2 | Background to the Mettā Sutta


2. The Background to the Mettā Sutta

The historical background which led the Buddha to expound the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta is explained in the commentary written by Ācārya Buddhaghosa, who received it from an unbroken line of Elders going back to the days of the Buddha himself.

It is told that 500 monks received instructions from the Buddha in the particular techniques of meditation suitable to their individual temperaments.

They then went to the foothills of the Himalayas to spend the four months of the rains’ retreat by living a life of withdrawal and intensive meditation.

In those days, a month or two before the rains’ retreat started, monks from all parts of the country would assemble wherever the Buddha lived in order to receive direct instruction from the Supreme Master.

Then they would go back to their monasteries, forest dwellings or hermitages to make a vigorous attempt at spiritual liberation.

This was how these 500 monks went to the Buddha, who was staying at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove in the monastery built by Anāthapiṇḍika.

After receiving instructions they went in search of a suitable place, and in the course of their wandering they soon found a beautiful hillock at the foothills of the Himalayas.

This, according to the commentary,

appeared like a glittering blue quartz crystal:

it was embellished with a cool, dense, green forest grove and a stretch of ground strewn with sand, resembling a pearl net or a silver sheet, and was furnished with a clean spring of cool water.

The bhikkhus were captivated by the sight.

There were a few villages nearby, and also a small market-town ideal as alms-resort. The monks spent a night in that idyllic grove and the next morning went to the market-town for alms.

The residents there were overjoyed to see the monks, since rarely did a community of monks come to spend the retreat in that part of the Himalayas.

These pious devotees fed the monks and begged them to stay on as their guests, promising to build each a hut near the grove on the sandy stretch so that they could spend their days and nights plunged in meditation under the ancient boughs of the majestic trees.

The bhikkhus agreed and the devotees of the area soon built little huts in the fringe of the forest and provided each hut with a wooden cot, a stool and pots of water for drinking and washing.

After the monks had settled down contentedly in these huts, each one selected a tree to meditate under, by day and by night.

Now it is said that these great trees were inhabited by tree-deities who had a celestial mansion built, appropriately using the trees as the base. These deities, out of reverence for the meditating monks, stood aside with their families.

Virtue was revered by all, particularly so by deities, and when the monks sat under the trees, the deities, who were householders, did not like to remain above them.

The deities had thought that the monks would remain only for a night or two, and gladly bore the inconvenience. But when day after day passed and the monks still kept occupying the bases of the trees, the deities wondered when they would go away.

They were like dispossessed villagers whose houses had been commandeered by the officials of visiting royalty and they kept watching anxiously from a distance, wondering when they would get their houses back.

These dispossessed deities discussed the situation among themselves and decided to frighten the monks away by showing them terrifying objects, by making dreadful noises and by creating a sickening stench.

Accordingly, they materialised all these terrifying conditions and afflicted the monks. The monks soon grew pale and could no longer concentrate on their subjects of meditation.

As the deities continued to harass them, they lost even their basic mindfulness, and their brains seemed to become smothered by the oppressing visions, noise and stench.

When the monks assembled to wait upon the senior most Elder of the group, each one recounted his experiences.

The Elder suggested:

“Let us go, brethren, to the Blessed One and place our problem before him.

There are two kinds of rains’ retreat - the early and the late:

Though we will be breaking the early one by leaving this place, we can always take upon ourselves the late one after meeting the Lord.”

The monks agreed and they set out at once, it is said, without even informing the devotees.

By stages they arrived at Sāvatthī, went to the Blessed One, prostrated at his feet, and related their frightful experiences, pathetically requesting another place.

The Buddha, through his supernormal power, scanned the whole of India, but finding no place except the same spot where they could achieve spiritual liberation, told them:

“Monks, go back to the same spot! It is only by striving there that you will accomplish the destruction of inner taints.

Fear not! If you want to be free from the harassment caused by the deities, learn this sutta. It will be a theme for meditation as well as a formula for protection (paritta).

Then the Master recited the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta - the Hymn of Universal Love - which the monks learned by rote in the presence of the Lord. Then they went back to the same place.

As the monks neared their forest dwellings reciting the Mettā Sutta, thinking and meditating on the underlying meaning,

the hearts of the deities became so charged with warm feelings of goodwill that they materialised themselves in human form and received the monks with great piety.

They took their bowls, conducted them to their rooms, caused water and food to be supplied, and then, resuming their normal form, invited them to occupy the bases of the trees and meditate without any hesitation or fear.

Further, during the three months of the rains’ residence, the deities not only looked after the monks in every way but made sure that the place was completely free from any noise.

Enjoying perfect silence, by the end of the rainy season all the monks attained to the pinnacle of spiritual perfection. Every one of the 500 monks had become an Arahat.

Indeed, such is the power intrinsic in the Mettā Sutta:

Whoever with firm faith will recite the sutta, invoking the protection of the deities and meditating on mettā, will not only safeguard himself in every way but will also protect all those around him, and will make spiritual progress that can be actually verified.

No harm can ever befall a person who follows the path of mettā.