Aside from the Heart Sutra, which is chanted in multiple traditions and in lots of ways, perhaps the sutra that has most touched Western Buddhism, or at least Western Buddhist practice (as opposed to study) is the Metta Sutta, or Sutta of Loving-Kindness (when it’s Pali, it’s sutta; Sanskrit, sutra). It isn’t a Zen sutra—most of my teachers in Japan are completely unfamiliar with it—yet I suspect most Zen centers chant it, at least on occasion. It’s struck a chord.
As the name suggests, the sutta is about loving-kindness—how to cultivate it, yes, but also just the pure expression of it. “May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety.” Then it lists all the kinds of beings—weak, strong, near, far, born, unborn, and so on—before saying, once again, “May all beings be happy.” It’s perfectly, straightforwardly kind—so much so that it can be jarring, the first time you read it, to hear those words coming out of your own mouth.
Not to diminish the incredible sophistication of Buddhism and its many creative developments over centuries, but if you were to take up just one teaching in your lifetime—if you were to dedicate yourself to understanding and embodying one little bit of wisdom—the Metta Sutta would make for an excellent journey. You could dedicate yourself just to “May all beings be happy,” for that matter. What if you said it every day? Multiple times a day? What if you said it in your head every time you encountered another being or watched the news? It would change, over time, from being a nice idea, an exercise, to being a part of who you are, a reflex. We can teach ourselves something this basic. It’s possible.
The sutta continues, “Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings.” This is the part that really gets me. If you have kids, you get it immediately, the enormity of spreading that kind of love, that sense of responsibility, to everyone. Whether you have kids or not, you almost certainly have at least one easy relationship (hopefully many more), in which, for reasons that go beyond logic, you love someone and want what’s best for them, and feeling that way requires no effort. You don’t have to try to be so generous—with that person, for whatever reason, you’re already there. This sutta is an invitation to investigate the ease of that feeling, the depth of that caring, and then to believe, even if you can’t quite see how it would work, that you are capable of feeling that deeply about everyone. The guy on the street, the barista, the person in the crowd on the news, some child you’ve never met on the other side of the world—you can hold them all. Your boundless mind can do that.
We can dedicate ourselves to meditation, to studying the teachings, to knowing our traditions in our bones. That’s a wonderful way to spend a life. But there’s a danger, in that path, of looking at the distance of the horizon and thinking you’ll never get to where you want to go. There’s always an open invitation in Buddhism, however, to start at the end. Would you like to be the kind of person who loves all beings, who cares for all beings, who extends loving-kindness to all beings? Yes? Then you can start by putting those words in your mouth. Say them out loud. And mean them—even if you don’t think you’re qualified to mean them. May all beings be happy. Say it again. Think it again. Doubt yourself all you want, question the value of it all you want, let yourself wonder if feeling on this scale is just a fantasy. Ask yourself—this is important—if you even know what happiness is. Are you wishing something for others that you don’t even have? Look into all of that. That’s part of it too.
But as you rummage through all those corners of your mind, keep saying the words. Keep giving them life. Keep letting them become who you are. “Cultivate,” as it says in the sutta, “an infinite good will toward the whole world.” Can you think of a better project? Is there a better use of your time?
Here’s the sutta. You can start right now, if you want.
This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace:
Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous; let one not be submerged by the things of the world.
Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches; let one’s senses be controlled; let one be wise but not puffed up; let one not desire great possessions even for one's family; let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.
May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, may all beings be happy.
Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world, above, below and all around without limit; so let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.
Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours let one cherish the thought that this way of living is the best in the world.
Abandoning vain discussion, having a clear vision, freed from sense appetites, one who is made perfect will never again know rebirth in the cycle of creation of suffering for ourselves or for others.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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