In Living Kindness (Shambhala, Dec.), Buddhist teacher Griffin illuminates the Buddhist concept of metta, or loving-kindness.
Can you speak to why you modified the traditional translation of the Buddhist concept “loving-kindness” to “living kindness” for your title?
It’s to really get across the idea that metta is something that’s meant to be applied across our entire lives, not just as a feel-good meditation practice. When you look at what the Buddha taught, it’s much broader and deeper than that, and points to the question of how we live, what our inner lives are like, whether we are carrying resentments and angers with us, or if we are looking at the world through a lens of compassion and care.
You write that Western Buddhism practitioners don’t understand metta. What do they get wrong about the idea?
I think people want loving-kindness to make them feel good and make it out to be more about feeling than insight or wisdom, which is where the Buddhist path is really pointed. Feelings are things that come and go but insight, and ultimately enlightenment, is not so transient. And this is why I don’t love the phrase loving-kindness. Rather than walking around trying to love everything, what if you just didn’t hate anything? It also comes down to marketing. If you’re a meditation teacher, you have to get people to come to your class, so you have to market something that they’re going to want. Even if you have sincere motives and a lot of wisdom, often the language you use in your marketing is going to portray something that’s superficial and doesn’t capture the deeper meanings that the Buddha is getting at.
You discuss the false allure of trying to achieve “pleasurable meditation states.” Could you explain that?
Anybody who meditates wants to have a pleasant experience. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a pleasant experience in meditation. But two things are problematic with it: first, it puts us into an immediate conflict with the unpleasant mind state we might be in or arrive at when we sit down to meditate. As we’re trying to develop mindfulness or loving kindness, we’re coming from this idea that I need to get to somewhere else, which immediately puts us out of harmony with the whole principle of mindfulness, which requires being present and accepting of what’s happening. The second problem is that if you do get to a pleasant place in your meditation, it’s quite easy to accept that. You think, okay, I meditated, I did it right, I win. But that’s not what the goal of meditation is. The goal is the cultivation of wisdom, and the letting go that comes through that wisdom. Pursuing pleasurable meditation states leads to the opposite of that because we’re clinging to a pleasant feeling instead of letting go and seeing the freedom that comes from insight.