Buddhism 101: Metta means Friendship, Karuna means Compassion…

IMG_2290You’ve got something pretty special when you put friendship and compassion together, and something pretty simple. Even people who profess to believe in nothing, and categorically reject use of that word ‘belief’ can surely believe in friendship and compassion. And friendship, universal friendship, is a very important concept, easy to forget in our day and time that at some time in the not-so-distant past anyone who was not part of the family was suspect and an object of great fear and suspicion…

One of my favorite stories, recounted many times, is by Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ fame who related that while doing anthropological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, when two strangers would meet each other, they’d count back to see if they had a mutual relative, so that they wouldn’t have to kill each other, or die trying…

Religion changes all that, when it’s working right. So that’s why, when I was in Port Moresby, I stayed with Christian missionaries, nicest people in the world (and yes, the Wi-Fi was good, in 2010, mind you). And I think that this is probably one of the under-stated facts of history, that until recently there was danger all around, all the time, and a person would have to be very careful of his surroundings, whenever he was away from home…

That’s after the world’s human population was successful, mind you, and population on the increase, so that when on your annual migrations, for the first time in history, you might actually see people that you didn’t know along the way. Considering that we emerged from the Ice Ages with much less than a million people, and by 5000 BCE there were maybe five million (easy mnemonic), then it must have been right about then, people in motion, at an ever-increasing rate…

So that’s what metta is all about, as I see it, originally formulated in Pali language as Buddhist principle some 2500 years ago: friendship, universal friendship, and quickly to be followed by karuna, compassion, probably the preeminent concept in second-phase Mahayana Buddhism, following the original Theravada. Interestingly, both serve as the local equivalent of the English word ‘please’, as in ‘pretty please’, in modern Khmer and Thai languages, respectively, so that gives you an idea as to the original intent of the words’ usage…

Fast forward to the future and of course now that we can take it for granted that strangers will not come and slash our throats as we sleep, the term ‘metta‘ has been recast as ‘lovingkindness’, by Westerners I assume, a Christian term full of feeling and engagement. It is supposedly a translation of the Hebrew word ‘chesed‘ so I’ll have to beg ignorance of the implications of that term, as my Hebrew is a bit rusty…

So what’s wrong with lovingkindness? Nothing, really, except that it requires you to feel something, maybe even do something, and that really shouldn’t be absolutely necessary. Brotherly love (probably a better translation of the original intent, if friendship is too ‘lite’ and you require something with a Christian connection), is a simple acceptance of the rights of others to coexist in the same space and with mutual respect…

But Christian ‘lovingkindness’ definitely evokes images of mother Mary with baby Jesus at the breast enveloped in a warm embrace, God’s love implied, and Buddhism is not about passion and active participation. Buddhism is about dispassion and passive acceptance. It’s really not so important what you do in this world. You don’t have to do anything. What’s most important is what you don’t do. Now certainly there is a prime place for a mother’s love in all this chaos, but that precedes Buddhism…

Buddhism is as much or more a practice of the mind as the heart, notwithstanding the fact that in the Buddha’s time mental processes were associated with the heart, not the brain, and the terms for both, at least in Thai, are virtually interchangeable, jit and jai, heart and mind, though often compounded into a single jitjai, heart/mind, the term jit derived from the Pali citta, same as in Khmer…

Likewise the terms metta and karuna are often compounded into one word in Thai, mettakaruna, indicating how close the two words are in sympathy with each other. But this is not a heart of passion and romance, more like bromance. And the highest social ideal is jai yen yen, cool cool heart, an overheated heart associated with the sin of impatience and agitation. Non-attachment is primary, directly proportional from offspring and radiating outward…

Unfortunately for any foreigners married into the Asian system, you may find that you rate far behind blood relatives in the line of sympathies, oh well, and friendships are all, uh, relative, hahaha, 555. It’s probably just as well, given the inability to gauge another person’s motivations. But still you gotta’ try, ‘cuz that’s metta…

Much is made of the hatred of others, i.e. racism, the more ‘other’ the more hatred, in direct proportion to the distance from the source, i.e. the more different they are the more we hate them. But don’t we often hate our brothers just as much or more (?), except when we need them for the purposes of that same racism, i.e. sibling rivalry, me against my brother, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world, in the traditional Arab formulation of that dark side of human existence…

But me, I depend on the kindness of strangers and the anonymity of face value. Travel will do that for you and to you, and as always the sweet spot is in the middle, not too familiar nor too distant, the goldilocks effect, jjjjuusssttt right, whatever you do just be polite about it, and if possible then let’s be friends, because that’s metta, and it just feels good, embrace optional…