Loving Kindness

Today’s post focuses on metta, the Pali word used to describe benevolence, loving-kindness, goodwill, and active interest in others. It is the first of four sublime states in the Theravada school of Buddhism and is central to the practice of mindfulness. I’ll begin with a story…

golden buddhaIn the early 19th Century, the King of Siam established a new capital city in Bangkok. And after commissioning the construction of many temples, he ordered that various old Buddha statuary should be brought to Bangkok from ruined temples around the country. Mind you, this was no simple undertaking. One such statue stood nearly 10 feet tall and weighed over 6 tons. Imagine the effort that it took to relocate it given 19th century technology. It was not especially beautiful as its outer covering was that of stucco and colored glass. But its origins in the 13th or 14th century rendered it valuable.

The piece was moved three more times before settling into its permanent home in 1954. But during that final move, something happened to cause some of the plaster coating to chip off, revealing a golden surface underneath. This was a curious development. And at the direction of the monks, all of the plaster was removed. To the astonishment of the assembled workers and clerics, a golden Buddha emerged, preserved and protected over hundreds of years from would-be marauders who would otherwise have stolen this national treasure.

This story is oft repeated as a metaphor for human life – and, by extension, all of life on this earth. Luminous. Immensely valuable. Golden at the core of being.

Yet as we grow and walk this earth, how easy it has become to lose sight of our inner gold as we accumulate layer upon layer of outer shells and colored glass. Some as shields. Some to appear attractive according to the style of the day. And some due to a lost ability to let that inner core shine through even (and perhaps most especially) when we fail to act in accordance with our better angels or simply hold ourselves in low esteem.

Since I began a mindfulness meditation teacher certification program over a year ago, I’ve been struck by the frequency with which my instructors use the words “compassion” and “kind attention” in dharma talks and guided meditation. For example, if noticing physical discomfort when settling in for a period of silence, Jack Kornfield invites us to acknowledge the distress with compassion and then move mindfully. When investigating difficult emotions in a R.A.I.N. practice, Tara Brach encourages us to give kind attention to our sensations, our feelings, and stories. These aren’t throw away phrases. They’re constant reminders of that golden essence that lies at the core of our being… and that golden essence merits deep respect and care no matter what thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise and pass away.

That is the kindness that we owe ourselves. That is the lens through which we are invited to receive and respond to all beings. It is captured beautifully and simply in the Hindu greeting namaste which connotes “I bow to the divine in you” or “the sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.”

And turning now to the word “loving.” Those among us who have experienced a deep connection with the Divine, who have experienced loving relationships in their families of origins, who have been blessed with committed partners and friends, who have raised children (and perhaps fur or feathered babies), and/or lived in intentional community may have a leg up in accessing this deep feeling of attachment that can abide between us. Far beyond the flutter of the heart, it speaks to a genuine concern for the other’s wellbeing, a steadfast presence during the ups and downs of life, a celebration of the other’s strengths and accomplishments, and a gentle tolerance for faults and failings. It is a felt sense in the heart and active engagement toward the other’s betterment. Metta invites us to extend the feeling we share with intimates to all others in our communities and on this earth.