|Whatsoever living beings exist,
Without exception, whether weak or strong,
Whether tall & large, middle-sized, or short,
Whether very subtle or very gross,
|ye keci pāṇabhūt’ atthi
tasā vā thāvarā vā anavasesā
dighā vā ye mahantā vā
majjhimā rassakā aṇukathūlā,
Whatsoever living beings exist, without exception
This verse of the Mettā Sutta is above all an exercise in imagination. It calls upon us to conjure up in our minds the image of every living thing possible, enticing us well beyond our normal range of thinking. And (I don’t think it is cheating to read ahead in this case to the next verse), we are to think of all these creatures with a mind of loving kindness.
The Buddhist tradition generally defines a living being as a breathing being, and thus includes all species from the insect level and above. Yet there are also passages in the Pāli Canon that suggest a person take care of damaging plants as well. As with so much of Buddhist thought and practice, the emphasis is really upon the quality of consciousness in the subject, rather than on the utilitarian effect of this attitude of kindness upon its object. From this perspective it does not make so much difference whether or not one includes plants in the list of suitable objects for one’s loving kindness: if it feels right, then do it; if not, then don’t.
We are used to bringing kind regards to bear on what we see before us, the beings we encounter and interact with during normal life experience. Here we are being asked to think beyond immediate experience and contemplate living beings that are not plainly apparent. The phrases that follow can serve as a sort of guided meditation for exploring this terrain.
Whether weak or strong
What life forms might one construe as weak? Those of delicate constitution, such as butterflies or jellyfish, for example, or almost anything without a spine. Those that are short-lived, like mayflies, or that are born feeble and are destined to die almost immediately. The newborn or very young of almost every species are weak by nature.
It is not so difficult to feel loving kindness for the weak, is it? There is something in us, no doubt inherited from our mammalian ancestors, that moves us to care for what is weak, to value what is fleeting, and to protect what is vulnerable. The cherry blossom in Japanese tradition is so beloved because it is so fragile and fleeting; beauty and sadness are bound together in a single moment’s poignant aesthetic appreciation. As an active exercise of visualization, look around you and see if you can call to mind, with a compassionate attitude, all those quiet, hidden things that are less robust than you are.
And what might we regard as strong? The rhinoceros comes to mind, or the ox, or the predators of land, sky and sea (lions, raptors, and sharks, for example). Strong might also mean tenacious, such as the weeds you seek in vain to eliminate from the garden, or the persistent pests inhabiting the dark corners of your kitchen or basement. Or strength could refer to political and economic power, such as that wielded by the generals of the hunta, the lords of the financial industry, or the jailers of the innocent.
Can we experience loving kindness, even toward these? The Buddha is asking this of us. Even the strongest creature will inevitably grow old, infirm and will face death. Power will inevitably slip from the grasp of even the most triumphant. Again, it is not that such people “deserve” our loving kindness, as much as we deserve to be without hatred for anyone at all. It can be a difficult practice, but this is what the practice of loving kindness entails. Remember the Simile of the Saw:
Even if bandits were to severe one savagely with a two-handled saw, any who would give rise to a thought of hatred toward them would not be carrying out my teaching.
Whether tall and large, middle-sized, or short,
Whether very subtle or very gross
Continue the exercise of envisioning living beings of all shapes and sizes. You might even make a game of it on a long drive, or with children. How many different creatures can you love? What is the tallest animal you can think of; what is the shortest? This need not include only those presently alive, but might include things like dinosaurs, long extinct sea creatures, or undiscovered aliens on other worlds. How subtle might life be at the dawn of evolution, how nuanced the distinction between mineral and vegetable and animal?
On how large a scale might we consider something to be a gross living system? Is the interdependent environment alive? The planet as a whole (Gaia)? Might the universe itself be thought of as one humongous living being? Imagination is merely the vehicle being used here to convey its occupant, an attitude of loving kindness, to new and unfamiliar destinations. How far can you go?