Pure happiness arises only from wishing for others' happiness, while unending suffering arises from wishing exclusively for our own happiness. Hence Shantideva warned, "If you do not switch your concern from your own happiness to relieving others' pain you will not achieve Buddhahood and there will be no pleasure in your own cyclic existence." Maitri bhavana or cultivation of a mind of unconditional love and benevolence for all sentient beings constitutes an important spiritual practice in Buddhism which ultimately culminates in identification of oneself with all beings.
While mindful meditation develops observation of awareness, maitri bhavana cultivates empathetic awareness of all beings. Empathy is the ability to share others' emotions, thoughts or feelings by imaginatively stepping into their world. In doing so, we realise their concerns, fears, anger, hopes and passions as our own, thereby changing our attitude and behaviour towards them. Just as a mother protects her child, so too should one develop boundless love for all beings without exception. This transforms our negative emotions into positive ones suffused with loving care, concern, benevolence and well-wishing.
Maitri bhavana has three different dimensions of experience. When we become aware of others' happiness we experience mudita or empathetic joy that is free of jealousy. Awareness of suffering of others is transformed into karuna or compassion with a sense of empathy, not pity. Awareness of empathetic joy and suffering of others make us probe deeper into their root cause lying in past actions or karma which develop upekkha or equanimity, a calm, loving, non-judgmental awareness of the flow of phenomena.
Maitri bhavana needs to be cultivated regularly in meditation and then practised in daily living. Sit down with deep relaxation. Focus on breathing with your whole body. Concentrate on the heart centre and cultivate maitri feeling for yourself, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and to all sentient beings. Send thought-vibrations of love, appreciation, forgiveness, apology and good wishes through imagination or creative visualisation.
It is easier to develop maitri bhavana for self, friends or a neutral person. However, the real challenge lies in developing this for an enemy, with whom we are in conflict. We need to probe and ponder over their good qualities and analyse why they do what they do. We should be ready to ask for an apology, if it is called for, or forgive.
When Purna, a disciple, wanted to spread Buddhism to some notorious villagers everybody discouraged him. The Buddha asked Purna, "If they don't listen to you and insult you, what will you do?" Purna replied, "I will be thankful for their only insulting me and not hitting me." The Buddha questioned, "If they hit you, then?" Purna replied, "I will still be thankful for their only hitting me and not killing me." Lastly, the Buddha asked, "If they come to kill?" Purna replied, "I will profusely thank them for liberating me from bondage of this body." The Buddha said, "You are grounded in maitri. Nobody on earth can harm you, go ahead."
Maitri bhavana makes us harmonious with the world, transcending hatred and intolerance. It makes us magnetic and radiant with love, benevolence, serenity, warmth and calmness, developing concentration, contentment, insight and joy of self-expansion in meditation and life. It is indeed a panacea for all major world problems today