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Sympathetic Joy (Mudita) – Second of the Four Immeasurables

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/13/2010
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Uncategorized

Norman leads the seminar on a talk on Sympathetic Joy or Mudita – the second of the Four Immeasurables. Norman refers to the book “The Four Immeasurables: Cultivating a Boundless Heart by Alan Wallace.

Sympathetic Joy (Mudita) – Second of the Four Immeasurables

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 13, 2010

Edited and abridged by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Editor's note: This talk contains guided meditations on sympathetic joy. You might consider pausing during the reading of the talk to do this practice. The pauses and bells that end certain stages are indicated in the text.


So continuing with our study of the four Brahmaviharas tonight, we'll talk about mudita, sympathetic joy – taking delight in others' happiness. But let me back up a little bit and speak in general about the four Brahmaviharas. They may seem like a goal; they may seem a little unrealistic or sentimental. Do we really think that we are going to train ourselves to love and be sympathetic to everyone, even people that we don't like? People who hurt us, or when we are completely opposed to what they stand for? Do we really think that we are going to do that? Is that what we are trying to do? It sounds good, but when you think about it a little bit, you might be doubtful. But I think that the practice of the Brahmaviharas, when you understand them in their context, are actually pretty practical and down-to-earth. Somebody could easily object to the idea of loving everyone. Somebody could argue, "Is it necessarily a good idea to love your enemy or to love somebody who does really bad things? Just the whole idea of loving everyone, wouldn't that be exhausting? Overwhelming, if you could actually do that?" So before we go ahead, I want to raise these very reasonable objections and speak to them for a minute.

First of all, I think, you have to understand the practice of the four Brahmaviharas in the context of the big picture and the main goal of Buddhist practice. And then we have to think not only of the goal of Buddhist practice, but we also have to think about our actual lives, and to what extent the very large goals of Buddhist practice are actually applicable to our real lives, and what's possible for our lives the way they really are, which has always been my point of view and the point of view that we share here at Everyday Zen.

So we are dedicated to the idea of not being excessively idealistic, although religion, I think, is inherently idealistic. Our idea is to see if we can be a little less idealistic and a little more realistic, and to do the do-able instead of yearning for the un-doable. Given all of that, I would say that our goal is fairly modest, although at the same time pretty ambitious: to overcome confusion and our jealousy and our envy – those kinds of afflictive emotions that we all have, that work against ourselves. Our goal is to try to reduce all that and see if we can simply find a little happiness. Why not? Why couldn't we find a little happiness in our human life? Not just for ourselves, because I think that happiness doesn't work that way, but also so we could be decent people and share our lives with other people that we come in contact with. So we could be of some benefit to others close by and to the world in general.

That is how I see our goal, and I think that is also the goal of Buddhist practice, however idealistically it is sometimes depicted. If that's our goal, then definitely this requires that we have a good and loving relationship with ourselves and with other people. In fact, when you think about it, one of the main causes for our unhappiness is our isolation – our really limited sense of who we think we are and how we see our lives. If we are suffering or unhappy, that's why. So we all need to open up and expand our sense of self, so that it includes rather than excludes others. The Buddha regarded this self-expansion not as something willful or manipulative, or as some kind of emotional trick, but as a return to our most fundamental human nature.

So when you first practice some of the things in Buddhism, like the Brahmaviharas, they seem to go against the grain; but in the end, they are natural and easy for us, once we get used to them. This idea that we are naturally, fundamentally good is repeated over and over again in Mahayana Buddhism. After all, what is Buddha nature if not this idea that we are inherently awakened, good-hearted people?

I don't think you can prove that people are inherently good, as opposed to being inherently bad. But I think that you can know from your own experience that when you relax and have some easy, happy feeling inside yourself and a good feeling for others, it does feel quite easeful and natural. When the opposite is the case, and you feel cynical and mistrustful, and when you believe that people – and therefore you yourself – are basically not trustworthy, you're stressed out. You're not feeling natural and easeful. You feel somehow bent out of shape – sometimes physically, literally, bent out of shape. So whether or not anybody could prove to anyone else's satisfaction that people are basically wonderful and worthwhile or not, it seems to be, practically speaking, a better idea to hold to the belief that you yourself and others are basically good inside, rather than the opposite. It's just a better deal to believe that.

The Brahmaviharas are part of this big picture – of liberation and expansion of self. They are a way of working on and softening our underlying attitudes and psychological prejudices in relation to others. This is really an important aspect of the path, because if we think of awakening and happiness as just about us, just about me and my mind and my heart, then it's not going to work. For sure we are going to go off track.

When I was studying the traditional teachings on the Brahmaviharas this week, I could really see that there is a big gap in psychology and culture between those teachings and the way we live now. This is true, I think, of Buddhist teachings in general. The original teachings and the whole tradition of commentaries speaks to an audience of ancient, Asian practitioners, who were living in more or less feudalistic societies, and whose basic sense of self, basic expectations, and pre-existing attitudes were probably really different from ours. So that is why it's our job now – and will be for quite awhile, without losing the main points that the teachings are making, and sometimes the main points are deeper than we think they are – to adapt the teachings to our own situation.

As we all know, one of the main themes in Buddhist practice – one of the things the Buddha was most concerned about – was this question of the self: the conditioned self, the suffering self, the non-self, the true self, the Buddha-nature self, and so on. The Buddha, and the Buddhist pundits through the generations, had been thinking about the trap of self and the liberation of self, the emptiness of the self, the letting go of the self. In the famous phrase that we are always quoting, Dogen says, "To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things." This famous passage in Genjokoan, think about this.: You could take this saying of Dogen as a profound practice of mudita.

We come to practice, and we start out, at first, with a very limited sense of ourselves. We come, as we are all brought up to be, as very small and very scared people. We have lots of wounds and lots of wants and needs for love, for feeling worthy. And these needs have not been met. So maybe we come and study Buddhism, and we try to go beyond these needs by studying Buddhism. We practice zazen. What happens when you give yourself to the process of zazen is that you begin to open yourself to a much wider sense of what you are. This is not a concept or some kind of mystical experience. It's just the grit of sitting on that cushion, year after year. Somehow, in your living, it just becomes clear to you – even if you don't have a concept of it – that the self is much more porous than you thought. It becomes clear to you that, in fact, most of what you thought of as your self is a whole bunch of habits of thought and attitudes. The whole idea of,"I'm me over here, and you are over there" is mostly a habitual thought and attitude, much more than any substantial reality. Of course this distinction is practical, and it is real, in its way. I'm not saying it is delusional. But I think that if you sit on your cushion long enough, year after year, it becomes clear to you that although it may be real and it may be true, it's real and true in a way that is not so ultimate. It's not entirely true. There are a lot of gaps in that. Dogen calls this "forgetting the self." We become less stuck on ourselves. Our previous rather crude egotism becomes a much more subtle and porous egotism! It's just more complicated now, and more porous and more various. We're less stuck on ourselves than we were before, I think, and much more open on all sides to the world and to others. We become capable of feeling others' pain – compassion, karuna. And we become equally capable of feeling others' joy as our own joy – mudita.

So now we have increased the possible conditions for our own joy by a fraction of five or six billion. Nothing special or excellent has to happen to me in order for me to feel joy. All of you could be happy, and it would make me happy. So I have many more chances for happiness, right? What a deal!

The point here is that we can connect to our own happiness and delight in simply being alive, and we can recognize the obvious fact that that delight and happiness are not bound by this skin bag. What is a feeling, anyway? A feeling is not a thing. It's weightless; it's shapeless; it's not located anywhere. How could it be housed in a particular body? Joy is actually shared. It actually is contagious, if you will let yourself be overcome by it. Once in a while, in special moments, you feel the contagion of joy.

So the practice of sympathetic joy is really wonderful, and it's pretty simple. I forgot last week to give you a homework assignment for loving-kindness, so maybe everybody was crabby all week. But this week I am going to suggest that we make an intentional effort to practice mudita – sympathetic joy. Somehow or other you can make a reminder for yourself – like on your refrigerator or on your computer screen – a reminder, "This week I am practicing sympathetic joy." You can write the word "mudita" on your desk or something. Maybe even every morning when you sit, you can remind yourself, "This week I want to sit with the intention of sympathetic joy, and cultivate it in my sitting, and see if I can spy some instances of grabbing hold of sympathetic joy and extending it during the day." So you are on the lookout all the time. "Where is there some happiness out there? I see a little happiness." It doesn't have to be a big happiness. It's little pieces of happiness here or there. Maybe you are walking down the street and some lovely, young couple passes by, who seem completely thrilled to be with each other. You can focus on that moment, those people, and you can say to yourself, "That happiness is also my happiness. That joy is also my joy." And this will cheer you up. It will decrease your self-absorption. It will open up your mind and heart a little bit. It will definitely lighten your point of view.

So try it this week. Probably you should also cultivate what we did last week, and in a moment we'll practice for just a few minutes, a way of cultivating mudita on your meditation cushion. It's similar to the way you could cultivate metta or maitri. You always begin with returning to basic zazen, to the peacefulness and stability in the breath and body. And then, in this case, you try to think of someone you know who is a joyful, happy, positive person. Truly we all know someone who is an ebullient person. You imagine that person sitting in front of you, and you feel their happiness coming toward you. You feel it suffusing your own body. The idea here is not that you are stealing their happiness, so that now you're happy and they're not. It doesn't go like that. You are just appreciating them for their happiness, and in that you are becoming happy yourself. And you can also follow the sequence that we did last week: Starting with a happy person, someone you appreciate, you admire or are close to, and then you can go from there to a neutral person, and then you can go from there to a general feeling of happiness for everyone, everywhere – above, below, and all around, without limit. Then, you can bring up someone who has hurt you, someone you are having trouble with – somebody you don't like, you don't admire at all. And you can try to imagine that person happy and take delight in that person's happiness. And then, as we were saying last time, when you have resistance to that, as we will, you study the resistance, and you try to face it head-on, and as much as possible feel that person's happiness.

So, let's take a few minutes and actually try to practice that. Just maybe five or six minutes we'll sit. I'll ring one bell in between each section.


We will start with an ebullient, happy person. And you imagine that person as somehow present, and feel yourself taking delight in their happiness. And then again, if there is resistance to this, you just notice that and you continue with the effort. Sometimes just surfacing the resistance is enough.


And now let's practice with what they call a neutral person. But in this case, let's practice with all of us here in our group. You can also do this at home, and imagine yourself surrounded by sangha members, and imagine that all of us in the room have happy hearts. Let yourself feel happy for all the people in the room who are feeling happy. Isn't it wonderful that they are at ease and happy, and that makes me happy.


Now let's imagine the walls of the building disappearing, and the ceiling and the floor disappearing, and feeling space all around – above, below, in all directions, without limit,- and all the beings, everywhere, feeling happy. We can feel the happiness and the joy like a force of nature, swirling all around, and it makes us glad too, even though we might not have any other reason to be happy. We can be happy because others are happy everywhere.


Now think of somebody you are having trouble with, somebody you really don't like, or somebody you think is just not a very nice person. Maybe somebody who has hurt you in some way. Now imagine that person being happy, and see if you can take delight in that person's happiness. And, again, if there is resistance to that, it is enough just to be aware of the resistance. You don't need to make it go away. Simply to surface the resistance and feel what it's like is the first step in cultivating mudita.


Now just return to the moment. Letting all of that go. Just being with the body and the breath, resting in the empty, open nature of being itself.


Thank you. So I invite you to practice like that in zazen, and otherwise see if you can grab a hold of and extend this practice of mudita.

Like all the other four Brahmaviharas, mudita has a near enemy and a far enemy. The near enemy of mudita is frivolity. Superficiality. In other words, you would become a joy junkie, and you would all the time be looking for joy and happiness, so as to avoid life's other profound realities, which one cannot avoid, if you are going to practice the Way and actually be happy. In other words, being happy by covering over life's sorrows – impermanence and loss – is not a good way to be happy, because those things have a way of catching up to you. Frivolity and dunking yourself in joy every minute is not going to work out. It will catch up to you. So frivolity is the near enemy of mudita. It could look like you are doing sympathetic joy, but what you are really doing is avoidance.

The far enemy of mudita is something that we are quite aware of: envy, jealousy, and resentment. When we are envious and jealous of others, we resent them. Because we are all so convinced of our own personal insufficiency, it's very easy for us to feel envious and jealous of others. Since I am clear on the fact that I am not good enough, or smart enough, or virtuous enough, or likeable enough, or successful enough, well, I don't like you if you turn out to be more likeable and smarter and more successful! I'm jealous and I resent you, but I don't think that I am jealous. I just know that I resent you. In fact, I find it very hard to accept that you are smart or friendly or good or virtuous or successful, because it makes me feel that much worse about myself. So I don't accept it.

I am saying all this because, in order to really practice mudita, we have to be honest about all of this stuff. We have to be very honest about our envy and our jealousy and our resentment. That's why I said that when the resistance is there, and we notice the envy and jealousy when we're trying to develop mudita, just notice it and get used to it and see how it feels. Just noticing when that feeling is there is the practice of mudita. We have to patient with it. We have to forgive ourselves for it. It's not really our fault. It's normal. It's natural. We don't have to expect that it's going to go away immediately, but steadily and realistically just continue with the intentional practice of mudita.

If it should be the case that resentment, envy, and jealousy persist, here are a few ways, based on traditional teachings, that you can think about it. Now this is interesting in and of itself. The cultivation of particular ways of thinking – contemplation – is a commonplace practice in Buddhist teaching. In our culture we have the idea that what we're thinking is what we naturally think. It is our own thinking. It's our prerogative. It's a free country, we are free individuals. We aren't going to be told what to think, and, by God, we're not going to believe what somebody else thinks, because it's not what we think. I think what I think. But this is a pretty unsophisticated idea, as if, somehow, we independently think our thoughts. "These are my thoughts. I independently invented these thoughts. Nobody else has these thoughts." But that's not true at all. The thoughts that I am thinking are conditioned thoughts. They are conditioned by my situation. If I think about it and realize that the ways I am thinking create a lousy attitude for myself, and a lot of unhappiness, and bad self-image, and cynicism, then I am stupid if I don't think about cultivating other ways of thinking. So it's a good idea, actually, to rehearse better thoughts, if our thoughts are lousy. Let's see if we can get better ones! Makes sense.

Here are some ways to think about resentment, in case you have a lot of resentment or jealousy or envy. Even if someone really is a rotten person, the resentment that you are feeling is not theirs. It's yours. It has nothing to do with them. Your not feeling resentful anymore is not going to make them happier, in case you don't like the idea of making bad people happy. Don't worry. If you stop resenting them, it's not going to make them happy. They don't care, one way or the other. You are the one who is being harmed by the resentment. Resentment hurts you; it doesn't do anything to them. So think like that.

Secondly, if you can't think of anything at all positive about a person, and they really are rotten in every way, then remember karma. Karma means "bad actions bring bad fruit and good actions bring good fruit." So if somebody really is rotten – well, that's their problem, not yours. You don't need to resent them for it. They will receive what they will receive from it.

The third way to think about it is if you have a lot of envy, jealousy, and resentment, think of all the effort you have made over the years in your practice. All those hours of zazen. Maybe you took the precepts and sewed a rakusu. All those hours of sewing, and everything that you have done to cultivate the good in your life – resentment, envy and jealousy are only reducing the benefit of that. Why would you want to do that? It's like painting your house and then throwing dirt on it. Why would you want to do that?

If that doesn't work, you can think about this: Everything is impermanent. If somebody hurt you, or they are going around making a big deal out of their accomplishments, and that bothers you, that happened before. It's not happening right now. So why would you want to perpetuate something unpleasant – which is past – with your envy, your resentment, and your jealousy?

If that doesn't work, think about this: You think that you are jealous of somebody else. You think that you're envious of somebody else. But look more closely. What are you really jealous of? What are you really resenting? What are you really envious of? You have a picture in your mind of this person. You have no idea what this person is like. But you made a picture in your mind of this person, and now you are envious, and jealous, and resentful of this picture in your mind! You've created a fictitious person that you could be jealous of. It has nothing to do with any reality.

If that doesn't work, think about this: Everybody here in this room knows his or herself pretty well. You know your own intentions. You know your strengths, you know your weaknesses, you know your hopes and your fears – all this stuff swirling around behind your words and deeds that nobody else ever sees. Now you are jealous and resentful of this other person. You have no idea what hopes and fears are swirling around within that person. All you can see is their outward actions – their words, their deeds. So, no doubt, whatever envy, jealousy, or resentment you have is misguided.

If that doesn't work, think like this: Think about the person you want to be. Think about how you want to develop your life. Or alternatively, or simultaneously, think about someone you really admire. That person, and you yourself – the person that you would like to be in the future – are not people who harbor resentment, envy, and jealousy. These are very small-minded qualities. These people you admire are generous and compassionate and have delight in others. Since people you admire are like that, and you yourself aspire to be like that tomorrow, why pursue a path in the opposite direction? Why not start now? And let go of that.

Think of all the money and trouble you could save if you put less attention into trying to get the conditions for your own happiness, and just started getting happy because other people were happy. Very efficient. So let's try to practice that this week and see how we can do.

Thank you.

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