Dating the Metta Sutta
The "Metta Sutta" (also known as the "Karaṇīya Metta Sutta") is a Buddhist discourse (Pali: sutta; Sanskrit: sutra) that is thousands of years old. Sources useful for dating this discourse include the 2,400-year-old Pali Canon, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist commentary, and more recent scholarship regarding these verses. While none of these sources can lead to an incontrovertible conclusion as to this discourse's origins, they allow one to understand analytically some of the strengths and weaknesses of various hypotheses.
The Pali Canon is composed of three "baskets" or collections: discipline (Vinaya Piṭaka), discourses (Sutta Piṭaka), and analysis (Abhidhamma Piṭaka). According to the texts themselves, the Vinaya Piṭaka and Sutta Piṭaka are from the time of the historical Buddha (ca. 5th c. BC). According to the texts, during the Buddha's lifetime, discourses were memorized and recited with a complete recitation of all recalled discourses occurring soon after his death. For centuries afterwards, this oral tradition was systematically perpetuated by monastics. These discourses were translated into different dialects and different redactions arose. The Pali Canon is believed to have been first written down in the first century BC. Some scholars maintain that material was added to the Canon as late as the second century AD.
The Metta Sutta is found in the Sutta Piṭaka's fifth and final collection, Khuddaka Nikāya. In this collection, this discourse is included in two different books: in the Khuddakapaṭha (Khp 9), and in the Sutta Nipāta (Sn 1.8). The Khuddakapaṭha is fairly unique in the Pali Canon in that it is, for the most part, a brief compendium based on other canonical material. Thus, the inclusion of the Metta Sutta in this compendium suggests that the discourse may have originally been part of the Sutta Nipāta and then subsequently incorporated into the Khuddakapaṭha; moreover, it underlines this discourse's preceived value to ancient redactors.
In the Pali Canon, most discourses involve instruction explicitly attributed to the Buddha or one of his disciples. Unlike these aforementioned discourses (although typical of many discourses in the Sutta Nipāta), the Metta Sutta itself does not directly attribute its words to either the Buddha or anyone else. That is, the Metta Sutta text itself does not identify its own speaker.
While it is not necessarily apparent to English readers, this discourse is written in a poetic meter (for more information on this meter, see the "Primer on Pali versification"). This naturally gives rise to the question: Is it possible that the historical Buddha actually articulated a discourse in verse form? Looking solely at the Pali Canon, one finds that there are numerous discourses in verse form that are directly attributed to the Buddha. In addition, there are canonical references to some followers of the Buddha as having been former poets and actors, thus indicating that there were contemporaries of the Buddha who were at least capable of composing verse professionally. Thus, based solely on the canonical texts, nothing obviously precludes one from hypothesizing that the Buddha could compose verse.
Several centuries after the Buddha's passing, the Pali commentaries were written down (approx. ca. 5th to 10th c. AD). Traditionally, the commentaries are said to be based on an oral tradition or on no longer extant Sinhala commentaries that are alleged to go back in part to the time when the Pali Canon was first introduced to Sri Lanka (ca. 2nd c. BC).
According to the Sutta Nipāta's Pali commentary (Paramatthajotikā II, traditionally ascribed to 5th c. CE commentator Buddhaghosa), this sutta's verses were first taught by the Buddha to monks who were trying to live and meditate in an inhospitable forest. (For more information on the commentarial account, see the external references below.) At this time, it is the association of this discourse's words with the Buddha himself in the Pali commentaries that is the oldest, extant, written attribution of this text to the Buddha.
Modern scholarly assessments that attempt to date parts of the Canon typically take into account the language used in the text (since Pali evolved as a language over time) and comparisons of the Pali texts with non-Pali texts (for instance, hypothesizing that the common material among these sources might have sprung from some proto-text while the non-common texts might have been later, unique additions).
While much of the material in the Khuddaka Nikāya (for instance, particularly the Khuddakapaṭha, which is believed to have possibly been a didactic manual for novice monks) is generally assessed to have been added centuries after the historical Buddha's passing, many scholars consider parts of this collection (such as the Sutta Nipāta's fourth and fifth chapters) to be among the oldest parts of the Canon. Based on the aforementioned tools of historical assessment, at this time, there is no definitive identification of when the Metta Sutta per se was composed.
Based on an analysis of the Metta Sutta's poetic meter and the current understanding of the historical development of Pali and Sanskrit meters, Pali prosody scholar A.K. Warder writes:
All the poems quoted so far seem to belong to the earliest phase represented in the extant Buddhist literature. The [Metta Sutta] is possibly as much as a century later, and may be dated to about 400 B.C. Here the ethical and social teaching of the Buddha is put into metrical form, and the poem is certainly for circulation in society, not merely for private recitation by monks....
In addition, Warder asserts that, given its meter, the sutta's final verse is likely "a later addition." Bhikkhu Bodhi, while implicitly accepting Warder's stratification of Pali metrical development, has indicated that the presumed time between the evolution of different metrical forms is only hypothetical. Moreover, of course, the extant text's metrical sophistication might simply reflect an embellishment of actual statements by the historical Buddha.
Tradition, based on the Pali commentaries, attributes the Metta Sutta to the historical Buddha himself. The actual canonical text is silent on this matter. Contemporary metrical analysis indicates that, compared to other canonical verses, this discourse in its current form was finished relatively late, reflecting refinements that may postdate the historical Buddha.
Whether or not this verse was actually articulated verbatim by the Buddha, most would agree that it appropriately characterizes core Buddhist teachings on virtue, right intent, practice and wisdom. Thus, while this discourse's pedigree may be open to rational uncertainty, its soteriological value is largely unquestioned.
[return to the Metta Sutta]