Seen and Unseen (Metta Sutta #15)

This is a part of a series going line by line from the Metta Sutta. It starts here.

The seen and the unseen
There’s no use beating around the bush about this: Buddhism talks all the time about unseen beings. What are the unseen beings? Well, among other things Gods (like Brahma and the 4 Great Kings), devas (sort of like angels), petas (hungry ghosts), and many other things. The metta suttas calls on us to have feelings of loving kindness for these unseen beings.

This idea brings to mind the origination story of the Metta Sutta. A large part of the commentary deals with how the suttas came to be. Some of the commentaries tell some rip roaring stories! It is, of course, hard to know how much is hard fact and how much is legend. Here is the story (compiled by Buddhaghosa) of the Mettasuttam:

A large group of monks who had been given personal instructions by the Buddha in meditation went to the foothills of the Himalayas to spend the rains retreat. All of the monks were inspired to practice with energy and vigor after their meditation lessons with the Buddha, and the location they found for their retreat was beautiful and peaceful. There was a little village nearby that was a perfect spot to gather alms food. The villagers were excited to have such devoted monks in their area, since they were rarely visited by such accomplished spiritual seekers. The villagers built them some huts outside of town in a wooded area. Each monk picked a different tree to meditate under.

It turned out that these trees were inhabited by Tree Spirits. The Tree Spirits thought the monks would stay for only a few days, so out of respect they took their families out of the trees to make way. But when day after day passed and the monks did not move on, the Tree Spirits started to get agitated. They decided to frighten the monks off by creating horrifying visions and a terrible smell. The monks became so distracted they couldn’t concentrate on their meditation. Eventually their mindfulness was shot.

The monks decided to break their retreat and go back to the Buddha for advice. They went to the Buddha and told him what happened. The Buddha immediately realized what must have happened.

“Monks!” he said. “Go back back to where you were! Don’t be afraid. If you want to be free from this harassment, you need to learn a new theme for your meditation and a paritta (formula) for your protection.” He taught them the Karaniya Metta Sutta, which they learned by heart.

They then went back to the same spot, meditating on the Metta Sutta. The feelings of loving kindness were so strong within those monks that the Tree Spirits felt nothing but kindness and good will emanating from them. They were so overwhelmed that they took human form to wait on the monks, give them alms food, take them to their huts, and invite them to meditate at the roots of their trees without fear. The Tree Spirits looked after the monks every day and made sure that the monks had complete silence to meditate. With such a peaceful spot, every monk attained nibbana in that rains retreat.

The next post in this series is here.

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