4 | Ethics of Mettā


4. The Ethics of Mettā

Ethics, in the Buddhist context, is right conduct, which brings happiness and peace of mind, and never gives rise to remorse, worry or restlessness of mind.

This is the immediate psychological benefit.

Right conduct also leads to a happy rebirth, enabling an aspirant to progress further on the onward path to spiritual liberation. It is also the basis for progress in Dhamma here and now.

In other words, right speech, right action and right livelihood of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path constitute right conduct in the best sense.

Buddhist ethics is twofold:

1. fulfilment of certain virtues (cāritta), and
2. precepts of abstinence (vāritta).

Cāritta, as found in the Mettā Sutta, is as follows:

[He] Should be able, honest and upright,
Gentle in speech, meek and not proud.
Contented, he ought to be easy to support,
Not over-busy, and simple in living.
Tranquil his senses, let him be prudent,
And not brazen, nor fawning on families.

Vāritta is covered by the next stanza (gāthā):

Also, he must refrain from any action
That gives the wise reason to reprove him.

Cāritta and vāritta are thus practised through mettā expressed in bodily and verbal action;

the resultant inner happiness and altruistic urge is reflected by the aspirant’s mettā of mental action, as found in the conclusion of the stanza:

May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!

The ethics of mettā thus provides not only subjective well-being, or the opportunity to progress in Dhamma here and now and to enjoy a happy rebirth in the future,

but it means the giving of fearlessness and securityAbhayā-dāna and Khemā-dāna.

An analysis of the behaviour-pattern and traits commended by the Mettā Sutta for meaningful interaction, both with reference to persons individually and to society as a whole, provides ample insight into the great implications of the sutta for mental health.

Ability is not just mere efficiency or skill, but means doing a thing well, out of consideration for others, so that one may not cause inconvenience to others.

As an able man can become very conceited,

the practitioner is advised to be “honest and upright,” while being “gentle in speech, meek and not proud” indeed a perfect synthesis and an equilibrium of traits.

He who is contented is “easy to support.”
Frugality, from consideration of others, is a noble trait:

To the extent that one’s own needs are cut down as an example to others and as a means not to inconvenience them, to that extent one shows refinement.

The more gross and materialistic a person becomes, the more his needs increase.

The yardstick to judge the mental health of a given society is thus the diminution of needs, that is to say, the element of satisfaction.

A materialistic and egocentric life is characterised not only by an increase in wants but also by restlessness, showing itself in being over-busy and overactive and lacking in moderation and self-restraint.

Mettā, which promotes the well-being of all, naturally has to be built on such qualities of sober humanism as are reflected in having a few meaningful and select tasks which conduce to the maximum well-being of all concerned.

Living a simple life as an expression of mettā involves a reorientation of one’s outlook and conduct, even in our competitive, pleasure-seeking and possession-minded world.

A man of simple living is gentle, yet efficient and effective, and has restraint over his sense-faculties, being moderate, frugal and controlled.

Mental culture through meditation for such a person becomes natural and effortless: hence the attribute “tranquil in his senses.”

Mettā in conduct includes the exercising of prudence, that is to say, practical wisdom.

It is only a sagacious and wise person who can really practise mettā in all its varied forms in daily life, and through all modes of human relationship.

Self-righteousness, arising from a sense of being better or more devout than others, can be (and often is) a masquerade of spiritual practice:

To be “not brazen, nor fawning on families” thus is a pointer for the person of mettā not to indulge in self-righteousness of any form.

Further, the practitioner of mettā is advised to refrain from any action, even social conventions, for which a wise man may reprove him as lacking in prudence or propriety.

It is not good enough that one should be good, but one should also appear to be good, in consideration not only of one’s own well-being but also of others’ well-being:

An exemplary life is to be lived for the benefit of all, for the welfare of society.

A person living thus now plunges into the cultivation of the all-embracing mind of mettā through definite techniques of meditation as envisaged in the remaining part of the sutta.

Mettā is also called a paritta - a spiritual formula capable of safeguarding one’s well-being, protecting one against all dangers, and rescuing one from mishaps and misfortunes.

When the monks could not stay and meditate in that beautiful forest provided with all facilities because the deities were hostile to them, they had to leave the place.

And when they were armed with the protection of the Mettā Sutta, which they recited and meditated upon throughout their journey,

by the time they reached the place, the deities were full of friendly feelings and already waiting for them. Hostility had been turned into hospitality.

The protection of paritta works both subjectively and objectively:

Subjectively, as mettā cleanses and strengthens the mind, it also awakens the dormant potentials, resulting in the spiritual transmutation of the personality.

Transformed by mettā, the mind is no longer haunted by greed, hatred, lust, jealousy and those other mind-polluting factors which are one’s real enemy and source of misfortune.

Objectively, mettā as a thought-force is capable of affecting any mind anywhere, developed or undeveloped. The radiation of mettā can not only calm a person or remove the darts of hate from within him, but in some cases can even cure him of severe illness.

It is a common experience in Buddhist countries to see how people are cured from all sorts of diseases and freed from misfortunes through the recitation of paritta.

Thus mettā is a real healing power. In this way does mettā act as a paritta, a healing formula affording safeguards.