Have we been practicing and teaching Metta wrong?

I have a question. I have noticed that Metta is most commonly taught as giving to oneself and then someone you have good feelings about and then neutral, a person you have challenges about and then the whole world. However, when I read about Metta in the Suttas, I have not come across this. What I read is to be with a mind spreading Metta in the first quarter, 2nd, 3rd and 4th, above and below and then doing this with sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity.

I have found that it is more effective for me to just go straight to feeling the front of my body and sharing good wishes and feelings. Is it possible we are missing the direct path taught by the Buddha?

Metta is the most powerful practice for me and I want to learn more about it. Does anyone know where the self, loved one, neutral, difficult person, whole world originated? Maybe I have missed something important.

I just know that the Metta sutta itself doesn’t say anything about giving Metta to oneself and working away, it seems to suggest we should be indiscriminate about who we give Metta to from the start.

Does anyone have any insight or comments about this, for or against this thought?



Different teachers have different approaches and different ways of teaching.

What you are describing is just that, the way some teachers have decided to practice and teach this concept.

The important thing is to understand metta, develop it and practice it. Don’t get too caught up with this specifics. Metta is becoming very in vogue, you will see many more proposals in the future. Find the one that works for you according to the original teaching.


Analayo’s book “Compassion and emptiness” is a great source.


I think this is the most important question. And unfortunately some of the teaching seems unhelpful.

Metta is only one aspect of four Brhama Vihars.
Four Brahama Viharas to be practice in tandem and not on isolation.
This is one of the salient feature in Buddhism as opposed to Metta practiced by other religions.
Your question is a result of your attempt to practice Metta in isolation.


As I understand it there are two kinds of metta in the texts:

  1. an attitude of loving-kindness, which has objects, like people, snakes etc, like in the metta-sutta Snp 1.8.

The didactic approach of metta-first-to-me etc. probably comes from the Visuddhimagga Viss IX 1-77. At least the a bit older Vimuttimagga doesn’t have it yet afaics

  1. The proper metta-attainment

The so-called brahmavihara (a rare EBT word), or maybe better ‘metta cetovimutti’, i.e. metta-mind-liberation, is a very advanced stage of meditation. The quarters are not the front, back, etc. of the body. They are an expression of a mind that transcends any location and limitation. Typically metta cetovimutti is described after the four jhanas (when they appear in the same sutta) which should be a reminder that truly a divine state of mind is meant here.

I am not aware of a proper path to this high state in the suttas. Radiating a metta-intention into a direction might be a technique, but it’s not what the suttas mean. One could interpret the texts such that first ideally the four jhanas would be mastered, but that would be reading a bit much into it as well I think. So meditation teachers are probably a more practical reference than the suttas in this case.


Just adding more voice to this book, Analayo discusses at length metta and metta practice based on the EBT and clearly differentiates it from the Visuddhimagga instructions. He also presents alternative ways one can incorporate the practice and how the brahmavihara factors work together.


The Vissudhimagga treatment is pretty much based on the Vimuttimagga. The latter is the earliest I’ve found using this psychological approach. It’s not found in the Patisambhidamagga, where it elaborates more on how metta is described, e.g., in the Karaniya Metta Sutta – all directions, all types of beings, etc.

So the psychological approach (the one usually taught today) emerged (in writing) about or prior to the 1st-century CE.


Maybe keep it simple and just think of the brahmaviharas as moods. So, metta is just a tenderhearted mood; something like muzak for the mind, a background tenor to whatever else might show up in there.

I’ve never thought about specific people on purpose for this, it’s artificial and stilted to me. I set up these moods, and anyone/-thing which shows up in my mind is already held within that mood. No need for special ‘summonings’, I think, and no need for wild imaginings of any kind, actually.

We all know what it is to be in a surly mood, and a cheery mood, and we have ways of talking about this to ourselves. So, we use that language for ourselves, and the point with the brahmaviharas is just the practice of putting in place & sustaining four moods in particular.


To add to this, it appears that in the MA, an objectified form of goodwill is also to be found in the Buddha’s well-wishing as follows -

令 ABC 安隱快樂,令天及人、阿修羅、揵塔惒、羅剎及餘種種身安隱快樂.

May ABC find well-being and happiness. May all gods, human beings, asuras, celestial musicians, demons and all other forms of life find well-being and happiness.

eg MA 28, transl The Madhyama Agama, Vol 1, p.189. Also in MA 79, 134 and 161.

Somewhat reminiscent (even if more elaborate) of the Buddha’s well-wishing in MN 90-

Sukhiniyo hontu tā, mahārāja, somā ca bhaginī sakulā ca bhaginī”ti

May the sisters Soma and Sakula be happy, great king.

Perhaps what started off as a social pleasantary evolved over time into a formalised practice of goodwill? However, in MA 68, the Buddha’s past life of practising the divine abidings is summed up as -


I benefited myself, benefited others, and benefited many people. I had compassion for the whole world and I sought prosperity, benefit, peace and happiness for gods and human beings.

Another indication that perhaps metta in its simplest manifestation is in the 2nd Limb of the Noble Eightfold Path. We see this repeated -

Abyāpannacitto hoti appa­duṭṭha­manasaṅ­kappo: ‘ime sattā averā hontu abyāpajjā, anīghā sukhī attānaṃ pariharantū’ti.

He bears no ill will and is not corrupt in the resolves of his heart. [He thinks,] ‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease!’

Eg AN 10.176