Mudita: The Buddhist Practice of Sympathetic Joy

Finding Happiness in the Good Fortune of Others

The Laughing Buddha
The Laughing Buddha. © Micha Klootwijk | Dreamstime.com

Mudita is word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others. In Buddhism, mudita is significant as one of the Four Immeasurables (Brahma-vihara).

Defining mudita, we might consider its opposites. One of those is jealousy. Another is schadenfreude, a word frequently borrowed from German that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.

Obviously, both of these emotions are marked by selfishness and malice. Cultivating mudita is the antidote to both.

Mudita is described as an inner wellspring of joy that is always available, in all circumstances. It is extended to all beings, not just to those close to you. In the Mettam Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 46.54) the Buddha said, "I declare that the heart's release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence."

Sometimes English-speaking teachers broaden the definition of mudita to include "empathy."

Cultivating Mudita

The 5th-century scholar Buddhaghosa included advice on growing mudita in his best-known work, the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification. The person just beginning to develop mudita, Buddhaghosa said, should not focus on someone dearly loved, or someone despised, or someone one feels neutral about.

Instead, begin with a cheerful person who is a good friend.

Contemplate this cheerfulness with appreciation and let it fill you. When this state of sympathetic joy is strong, then direct it toward a dearly loved person, a "neutral" person, and a person who causes difficulty.

The next stage is to develop impartiality among the four--the loved one, the neutral person, the difficult person and oneself .

And then sympathetic joy is extended on behalf of all beings.

Obviously, this process is not going to happen in an afternoon. Further, Buddhaghosa said, only a person who has developed powers of absorption will succeed. "Absorption" here refers to the deepest meditative state, in which sense of self and other disappear. For more on this, see "The Four Dhyanas" and "Samadhi: Single Pointedness of Mind."

Fighting Off Boredom

Mudita also is said to be an antidote to indifference and boredom. Psychologists define boredom as an inability to connect with an activity. This may be because we're being forced to do something we don't want to do or because, for some reason, we can't seem to keep our attention focused on what we're supposed to be doing. And plugging away at this onerous task makes us feel sluggish and depressed.

Looked at this way, boredom is the opposite of absorption. Through mudita comes a sense of energized concern that sweeps away the fog of boredom.

Wisdom

In developing mudita, we come to appreciate other people as complete and complex beings, not as characters in our personal play. In this way, mudita is something of a prerequisite for compassion (karuna) and loving kindness (metta).

Further, the Buddha taught that these practices are a prerequisite for awakening to enlightenment.

Here we see that the quest for enlightenment does not require detaching from the world. Although it may require retreating into quieter places to study and meditate, the world is where we find practice--in our lives, our relationships, our challenges. The Buddha said,

"Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will." -- (Digha Nikaya 13)

The teachings tell us that the practice of mudita produces a mental state that is calm, free and fearless, and open to deep insight.

In this way, mudita is an important preparation for enlightenment.