Mudita – The Practice of Joy
by DaeJa Napier
Reprinted with permission. Spring 2014. Published by Southern Dharma Retreat Center.
The practice of mudita brightens and lifts the mind out of the preoccupation with insufficiency. It strengthens our capacity to experience joy and happiness. Likened to a flower at full bloom, it is the ability to appreciate life as it unfolds in a manner that is fulfilling, without reacting with skepticism or doubt. As the antidote for resentment, jealousy, and envy, it restores the human spirit with the buoyant energies of gratitude and generosity that awaken the heartfelt qualities of hope and magnanimity.
As we become more honest with ourselves, we feel a compassionate concern for our chronic sense of dissatisfaction. We wonder why happiness keeps eluding us like a phantom. We experience joy which then seems to evaporate into sadness and grief. We find love which leads to disappointment and disillusionment and turns into ill-will and resentment. Even heartfelt sincerity that guides us toward living intentional lives can be attended to by a sense of bewilderment as awareness reveals the greed, aversion, and attachment with which we live our lives.
In all of this we also experience occasional glimpses that momentarily allow our hearts to breathe with ease. For me, a glimpse occurred during one occasion in the presence of the Dalai Lama at Naropa Institute. We had gathered to explore the topic of education. In his light, joyful manner he said something that I have since taken into serious contemplation. He pointed out that our role as educators/dharma teachers was to “instill hope.” As I listened I was surprised by my initial negative reaction to the word “hope.” It was as if the word had dropped out of my lexicon into a vat of acid. I could feel the word registering as a dull pain in my heart. I saw it as a crippled concept, though still alive, lingering like a sad ghost. I understood that I was looking at our exhausted, fading humanity.
As a result I decided to bring the word hope to the forefront of my mind to see what is instilled in it. As I kept this inquiry in mind, I began to feel a sense of lightness that I hadn’t noticed before. A heaviness started to lift into awe as I began to hear the Buddha’s teaching and associated practices ringing true in a new way. It was as if a light had been turned on and a new, more hopeful perspective began to dawn on me. I realized the lightness was a profound sense of gratitude. Essentially, I began to say thank you to life.
This inquiry also led me to understand that the sense of beauty smiling at me from within was the quality of mudita. Mudita is a Pali word which implies a malleability of consciousness that enables us to receive and register good fortune, gratitude, and awe. It is the attitude of appreciative joy. Mudita is also referred to as gladness and sympathetic joy in honoring and responding to the good fortune of others. By nature appreciative or sympathetic joy has affinity with the beauty inherent in all and everything when gratitude is awakened in the heart.
There are many forms of good fortune for which we feel gratitude. If we pause for a moment to breathe in the heart, we can list them as reflected in every moment of our everyday lives. As mudita relaxes the cold grip of the sense of lack, it warms the heart with receptivity to the good fortune that is already present. At first, gratitude may be associated with material and emotional sources of happiness experienced through success and gain. As mudita matures, it attunes in gratitude to more subtle liberating causes of happiness such as kindness, compassion, and equanimity. As these qualities are cultivated with appreciative joy in mind, trust is restored in seeing the true nature of our own hearts reflected in others. Revitalized trust begins to counterbalance greed, with the capacity to live with increasing simplicity.
In the Theravada monastic tradition there’s a reference to “the requisites.” The requisites include two robes, an alms bowl (to receive the generous offering of food), shelter, and medicine. This list takes the distinction between want and need right down to a sharp discerning edge. Contemplating this helps us to appreciate how much we already have and how little we really need to attend to life in a mindful, caring manner while cultivating the beautiful practices suggested by the Buddha as medicines for every form of suffering.
At times the Buddha was referred to as a healer. The practices he suggested were considered medicines and we, practitioners, the nurses administering the medicines. The practice of mudita is the medicine for the poisons of greed, envy, jealousy, and resentment.
The Chinese Buddhists refer to ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. The medicine of mudita is the wise, skillful, and appropriate response to the ten thousand joys. When meeting joy with clinging, it becomes attachment. As a result, attachment, envy, jealousy, and resentment lead to sorrow and grief. When meeting joy with mudita, the sense of good fortune expands the heart, allowing it to heal and open like a flower.
The metaphor for mudita is a flower in full bloom. Once when I was visiting my mother, as I walked into the family room, I noticed her looking through the window into her garden. My mother who was usually so busy was standing so still. I was drawn next to her to share her experience. As I stood by her side, she (who was fluent in Japanese) uttered the word, “Mankai.” I saw she was in a state of awe. Mankai is Japanese for a flower in full bloom.
The traditional example of the mind-state of mudita is the tender attitude of shared joy a parent experiences when observing a growing child’s accomplishments and successes. The attitude and practice of mudita re-teaches the beauty of our own tenderness, at any age or phase of life. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “I have no rancor with this great suffering. I have been born to live ten thousand lifetimes with a heart of a child.”
The Buddha taught that the greatest good fortune possible in life is to hear of the dharma, to practice the dharma and to realize the dharma. We are actively opening to, engaging, expressing and fulfilling this good fortune through the practice of mindful awareness and mudita.
The teaching that – the dharma is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, beautiful in the end – is reflected in these words from the Dhammapada, to which I would add at the beginning the line:
Dear dharma friends, may we —
Live in joy, in love, even among those who hate.
Live in joy, in health, even among the afflicted.
Live in joy, in peace, even among the troubled.
May we live in joy.
May we live in health.
May we live in peace.