I recently heard a Dharma talk on the topic of joy, and it got me thinking about the different contexts in which joy occurs in the Pali Canon.
Those of you familiar with the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – know that the primary factor of the first jhāna is joy. The Pāli word is pīti. This is a specific meditative experience that is associated with rapture/joy/bliss that permeates the whole body. It is a milestone in our practice. We start with the ground of generosity, upon which is a layer of virtue, and then comes concentration. Concentration begins with mundane concentration, followed by “access” or “neighborhood” concentration, and finally the first jhāna. So from the beginning the Buddha is urging us to develop the meditative experience of joy.
Another context in which joy occurs is in the Seven Factors of Awakening. This is not the meditative experience of pīti, but joy in the practice. You may have had this experience, where you simply feel overwhelming joy that a) you have discovered the Buddhadharma and b) you have the opportunity to practice it. Our normal condition is to wander aimlessly through saṃsāra, going from one life to another. It is like being lost in the desert. We suffer, and we don’t know why. This just makes it worse. Not only are we lost, we don’t know how to find our way out.
Then we discover the Buddhadharma. Even if the way out seems like a very long way away, at least we know that we are on the right path. Now we have a map. Finally we have something solid.
The third context in which we find joy is “sympathetic joy”, mudita in Pāli. It is one of the brahma viharas, the noble abidings (love, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity). It is the ability to feel the same amount of happiness in someone else’s good fortune as you would in your own. This comes with time, and as your practice ripens. Something good will happen to someone else, and suddenly you feel such joy and happiness, only later realizing what has happened. It is very gratifying. It is a way of cheating. Now you can be happy not only when good things happen to you, you can be happy when they happen to others as well.
This is a topic that is worth remembering, “keeping in mind”. This path can be very challenging, of course. But the Buddha urges us to develop these qualities, and he puts them front and center in the practice.