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How to understand a mother's love in the Metta Sutta

EDIT: Thank you @Gillian for splitting this thread and creating a new post. It’s much nicer for Bhante’s beautiful chanting and translation of the Metta Sutta to be free of too much off track discussion! So thank you! :slight_smile: I wanted to add this little note to mention that the split has happened - in case things here seem vaguely out of context! I hope that’s ok. :slight_smile:

Also, I want to add, in case anyone knows my little Mum: she’s sweet, good and loves and supports me. So it’s not about her. Often it’s not about looking back, it’s just about looking in and being with.

I would have deleted all my posts, but so many other good comments were there by others; so it’s very nice that Gillian split the threads. So may it help someone else as it has helped me to just be here and ruminate and learn.

Much metta


Dear Bhante

Thank you so very much for this inspiration to love…

If I may ask a couple questions…?

  1. This one is mainly just curiosity: I think I’ve heard you say, and also read you writing, that this sutta is probably not an EBT. So…

…is your current thinking that all but the final verse, can be classified as EBTs?

  1. This question is definitely not just asked out of curiosity as I feel it has important implications for how we approach life and love and Dhamma practice. (Although if most of the text is defintely not - as opposed to probably/possibly not - an EBT, then I feel this question has less urgency).

I read this…but I am still confused about the correct way of approaching the mother and child simile…

So I am drawing your attention to the following:

I would be so very grateful for a little more input Bhante… It would be so nice if Ven Khemarato was correct in his impression. But I’d rather also know what you feel the Pali is actually saying. I always felt this mother and child simile was odd (loving often, but so very attached and therefore entangled and flawed and bound with dukkha and mistakes galore amid good intentions). If Ven Khemarato is correct, I feel the whole thing makes infinitely more sense.

Please forgive what is clearly a repetitive question by a confused person! I think what I got from reading the linked post was that you agreed with Ven Khemarato; but your translation above seems at odds with this. I think I am confused-ly missing something…

Ajahn @Brahmali, I’d be so grateful if you’d also weigh in on this with regard to how you would translate this section about the mother and child, in order to convey the mostly likely intention of the Pali text :pray:t5:

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Hi Kay,

Thanks for bringing this up again. Re-reading it, I’m really puzzled by Ven Thanissaro’s statement (mentioned in Bhante Sujato’s post you linked) that:

It’s sometimes understood as saying that we should be willing to sacrifice our lives to protect all others, in the same way that a mother would sacrifice her life for the sake of her child.

To me, the obvious way of reading the verse:

Even as a mother would protect with her life
her child, her only child,
so too for all creatures
unfold a boundless heart.
[Sujato]

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate the heart limitlessly
with regard to all beings.
[Thanissaro]

Is that the boundless heart should be like the love a mother feels for her child, i.e.
“Have a boundless heart for all, like the mothers love for her child”, not
“Protect all others, like the mother protects her child.”

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I don’t really think about it like that. The last verse is added later. But I don’t try to make a list of what is and isn’t an “EBT”. And “EBT” doesn’t mean “authentic”, it just means early. How early is hard to say.

I’m not sure that I have anything more to say. It seems clear to me. Perhaps you could try to identify more specifically the issue you have?

I think Bhante Sujato is pretty much spot on. The Pali is straight forward, and there isn’t much wriggle room as far as the meaning is concerned.

One issue that is sometimes debated is whether the text means that one should love all beings as a mother loves her only child. If this were correct, then your point about it being “entangled and flawed” would be even more obvious. But if we translate the Pali properly as “guarding” this point is weakened. When we focus on the guarding, we are seeing mindfulness in action, since guarding is one of the main functions of mindfulness. So, just as a child consumes the attention of its mother, almost to the exclusion of everything else, so the idea of benevolence should be almost all-consuming to a spiritual practitioner. In other words, it should always be at the back of our minds.

You could argue, of course, that the mother’s attention on her child is in large part driven by attachment. But then you could also argue that attachment is part of the spiritual path. To be able to live truly ethically you need attach to it, at least to some degree. You may remember from MN24, the Ratha-vinīta Sutta, that each stage on the path is said to be sa-upadāna, “with attachment”. Some degree of grasping and holding on is part of what it is to be un-Awakened. So a skilful person grasps those things that promote the path, such a mettā. Grasping is not something we can just wish away, but we can direct it to promote spiritual growth.

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A mother’s devotion to her child is part benevolent and necessary care, and part unwholesome clinging. The new mother’s awed “this little baby is part of my body” is pretty correct in terms of the four elements, and it a healthy response because it creates the emotional commitment to sleepless nights and hard labour that childrearing demands. But the wholesome course of motherhood is that – from that very first moment – it is a steady process of letting go. It’s only when that letting go process is resisted that it morphs into unwholesome attachment. Tho admittedly it can be a painful process.

I’ve always seen “Even as a mother would protect with her life her child, her only child” as a metaphor for commitment. I’m less clear about whether this commitment should be to “all beings” or the qualities of one’s own heart. Is the Pali ambiguous on this Ven @Brahmali ?

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Thank you…you have explicitly clarified my question beautifully.

Thank you for making this distinction Bhante.

Gillian basically has done this.

But I want to add that as someone with little knowledge of Pali, little talent or time for scholarship, I trust certain people, partly out of necessity, partly with very good reasons. That’s why I tagged yourself and Ajahn Brahmali. So for someone like me, it matters what you both say about whether this text is more or less likely to have been spoken by our founder.

Also, I am not coming from any desire to get at a better translation for it’s own sake, in fact, I am not motivated by any such interest.

It’s purely a personal interest to understand the intention of the original author.

Which of course intersects exactly with the interest of all of you to get at a spot on translation! So I’m just intensely grateful to you all.

Also, if I have reason to suspect to a high degree that the author is the Buddha; then no matter how much I may dislike what the Pali is saying, I would be open to investigate it from every possible angle.

And until I came to this thread yesterday, I always thought that the following is what was meant:

It never ocurred to me that these lines might be an extraordinarily clear and specific example of the 4th Right Effort.

I apologise if I wasn’t clear, but I have no problem with the translation presented, it’s beautiful, I love it. But I also note:

So I trust you when you say it remains a straight forward rendering rather than an adaptation. Yet, I can’t help noting that you qualify “straight” with “fairly”… This is partly what prompted the question; which is: whether we are supposed to love all beings, or love the metta mind.

It might not seem like an important distinction, all beings vs the metta mind. But on a personal level for me it’s feels like a deeply vulnerable, important question right now. So this isn’t an academic question for me. It’s informed about where I’ve come from when I used to Practise, how I viewed my responsibilities to others, where I ended, where others began…and how I move forward and in what direction. It’s just a really personal, crucial question for me right now.

Yes, it is this entanglement that I hope to avoid as I move forward and learn to love more skillfully.

I see…and Bhante has, “protect”, which is kind of like “guard”. Yet, I feel it really only works on a practical level for me, if I am protecting/guarding the mind, rather than other beings…

Ajahn this is beautiful and is what I hope is being said in this sutta - it feels so much more healing than the other way of looking at it. Thank you for this. This way of looking somehow brings each one of us back to taking responsibility for our own minds, rather than the minds of others - which is where a mother’s love can go, into control and sadness that others aren’t good or happy. But if it’s about guarding a metta mind - everything changes and I feel the practical implications of this view to be more useful and far reaching. Perhaps this is what Bhante also meant by ‘authenticity’? This way of approaching these lines, certainly feel more authentic because they seem more useful.

Again…just so beautiful. Yes, this is another practical implication of viewing these lines as guarding one’s mind rather than guarding all beings.

It occurs to me that I can make the question even more personal and specific, and so, I hope clearer:

When love is in the heart and it’s clear and strong and lovely…and I see other beings harming each other, where do I put my attention? In the past, my dear little metta mind has fallen into a heap of pain upon seeing the ugliness within us all. And I’ve struggled to keep up with the feeling of benevolence to all beings because I was mired in sadness and a feeling of powerlessness.

But…if this little mind, when it feels loving, can turn away - feels like it is given persmission, is allowed to, turn away - from looking at our flaws and can instead just stay with loving - guarding - the love… To me, that feels like a more do-able thing.

And then the questions flow: how do I view our flaws, so my mind feels it can turn away? And how do I specifically do all this, how do I guard the love that is there? What very specific things, views, qualities do I make more important, than a focus on our flaws?

I just feel so much more is opened up and so much depends on how these lines about the mother and child are viewed. Regardless now, I guess, after this act of participation and discussion, I feel, even if the Lord Buddha did intend for us to spread metta to all beings in these particular lines (and elsewhere and often, he does, right?) then, I would still feel, with no disrespect to the Buddha, indeed, with much reverence for him and his teachings, that I have to follow the interpretation that I feel allows me to do this best.

Any comments, clarifications from anyone are gratefully received. :pray:t5: :pray:t5: :pray:t5:
I am just so grateful for this forum and the learning offered here.

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Let me see if I can make another attempt at being more specific by relating more clearly to Bhante’s gorgeous translation,

Interpretation 1: I unfold a boundless heart for all creatures.

Interpretation 2: I unfold a boundless heart for the sake of all creatures.

I swear my motivation isn’t to nit pick! The first interpretation actually makes me feel a little anxious - really!! The second, makes me feel like I’ve got breathing space…

So…then I guess there are no hints in the original texts that indicate which is the best interpretation?

I certainly, no offense, don’t feel any affinity or connection with Ven T’s translation. Thanks so much Mike for putting the two translations next to each other.


And apologies…I have realised I’ve taken a long ramble and - finally - got to the point. Sometimes it’s hard work living in this mind…

That’s nice way of seeing it.

OK, so let’s analyse it. Here is the Pali:

Mātā yathā niyaṃ puttamāyusā ekaputtamanurakkhe;
Evampi sabbabhūtesu, mānasaṃ bhāvaye aparimāṇaṃ.

As (yathā) a mother (mātā) would protect (anurakkhe) with life (āyusā) her (niyaṃ) child (puttam), an only (eka) child (puttam);
So (evam) too (pi) one should develop (bhāvaye) an immasurable (aparimānaṃ) mind (mānasaṃ) towards all (sabbesu) beings (bhūtesu).

Or a bit more fluently:

As a mother would protect her child with her life,
So one should develop a boundless mind towards all living beings.

Which is basically what Bhante Sujato has.

I don’t think it matters too much whether the commitment is to all beings or to the quality of one’s heart. If you are committed to always having love, then by definition all beings will benefit. On the other hand, if you have a commitment to all beings, then this implies, in the current context, that you always have love. The result is the same. Have I missed something?

I think it is quite unambiguously the former.

You know, I try to make mettā an impersonal practice. Loving all beings to me means sending love to all directions, without discrimination. I don’t think you need to send mettā to specific individuals. What one should do, however, in accordance with the Sutta on the Simile of the Saw (MN 21) is send mettā to anyone you are upset with. You need to overcome any ill will you have for specific individuals before you can have mettā for the whole world.

Yes, I think this is a good way of looking at it. If you do this, you will by default have mettā for everyone.

This is the time for compassion, or sometimes just equinimity. And sometimes it will probably make you feel a bit sad. If you are wise about this sadness, however, you will be repelled from the world. When you see the extent to which we hurt each other, the vast majority fumbling around in darkness, not really understanding what we are doing, you see that you need to get out of this. It’s a mess without any real solution, unless you give up on the whole thing.

Yes, as far as I am concerned, this is a perfectly valid way to practice. What we are trying to do is develop our minds. Sometimes this requires looking away.

We view our flaws with compassion. We are conditioned. It is not our fault that the flaws are there. We can’t just let go of them. We have to gradually develop out of them.

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Oh thank you so much for going to the trouble of doing this!

Probably not Ajahn. I think I probably made some entangled, complicated bad kamma in a past life and you didn’t!! So, I think, it’s just how my particular perceptions are hanging out with the kilesas. Because this is how I have been seeing the distinction:

  • a mind that loves all beings as being burdened by some unreasonably heavy responsibility without any realistic support.
  • a mind devoted to guarding wholesome qualities such as metta, as being free of such a heavy burden.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your timely sharing and clarification. Because this

…is not something I’ve properly considered. But it makes sense. How can I send metta to actual beings? They aren’t in front of me, I can’t see them or hear them or sense them or be conscious of them in any other way. So actually your approach is far less burdensome, and in particular, with regard to this sense of carrying others; it’s a perception I’ve lived most of life with and it sucks and I am feeling increased repelled by this particular tendency of my mind!

Again I feel a sense of timeliness…why didn’t this make sense before?! I think I’ve heard you say this many times! It’s so much more sensible and streamlined and feels more purposefully in line with the direction we need to set ourselves in. Thank you for patiently repeating these things to us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I am not always wise about it Ajahn. I feel the depth of my lack of wisdom keenly… But I shall “carry on”… :slight_smile:

See previous string of thank yous… and multiply by 3 or more.

I know…but it’s so affirming to hear you say it again. Our teachers leave the imprint of the Dhamma when they say such things. Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu Ajahn!

Thanks so very, very much for your time :pray:t5: :pray:t5: :pray:t5:

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Ajahn @Brahmali,

I’ve been considering all this further…

So…the simile of the saw practise is a thing that must be done before one’s mind is free to spread metta with a sense of the directions (rather than specific beings)…

Ajahn…I feel rather excitedly that this make sense in terms of the metta byproduct that occurs with any other type of meditation. (Actually, metta is generally an attitudinal thing rather than a method for me.) Because any ill will in the mind is actually specifically directed at someone or something - it’s not a thing that’s generally directed towards an unspecific group. I mean, this hindrance is frequently about the specific individuals we don’t like or have low tolerances for. Also Ajahn, it seems to me now that when one does then meet folks (who are a part of that group called, “all beings”) then if one works in this way, one is actually more likely to treat them with metta when they actually are in front of one.

Any while (I think) alot of suttas talk about the directions. This sutta talks about all beings. But that must mean, that we can’t have any ill will towards anyone specific. It’s a teaching that we can’t widen the net if we’re hung up with ill towards someone specific.

And I was thinking about what I said:

It’s this whole thing of taking care not to get into ill will over specific people or situations…isn’t it? It must seem so obvious but such is the shroud of delusion that it hasn’t been clear at all to me.

I am not saying it is crystal clear or anything… But these little shifts and little changes of approach feel so nice, even though humble and still impermanent.

Thanks again Ajahn for the example you set and the guidance you offer. I hope you have a nice peaceful afternoon.

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Thank you for the Pali lesson Ajahn, very much appreciated … my takeaway is that there is no ambiguity but that the boundless mind and all living beings are placed in a relationship of balance.

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@Brahmali and @sujato,

I’ve tried to read and study as many of the various suttas that have to do with metta as I can and it seems to be the general themes are acceptance, love, non-harming, and protectiveness but that they go hand in hand with more compassionate practices like being considerate (which to me seems like what the first few paragraphs are about) and even doing positive acts which alleviate the suffering of another.

However, I can’t seem to find much about how these things are developed (in the suttas themselves) except that they are recommended after jhana. Though I would consider the practice of vinaya an act of metta and karuna.

Having recently spent a month working with Bhante’s 2007 Metta retreat, it was wonderful, but how do I keep it going? I think I can also fairly say I’ve been putting a lot of development into metta towards myself for nearly 2 years prior to that in various ways (particularly self-acceptance). And it is, of course, easy for the loved person and the neutral person (though I must say I struggle with the mindfulness at this point).

I want to keep the meditation fresh, but it seems to lose its juice (or my interest in it flags) if I do formal metta practise too much, but when I don’t do it bad things happen in my mind. Help! It’s one of the very few ways I actually experience any happiness and of course, it makes it easier to live with those around me and for them to live with me too!

I do very much like the ideas above about guarding the metta mind, and viewing our flaws with compassion, but sometimes all I see/hear is the faultfinding around (towards) me and the hurtfulness of some peoples actions then the ability to guard that just metta slips away and my own faults start getting harder to reign in…

The metta is too anicca!!!

Are there any suttas which are a bit more about development (I’ve read visudimagga) or recommendations from your personal practise?

PS. Ajahn Brahmali, once you have finished the Noble Eightfold Path at Dhammaloka, I think the next one should be…Metta! Or maybe Brahmaviharas :smile: You should also invite Bhante seeing as though he didn’t make it for the last one!

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Tip: if you wish Ajahn Brahmali to see your request use @Brahmali. :wink:

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I am a bit concerned about getting too much into personal practice, which is not appropriate for this forum. But briefly, yes, there are some suttas on how to develop mettā, suttas that you may not have thought of as such. There is MN48, the Kosambiya Sutta, which emphasises that mettā is to be developed by body, speech, and mind in our ordinary interactions with others. There is AN5.162, which shows powerfully, in my opinion, how to deal with anger. This latter one is a great sutta to use when others are faultfinding. I find these two suttas particularly practical in terms of our general practice of mettā. When it comes to the next step, that is, mettā as a meditation subject, the suttas don’t, as you say, provide much meat on the bare bones of the standard exposition of spreading mettā to the various directions. For this you need to go to the commentaries, especially the Visuddhimagga. I think what this shows us is that mettā, in the suttas, is mostly a practical everyday tool to help us purify the mind. We then use this purity for samādhi, after which we have the sort of mind that can naturally spread mettā to all and sundry.

Unfortunately, when it comes to many of these detailed points, we often need to find the way ourselves through trial and error. Good luck!

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3 posts were split to a new topic: No, you were right

To read the brahmaviharas into the suttas it needs to be understood their role there is as a subsidiary theme to insight. It is often repeated in the suttas that tranquillity and insight work together (AN 2.30) and the brahmaviharas assist insight, which alone accomplishes the work of untangling the tangle. So to resolve questions about conventional reality insight needs to be employed, for example contemplation of the division between conventional and ultimate reality, which begins with impermanence.

But first the role of the subsidiary themes is to bring the mind to a state of balance by counteracting the hindrances, seen in MN 62 where a list of subjects including the brahmaviharas precedes the main meditation on the breath, so in the suttas they are valued in the context of producing mental balance, that is equanimity, through eradicating ill-will.

“The ultimate aim of attaining these Brahma-vihara-jhanas is to produce a state of mind that can serve as a firm basis for the liberating insight into the true nature of all phenomena, as being impermanent, liable to suffering and unsubstantial. A mind that has achieved meditative absorption induced by the sublime states will be pure, tranquil, firm, collected and free of coarse selfishness. It will thus be well prepared for the final work of deliverance which can be completed only by insight.”—Nyanaponika

The brahmaviharas prepare the mind for insight, but also insight when developed assists the brahmaviharas in that knowledge of impermanence applied to people and situations enables possession to be removed and the boundless quality seen.

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“Immeasurable” is translated as “boundless” in @Sujato’s translation and in the version often chanted at BSWA venues…

Yet, I think, and Ajahn Brahmali will know for sure, that Ajahn Brahm’s way is to translate it in a way that gives the meaning that it is a heart that doesn’t measure and therefore doesn’t judge.

Is it possible that immeasurable doesn’t mean boundless in the sense of our spatial/spiritual/emotional boundaries? Is it possible it means that we simply don’t measure anyone, (even ourselves), don’t compare…? That we just take each other as we are in the present moment, with love.

Is it possible that in this instance, in this Sutta, “immeasurable” is about a kamma created, rather than a result experienced; the result, (perhaps this is a way of looking at it sometimes) being how metta is talked of elsewhere in the suttas: to radiate love in all directions after one has meditated deeply?

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I recently came across another interpretation of mothers love in the metta sutta. Ajahn Sona suggested that it may be useful to consider how a child feels in the company of their mother. Its a sense of complete safety. So the idea might be gifting safety to whoever you come across, by keeping the precepts and relating to others with a heart of metta. Whether this is strictly in line with what it said in the sutta, I dont know. But I found this interpretation useful and beautiful so I wanted to share.

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Bhante :anjal:

I’m wondering if there is anything to be teased out of the idea of a mothers care and protection directed to her first (only) child in comparison to the mother with many children where her attention has to be shared? I’m just wondering about the inclusion of this line in the sutta and how it might relate to practice?

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That always struck me too. The “only child” friends I’ve had have been more pampered/spoiled and fretted over than those who had siblings who our parents could pick among for different likes and dislikes. It’s like the whole future is resting on that one child. Interested if there are parents on here with just 1 kid…

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