Archive for April, 2009

From time to time I wonder:

How many of you out there scratch their heads when they read the first line of the metta sutta?

Sure enough, translations of the metta sutta abound and almost every (Theravadin) monastery in East and West cherishes and chants one of the most inspiring Buddhist poems on the cultivation of loving kindness. The Metta Sutta.

Besides the obvious that all of us can never get enough inspiration to keep our memory on the determination of pure thoughts of friendship (etam satim adhittheyya)…

There is something odd with this text.

Let’s say there seems to be a second layer of information. Clearly to see for those who know what they have to look for, I guess.

One reason why this second meaning seems hidden, is the fact that almost all contemporary translations do not  translate the first line literally, that is in accordance with its grammar*. If they did, the entire message of this sutta would seem to be addressed to a specific subset of samsaric travellers not just “anyone” looking for cultivation of friendship.

Lets have a look:

Karaṇīyamatthakusalena, yantaṃ santaṃ padaṃ abhisamecca;

Snip v. 143

It looks so innocent and pretty straightforward…until you think about the verb form of abhisamecca. First time I stumbled over this was many many years ago, together with a dear friend of mine, the Ven. Pannadhamma Bhikkhu. It was one of these relaxing afternoons, sitting in his small room, littered with Dhamma books that we were honing our pali skills and took on the task of doing something “simple” for a change. … The metta sutta. Well, we never got much further than the first line. Look at this:

Karaṇīyam– …..  It has to be done (gerundive of karoti)

atthakusalena …. by/ trough (Instr.) the one who is skilled (kusala) in the good ( PED: clever in finding out what is good or profitable”)

yam …. which

tam … that

santam …. peaceful

padam …. place/sphere/path/position (lit. foot) (santapadam … a name for nibbana: santaŋ=nibbānass’ etaŋ nāmaŋ, santakoṭṭhāsaŋ DhA iv.108)

abhisamecca …. Absolutivum from abhi-sam-a-gacchati which means to high-together-on-go (i.e. achieve, attain). See also: “Pali Grammatik” by Achim Fahs, page 233 (and p 404 identification of rare pali forms)

So, here is the odd thing about this line… abhisamecca clearly denotes the past tense. Something which has been achieved in the past. 

What does that do to our translation? Lets give it a try:


(This) has to be done by the one skilled (trained) in the goal,

Who has achieved the peaceful stage (i.e. Nibbana)

[Or, in other words:]

This training in metta has especially (karaniyam) to be undertaken by those who are skilled in the goal (i.e. stream-enterers and above) and who have attained to the peaceful place. [!?]

Here is another quotation from the Tipitaka which shows the usage of abhisamecca in a similar fashion. The metta sutta really seems to talk and address those who are Streamenterers and Once Returner:

imasmiṃ kho, āvuso, ekadhamme bhikkhu sammā nibbindamāno sammā virajjamāno sammā vimuccamāno sammā pariyantadassāvī sammadatthaṃ abhisamecca diṭṭheva dhamme dukkhassantakaro hoti. [the series of nibbida, viraga, vimutti looks familiar, doesn’t it ;-)]

1.3.8 Dutiyamahāpañhāsutta

Now, most people find this impossible. Normal logic forbids us to think that any enlightened being would need more metta meditation than an unenlightened person, correct? And this is what most translators thought too, which is why they usually “skip” over this grammatical fact and make the text say what they believe instead – whatever their motivation was. And so for me too, for quite some time, this line was puzzling. Until the missing piece of information became available .

Let me explain why metta training “after having attained” (abhisamecca) nibbana makes absolute sense:

In fact, in another post on this blog (one with less page views than others 🙂 I tried to point out to that curious vipassana knowledge experience recorded by Mahasi Sayadaw and others, that in fact the Samyojanas or fetters (which bind us to Samsara and which are broken consecutively during the attainment of each stage of enlightenment) that these fetters haunt all meditators especially the closer they get to a maggaphala.

The samyojanas seem to be in reality exactly what their name would imply (wow, what a coincidence… LOL) in that one only knows that one’s foot is chained by a samyojana or fetter to a pole when one tries to run away from the pole. Now, usually, we do run around quite a bit, but hardly ever away from the 5 groups of grasping. Usually we circle around various combinations of those groups of graspings but do not fundamentally challenge them with a “letting go” or “disinterest” (nandi pajahitabbam).

So when, by good friendship and other factors, we do find ourselves sitting in a series of deep and dedicated vipassana sessions where we start to slow down the movie of samsara by catching up with its frenzy/speed (thanks to samatha…) and, while we experience what a hulu.com user feels when his favorite TV show suddenly sputters because the speed of his data stream downloading frames of pictures diminishes

— (in case you never experienced such a phenomenon on the internet, which is hard to believe, the phases you go through are remarkable similar to vipassana and go like this -> desire to see the movie while having to watch interrupted and sputtering images -> disillusionment -> disenchantment sets in -> and finally switching off the computer, the movie’s power over the watcher is broken) —

so in these moments of fundamental samsaric challenge, it is samsara which pulls the last triumph card and breaks our concerted effort through a more or less subtle pull of certain chains, the samyojana which the Buddha mentioned frequently. Each of them is broken with the attainment of one of the 4 stages of enlightenment. And it is only the Nonreturner and Arahant who have broken greed and hatred.

Until then, metta comes in handy  (=kusala)   🙂 

Now, think in terms of meditation instruction. Buddha says here “those who are skilled in finding what is helpful”, or atthakusala. Yes, a meditator in such a vipassana stage might very well be advised to switch his samatha kammatthana over to metta bhavana… lest his samyojana of hatred interferes with his progress in insight. Being mad at his meditation teacher for superficial reasons he stops his noting process. Samsara won.

…which does not mean, of course, that anyone showing hatred or irritation is close to Nibbana :-).

However, it was noted by Mahasi Sayadaw and others, that people who had been practicing for some time and do show clear signs of walking through the stage of vipassana insights that they did show sudden and inexplicable (mental) outbursts of greed or hatred (or other samyojanas) which the meditators themselves found extremely unusual or disconcerting.

This usually happened within a longer retreat environment and calls for some serious and developed vipassana teacher to be correctly identified. Lets not jump to conclusions.

However, wouldn’t it be interesting if this experiential fact which was just “re-established” over the last couple of decades is indeed the background and reason for the metta sutta and its interesting first line? Probably too mind-boggling for most simple daily usage of the metta sutta…

Being aware of this idea will make many of you scratch their heads as well. I will rest my case at this point and let you make up your own mind. The metta sutta, after all, is good inspiration for all of us, even beyond this potential deeper implication.



(*)  If you head over to accesstoinsight  you can see how most translators turn this absolutive construction into a generic present tense, or even aspiration!…hmmmm. The only one who seems to have recognized the grammatical structure  is Ven. Buddharakkhita, here more

Further reading: Stronger, prior to breaking. The role of samyojanas in vipassana meditation.

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[This story is part of our Arahant series.]

Once, they say, the elder Mahāsīva of ‘Mountainpeak’ lived in the city of Mahagama, in Tissa’s Abbey.

There, he taught eighteen groups of young monks in the three baskets – the traditional teachings of the Buddha as they had been handed down – in full length and according to its exact meaning. Following the elder’s instruction sixty thousand monks achieved holiness.

One of those young monks thought to himself: “O, what a blessing this happiness of salvation is! I bet our teacher enjoys it too.” And as he explored his teacher’s heart, he realized that his teacher was still a worlding, someone who was still subject to the cycle of rebirth who had not even attained to the state of a stream enterer.

The young monk thought: “Through a clever gift, I will arouse urgency in my teacher!” He left his hut and went to Mahasiva, venerating his teacher with a deep bow. Finishing all obligations of a pupil he sat down.

Then the Elder Mahasiva said to his disciple: “Why have you come, brother alms-goer?” – “’When the Venerable Sir will offer me an opportunity, I would like to learn a verse of the Dhamma (dhammapada)‘, this was my idea with which I came to the Venerable Sir.” – “Many monks learn from me at this time, brother. I do not think that there will be any opportunity for you.”

And when he had not received any opportunity from his teacher for a whole night and a whole day he went back to Mahasiva and asked him: “If you have so little time, Venerable Sir, how do will you be able to give death an opportunity?” Mahasiva thought: “This monk has not come to learn from me. He has come, to shake me up, that is why he came.

Then his disciple said to him: “Like all the other monks, o Sir, who benefited from your instruction so you too need to develop your own mind and benefit from the teaching of the Tipitaka.”

After these words he venerated his teacher a last time and vanished before his teacher’s eyes by mental power into the jewel-colored sky.

After his former student had filled him with a sense of urgency he finished all classes in the afternoon and evening. Then he prepared his bowl and robe, and after he gave a final lesson in the morning he took on all thirteen ascetic practices of purification (dhutaṅga) with firm determination and departed for the monastery of ‘Mountainpeak”. There, he removed bed and chair from his monk’s cell and made this silent vow: “Until the achievement of holiness I will not sit on a chair nor rest on a bed.”

Then he directed his mind on walking meditation with the thought: “Today, verily, will I attain holiness, today, verily, will I acquire holiness.”

Without gaining any holiness, however – despite all efforts to reach it, came along the day of the big pavarana – the full moon ceremony at the end of the three months of the rain season retreat. When he realized that he still had not achieved path nor fruit of Nirvana, Mahasiva thought: “O, how difficult is this for me, although devoted to Vipassana to attain to holiness (arahatta)!”

However, without giving up and only practicing standing and walking meditation for thirty years he applied himself to the work of a true ascetic.

One night, when the full moon disc of another pavarana ceremony lit up the nightly sky, he thought: “What is probably brighter? The bright moon or my unbroken virtue?”

And as he reflected on his virtues as a monk which since the day of his higher ordination he had not broken, not even the smallest of all rules, a deep joy and satisfaction arose in him.

On the foundation of this joy his mind concentrated and he attained the supramundane knowledges, and together with analytical knowledge, experienced the Nibbana of an Arahant.” 

Manorathapurani,  AN Commentary

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