Metta is the Pali term for love. In Buddhism, love is not the sentimental emotion we are so familiar with in the West. It is simply the heartfelt desire for the wellbeing of another. For Pureland Buddhists, metta is also the salvific working of Amida’s Primal Vow in each moment, in all places, on all beings throughout the vast universe(s).
Extending love or metta to those around us has a long history in Buddhism. It is said that the Metta Sutta (Discourse on Love) was given by the Buddha Shakyamuni to a group of monks that were on retreat in a particularly dismal forest filled with thugs and criminals as well as evil spirits, ghosts, and demons. Naturally, the monks were scared. They sought out the Buddha and asked for permission to go to a different forest retreat, preferably one that was not haunted.
The Buddha denied their request. Instead he gave them instruction on how to practice love. Admonished, the monks returned to the forest and practiced metta as instructed. Over time, the thugs either left the forest or converted to Buddhism. The demons and spirits were pacified and became protectors of the Dharma.
In the centuries after the historical Buddha’s death, the practice of metta was formalized and systematized. Today we encounter a simple practice in which love is methodically extended first towards oneself, then loved ones, then neutrals, then antagonists, and finally to all beings.
Having practiced metta in retreat and in daily life, I can report that the practice is transformative. Raised in a home and a religion that was “heavy on the guilt,” I initially found extending love towards myself the most difficult. It was also the most healing. However, now, as a more mature practitioner, I see how difficult it is to truly extend love toward “antagonists.” The mind clings to little hurts and grudges, despite my continued practice of metta.
I also understand that metta can be practiced in either a relative or an ultimate way. The relative practice of metta is aspirational. We, as unenlightened individuals who are caught up in the delusion of separateness, exert ourselves to extend love towards others. This effort is dualistic in nature. It is me — in here — extending love to you — out there. This is fine. It does not diminish the benefits of this practice. However, this relative practice of love is still conditioned and limited. It is very human and often does not root out the deep hurts of human interactions.
Ultimate metta is unconditional. It does not flow from us to an other who is separate from ourselves. In ultimate metta there is neither me nor other. There is just love. This is the direct and immediate expression of Amida Buddha’s unconditional love and compassion — the Primal Vow.
For most of us ultimate metta, or unconditional love, is an exceptional experience. Amida breaks into our normal deluded thinking and overwhelms us. Love fills us and spills over into the people and situations around us. It is effortless. We are powerless against love in these moments. We cannot notlove.
For Pureland Buddhists, Nembutsu (Namo Amida Bu) is both a reminder and the working of Amida’s unconditional love, which is none other than the Primal Vow. To remember the Buddha is to open oneself to possibility of experiencing unconditional love and acceptance.
Nembutsu is the Pureland practice of metta in both the relative and ultimate forms. Through the Nembutsu we express our prayers that all beings find happiness, peace, and well-being. The Nembutsu may even inspire us to work to create a better world, one in which it is easier to do good and to love. However, in the Nembutsu we also recognize that it is not “we” who are the source of love. Rather it is Amida Buddha, the Measureless and Unconditioned Buddha, whose measureless light — love, compassion, and wisdom — reaches everywhere. The Buddha whose vow, simply stated, is to save all of us from suffering.
Our practice of metta, therefore, is to remember Amida Buddha, rely upon Amida Buddha, and do what we can in this life to alleviate pain and suffering and offer hope to the world.
Namo Amida Bu!