When I visited Sunyana Graef’s Vermont Zen Center in May 2013, she introduced me to Dharman Rice who, at that time, taught the “Metta” course at the center.
“There are many practices in Zen,” he tells me. “Zazen is the main one. There is chanting practice. The Metta practice is a practice of Loving Kindness, which is the six stages of sending metta to yourself, to a benefactor, to a dear friend. It’s the Buddhist practice in which I think beginners can make the most progress. It’s essentially learning how to be friends with ourselves and others. And this practice of learning how to be happy and extend our feelings of loving kindness to others goes hand-in-glove with the concentration meditation. It’s just a fact that the more we pay attention, the friendlier we feel. Paying attention is an act of love. Something every teacher, every character, every parent—we all know that. And it just is a fact, too, that the friendlier we are, the easier it is to pay attention. So in a way, our paying attention and our being friendly and happy and extending loving-kindness to others—opening our compassionate heart—are practices that go hand-in-glove.
“One of the things that happens, there are a number of people who come to the Center, take an introductory workshop, but for them sitting – endless hours sort of sitting, looking at walls – becomes kind of daunting. And the metta practice is easier in the sense that it’s more something we can get in touch with in an everyday kind of way. So I do a continuing metta group, and once you’ve taken the course you can come back once a month. We meet on the second Monday of every month for an hour in the evening. I bill it as a Lifetime Warranty for the Metta Class. If you’re having problems with the practice, come back and we’ll do it again. The idea was to keep people in the orbit of the Center until they felt able to do or were willing to do or felt desirous of doing the more intense kind of zazen practice. Some of them don’t get to that place for all I can tell. And that’s fine. That’s just fine. To me, it’s been a real eye-opener and something I love teaching over and over again, ’cause I love taking the course over and over again,” he says, chuckling
“The standard way of getting started in metta is with certain things that we say to ourselves in an attempt to rouse this loving-kindness energy and then radiating it to ourselves and others. This practice was given to monks by the Buddha originally—so the story goes—because he had sent some of them to a forest to do some practice, and there were some spirits in that forest that didn’t like them being there, and they began making weird noises and giving off weird smells. And the monks came running back to the Buddha and said, ‘Can you send us someplace else?’ And the Buddha said, ‘No, no, no. You need to go back, and here’s what I want you to do.’ And he prescribed this course of metta practice, which was said invoking these sayings: ‘May I be happy. May I be well. May I be free from suffering. May I be at ease.’ The point is to arouse the kinds of feelings that we have when we look at a baby or look at a puppy or look at a kitten or look at a calf and to direct those to ourselves, then to our benefactor, then to a teacher—to somebody who’s had a positive formative effect on us – to a dear friend or a family member, to what’s called a ‘neutral person,’ and finally the difficult person, what used to be called the ‘enemy’ and is now called the ‘difficult person.’ All of these stages are aspects of ourselves as well, and we practice with them in that way as well. The first phase is one that gives Westerners, in particular—and I think North Americans especially—a lot of difficulty. Sending metta to ourselves is not something many people feel comfortable with. It was very natural for the Buddha; it was very natural for Aristotle; it’s very natural for archaic peoples to love themselves. The Buddha asked how we can love anyone else if we can’t love ourselves. So we start with that, and Westerners—North Americans – for a variety of reasons apparently feel that that’s somehow selfish or self-indulgent and can be uncomfortable with it. I don’t normally mention this to start with because I don’t want to present the problem, but – after we get started – some will come back, and I’ll say, ‘How did it go? What kind of experience did you have?’ And some of this starts to come out. And after we deal with that, we proceed by these phases to finally we get to the point where we’re sending metta to the whole universe, which makes more sense to Buddhists, perhaps, than to other people. I mean, how can we send metta—loving-kindness—to all creatures throughout the whole planet and throughout the whole Milky Way and so on? But what astonishes me, teaching this course over and over again, is the extent to which people can get the idea—not only get the idea as an idea—but actually start doing it, and have inexplicable, wonderful experiences.”