Last month I continued my introduction to the four immeasurable states of mind, also known as the four divine abodes which are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. I specifically focused on compassion and the way in which it arises when one looks upon suffering beings with loving-kindness, how it appears in our practice and in the Lotus Sutra, and how we can consciously develop it through a series of short reflections that can be combined with the Shodaigyo Meditation. This month, I would like to focus on sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy is the feeling that arises when one regards all beings (beginning with oneself and one’s own family and friends but not stopping there) with loving-kindness and then perceives those who are happy and have created a lot of merit or even attained liberating insight. We rejoice that in the good fortune of others and particularly for those who have attained enlightenment. In this way we overcome resentment, envy, and jealousy and even find inspiration in the accomplishments of others.

While the Lotus Sutra is famous for its emphasis on compassion, it should also be known as the sutra that brings out the joy that the Buddha’s disciples undoubtedly felt when they heard his teachings. In chapter three, after hearing the teaching of the One Vehicle, Shariputra says to the Buddha: “Hearing this truthful voice of yours, I feel like dancing [with joy].” In chapter four, Mahakashyapa speaking for himself and three other major disciples of the Buddha says, “Hearing your teaching of today, We are dancing with joy. We have never had such joy before.” One might say that the joy expressed by the voice-hearer disciples was not the same as sympathetic joy because they were rejoicing in the Buddha’s prediction of their own buddhahood. So it would appear that they were only rejoicing over their own good fortune. But on a deeper level, these disciples had already attained liberation for themselves as arhats. They had nothing more to lose or gain for themselves. However, they had felt cut off from attaining buddhahood and therefore of being of any greater service to others. When the Buddha taught them the One Vehicle and predicted their future attainment of buddhahood, these voice-hearer disciples could finally aspire to help all sentient beings attain buddhahood. There joy, therefore, had a very altruistic basis.

The Lotus Sutra also teaches that joy, as well as faith, is a key element in attaining enlightenment. At the end of chapter two, the Buddha states, “Know that, when you remove your doubts, and when you have great joy, you will become Buddhas!” This is reiterated throughout the Lotus Sutra. Chapter ten, for instance, says, “If after my extinction anyone rejoices, even on a moment’s thought, at hearing even a gatha or a phrase of the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, I will assure him of his future attainment of perfect and complete enlightenment.” It is important to remember that we do not rejoice in the Lotus Sutra solely for our own sake. We rejoice in it because it is the Wonderful Dharma that can liberate not only ourselves but all other sentient beings as well.

In Nichiren Buddhism we express our joyful response to the Lotus Sutra through the practice of Odaimoku. Even if we do not particularly feel joyful or understand the full import of the sutra’s teaching, the Odaimoku is an action that at the very least predisposes us to generate a feeling of trust and joy in the Wonderful Dharma. This is the starting point, the seed, which culminates in enlightenment itself. Going back to chapter two, the Buddha says, “Anyone who rejoices at hearing the Dharma and utters even a single word in praise of it should be considered to have already made offerings to the past, present, and future Buddhas. Such a person is rarely seen, more rarely than the udambara-flower.” The udambara-flower is a legendary flower that blooms only once every three thousand years. Simply by chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, “Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra” we are doing something rare and precious – acknowledging the Wonderful Dharma with an expression of faith and joy.

So how can we cultivate sympathetic joy? Just as with loving-kindness, and compassion, we can cultivate it through a series of traditional exercises that can be combined with Shodaigyo meditation so as to bring them within the context of the Odaimoku.

1. Take a few moments to just sit with yourself and breathe. Maybe do a cycle of ten breaths or more counting the breaths if necessary. Non-judgmentally take notice of your physical and mental state. Then begin to cultivate sympathetic joy for yourself by considering the good fortune one has received and any positive accomplishments one has made. You may even want to repeat to yourself, “May good fortune fill all the days of all my lives.” Do this for a few minutes at least.

2. Now take a few minutes to extend sympathetic joy to someone you know who is happy due to good fortune or some positive accomplishment in their life. Repeat to yourself “May all the days of all the lives of [insert name] be filled with good fortune.”

3. Now take a few minutes to extend sympathetic joy to a person who is a benefactor or friend, but preferably not someone we have or would like to have an intimate relationship with, as this would generate strong feelings of attachment. Wish that all the days of all their lives be filled with good fortune. This part should be fairly easy as one is already well disposed to benefactors and friends.

4. Now take a few moments to extend sympathetic joy to a stranger or to someone about whom one does not have any particularly strong feelings one way or another. This exercise is a bit more challenging as it begins to take us beyond the boundaries of our own self-interests.

5. Now imagine someone that one has a problem liking or getting along with and extend to them the wish that all the days of all their lives be filled with good fortune. This is the most difficult of all, as it goes directly against our own inclinations and feelings. This exercise is not meant to condone bad behavior (whether real or perceived) or to prematurely forgive others. Rather, it is to create more positive feelings on your part. Hopefully this can bring about a deeper understanding of the other person’s point of view. It is particularly helpful to remember that sympathetic joy is not simply about rejoicing in material good fortune or secular accomplishments. Rather, sympathetic joy is concerned with rejoicing when others receive benefit from making good causes and especially when others make some advance on the path to liberation.

6. Now spend some time extending sympathetic joy simultaneously to oneself, someone who is happy, a friend or benefactor, a neutral person, and to the person that is hard to get along with. This is for the purpose of equalizing one’s sympathetic joy so that there is no longer any bias or partiality. This can be extremely difficult to do as it takes a universal perspective and not the perspective of our own sentiment or self-interest.

7. Finally one should spend some time imagining that all the days of all the lives of all beings in all directions are filled with good fortune thereby extending the feelings generated in the previous exercises. This part is more abstract but its point is to enable us to cultivate or at least imagine a sympathetic joy that has no boundaries and leaves no being out.