|Whether visible or invisible,
Dwelling far away or not far away,
Whether born already or not yet born
—May all beings be happy in themselves.
|diṭṭhā vā ye vā addiṭṭhā,
ye ca dūre vasanti avidūre,
bhūtā vā sambhavesi vā,—
sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā.
Whether visible or invisible
This verse continues the Metta Suttā’s exercise of extending the intention of loving kindness as inclusively and extensively as we can possibly imagine. Yes, we can simply say the phrase “May all beings be happy,” but this sutta is encouraging us to get beyond the platitude and actually try to think about all beings as we extend the attitude of loving kindness toward them. As with the last verse, this becomes an exercise of creative visualization.
Here is a suggestion for working directly with visible beings, which should be especially rewarding now that the spring weather is arriving. Go to a favorite location in nature—a hilltop with a view, the foot of an old tree, a bench in a quiet corner of the park, or a deckchair in your own back yard—and sit quietly, calming the body and mind. Open your eyes and look around you. Over an extended period of time, in a slow and steady way, take systematic note of all the living beings you perceive around you. There might be a squirrel rustling around in the bushes and jumping from place to place across your line of sight. As you watch the squirrel, see what it feels like experientially to cultivate an intention of loving kindness toward it as a living being. Watch it move, watch it breath, watch its fear and anxiety as it looks all around; and as you are watching it, love it, feel affection for it, care for its well being, and generally allow your regard to be saturated with benevolence. And don’t hurry the exercise, but spend some time with it, allowing it to sink in.
Then you can turn your attention to the next living thing you notice—perhaps the bumble bee, or a flock of birds, or even the mosquitoes and black flies that might be assailing you (which they surely will be doing, at least here in New England in May). Can you feel friendliness even to such beings whose job it might be to puncture your skin? And, you might extend the range from sentient beings to include plant life: the flowers and trees, the new buds bursting on the branches or pushing up through the grass. Again, as before, remember that the source of the loving kindness (your own heart) is I think ultimately a more significant factor in this practice than its destination (the object of that intention). Heck, as long as you’re at it, you might as well regard the clouds and sky with loving kindness too, or the moon and stars if you are doing this at night.
Discovering the invisible world you are seated amidst takes somewhat more imagination. Perhaps you can discover the creatures that are usually hiding under the leaf cover or squirming beneath rocks. Or, they may be invisible because they are very small, in which case you can use the envisioning skills developed last month to explore the micro-realms of our ecosystem. Living beings can also be invisible because they are far away.
Dwelling far away or not far away
You can remind yourself that what you see before you, in all its complexity, is repeated again and again around the world, in the visual range of all the other people inhabiting it, or in the unregarded acres that we know lie in the back country, off the beaten track. If you can see this squirrel, and become intimate with it through your practice of loving kindness, think of how many other squirrels there are in the world. The same goes for anything and everything you were able to conceive in the previous exercise.
Returning to the human realm, you might go systematically through all the people you know to be inhabiting the same area. Indeed, this is one of the ways the formal mettā meditation is classically presented. Starting with the people you see around you; moving to the people you know are nearby (in the building, in the neighborhood, in the town); and keep expanding the range from the ‘not far away’ to the ‘far away’ range.
Whether born already or not yet born
This phrase has the effect of extending the exercise in time, much as it has already been extended in space. We are asked to imagine not only the living beings who co-exist with us now in the various regions of the universe, but also to consider all those who have been born in the past, and all those who may yet be born in the future.
How far back into the past? Certainly all past generations of humans, all the way back as they morph into primates in our imagination. Certainly also all the ancestors of the species we know of today—all the former whales, the earlier horses, and the progenitors of all the creatures we can imagine going back hundreds of thousands of years. But why stop there? What about the proto-mammals, the dinosaurs, and all the creatures of the primordial sea? They too were living beings, and are perhaps to be pitied rather than blamed for surviving as they did by killing one another ruthlessly.
And how far are we capable of projecting our mind into the future? It is an uncomfortable, though perhaps useful, thought to consider that the world will go on after we each pass away. Can we feel loving kindness for all the animals on the planet the week after we die? Can we experience goodwill toward all the species that will become extinct over the next century or two? And what about the deep future, imagining worlds beyond worlds of life continuing, if not on our ravaged planet, then perhaps elsewhere? How many living beings are yet to be born?
This whole enterprise now becomes mind-bogglingly vast. And perhaps that is the point. We can begin to see how the exercise of cultivating loving kindness can act as a natural bridge to the immense numbers of the Mahāyāna sutras. If we really are trying to manifest an attitude of loving kindness toward all beings, it becomes important to conceptualize just how large a population that really is. At a certain point, we need to surrender the attempt to imagine each of these creatures as individuals, and shift the attention instead to the subjective state of open caring itself. As one focuses on the “feeling” of loving kindness (as we loosely say in English; actually it is an intention or an emotion rather than a feeling), usually in the vicinity of the chest or heart, the practice becomes to just to magnify that benevolent attitude as much as humanly possible.
—May all beings be happy in themselves.
We return to the punch line, the chorus, the refrain that gets repeated many times in this text and an uncountable number of times in this practice. May they be happy. May they all be well. May every one of the creatures I can possibly consider, be happy in themselves. Notice how this last expression specifies that we are to be happy about whatever makes the other happy, and are not to use this sentiment to expect others to do what we want or to do what would gratify us. If the pig is happy wallowing in the mud, then we are happy too when she does so. For the practice to be genuine, it must be free of the subtle cloying ways our own desires can get projected onto others. The challenge is to really feel, viscerally in one’s own direct experience, the emotion of caring for the happiness and well-being of others, in whatever form it might naturally take. May they be happy in themselves.
This is a tune that should get stuck in your head, turning over and over as an elderly Tibetan grandmother might spin her prayer wheel around and around. Every time this phrase is formed in our mind, or better yet, in our hearts, we are carving a trail of loving kindness, treading a path of caring for others, through the very structures of the brain. Each time it occurs, the opposite emotions of hatred or aversion are suspended and the conditioning pattern, the formation (saṅkhāra) of loving kindness is strengthened. By means of this practice, we become an incrementally better person, a person each time more inclined to consider the well-being of others, a person whose very patterns of disposition are transformed from unhealthy to healthy characteristics.