Ven. Gunaratana: Misunderstanding of Metta Practice

in particular i liked Ven Gunaratana’s rendering of the term metta, it’s so obvious and semantically sound too and yet for some reason not widely used

the story, told by the venerable, of a monastic metta practitioner killed by an elephant is perhaps THIS


how does bhante g. render metta? i’m not going to watch 60 minutes of video to find out :slightly_smiling: . could you also describe in one or two lines what that misunderstanding is?

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the Dhamma talk is very meaty as it is, i hope everyone will find it beneficial and illuminating and so i encourage that it’s actually watched, if my aim was to share its synopsis i’d do just that, please forgive me


I’ve listened to it, but I do often find Bhante G quite hard to follow on recordings such as this.

One of the arguments he makes I’ve heard before from Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

Some people misread this passage — in fact, many translators have mistranslated it — thinking that the Buddha is telling us to cherish all living beings the same way a mother would cherish her only child. But that’s not what he’s actually saying.

[It means you] should be devoted to cultivating and protecting your goodwill to make sure that your virtuous intentions don’t waver.

It’s a nice talk but I didn’t really notice anything that I hadn’t heard somewhere before. Perhaps I’m not understanding him very well. Some explanation from LXNDR of what points he’d like us to consider would be helpful.

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i just shared the video, that’s all :slightly_smiling:


What B.Thanissaro says makes a lot of sense, (about one should protect the PRACTICE of metta as a mother protects son, not that one should regard all living beings as a mother protects son) but I wonder if the truth is somewhere in between. The reason it’s been mistranslated often, if it was indeed mistranslated, is because it’s such a suggestive simile. Often in the EBT with similes it seems to match up exactly with our meditation experience, even if in the translation it does not explicitly say so.

Consider the simile of the saw, in MN, the very end of the discourse where the simile is given that if one’s limbs are being sawed off, not only should not one be angry at the attacker, one should be practicing metta toward them. If one is to take metta to that extreme, then the sappy “loving-kindness” type of metta that regards all beings as our children seems consistent with this simile. That is, if i regard that attacker like a son or brother, then it’s much more likely that i’d be willing to practice metta toward them.

On the other hand, if I practice the rational “good will” type of metta, my rational
reaction to an attacker sawing my limb off would be to kick his ass with as little anger as possible, to the extent necessary to escape or incapacitate him.

It’s interesting to consider these different interpretations, but I don’t think it’s actually a case of different translations. It seem to me to be a case of how the relationship between the two phrases is interpreted.

I will preface this by saying I have also not watched the video, but I am more replying to Thanissaro and the previous discussion here.

I think that everyone and in particular Thanissaro is pointing to the idea that we should not and cannot treat every living being in the universe in the same way a mother treats their son. This is a fairly reasonable conclusion, but then we have to ask what is it that we are supposed to take from the simile. Thanissaro obviously thinks that we have to switch the meaning around in two ways, by changing the definition to “goodwill” and by saying the motherly love is a simile for protecting your goodwill, not a description for the loving-kindness itself.

I think that there is a subtler point that lies underneath this distinction and that the approach Thanissaro takes is perhaps slightly crude for pointing it out. In my view the underlying difference is that between emotion and responsibility. What I mean by that is that there is a difference between how we feel or the emotional response we have and the responsibility we have towards that situation.

We can have an emotion or feeling that does not require us to take action or to do anything or where it is not possible to take action or do anything. We can care extraordinarily deeply about someone, with a fully open heart, but perhaps they are on the other side of the world and in need of urgent help. In that case no matter how we feel about them, there is nothing we can do. In this case we can see there could be very strong loving-kindness, but no requirement or duty of care possible.

Responsibility is the other side of the coin. A mother has a responsibility to their child, especially a young one because it is a relationship of dependence. Similarly, we have a responsibility for ourselves, we are responsible for our actions, for our kamma, etc. In these cases, we have responsibility for the choices we make.

Getting back to loving-kindness, I think Thanissaro is selling loving-kindness short by calling it goodwill. The love of a mother for her only child is extremely powerful, open, vulnerable and unconditional. These are powerful qualities. To me, developing that kind of love towards the world is very powerful in practice. It seems to be almost opposite to the hindrances. With that kind of feeling we can be non-reactive, we can be open and not have unwholesome feelings arise toward the world.

We all know how good that feels. We seek love, intimacy and anything else that makes us feel more loving or open to others or the world. Much of new-age spirituality seems to be playing into this dynamic. Of course, there is a very positive side to this, if wielded skilfully, we can let go of our afflictive and reactionary minds towards the world. We can stop fighting against our experience.

The difficulty is being that open can also open us to very painful feelings. Having loving kindness towards a horrible person forces us to hold both the suffering they caused and our love for them simultaneously without being able to do anything to balance them. Imagine the pain of truly feeling that much loving-kindness towards all of the suffering beings in the world? That is not easy. But it is possible if there is not confusion between emotion and responsibility. Can we have loving-kindness and then be able to not respond? Not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t.

I think that this confusion is common, I certainly make it and I think men in general might struggle with it more often. Emotions are powerful, being with them without “doing something” about them is even harder. I know for myself that this dynamic is one reason why I suppress emotion rather than just to let it be. I can deny and resist the feeling to prevent feeling the paradox of caring deeply but being powerless to do anything to ease the suffering of those I care about.

Not surprisingly I think the Buddha exemplifies this dynamic and balance perfectly. One example is when the Buddha expels monks from the sangha for a pārājika offense. Obviously the Buddha still cares and has loving-kindness towards that being, but their behaviour has forced him to expel them from the sangha. Similarly, when the monks at Kosambī got into the huge argument about an issue of discipline (see chapter 10 of Khandakas in the Vinaya). They argued and fought and could not resolve it, even with the Buddha’s help and input. Upon seeing that he was of no use, the Buddha left before the argument was resolved and spent three months meditating in the forest by himself. Once again, I think he had loving-kindness for all of these monks, but he also saw the limits of his capabilities and responsibilities.

The Buddha acted out of compassion for the world, but even he knew this meant that people still had to save themselves. In the same way I don’t think we have to sell short any idea of mettā as goodwill. I believe we can have the same level of loving-kindness as a mother towards her only child as we do towards all beings.

Bhante G is my preceptor and I’ve heard him talk for years, so I think i can try to shed some light here.

First of all , ya bunch of lazies lol, how can you know what a monk says without listening to them. Perhaps it’s just me and my history of practice(ie no sangha or monastics close to me, mostly youtube/books) but if there is a monk’s talk who I’ve never heard before I always like to see how they teach, how they interpret the dhamma etc. Sometimes it’s good to have various perspectives. Now as a monk myself who has begun to give talks, I use little things from various monks i’ve learned from and incorporate them along with my own perspective.

That being said, Bhante G actually does this as well. He is always learning and he respects other monastics like Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and if he sees an explanation that works and fits with his experience, he will use it. I too, as a very strong and consistent metta practitioner, feel that the " as a mother would protect her only child" line makes MUCH more sense as protecting your metta then some sort of lovey dovey thing about loving all beings like a mother. Why? because it is a really horrible, oppressive feeling to have a mind full of ill will. This not only harms myself, but also harms others in my interactions with them, so I do my best using right effort to abide as much as possible in good will.

Gramatically " loving-friendliness", the term Bhante G uses, is the most accurate in the Pali of Metta. However I also use Thanissaro’s translation of “limitless goodwill” as I feel it fits the reality of the practice better. I feel the whole “loving-” part brings up different connotations in the West and a limitless goodwill seems more in line with what the Buddha is trying to say in the suttas.

We have trouble even here at Bhavana with people being able to listen to Bhante G even with the sound system in the meditation hall. Due to his age his voice has become quite low and the few times he is able to talk loudly for a talk, it exhausts him.

Now to end I wanted to respond to " how does Bhante G Render Metta" question. Bhante G puts a lot of emphasis on “metta in action” over repetitive words. he stresses the “stages” of metta, ie from thought to feeling" and abiding on the feeling of metta is the final stage of it. Bhane G is very Sutta based and the Buddha taught Metta as the direct counter of ill-will, so this is the purpose of Metta, to abandon ill-will in our minds gradually.

I think that covers it all, I’d be happy to answer any further questions regarding this post.


Bhante J. and Jesse,
Sadhu! I enjoy reading your well thought out responses. One thing I like about “good will” is the symmetry with how Thanissaro translates right intention’s abyapaada “ill will”. The first of the 2 brahmaviharas are strongly implied with abyapada and a-vihimsa. So the term good-will has the benefit strengthening the mental connection with purifying our right intention. Loving-kindess or loving-friendliness has the unfortunate association (for me at least) of an emotionally unbalanced person not able to think straight and act skillfully.

regarding how a sutta translator should translate
I definitely appreciate the arguments in favor of including “love” in the term, but I guess to me it seems safer to use a less dangerous term “good will” and gradually train people to see that mettaa incorporates aspects of a more all encompassing universal “loving kindness”.