Text of Dharma Talk on Sympathetic Joy, one of the 4 Abodes of a Bodhisattva

(copyright 1998 by Tom R. Childers)

Today I would like to speak about one of the 4 Abodes of a Bodhisattva. The 4 Abodes as described by the Buddha are kindness, equanimity, compassion, and sympathetic joy. What is sympathetic joy? Basically it is feeling another person’s joy as our own, or, to say it another way, to let another person’s joy into our heart. This is an especially wonderful practice because feeling another person’s joy as our own is a good way to multiply that joy and offer it to other people. If I cannot feel another person’s joy, then it stops with me. It does not travel any farther. When I feel the joy of others, then it has a chance to travel to the many other people that I may come into contact with.

I think sympathetic joy is an important practice because the Buddha gave many gifts to his students. One of his most wonderful gifts was the joy of being alive and awake and having an opportunity to practice the Dharma. The joy the Buddha felt when he became enlightened is still radiating around the world. In some ways, joy may have been the most powerful feeling that manifested within the Buddha as a result of his enlightenment. The Buddha felt great joy because he was able to let go of all struggling and attachments. After 6 years of strenuous practice, the Buddha finally realized that joy and the Middle Way are one and the same. To practice the Middle Way means we honor the reality of our true nature in its essence and in its manifestation. Our true nature manifests in different ways for each of us. Our true essence is always the same, but unless our minds are clear and open, the joy of our true essence will not manifest in the world.

Our true nature is a very deep and wonderful mystery, but using the power of mindfulness, we can more easily allow the manifestation of our true nature. When we see how our true nature manifests, it is much easier to walk with the Buddha along the Middle Way. The Middle Way means that we can live our lives in such a way as to produce joy. I think we can only practice sympathetic joy to the extent we can allow our natural joy to flow freely. Living joyfully means that we are no longer struggling against ourselves or the world. We simply let go just as the Buddha let go of everything under the Bodhi tree many years ago.

When we practice mindfulness, we ourselves can feel the same joy the Buddha felt, and our joy is then available to others around us. We become like a cool spring of water in a hot desert. Our joy can be very refreshing to people around us. In the modern world, many people are so busy and frantic. Feeling unconditioned joy is a wonderful reminder to slow down and take it easy. When we feel joy, we find it much easier to let go of regrets about the past or worries about the future. A joyful heart reminds us that the universe is very good at taking care of itself, and also at taking care of us. Sympathetic joy teaches us how to feel a happiness that is unconditioned. Unconditioned means that our happiness is not dependent on some form or situation. The depth of our joy is directly related to how much we joyfully accept the world just as it is, in each moment. If our minds has many regrets or expectations, then we limit our joy because we can’t be at peace with the world. Expectations often cause us to struggle against what is already here.

A joyful heart produces a mind that is open and clear and ready to receive the Dharma. To receive the pure Dharma is to receive the words of emptiness which guide us back to our true nature. We recognize when we touch our true nature because joy always arises when we come home. When we come home after a long journey, everyone is always very happy. They are happy because they know and understand us and we understand them. Thich Nhat Hanh always speaks of true love as having roots in understanding. When we learn and understand the Dharma, we really are learning and understanding ourselves. To understand ourselves is to see the empty and inter-dependent nature of all that is. When we see this we begin to feel much more connected to the world inside of us, the world outside and all the people in our lives.

When we realize emptiness as our true nature, it is much easier to really feel sympathetic joy with another person. We can feel their joy because, through the awareness of inter-dependence, we become that other person and they become us. Or, to put it another way, we realize that everyone has Buddha nature as their true essence. To see that Buddha nature as our true essence is very joyful because we then realize we carry the seed of awakening inside us always, just as the Gotama carried his potential for awakening for 6 years before his awakening under the Bo tree.

So to create sympathetic joy is not too difficult, because there is always a seed of joy and awakening within each of us. This seed of joy has actually fully blossomed already. The Buddha discovered this when he awakened to his true nature under the Bo tree. That is why, after his enlightenment, the Buddha said “How wonderful it is that everything is Buddha nature.” Mahakasyapa, the first Zen Patriarch, smiled joyfully when the Buddha simply showed him a flower. It is wonderful to remember that the root of Zen practice is always joy. This is a wonderful understanding, because many people think Zen is so serious and hard. This is not true! Zen is very joyful, and we must remember that as we offer the practice of Zen to our children and young people. So when we practice Zen we can feel sympathetic joy with the Buddha and Mahakasyapa, and that joy helps us to let go of old ideas and beliefs which can make Zen difficult.

Thus when we just realize our true nature, we automatically feel the Buddha’s joy and everyone around us feels that joy also. If someone cannot feel our joy, that is OK. The important thing to know is that everyone has the potential to feel that joy and touch the true nature of emptiness. To feel joy is not something that anyone has to learn to do. We must simply let go of that which we cannot hold onto anyway.

We can all let go of worries and regrets and fears. Some people may say this is hard to do, but that is not really the case. The hard part for some people is to finally realize that it is not hard. It is something we can do naturally if we create the correct causes and conditions. The causes and conditions for letting go is just mindfulness. Thus mindfulness is the key for us to touch our own joy so we can begin to really feel the joy of others. When our empty nature blossoms from potential into actuality, then our form will naturally follow our essence just as a warmth flows from the sun.

Some people may feel that emptiness is some mysterious thing that only Buddhas or enlightened masters can touch. This is not true at all. Emptiness just means we realize that all our thoughts and feelings and concepts are impermanent. This is not mysterious at all. Each of us can look inside of ourselves and see how quickly each thought and feeling arises and fades. One moment we are happy, the next we’re sad, the next we’re excited, and so on throughout our whole life as far back as we can remember. When we see this we realize that who we are is not our thoughts and feelings at all. We begin to look behind the thoughts and feelings to see where they come from. This is what meditation is all about; discovering the source of who we are rather than just spending our whole lives believing we are just our thoughts and feelings.

The nature of emptiness is a very deep mystery. It is mysterious because we can’t talk about it. However, we can experience it directly if we just for a moment ask ourselves “Where does this thought or feeling come from?”, “Who am I?” Normally we believe that who we are is just the endless flow of our ever-changing thoughts and feelings. When we sit in meditation and really become quiet inside, we see that our true nature is really the source of all thoughts and feelings. We see that there is really no one there at all. We discover that we were spending all our time looking at the shadow rather than seeing the light. When we turn to see the light, we feel very joyful because everything now becomes clear. There is no more confusion.

That is why it is a waste of time to try and describe the emptiness; we can only say what it isn’t. All the words we may use come from our conceptual mind, and all around us exists a language much deeper than any words we may say. That deeper language is the voice of the sky, the wind, the trees and waves. All the voices of the natural world. When we learn to listen to all these voices, then we can hear the emptiness described perfectly. These voices describe the emptiness beautifully because they speak without using concepts or ideas. The voices of nature and nature itself are not different at all. When we speak using concepts or ideas we just describe the emptiness, we don’t really touch the emptiness. This is especially true if we are attached to our concepts or ideas, or if we think that our ideas are right and the ideas of others are wrong. Nature doesn’t care about right or wrong. The natural world just is.

So speaking about the emptiness too much is like mistaking the map for the country. I have seen many maps of Vietnam, but I have never been there. The maps are not Vietnam, they are just abstract descriptions of Vietnam. Maps are very useful, of course. They can show us how to get to Vietnam and how to travel around once we are there. But when I get to see a beautiful Vietnamese mountain, or see the deep green Vietnamese forests, then I forget about the map and I’m there directly with the true Vietnam. The map has done its job, and now I don’t have to study it anymore. So speaking about sympathetic joy will show us the way to touch emptiness, but it is only a description.

Another aspect of sympathetic joy is how it blends together with the other 3 Abodes. When Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of the 5 precepts he talked about how the 5 precepts are all connected and how they inter-penetrate. My feeling is that the same is true for the 4 abodes. In a poetic sense, they can be seen like the 4 qualities of nature; earth, air, fire and water. All living and non-living things in nature can be seen as possessing or being inter-dependent with each of the 4 elements. In the same way, when we practice deeply one of the 4 abodes, we are really practicing all of them because of their inter-being nature. So when we speak of and realize the deep beauty of sympathetic joy, we also realize the beauty of the other 3 abodes which are kindness, compassion and equanimity. With kindness, our words and actions water the seeds of joy in other people. With compassion we realize that all livings things wish to feel joyful. With equanimity we have a clear, quiet mind so that there is space where the joy of others can penetrate into.

So we see that sympathetic joy is a very deep and wonderful practice, and that feeling the joy of others helps us get in deeper contact with our own joy. When we feel joy, the peace of the Buddha shines out like the rays from the sun, and we take another step on the journey of awakening, which is always just our journey home.

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