The Loving Heart – wisdom, compassion and an open heart
In this week’s blog we return again to the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha described the well wishing one feels in this practice as being like the love a mother would feel for her only child. The Loving Kindness practice is done without any intention of getting a result, instead what one creates within the space of intention is an opportunity for the heart to open, soften and extend a gentle well wishing out to oneself and others. With the mindfulness of breathing practice, although it has the intention of simply being with the breath, it is much easier for the doing mind to engage with it as an activity: watching the breath I have a simple task – noting when I am attending to the breath and then bringing my attention back when I notice I am no longer focused on the breath. The Loving Kindness Practice can feel more amorphous, less clear cut, harder to grasp – but that’s the point!
When I learnt to meditate I used to alternate loving kindness one day and mindfulness of breathing on the other day. Over time I’ve shifted to mainly choosing mindfulness of breathing. My training in Buddhist insight practices gave mindfulness a greater significance as it is in this practice that one can calm the mind and then reflect on the changing nature of mental states – seeing all thoughts (and by extension all phenomena) as impermanent and in a constant state of change, with the intention of giving rise to the insight that all created phenomena are empty of any fixed or eternal nature. As such it can seem to be that mindfulness is the meditation where greater insight may occur, whereas Loving Kindness is simply a soft and fuzzy practice for wishing all beings well!
The thing I forgot is the teaching that wisdom cannot be made to arise. Wisdom is itself unborn – otherwise it would be a thing in time just the same as any other thought. And any thought that is created in time by the thinking mind can also end, it is simply head knowledge, not a knowing that permeates all of one’s being. In other traditions wisdom has always been represented by the feminine: Sophia is the figure representing wisdom in Mystic Christianity, the Hebrew word for wisdom, חָכְמָה or chokmah, is a feminine noun and for the Ancients Athena was the Goddess of Wisdom.
In Buddhism wisdom is represented by Prajñāpāramitā, which means “the Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom” and as such represents the most sublime essence of wisdom and is represented in feminine form.
What might it be saying that so many ancient cultures chose to represent wisdom in the feminine rather than masculine form (please note this is not talking about male or female as a gender, but more as archetypal energies that may be described as masculine and feminine, as such whatever sex we may be we all have both masculine and feminine within us)? This is something I’m only just starting to reflect on so I have no definitive answer, and it’s more interesting as a question! Reflecting on it as I write this it suggests that wisdom is something that is not forced. The masculine energy of doing, getting, attaining and striving for a result is instead met by the feminine energy of softening, listening, connecting, communicating and being receptive and open. It suggests that wisdom is not something to be penetrated into by an act of will but that is born out of a place of openness, connection and receptivity.
How these contrasting energies of active pursuit of a goal and an open and embracing creative heart might come together is represented in another figure used in Buddhism to represent wisdom, Manjusri, whose name means “He Who Is Noble and Gentle.” He is depicted holding a sword in one hand and a copy of the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra in or near his left hand. He is depicted as being youthful with is said to indicate that wisdom arises from him naturally and effortlessly. Despite holding the sword it is significant that his name emphasises his gentle nature.
And it is this archetypal depiction of wisdom that, for me, holds the clue. In the past I always focused on the sword, which represents the need to cut through the bonds of ignorance, to take action, to be a spiritual warrior. But Manjusri is also holding the feminine Prajna Paramita (in this image you see the scripture on a lotus growing from his left hand which is held at his heart). In this image masculine and feminine are shown to be in harmony and both are needed. If we think of how the brain works, it shows the rational and logical left hemisphere (represented by the sword) working together with the intuitive and visual right hemisphere (represented by the lotus) – remembering that the right side of the body is connected to and controlled by the left hemisphere and the left side to the right hemisphere.
In Chinese philosophy this union of opposites is represented more abstractly by the Ying and Yang symbol:
So if ancient figures in flowing robes aren’t your thing it is also possible to reflect on this symbol, which describes how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.
Whichever symbol speaks to you, what writing this reflection has made me feel is that the ability to soften, open, connect and be receptive is a vital part of the path to wisdom – knowledge that arises in the heart rather than from the head. The sword is held over his head, representing action that is willed and determined, whereas the hand holding the lotus flower on which the scripture of wisdom sits is held near his heart.
It is often said that a cup that is full cannot receive any thing more. The masculine energy of going out, taking action, knowing what it wants and pursuing it does not leave much room in one’s cup! To connect instead with the energy of receptivity, openess and communication offers an opportunity for something unknown to take birth in one’s experience. What the figure of Manjusri above suggests to me is that the masculine energy, represented by the sword, keeps one focused on the task, meditating every day and creating the intentional ‘space’ for wisdom and compassion to arise. But then this effort has to be dropped, for in his other hand there grows a lotus flower and on the open lotus flower the scripture of wisdom called the Prajna Paramita. Just as a lotus bud cannot be forced to come into flower by pulling the petals apart or tying to use the sword to cut it open, so wisdom and compassion has to be allowed to open at it’s own moment of choosing which requires an open heart that is ready to receive and give birth to wisdom rather than a mind that is intent on thinking its way to knowing.
Interestingly this is the modern psychotherapeutic model, where it is the connection and communication between the client and therapist that is seen to bring about healing and self knowledge more than is possible though an internalised quest for understanding oneself, which too often simply becomes the endless turning around of thoughts within one’s own head: “why am I like this”,”what’s wrong with me”, “when will I learn” etc…. or the equally unhelpful act of having some wise person tell one what one’s problems are. Communication is the birth place of a heart based knowing, and this brings us back to the reflection from a few weeks ago: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”.
In this way the Loving Kindness practice is a reminder to connect with the energy of an open heart, a practice that has no intention of leading anywhere other than the wish for oneself and others to be happy and well – and the deepest expression of that wish would be for one’s own heart to be filled with the wisdom that leads to no longer acting in a way that causes pain to oneself or others – which is compassion: a direct seeing of what Buddhism and other mystic traditions teach, that we are one, that the appearance of individual identity is part of our dream of ego and that when this falls away we see instead our interconnectedness and interdependence on each other and the whole world and universe of which we are a part. I look forward to waking up to this myself! But in the meantime by making the Loving Kindness practice a regular part of my weekly routine I am opening my heart to receiving rather than simply pursuing wisdom – and we all know what happens when we chase after someone – they disappear! Perhaps wisdom needs to be wooed and courted rather than pursued and hunted.
The Buddhist scripture that describes how to practice the Loving Kindness practice is called the Karaniya Metta Sutra and I’ve included a rendering of it below. This is drawn from a number of translations which I have then combined together, including come notes to draw out the meaning of the text. I hope that reading it gives you a flavour of what the Buddha was teaching when he spoke these words to his disciples 2,500 years ago.
The Karaniya Metta Sutta
One who wants to attain the Peace of Liberation cultivates these qualities:
- be gentle and polite,
- honest and harmonious in speech,
- practice living with integrity and honour,
- live simply, contentedly, and with gratitude in your heart,
- live an upright life 
Living thus be free from being covetous, conceited, and from being caught up in distractions.
Avoid doing anything unworthy that will be disapproved of by people of good conscience.
Whilst meditating contemplate thus:
May all beings be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy.
Whatever living beings there may be; whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, the great and the mighty, medium, short or small, the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born or to be born, may all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or hatred wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart let one cherish all living beings: spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths, outwards and unbounded freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying down, for as long as you are awake maintain this mindfulness of love in your heart. This is the noblest way of living and is known as like living in heaven right here and now.
By not holding to fixed views, greed and harmful sensual desires, the pure hearted one lets go of limiting self-views and is spontaneously ethical. Living thus you will certainly transcend Birth and Death to awaken to the Bliss of Liberation.
The Metta Sutta is found in the Suttanipäta, vv 143-152. Often referred to as the Karanïya Metta Sutta
1. “Live an upright life” refers to the five precepts followed by lay Buddhists. The five Precepts form the ethical base of Lay Buddhist practitioners throughout Asia and are often taken on by people in the West wanting to give an extra focus to their meditation practice. The five precepts are:
1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.
2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended that it is for you.
3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature: any sexual act that harms another, rape, adultery, incest etc. There is no prescription on Buddhism banning or denigrating homosexuality.
4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.
5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness.This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.
Amaravati Chanting book, Amaravati publications (1994)
Thich Nhat Hanh, translation contained in a collection of translations of the Karaniya metta sutta published privately by Dharmacari Sunanda (1996)