Your friend is dying. Is metta appropriate?
Perhaps you sign your correspondence by saying, “With metta.”
Or as you leave your meditation group, you say, “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, and free from suffering.”
One day, you realize, “I just wished that my terminally ill friend would be well. Was that the right thing for me to say?” Or you wonder, “Am I a hypocrite when I wish my dying friend freedom from suffering, knowing that death can come with emotional and physical suffering? Am I in denial?”
True metta is the ability to want others to experience safety, happiness, comfort, and good health, without expecting anything in return. Often without them even knowing that you are sending these wishes. Yet your friend is dying. Is your metta inappropriate? Or a waste of time?
In The Sublime Attitudes | A Chanting Guide, metta is expressed in this way:
Sabbe sattā sukhitā hontu.
May all living beings be happy.
Sabbe sattā averā hontu.
May all living beings be free from animosity.
Sabbe sattā abyāpajjhā hontu.
May all living beings be free from oppression.
Sabbe sattā anīghā hontu.
May all living beings be free from trouble.
Sabbe sattā sukhī attānaṁ pariharantu.
May all living beings look after themselves with ease.
The chant ends with:
Sotthī hontu nirantaraṁ.
May you forever be well.
Nobody will forever be well unless you reconsider what it means to be well.
You need to let go of the idea that being well and free from suffering means never experiencing pain, illness, or death. That is unrealistic. The Mahāparinibbāna Sutta shows us that even the Buddha was subject to pain and impermanence:
Having eaten Cunda’s meal (this I’ve heard),
He suffered from a grave illness, painful, deathly;
From eating a meal of ‘pig’s delight’
Grave sickness assailed the Teacher,
Having purged, the Lord then said:
‘Now I’ll go to Kusinārā town.’ (DN 16.4.20)
After the death of the Buddha, the Brahmā Sahampati says:
All beings in the world, all bodies must break up:
Even the Teacher, peerless in the human world,
The mighty Lord and perfect Buddha has passed away. (DN 16.6.10)
Sākka, the ruler of the devas, says:
Impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall,
Having risen, they’re destroyed, their passing truest bliss. (DN 16.6.10)
What does it mean to send well-wishes to your dying friend? It means to wish freedom from suffering. Of course, you do not want him or her to have extensive physical pain or mental anguish. On a deeper level, you wish that your friend experience liberation. That is the real goal of the teachings. That is what it means to be free from suffering.
And how is liberation its core? Here, the teachings have been taught by me to my disciples for the utterly complete destruction of suffering. Through liberation one experiences those teaching in just the way that I have taught them to my disciples for the utterly complete destruction of suffering. It is in this way that liberation is its core. (AN IV 245:3)
Suffering comes from clinging or attachment. The cessation of suffering is achieved through the termination of attachment. The way to release yourself from attachment is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. You are encouraging your friend on the path. Your wish is that he or she can become free from craving.
Yes, send metta.
In Metta Bhavana: Loving-Kindness Meditation, Venerable Dhammarakkhita teaches a type of flexibility in sending metta. He shares a story of how, once using the internet, he realized that millions of other people were probably using the internet at the same time. And this prompted him to wish “May everyone using the internet now be happy and peaceful.” (72, 52)
If you need to change your phrasing to feel comfortable, then do it. What is important is your intention. To accept illness and death, not to hope against it. What does it mean for you to wish goodwill to someone who is dying? It means to be able to wish him or her a peaceful death and the ability to face death skilfully, with non-attachment and right view. Your metta is the wish that he or she will experience true liberation. You are most likely to be the biggest beneficiary of your caring wishes.
When the Buddha directs his monks:
And toward the world
one should develop loving-kindness,
a state of mind without boundaries—
above, below, and across—
unconfirmed, without enmity, without adversaries. (Sn 8.150)
This direction is for their benefit. It helps the monks overcome a fear of the spirits that are harassing them in the forest. And once the monks generate thoughts of goodwill toward the spirits, their relationship becomes a friendship.
To extend metta to others is to open your heart to others, and to overcome your selfishness. Your ability to wish goodwill to others brings you closer to conquering ill will. Maintaining a mind free of hatred is so essential that in the “Simile of the Saw,” the Buddha encourages his monks to develop a mind that resists hate, even toward those who would cut them apart with a two-handled saw.
When you can sincerely wish that all others be well, you have shown that you can conquer hatred. When you consistently wish metta to all, you leave behind resentment and animosity. Now, you have a mind that is open and ready to advance toward the end of suffering.
For in this world hatred is never
Allayed by further acts of hate.
It is allayed by non-hatred;
That is the fixed and ageless law. (MN 126.6)
This is an opportunity for you to direct your goodwill to your reactions toward death.
Open your heart to death and overcome the fear of losing your friend, of losing others, and of your own eventual demise. Metta practice might lead you to overcome your aversion to death, resulting in your cessation of attachment.
The foundation of a healthy metta practice begins with yourself. And your friend is dying. And with his or her death comes grief, And grief is suffering. May YOU be well, may YOU be free from suffering.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. 1994. A Chanting Guide. Valley Center, CA: The Dhammayut Order in the USA.
Ven. Dhammarakkhita. 2001. Metta Bhavana: Loving-Kindness Meditation. Nakhon Pathom, Thailand: Dhammodaya Meditation Centre.