Sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā
“May all sentient beings become happy in their hearts.”
—Karanīya Mettā Sutta (Khuddaka Nikaya 9)
Before building a house, we must establish the foundation. If there is any weakness in the foundation, the house will be fragile and faulty. We may have to tear it down and begin again from a right foundation before we can complete the house to our full satisfaction.
Similarly, in building an understanding and practice of the Buddha’s teaching, we must do so on the right foundation. Otherwise, we cannot get the desired result: attainment of Arahantship and complete cessation of suffering. We may have to tear down our wrong understanding and begin again. That is not only painful, but also a waste of precious time.
To build a strong foundation for a house, we require two things: a proper design and adequate materials. If the design is incorrect, it may not support the house we intend to build. And if we have insufficient stock or inadequate quality of materials, the foundation may be incomplete or crumble under the weight of the house.
In building a foundation for the Buddha’s teaching, the proper design is called sīla, and the proper materials are called mettā. Practice of sīla and mettā together provide a source of happiness undefiled by sense contact. This in turn leads to concentration of the mind, since the mind automatically concentrates on pleasure. This foundation of effortless concentration leads to all higher states of meditation.
Sīla is often rendered in English as ‘morality’ or ‘virtue’, but that is a superficial reckoning. A more accurate understanding of sīla would be as a system of ethics that allows us to measure the integrity of our realization of the Buddha’s teaching.
Mettā is often translated ‘loving kindness’, and that is certainly an important part of mettā. Just as lime is a important ingredient of concrete, loving kindness is necessary for mettā. But the actual function of mettā is warding off ill-will, both in ourselves and from others.
Before building the actual foundation, a trench is dug and a level footer is poured. So in approaching the Buddha’s teaching, a proper baseline of sīla must be established. Then we can build a strong foundation of mettā that will support a structure of any size.
Sīla is more than external morality or virtue; it is a system of Precepts that allows us to measure and validate our ability to control the mind. If we control the mind according to the Buddha’s teachings, we will automatically follow the directions of sīla. Any break of the precepts of sīla indicates failure to control the mind and a need for corrective measures.
Similarly, mettā is more than loving kindness; the Buddha called it a ‘divine abiding’. Actually it is a method for counteracting past kamma that results in ill-will, felt either by us toward others or by them toward us. Mettā also generates powerful new kamma resulting in eleven profound benefits:
“One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and, if penetrating no higher, is headed for the Brahma worlds.” — Mettanisamsa Sutta (AN 11.16)
The practice of mettā is thus a very desirable prerequisite for effective meditation. And just as the footer is the basis of the foundation, practice of sīla is the basis of mettā.
At Savatthi, the brahman Jata Bharadvaja went to the Blessed One and on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After this exchange of friendly greetings and courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he addressed the Blessed One with a verse:
A tangle within, a tangle without,
people are entangled in a tangle.
Gotama, I ask you this:
who can untangle this tangle?
A man established in virtue (sīla),
discerning, developing discernment and mind,
a monk ardent, astute:
he can untangle this tangle.
Those whose passion, aversion
and ignorance have faded away,
Arahants, their effluents ended:
for them the tangle’s untangled. — Jata Sutta (SN 7.6)
How do we recognize a person “whose passion, aversion and ignorance have faded away … their effluents ended”? These are internal qualities, not directly observable, vulnerable to subjective error such as wishful thinking, egotism and so on. Therefore we rely on the Precepts to measure whether we or another person has attained these states.
To put it simply and directly: without sīla, practice of mettā and other meditation techniques is just pretense, show-bottle. Such superficial practice may provide some superficial benefits on the psychological platform, but it cannot lead to concentration, absorption, samādhi and realization or insight.
Someone may object, “How can I practice mettā when I don’t want to follow the Precepts or feel any goodwill toward others?” The foundation of a house does not appear spontaneously. It requires hard work to dig the trench, pour the footer and construct the walls.
Similarly, following the Precepts of the Buddha’s teaching and suffusing beings in all directions with good wishes may not come naturally to us. In that case, we have to do the work to cultivate sīla and mettā, following the instructions in authentic scriptures like The Theravāda Suttas and Visuddhimagga.
There is a schismatic faction, especially popular among western Buddhists, that argues against the necessity of following sīla or cultivating mettā. That idea is without merit. And the proof is that there are no Arahants coming from that movement. It’s this simple: The willingness to do the hard work to cultivate sīla and mettā separates those who are victorious over the mind and attain realization from those who fail.
The same faction also likes to portray the Buddha’s teaching as a path requiring deep study and high intellectual achievement. Of course knowledge is always good, but it will not have much effect without purification of one’s character and consciousness. The edifice of successful practice leading to insight is built on the foundation of sīla and mettā.
That is why the Buddha said,
“He who is possessed of constant virtue (sīla),
Who has understanding and is concentrated,
Who is strenuous and diligent as well,
Will cross the flood so difficult to cross.” (S I 53)