The Metta Sutta: A Beloved Buddhist Teaching

The Buddha's Teaching of Loving Kindness

Mother and boy playing outdoor
Aping Vision / STS

The Metta Sutta is the Buddha's discourse on developing and sustaining loving kindness. It is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism and one that is often used as an introduction to the spiritual practice.

Metta means loving kindness and it is one of the "Four Immeasurables" or ​the Four Divine States of Buddhism. These are mental states or qualities that are cultivated by Buddhist practice. The other three are compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha).

What Is Metta?

Metta is sometimes translated as "compassion," though in the Four Immeasurables it is distinctly "loving-kindness." This is because karuna is used to describe "compassion." The Pali language makes this distinction between metta and karuna:

  • Karuna connotes active sympathy and gentle affection, a willingness to bear the pain of others, and possibly pity.
  • Metta is a benevolence toward all beings that is free of selfish attachment. By practicing metta, a Buddhist overcomes anger, ill will, hatred, and aversion.

The Metta Sutta

The Metta Sutta is sometimes called the Karaniya Metta Sutta. It is from a part of the Tripitaka called the Sutta Nipata, which is in the Sutra-pitaka (or Sutra Basket) of the Tripitaka. Monks of the Theravada school frequently chant the Metta Sutta.

The Theravada website, Access to Insight, provides a number of translations, including one by noted scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

This is just a small portion of the text:

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.

Many Buddhists in the West learn the Metta Sutta within their first dhamma talks. It is commonly recited prior to a sangha's meditation session as a thought for contemplation during the practice.

The most common translation in Western sanghas begins:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.

The Metta Sutta Beyond Recitation

When pursuing any spiritual practice, it can be easy to get caught up in memorization and forget that the teaching is meant to be studied deeper and put into practice. The popularity of the Metta Sutta is a perfect example.

In his teaching of the Metta Sutta, the Buddha did not intend for his words (or the translations thereof) to be a mere ritual. It was shared to guide them to use loving-kindness in their everyday lives.

It is also the purpose of the Metta Sutta to share this wish for happiness with all beings. To act to others in a loving way -- with the compassion of a mother to her child -- will spread this peaceful feeling to others.

And so, the Buddha might wish that those who follow his path keep the Metta Sutta in mind in every interaction that they have. To speak kind words, to avoid conceit and greed, to 'Wish no harm upon another"; these are just a few of the things which the sutta reminds Buddhists to practice.

The Metta Sutta can be a profound teaching that is studied for years. Each new layer that is uncovered can lead to a deeper understanding of the Buddha's teaching.