As an athletic legend in my own mind, I often enjoy watching the various Olympics and other great sporting spectacles.
This is, of course, aside from attendant political and social concerns including human rights and the mental health and well-being of the rigorously disciplined competitors.
I love seeing the youthful athletes rejoicing enthusiastically in the pure joy of hard-earned accomplishment. And I often wonder: if we could practice our spiritual disciplines anywhere near as devotedly as these master athlete-yogis, both we and the entire world would benefit, perhaps even more than by the Olympic, samsaric trials and travails themselves. (If one might dare to compare and compete, that is.)
Among other interesting delights, this winter Olympiad has provided me with an immediate and potent opportunity actually to feel into the exhilaration of accomplishment, sympathize with elite athletes (which I certainly never was), and consciously cultivate the ancient, beloved, and extraordinarily effective and profound practice of mudita, or “vicarious rejoicing.”
Mudita is also known as “sympathetic joy” or “sublime joy,” and it emphasizes the benefits of rejoicing in the merits and virtues of others.
This is taught as a powerful antidote to jealousy and covetousness, and acts as a counterbalance to competitiveness and the near-enemy of rejoicing known as “living vicariously through others”—through our children, for example. Mudita is the antonym of the descriptive German term schadenfreude, meaning to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.
With mudita, we simply rejoice in the good fortune of others, ever free of self-interest or repayment as ego-gratification. This important latter aspect of the practice distinguishes mudita, sympathetic joy, from mere pride, its poor cousin (or “near-enemy” in Buddhist lingo).
Mudita has somehow become the orphaned member of the Four Immeasurable Attitudes, much overlooked in the modern dharma scene and the Western world. Metta—maitri, or loving-kindness—is the most popular among the four immeasurables, and is commonly taught and practiced today.
These four heartitudes, or four divine abodes (brahmaviharas), or four boundless, as I have called them, are:
>> Equanimous Impartiality
>> Loving-Kindness (wishing others well)
>> Compassion (feeling with another and being moved to help)
>> Vicarious Joy, Sublime Joy (or kvelling, in Yiddish)
These four aspects of Buddha’s love are characteristic of how the most highly realized beings, gods, and archangels—that is, the entire “invisible array,” dwelling as if in the heights of Mount Olympus—this is how the supreme beings “see” and roll, with divine sight, and how they live and breathe through us. They are part and parcel of how we cultivate and nourish our own spiritual heart, mind, and emotions. They help us to refine our character through wise actions, wise understanding, and altruistic intentions, and through self-giving, such as through the virtues of dana paramita and of seva, otherwise known as selfless service and generosity that is unbound by the expectation of return.
Mudita, sublime joy, is taught in Buddhism as a way of experiencing an inner source of infinite joy which is ever accessible.
While this kind of empathetic joy is seen as being the most difficult, the most challenging of the brahmavihara (four divine abodes) to achieve, it can greatly enhance the life of anyone who cultivates it.
Some say this is a rather unique, contemplative practice of Buddhism, dating back to Buddha’s time, which can bring one a share of goodness and positivity “simply by rejoicing in the merits and virtues of others.” Buddhist teachers often interpret mudita more broadly as “an inner spring of infinite joy that is available to everyone at all times, regardless of circumstances.” Joy is distinguished here from mere pleasure, elation, grasping, and momentary happiness, and is more akin to delight, a lasting inner glow, lightness of being, and inner fulfillment. The more deeply one drinks of this spring, the more securely one becomes in one’s own abundant happiness, and the more bountiful it becomes to relish the joy of other people.
Mudita is a spontaneous and warm effervescence, which springs from integrity, authenticity, and appreciation of the entire magical display. There is no self-and-other dichotomy in such a manifestation—it’s simply joy infused with gratitude and equanimity.
The four boundless heartitudes empower each other, ever nourishing and replenishing us and each other, reinforcing and highlighting our interbeing. Equanimity nourishes loving-kindness, loving-kindness then nourishes compassion, compassion nourishes mudita’s sublime joy, and mudita nourishes equanimity and mutuality, thus equalizing us and them. Likewise, equanimity restores mudita, mudita restores compassion, compassion restores loving-kindness, and loving-kindness restores equanimity.
While Mudita is said to be the most challenging of the four divine abodes to practice and accomplish, loving-kindness the easiest and simplest, and equanimity is the second hardest to realize. The fourth, compassion, or compassionate responsiveness, is cultivated through panacean practices of noble generosity, self-discipline, patience, joyous effort, meditation, and wisdom.
In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, as part of the bodhichitta-development section of the ngöndro foundational practices, we chant—100,000 times—each of the shlokas (four-line stanzas) that both express and instill in us these four sacred virtues while reflecting upon their significance, meaning, and import. Besides elevating aspiration and strengthening our resolve, inner strength, and fortitude, this exercise reconditions our more narrow-minded, hard-hearted, and selfish tendencies, as well as our narcissistic habits and conditioning. Buddhist dharma is not a self-help project or merely a matter of self-improvement; there’s no separate self, anyway, and it can’t be helped!
These remarkable four divine abodes characterize Buddha love: ever accessible, ever present, and boundless.
Sarva mangalam. May all beings enjoy peace, harmony, and wellness.
Author’s note: “Sarva mangalam,” or “May all beings be happy and well,” the well-known loving-kindness prayer we often hear today, is part of the four-line shloka cultivating loving-kindness from the Metta Sutra (loving-kindness scripture), which is said to be the historical teacher of Buddha’s own words.