Joy and Practice

It may come as a surprise to some people, but despite its reputation for pessimism and nihilism, Buddhism is a practice that requires joy, although it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about grinding out a tough retreat. In one sutta we even find evidence that the Buddha’s followers were considered to be a happy bunch. Kind Pasenadi in MN 89 [1] remarks that the Buddha’s monastics were  “always smiling and joyful, obviously happy, with cheerful faces” compared to the thin, haggard ascetics from other traditions, which suggests that the practice has always had a joyful element to it.

Theravadan practice has a reputation for being particularly dry, so it might come as a surprise to some that the texts of the Pali canon repeatedly state that joy is a requisite for enlightenment. These teachings put a lot of importance on the role of joy for reaching enlightenment, and this is a detail that can be easy to overlook, but my talking about using the breath as a meditation object over the previous two posts brought this back to my mind.

I have written about joy a couple of years ago in the post Renunciation and Joy, recounting some of my own experiences that led me to understand that joy was an important component in not only helping us to let go of  worldly things but also to support our practice too, but its importance in breath meditation was something that I hadn’t given much thought to until recently.

Joy in meditation is a crucial factor in Buddhist practice, in fact you could even say that without joy Buddhism as we know it would never have happened. Why so? Well it was the Buddha’s realisation that some kinds of pleasure wouldn’t hinder spiritual practice that allowed him to finally achieve enlightenment, namely the pleasure that comes from jhana meditation. Worn out and despondent after years of severe austerities but still not having reached his spiritual goal, the Buddha-to-be as he was at that point suddenly remembered an incident from his childhood and wondered if it could be something that would help him to reach his goal:

“Then it occurred to me, ‘I recall sitting in the cool shade of the rose-apple tree while my father the Sakyan was off working. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I entered and remained in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. Could that be the path to awakening?’ Stemming from that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to awakening!’ Then it occurred to me, ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’” MN36 [2]

It was by using the skilful pleasure that comes from concentration meditation that the Buddha found his middle way between painful ascetic practices and worldly pleasure. We might not think that would have required much of a stretch of the imagination for someone living in the hedonistic Indian culture of the time, but Keren Arbel points out that this was no small decision for the Buddha to take. He had been practicing as an ascetic for several years at this point, and had been following an ethos that considered any and all kinds of pleasure as something to be avoided.[3]It took a real determination, and the absolute desperation of a man who had almost practiced himself to death and still hadn’t reached enlightenment, to risk using pleasure after so many years of the most severe austerities.

Fortunately the Buddha was correct, the pleasures of jhana meditation were the key that unlocked his practice because the pleasurable feelings that come from meditation allow you to let go of your craving for pleasurable feelings from worldly sources; and at the same time that transforms renunciation from an ascetic practice to one that is no longer a source of suffering because you no longer feel that you are ‘missing out’ on anything, you no longer need these things to feel comfortable. This makes it a middle way between worldly pleasure and asceticism because you neither need pleasure from the world nor do you feel suffering when you don’t get it.

Joy as a factor features in a few places in the practices described by the Pali canon. It is one of the seven factors of enlightenment, it is a component of transcendental dependent origination, and it is, as already mentioned, a feature of jhana meditation.

As a quick aside, there are two pali words that can be translated as joy, and there is no clear convention on this, but in my posts I tend to designate the word piti as meaning  joy, and sukha as meaning happiness; other translators often designate sukha as meaning joy. Piti often gets translated as rapture, as seen in the sutta reference above, but this is a word that doesn’t mean as much to people nowadays so I prefer the more accessible translation of joy over rapture.

It isn’t always particularly clear if the different sets of factors are meant to interface into each other, but there are those who feel that the enlightenment factors leading up to joy need to be present as a prerequisite for the jhana factor of piti to arise. In practice though jhana states do happen by chance sometimes, and Ayya Khema points out that the feelings we experience in the first four jhanas, also called the fine material jhanas, like joy, happiness and equanimity are familiar ones because they come up in our ordinary experiences. [4] So it isn’t unusual for us to accidently stumble across a strong feeling of joy in our meditation every now and again.

What makes the difference between these chance occurrences of joy and happiness in our meditation and the ability to deliberately cultivate them to order is the establishment of the necessary conditions for them to arise, so they don’t have to be there for joy to arise spontaneously, but they do need to be there for it to arise consistently. These need to be established both at the moment of meditation, and also have to be present in the rest of our life too as supporting conditions.

Joy in meditation as described in the Pali suttas, when cultivated in a controlled and deliberate way, seems to serve a particular and necessary function in helping us to realise enlightenment as well as being a useful support for maintaining our attention on the meditation object. We experience joy in many ordinary ways outside of meditation of course, but what is special about the joy we feel in jhana meditation is that it is ‘not of the world’, meaning that it doesn’t rely on sense pleasures in the same way that our usual experiences of joy do, like eating chocolate cake or looking at a beautiful sunrise. [5] This kind of meditative joy is not the same as the short lived pleasures that come from the senses [6], and it is important for us to not get them mixed up otherwise we can convince ourselves that we are eating chocolate cake ‘for spiritual reasons’ and other such wishful thinkings.

This different kind of joy from meditation is what allows us to let go of always looking for joy from sense pleasures, and Arbel feels that it is only by having the direct embodied experience of a joy that doesn’t rely on the senses that we can learn to  let go of sense pleasures; just knowing why we should give them up isn’t enough to facilitate that change, it must be experienced . [3] This makes joy in meditation an absolute necessity (if you want to reach enlightenment at least), and it is a shame that meditation techniques that are popular at the moment give so little airtime to this point.

Even if we aren’t shooting for enlightenment, we need joy in our wider practice for many other reasons, not least because if we take no joy in our practice then we will struggle to maintain it. Khema asks if we don’t enjoy our practice then why should we keep doing it? She also feels that without the feeling of joy our meditation will remain inconsistent.  [6] Ajahn Thiradhammo says that not finding joy in our practice can be demotivating, and lead to a lethargy in our practice that he calls the ‘spiritual doldrums’. [7]He also adds that a lack of joy from our practice can lead to a ‘spiritual restlessness’ [7] that can lead us to start shopping around for new approaches. So while faith is the prerequisite for joy in the chain of transcendental dependent origination, it seems that a lack of joy can start to erode our faith too, and can take us away from the path before we have been able to develop it fully.

Joy serves a very practical function in meditation too, it helps to get us on the cushion, helps us to keep coming back to sit on the cushion, and it helps us to maintain our intention to our meditation object. As I wrote two weeks ago, the Buddha says all of our actions are attempts at happiness in one way or another, so when we use a meditation object if it has no potential to bring us any kind of good feelings we will need to work very hard against our basic nature to stay with it. I’m pretty sure most people who have tried breath meditation, or mindfulness have had experiences like this where the mind just couldn’t stay on the task, and know just how much effort it takes to keep putting the mind back to the right place. Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that working with an uncomfortable meditation object is like trying to hold a balloon underwater. It will only stay put as long as you are holding it tight, as soon as your grip slips even a little the balloon will be off, bursting out of the water. He suggests that you actively try to make the experience of the breath as comfortable as possible, to lessen the chances of the mind resisting it. [8]

When you think about joy in these ways it seems strange to think that there could be any resistance to its importance, and yet in many Buddhist circles the jhanas have been pushed to the back of the cupboard for a long time. It isn’t uncommon to hear practitioners uncritically saying things like ‘you can get addicted to jhana’, or ‘you need to be careful, you can get stuck in jhana’. I find this negativity particularly confusing since the texts of the Pali canon must contain thousands of references to jhana meditation, yet it gets very little mention in modern meditation settings compared to mindfulness and insight meditation. Much of this is because of where our contact with Buddhist meditation has come from, certain traditions and styles arrived in the West and established a strong foothold before we learned about other ways of meditating. Perhaps over time the jhanas will make their way back to the top table but for now they are something of a niche interest, which I personally think is a real shame because they are potentially a very uplifting practice.

Aside from this, I wonder if  while we as Westerners have a tendency to think about ourselves as pleasure seeking, when it comes to spiritual practice we actually often have more of a tendency towards self-mortification; as a collective we seem to have an  inclination towards grim determination and pushing ourselves to our limits. With our no pain no gain attitudes, it can be surprisingly hard to trust in our use of pleasant feeling in meditation and practice, and perhaps this is where some of the resistance to joy in practice can come from.

There’s no doubt that with our busy minds we need to do a lot of work to get a handle on mindfulness and concentration, and this perhaps this supports a sense that if it doesn’t feel hard then we mustn’t be trying hard enough. To be fair we often aren’t trying hard enough, or more to the point we aren’t trying hard enough in the right way. We use a lot of effort but not always with the right amount of direction. If we do feel hesitant to use skilful pleasure in our practice then at least we can relate to how the Buddha must have felt when he made that first step away from asceticism and started to allow pleasurable feelings back into his experience.

But joy does have its limitations too, and its appearance in first jhana it is something that we quickly move on from. The further you progress in the jhanas, the more refined the experiences become, and compared to the calm, steadiness of equanimity in fourth jhana, the almost effervescent burst of piti in first jhana comes to be seen as pretty crude and unsettling. It seems to strange to think that we could get to the point where joy could be felt as too intense and coarse, but that is what happens when we get used to finer levels of pleasant feelings. The mind and body get so used to being cool, calm and collected that anything harsh is unwelcome, even pleasurable feelings.

The ‘stuck in jhana’ that some people refer to is an oblique reference to becoming so attached to the pleasure of it that you never bother to go beyond it to develop any insight, and thus make no progress on the path. This is something that the Buddha warns against, saying that if you don’t use the jhana states to cultivate insight then you are doing nothing more than resting in a ‘pleasant abiding’. As stated in MN 52 [9], the jhana states themselves are fabrications, you make them happen, there is nothing particularly special or otherworldly about them so there is nothing to be gained from becoming attached to them.

Some people take this information and say ‘well the jhana states are just fabrications, so there’s no point trying to get them’, but I don’t see it that way at all. I think the learning point of the jhanas lies in the fact that they are fabrications; by cultivating them we get to experience the full extent of what our mind is capable of making seem real and tangible, but if we hold on to those feelings  as real then we haven’t learned anything, our mind is continuing to trick us. This is what I would call ‘stuck in jhana’, treating the experiences it brings up as some version of reality when actually it is just another output of our mind, just something else to see through and let go of.

 Jhanas aside, Ajahn Thiradhammo points out that joy on its own won’t lead to enlightenment, so we need to not launch ourselves into a joy finding mission thinking it will solve all of our problems. [5] Our Western tendency to go from one extreme to the other does make using joy in our practice an area of risk, because if we don’t understand  what the difference between skilful pleasure and unskilful pleasure is, then we certainly won’t struggle to find pleasant but unskilful things to make ourselves feel better. It is very easy to convince ourselves that we are making wise choices by doing things that bring up pleasant feelings in us, but it takes some discipline and self-awareness to check in with our motivation for doing so, especially if it is a choice between doing something hard but worthy or something easy and pleasurable.  

But the Buddha makes it pretty clear what he means by skilful pleasures, and it doesn’t include spa days, so that should make it easier for us to separate the wheat from the chaff. He means the pleasurable feelings that come up in meditation, the pleasurable feelings that come up from being generous, from conducting ourselves in line with the precepts, from cultivating the Brahmaviharas, and from the inspiration we get from our spiritual practice. These pleasurable feelings support us through the tough patches in our practice, and it is easy to understand why our practice needs to bring us joy because if it didn’t then it would be impossibly hard to do. And we don’t really need to make a great effort to find ways to bring joy into our practice because if we just practice then the sources of joy are already close at hand.

Image by KatinkavomWolfenmond from Pixabay

References

1.      Bhikkhu Sujato. Dhammacetiyasutta MN 89: Shrines to the Teaching. 2018. https://suttacentral.net/mn89/en/sujato. Accessed 25 May 2021.

2.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Mahāsaccakasutta MN 36: The Longer Discourse With Saccaka. 15/05/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn36/en/sujato. Accessed 25 May 2021.

3.     ARBEL K. EARLY BUDDHIST MEDITATION: The four jhanas as the actualization of insight: ROUTLEDGE; 2018.

4.     Ayya Khema. Ayya Khema – GG16 – 3rd & 4th, 5th & 6th Jhana. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLGhdnvs2Pk. Accessed 24 May 2021.

5.     Ajahn Thiradhammo. Contemplations on the seven factors of awakening. Belsay, Northumberland: Aruna Publications; 2012.

6.     Khema A. When the iron eagle flies: Arkana; 1991.

7.     Ajahn Thiradhammo. WORKING WITH THE FIVE HINDRANCES. Belsay: Aruno Publications; 2014.

8.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Meditations 3: Dhamma Talks: The Karma that ends Karma. 2005. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations3.html. Accessed 20 May 2021.

9.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Aṭṭhakanāgarasutta MN 52: The Man From the City of Atthaka. 2018. https://suttacentral.net/mn52/en/sujato. Accessed 25 May 2021.

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