Ajaan Fuang, my teacher, once discovered that a snake had moved into his room. Every time he entered the room, he saw it slip into a narrow space behind a storage cabinet. And even though he tried leaving the door to the room open during the daytime, the snake wasn’t willing to leave. So for three days they lived together. He was very careful not to startle the snake or make it feel threatened by his presence.
But finally on the evening of the third day, as he was sitting in meditation, he addressed the snake quietly in his mind. He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.” And as he sat there spreading thoughts of metta to the snake, the snake left.
When Ajaan Fuang first told me this story, it made me stop and reconsider my understanding of what metta is. Metta is a wish for happiness—true happiness—and the Buddha says to develop this wish for ourselves and everyone else: “With metta for the entire cosmos, cultivate a limitless heart.” (Sn 1:8)
But what’s the emotional quality that goes along with that wish? Many people define it as “lovingkindness,” implying a desire to be there for other people: to cherish them, to provide them with intimacy, nurture, and protection. The idea of feeling love for everyone sounds very noble and emotionally satisfying.
But when you really stop to think about all the beings in the cosmos, there are a lot of them who—like the snake—would react to your lovingkindness with suspicion and fear. Rather than wanting your love, they would rather be left alone.
Others might try to take unfair advantage of your lovingkindness, reading it as a sign either of your weakness or of your endorsement of whatever they want to do. In none of these cases would your lovingkindness lead to anyone’s true happiness. When this is the case, you’re left wondering if the Buddha’s instructions on universal metta are really realistic or wise.
But as I learned from Ajaan Fuang’s encounter with the snake, metta is not necessarily an attitude of lovingkindness. It’s more an attitude of goodwill—wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Essays book, Beyond All Directions: Essays on the Buddhist Path, “Metta Means Goodwill.”