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The Art of Dying
»» The Practice of Mettā Bhāvanā in Vipassana Meditation

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Nghệ thuật chết - Thực hành nuôi dưỡng tâm từ (mettā bhāvanā) trong thiền Vipassana

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a paper presented at the Seminar on Vipassana Meditation, convened at Dhamma Giri, India, in December 1986

The practice of mettā-bhāvanā (meditation of loving-kindness) is an important adjunct to the technique of Vipassana meditation—indeed, its logical outcome. In mettā-bhāvanā one radiates loving-kindness and good will toward all beings, deliberately charging the atmosphere around with calming, positive vibrations of pure and compassionate love. Buddha instructed his followers to develop mettā in order to lead more peaceful and harmonious lives, and to help others do so as well. Students of Vipassana are encouraged to follow that instruction because mettā is the way to share with all others the peace and harmony we are developing.

The Tipiṭaka commentaries state: Mijjati siniyhatiṛti mettā— “That which inclines one to a friendly disposition is mettā.” It is a sincere wish, without a trace of ill will, for the good and welfare of all. Adosoṛti mettā—“Non-aversion is mettā.” The chief characteristic of mettā is a benevolent attitude. It culminates in the identification of oneself with all beings— recognition of the fellowship of all life.

To grasp this concept at least intellectually is easy enough, but it is far harder to develop this attitude in oneself. To do so some practice is needed, and so we have the technique of mettā- bhāvanā, the systematic cultivation of good will toward others. To be really effective, mettā meditation must be practiced along with Vipassana meditation. So long as negativities such as aversion dominate the mind, it is futile to formulate conscious thoughts of good will, and doing so would be merely a ritual devoid of inner meaning. However, when negativities are removed by the practice of Vipassana, good will naturally wells up in the mind. Emerging from the prison of self-obsession, we begin to concern ourselves with the welfare of others.

For this reason, the technique of mettā-bhāvanā is introduced only at the end of a Vipassana course, after the participants have passed through the process of purification. At such a time meditators often feel a deep wish for the well-being of others, making their practice of mettā truly effective. Though limited time is devoted to it in a course, mettā may be regarded as the culmination of the practice of Vipassana.

Nibbāna can be experienced only by those whose minds are filled with loving-kindness and compassion for all beings. Simply wishing for that state is not enough: we must purify our minds to attain it. We do so by Vipassana meditation; hence the emphasis on this technique during a course.

As we practice, we become aware that the underlying reality of the world, ourselves included, is a moment-to-moment arising and passing away. We realize that the process of change continues beyond our control and regardless of our wishes. Gradually we understand that any attachment to what is ephemeral and insubstantial produces suffering for us. We learn to be detached and to keep the balance of our minds in the face of any transient phenomena. Then we begin to experience what real happiness is: not the satisfaction of desire or the forestalling of fear, but rather liberation from the cycle of desire and fear. As inner serenity develops, we clearly see how others are enmeshed in suffering, and naturally the wish arises, “May they find what we have found: the way out of misery, the path of peace.” This is the proper volition for the practice of mettā-bhāvanā.

Mettā is not prayer, nor is it the hope that an outside agency will help. On the contrary, it is a dynamic process producing a supportive atmosphere in which others can act to help themselves. Mettā can be directed toward a particular person or it may be omnidirectional. The realization that mettā is not produced by us makes its transmission truly selfless.

In order to conduct mettā, the mind must be calm, balanced, and free from negativity. This is the type of mind developed in the practice of Vipassana. A meditator knows by experience how anger, antipathy, or ill will destroy peace and frustrate any effort to help others. Only as hatred is removed and equanimity developed can we be happy and wish happiness for others. The words “May all beings be happy” have great force only when uttered from a pure mind. Backed by this purity, they will certainly be effective in fostering the happiness of others.

We must therefore examine ourselves before practicing mettā-bhāvanā to check whether we are really capable of transmitting mettā. If we find even a tinge of hatred or aversion in our minds, we should refrain at that time; otherwise, we would transmit that negativity, causing harm to others. However, if mind and body are filled with serenity and well-being, it is natural and appropriate to share this happiness with others: “May you be happy; may you be liberated from the defilements that are the causes of suffering. May all beings be peaceful.”

This loving attitude enables us to deal far more skillfully with the vicissitudes of life. Suppose, for example, one encounters a person who is acting out of deliberate ill will to harm others. The common response—to react with fear and hatred—is self-centered, does nothing to improve the situation and, in fact, magnifies the negativity. It would be far more helpful to remain calm and balanced, with a feeling of good will, especially for the person who is acting wrongly. This must not be merely an intellectual stance, a veneer over unresolved negativity. Mettā works only when it is the spontaneous outflow of a purified mind.

The serenity gained in Vipassana meditation naturally gives rise to feelings of mettā, and throughout the day this will continue to affect us and our environment in a positive way. Thus, Vipassana ultimately has a dual function: to bring us happiness by purifying our minds, and to help us foster the happiness of others by preparing us to practice mettā. What, after all, is the purpose of freeing ourselves of negativity and egotism unless we share these benefits with others? In a retreat we temporarily cut ourselves off from the world in order to return and share with others what we have gained in solitude. These two aspects of the practice of Vipassana are inseparable.

In these times of widespread malaise, economic disparity, and violent unrest, the need for mettā-bhāvanā is greater than ever. If peace and harmony are to reign throughout the world, they must first be established in the minds of all its inhabitants.


Most of the articles contained in this anthology bear the name of Mr. S.N. Goenka (SNG). The editors would like to express their gratitude to Goenkaji and the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI), Igatpuri, India, for use of this material.

Articles from the Vipassana Newsletter include: “My Mother’s Death in Dhamma” by SNG, “As It Was / As It Is” by Graham Gambie, “Tara Jadhav: An Exemplary Death” by SNG, “Kamma—The Real Inheritance” by SNG, “Ratilal Mehta: A Life and Death in Dhamma” by SNG, “Parvathamma Adaviappa: Equanimity in the Face of Terminal Illness” by Mr. S. Adaviappa, “Work Out Your Own Salvation” by SNG, and “Seventy Years Are Over” by SNG.

Other material from VRI includes: “What Vipassana Is”, “The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation”, “The Practice of Mettā Bhāvanā in Vipassana Meditation” and the Glossary, as well as different quotation and scriptural translations by SNG and Sayagyi U Ba Khin. All Hindi dohas (couplets) are from Come People of the World by SNG. Questions To Goenkaji, Parts I, II, and III came from various sources, including the Vipassana Newsletter and private interviews.

“Graham’s Death” by Anne Doneman previously appeared in Realizing Change by Ian Hetherington, Vipassana Research Publications.

“What Happens at Death” by SNG first appeared in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal, VRI.

“Paṭicca Samuppāda—The Law of Dependent Origination” is from The Discourse Summaries, Day 5, VRI.

Quotations from the Venerable Webu Sayadaw are from The Way to Ultimate Calm, translated by Roger Bischoff, Buddhist Publication Society 2001.

Material for Living in the Present Moment and Facing Death Head-on originated in private interviews with Susan Babbitt, and with Terrell and Diane Jones. Part of Living in the Present Moment was also published as Join the Cosmic Dance, Thee Hellbox Press.

The Rodney Bernier interview, Smiling All the Way to Death, was provided by Evie Chauncey.

The Flood of Tears translated by C.A.F. Rhys Davids was taken from The Book of Kindred Sayings Part II, Pali Text Society.

The Undying Gratitude letter by John Wolford was supplied by John’s mother, Laurie Campbell. Thanks also to Laurie and to Gabriela Ionita for granting permission to print their personal letters to Goenkaji.

Ambapālī’s Verses—translated by Amadeo Solé-Leris, from Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, by Nyanaponika Thera and Helmuth Hecker. Copyright 2003 by Buddhist Publication Society. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Wisdom Publications, www.wisdompubs.org.

Dhammapada verses 41, 128, 165, 288 and 289 are Harischandra Kaviratna’s translation, courtesy of the Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, California.

Paṭhama-ākāsa Sutta appeared in the Vipassana Journal, VRI.

Aṅguttara Nikāya II, 10, Translated by Ven. S. Dhammika, is in Gemstones of the Good Dhamma, Buddhist Publication Society.

The sources of other Tipiṭaka verses quoted are, unfortunately, unknown. The editors sincerely apologize to the rightful translators for using their work without citations.

Front cover designed by Irek Sroka, and back cover designed by Julie Schaeffer.

Photo credits: Graham Gambie courtesy of Anne Donemon, Rodney Bernier taken by Patrick McKay, and Ratilal Metha courtesy of Himanshu Mehta.

Line editing done by Luke Matthews, Ben Baroncini, Michael Solomon, Peter Greene, William Hart, Frank Tedesco, Julie Schaeffer, and others.

Photo editing done by Eric M. Madigan.

Finally, thanks to my husband Bill for his wisdom and unfailing patience while assisting with the preparation of this anthology in all its stages.

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