gets the most emphasis. The "Metta Sutta" [SN 1.8] is chanted regularly around the world.


The Pāli commentaries say that the Buddha originally gave the instructions on metta to monks who were harassed by the tree spirits of a forest in which the monks were trying to meditate. After doing this meditation in the forest the spirits were so affected by the power of benevolence that they allowed the monks to stay in the forest for the duration of the rainy season retreat. (Internet search: "metta buddharakkhita")

As is often the case with anything that comes out of India, the distinction between myth and reality is blurred. However, I think the point can certainly be made. Meeting conflict with conflict has an obvious result. Meeting conflict with love and compassion may have a somewhat better result. Of course, we are not wired in this way, and it takes a leap of faith, as well as some courage and conviction, to meet conflict with love, compassion and equanimity.

The Buddha himself did not give a formal practice on how to cultivate metta or any of the brahma vihāras. However over time various practices evolved. For a classic treatment of metta practice in the Burmese tradition, you may want to read Sharon Salzberg’s book "Loving-kindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness". Here I will give the instructions in brief.

The main practice consists of two parts: metta phrases that are repeated, and a metta recipient.

Because the phrases are not canonical, you can really use anything that you like. The purpose is to establish a quality of heart, a feeling of unbounded love.

The important thing, therefore, is not that you repeat these phrases over and over in some mechanical way. That would hardly be useful. The most important thing is that quality of heart, the feeling of love. This is why in previous discussions of metta, I have recommended that you begin by thinking of someone you love unconditionally, someone for whom you wish only unbounded happiness. Children and babies work well. Animals work well. Anyone for whom you have deep feelings of love and gratitude works well. As you think of them, get in touch with that feeling, especially at the heart center – the heart chakra – located at the center of the chest. (For this practice, you should use the heart center as the focal point for the breath meditation.)

Once you have established the feeling of unbounded love, start by directing that feeling toward yourself, repeating the phrases:

May I be free from danger.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I be at ease.

Repeat them for a few minutes, as long as you like. As usual, this is not a race. Settle into the phrases and the feeling of loving-kindness.

Next you direct metta to a benefactor, someone who has been a loving and kind supporter to you:

May [they] be free from danger.

May [they] be happy.

May [they] be healthy.

May [they] be at ease.

Next comes a beloved friend:

May [they] be free from danger.

May [they] be happy.

May [they] be healthy.

May [they] be at ease.

The first three recipients of metta are rather easy. These are people we love and care about.

Next comes a neutral person. This can be difficult. There are very few people about whom we have neither positive or negative feelings. It may be someone who works in a shop, or a neighbor who you do not know well. It may take a little time to come up with a person for whom you have neutral feelings:

May [they] be free from danger.

May [they] be happy.

May [they] be healthy.

May [they] be at ease.

The next one is the hardest one. In the commentaries this person rather dramatically called the “enemy.” It is probably not too hard to come up with this person:

May [they] be free from danger.

May [they] be happy.

May [they] be healthy.

May [they] be at ease.

And finally, we direct metta toward all beings, seen and unseen:

May all beings be free from danger.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be healthy.

May all beings be at ease.

Clearly, wishing good will toward an enemy is the most difficult one. You may want to review the section on Ill Will in the chapter on Problems While Meditating.

I think the most important thing about metta is that you understand that this is a quality to developed. For negative mind states - anxiety, anger, ill will, fear, etc. – the antidote is metta.

Here is also a good opportunity to say something about our minds and the issue of how they develop over a lifetime. In Buddhism we often use the word “practice”. This is to indicate that we are working at something, and to get better at it.

But we are always practicing something. Every time that something manifests in the mind, our predisposition for that mind state gets stronger. If we have a lot of anger, every time that we get angry, that strengthens the potential for anger. The next time the proper causes and conditions are in place, the anger will manifest even more quickly, This is why someone who is 20 years old who has a lot of anger will get angrier and angrier until by the time they are 60 or 80, no one can stand them any more. They have had a lot of time to practice, and they get really good at it.

What I just described is a mindless kind of practice. There is no self-awareness. What we are trying to cultivate is a mindful practice, one where we are clear about the qualities we want to develop in the mind. Simply knowing that we want to cultivate the brahma vihāras is important.


As mentioned before, and not surprisingly, directing metta toward an enemy can be very challenging. In this case directing compassion toward that person may work better. Thich Nhat Hanh defines love – metta – as the "intention and the capacity to make people happy". He defines compassion – karuna – as the "intention and the capacity to ease peoples’ suffering". And when people are difficult, no one suffers because of that more than they do.

One example of this is driving. Everyone has experienced being cut off by an aggressive driver. But long after you have forgotten about it, that person still has to live inside that angry, unhappy mind. So you can feel happy that you are not like that, and you can feel compassion for someone who has to suffer with that mind.

Sympathetic Joy

The next brahma vihāra is – in Pāli – muditā. This is usually translated as "sympathetic joy". In English we don’t even have a word for it. We do have a word for its opposite, and that is jealousy. We even have a more dramatic version which is "schadenfreude", which is delighting in someone’s misfortune. Muditā is feeling the same amount of joy for someone else’s happiness as we do for our own. So someone has wonderful good fortune, and we feel as happy for them as we would if that good fortune had come our way. It is a feeling that can only come from selflessness.


Finally there is equanimity. This is the feeling of being even-keeled. We are neither repulsed by the negative or pulled by the positive.

Many people confuse equanimity with indifference. In Buddhist psychology there is the notion of near and far enemies. Far enemies are qualities that are the opposite of something. So the far enemy of "love" is "hate". The far enemy of "compassion" is "cruelty". Those are rather obvious. The near enemy of "love", however, is "attachment". Attachment masquerades as love, but is really self-serving. It is about what we want, not what someone else needs. The near enemy of "compassion" is "pity".

And the near enemy of "equanimity" is "indifference". Equanimity is not indifferent. It is more like "if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs" [Kippling].

Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story. In an incident that has been somewhat lost to history, in 1976 and 1977 many refugees fled the tyranny of the political regime in Cambodia. They left in overloaded, flimsy, rotting boats, many of which sank, and many thousands of people died.

However, some boats survived, and after the fact someone studied why certain boats made it and some did not. There was one common denominator, and that was if there was just one person on a boat who did not panic, that boat had a very high chance of success.

This is equanimity in the purest sense, supported by courage, love and compassion.


One of the traditional metta practices is described here. However, the most important point about the brahma vihāras is to recognize them as qualities to develop. And you will find that as your concentration and tranquility develop, the brahma vihāras will begin to manifest on their own. A mind that is at peace with itself will naturally incline toward altruism. The calm, happy, tranquil mind has no need for greed, hatred, and jealousy.