Notes on Sympathetic Joy

Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will.
The Buddha

Monk and Friend Art © Marcelle HanselaarThe virtue of mudita, (Usually rendered by unselfish, sympathetic, or altruistic joy.) i.e., finding joy in the happiness and success of others, has not received sufficient attention either in expositions of Buddhist ethics, or in the meditative development of the four sublime states (brahma-vihara),of which mudita is one.

It has been rightly stated that it is relatively easier for a person to feel compassion or friendliness in situations which demand them, than to cherish a spontaneous feeling of shared joy, outside a narrow circle of one’s family and friends. It mostly requires a deliberate effort to identify oneself with the joys and successes of others. Yet the capacity of doing so has psychological roots in man’s nature which may be even deeper than his compassionate responses. There is firstly the fact that people do like to feel happy (with — or without — good reason) and would prefer it to the shared sadness of compassion.

From Is Unselfish Joy Practicable? By Nyanaponika Thera


The Meditative Development of Unselfish Joy

by Ven. Buddhaghosa (fifth-century)

Excerpted from The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga).

One who begins the development of unselfish joy should not start with a dearly beloved person, a neutral person or a hostile person. For it is not the mere fact that a person is dearly beloved, which makes him an immediate cause of developing unselfish joy, and still less so neutral or hostile person. Persons of the opposite sex and those who are dead are not suitable subjects for this meditation.

A very close friend, however, can be a suitable subject. One who is called in the commentaries an affectionate companion; for he/she is always in a joyous mood: he laughs first and speaks afterwards. He should be the first to be pervaded with unselfish joy. Or on seeing or hearing about a dear person being happy, cheerful, and joyous, unselfish joy can be aroused thus: “This being, verily, is happy! How good, how excellent!” For this is what is referred to in the Vibhanga: “And how does a bhikkhu dwell pervading one direction with his heart imbued with unselfish joy? Just as he would be joyful on seeing a dear and beloved person, so he pervades all beings with unselfish joy” (Vibhanga 274).

But if his affectionate friend or the dear person was happy in the past but is now unlucky and unfortunate, then unselfish joy can still be aroused by remembering his past happiness; or by anticipating that he will be happy and successful again in the future.

Having thus aroused unselfish joy with respect to a dear person, the meditator can then direct it towards a neutral one, and after that towards a hostile one.

But if resentment towards the hostile one arises in him, he should make it subside in the same way as described under the exposition of loving-kindness.

He should then break down the barriers by means of impartiality towards the four, that is, towards these three and himself. And by cultivating the sign (or after-image, obtained in concentration), developing and repeatedly practising it, he should increase the absorption to triple or (according to the Abhidhamma division) quadruple jhana.

Next, the versatility (in this meditation) should be understood in the same way as stated under loving-kindness. It consists in:

(a) Unspecified pervasion in these five ways:
“May all beings… all breathing things… all creatures… all persons… all those who have a personality be free from enmity, affliction, and anxiety, and live happily!”

(b) Specified pervasion in these seven ways:
“May all women… all men… all Noble Ones… all not Noble Ones… all deities… all human beings… all in states of misery (in lower worlds) be free from enmity, etc.”

(c) Directional pervasion in these ten ways:
“May all beings (all breathing things, etc.; all women, etc.) in the eastern direction… in the western direction… northern… southern direction… in the intermediate eastern, western, northern, and southern direction… in the downward direction… in the upward direction be free from enmity, etc.”

This versatility is successful only in one whose mind has reached absorption (jhana).

When this meditator develops the mind-deliverance of unselfish joy through any of these kinds of absorption he obtains these eleven advantages: he sleeps in comfort, wakes in comfort, and dreams no evil dreams, he is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings, deities guard him, fire and poison and weapons do not affect him, his mind is easily concentrated, the expression of his face is serene, he dies unconfused, if he penetrates no higher he will be reborn in the Brahma World (A v 342).


More from Nyanaponika Thera

Thistle with Yarrow plant

We know very well how envy and jealousy (the chief opponents of unselfish joy) can poison a person’s character as well as the social relationships on many levels of life. They can paralyse the productivity of society, on governmental, professional, industrial, and commercial levels. Should not, therefore, all effort be made to cultivate their antidote, that is mudita?

Mudita will also vitalise and ennoble charitable and social work. While compassion (karuna) is, or should be, the inspiration for it, unselfish joy should be its boon companion. Mudita will prevent compassionate action from being marred by a condescending and patronizing attitude which often repels or hurts the recipient. Also, when active compassion and unselfish joy go together, it will be less likely that works of service turn into dead routine performed indifferently. Indifference, listlessness, boredom (all nuances of the Pali term arati) are said to be the ‘distant enemies’ of mudita. They can be vanquished by an alliance of compassion and unselfish joy.

In those who give and help, the joy they find in such action will enhance the blessings imparted by these wholesome deeds: unselfishness will become more and more natural, and such ethical unselfishness will help towards a better appreciation and the final realization of the Buddha’s central doctrine of No-self (anatta). They will also find it confirmed that those who are joyful in heart will gain easier the serenity of a concentrated mind. These are, indeed, great blessings which the cultivation of joy with others’ happiness can bestow!

In this troubled world of ours, there are plenty of opportunities for thoughts and deeds of compassion; but there seem to be all too few for sharing in others’ joy. Hence it is necessary for us to create new opportunities for unselfish joy, by the active practice of loving-kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna), in deeds, words, and meditative thought. Yet, in a world that can never be without disappointments and failures, we must also arm ourselves with the equanimity (upekkha) to protect us from discouragement and feelings of frustration, should we encounter difficulties in our efforts to expand the realm of unselfish joy.



Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Encyclopedia, Metta, Theravada

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1 reply

  1. I am always moved by the writing and teachings at your website. I enjoy them so much I’ve nominated your blog for a Lovely Blog Award:

    With metta.

    Tess Wixted

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