By Marga Callender
Our theme this month is sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is one of the 4 Brahma Vihara or the Divine Abodes. They are: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity.
Last month we talked about compassion. I think of compassion and sympathetic joy as wonderful compliments to each other. In true compassion, we resonate with the suffering of others. We get it. And we can stand with and offer appropriate support. In sympathetic joy we also resonate, this time, in the good fortune of others. We are truly, whole-heartedly, without reservation, happy and supportive.
Expressing compassion and sympathetic joy can sometimes be difficult. It is difficult to feel joyful for someone who has something that we want. This is part of the 2ndNoble Truth. The first noble truth essentially says that there is nothing in this phenomenal world that creates lasting happiness. The 2ndNoble Truth teaches us why. The cause of our unhappiness is Tanha, the Pali word for thirst. Tanha or thirst creates craving and craving can lead to clinging. So, if someone has something we think we lack, something we thirst for and crave, it can be quite difficult to be happy for that person.
So, I’d like us to consider the role of cultivating generosity to help us have a freer relationship with Sympathetic Joy. Generosity is a universal virtue expounded by most religious traditions. The Buddha recognized the important role of generosity. When an individual or a group approached the Buddha for instruction for the very first time, he started with instruction on generosity before launching into any the teachings. Why would that be?
Bhikku Bodhi writes, “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating that pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion.”
Jack Kornfield says it a bit more simply, “Compassionate generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life because it is the practice of letting go.” But what are we letting go of? As Bhikku Bodhi says … actually the Buddha says and Bhikku Bodhi points out … we are letting go of the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. They keep the cycles of birth and death going. We experience myriad births and deaths every day in the cycles that we encounter moment by moment. We train to let go because these unwholesome roots fuel our craving and clinging and they keep us in suffering and dissatisfaction.
Letting go isn’t always easy, especially with a very deep longing we have or when we are asked to let go of something that we believe we must have in order to be happy. Even contemplating letting go of those deep longings or attachments can take our breath away. Training in generosity is a good way to help us let go.
Jack also reflects that for most of us, generosity is a quality that must be developed. I think he is cautioning us not to act out of a place of should, but to examine our lives, and to realize what we crave and how we grasp. Such investigation helps us identify the places of contraction within that are characterized by stinginess, fear, greed, hatred, and attitudes and feelings of separateness.
As we see the places of contraction, we can make a choice. We can open ourselves to sharing. We can share our time, our possessions, our money, our love … or whatever matches the need in the moment. As we open up in generosity, we begin to experience a lightness … a happiness … a freedom … a joy and that encourages us to continue to open in generosity.
Another wholesome outcome of this growth in generosity is that we begin to see just how inextricably connected we all are. We begin to see, deeply, that, as the Buddha pointed out, we all have needs for shelter, nourishment, clothing, and medicines. And we experience the ways in which we can interact in order to support and encourage each other. Jack writes, “An act of generosity opens our body, heart and spirit and brings us close to freedom. Each act of generosity is a recognition of our interdependence, an expression of our Buddha nature.”
So, as we experience our freedom and the recognition of our interdependence, we naturally are more able to embody that Divine Abode of Sympathetic Joy and have that shine through us. We are much more able to freely be joyful about another’s good fortune.
I recently came across a phrase in the book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization by Analayo that blew my socks off. As I sat with that phrase, it brought tears of joy and awe to me. The phrase was: radiating the four divine abodes in all directions. This was a revelation to me. As we do metta meditation on any of the four divine abodes, we send beneficial intentions out to individuals, and groups and eventually to all sentient beings everywhere. Reading that phrase of radiating the four divine abodes in all directions gave it a whole new depth for me. I pictured myself not sending from ‘me,’ but naturally radiating the purity of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity into all spheres and realms. Cultivating generosity helps us wholeheartedly and unabashedly express and radiate sympathetic joy.
But truth to tell, cultivating generosity also helps cultivate all of the Brahma Viharas or the Divine Abodes. It helps open us to radiate loving-kindness and compassion and it undergirds equanimity. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself radiating loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to all beings everywhere.