As I’ve pointed out before, we shouldn’t experience mudita, or joyful appreciation for happiness that arises in others through unskillful actions. If someone feels joy because they just swindled an old lady or robbed a bank, or because they’re high on cocaine, those would be forms of joy based on unskillful motivations and actions, and those therefore aren’t the kinds of things that we should, in our own turn, feel joyful about.
But here’s a trickier one. Someone asked me about joy that’s based on luck, or worldly gains: “I know too many folks (above all in the IT field) who stumbled into riches and others who worked themselves to the bone yet nonetheless are still struggling just to get by.” This question really got me thinking. Could we end up focusing on cultivating joy for people who are, perhaps, privileged? Could rejoicing in people’s good fortune lead to us ignoring the plight of people who are struggling against the odds?
After all, gains are often not fair. There is bias in the job market against people of color and against women. There is bias against people who are currently unemployed, who are less likely to receive a job offer than similarly (or even less) qualified people who already have jobs. There is bias against people with disabilities. Is mudita, to put it in extreme terms, elitist, siding with the most fortunate?
Let’s take a look at how Upatissa describes the practice of mudita in his Path of Liberation:
When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”. And again, when one sees or hears that a certain person does not follow demeritorious doctrines, or that he does not follow undesirable doctrines and that he follows desirable doctrines, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”.
So this account of mudita is entirely to do with good qualities and good choices, and with the joy and peace brought by having good qualities and making good choices. It’s nothing to do with “luck” in the sense of nice things happening for no apparent reason, or indeed about worldly gains or any sort. I think that responding to worldly good fortune — for example your friend gets a job — is in the same ballpark as mudita, and may even be a form of mudita, but it’s not what Upatissa seems to have imagined us celebrating or cultivating in our meditation practice.
In fact Buddhaghosa, in the 5th century Path of Purification, describes the near enemy of mudita (the near enemy being a quality that is similar enough to mudita that it can be confused with it) in terms that sound very like the luck or worldly gains that the original question raised:
“When a man either regards as gain the obtaining of visible objects cognizable by the eye that are sought … and associated with worldliness, or recalls those formerly obtained that are past, ceased, and changed, then joy arises in him.”
So Buddhaghosa seems to be suggesting that celebrating in worldly gains and luck is a distraction from mudita. I think that he’s right — if that’s the only thing we celebrate.
I don’t think mudita at all excludes rejoicing in people’s good luck but it’s not the main focus, which is celebrating good qualities and good choices and the peace and joy that follow from them. That’s the way I’ve consistently been talking and writing about mudita.
But I do think mudita can include celebrating people’s good luck. When a friend is looking for somewhere to live and finds a new apartment, it’s natural and proper for us to be happy for their gain (and although there can be a large component of hard work and initiative involved in that kind of gain, there’s also a large element of chance).
But such strokes of good fortune often come at others’ expense. There are inevitably losers in such a gain. Your friend was lucky and got the apartment, but there would have been even more people who were unlucky, since his or her signing a lease on the apartment necessarily excluded other from getting it. The world becomes a better place if your friend develops a skillful quality like courage, patience, or compassion. And although your friend’s world is improved is she or he gets a new apartment, the world as a whole isn’t really a better place.
How should we deal with all this? Well, I’d suggest that our mudita may celebrate our friend’s luck, and that compassion is there for those who were unlucky, if we happen to be aware of someone in that situation. I don’t think we have to go seeking the unlucky applicants for your friend’s apartment in order to “balance out” the mudita we’re feeling for our friend. I’d suggest that there is plenty of suffering in the world and therefore plenty of opportunity to cultivate compassion. When there’s something to celebrate, celebrate it. When there’s reason to be compassionate, be compassionate.
But in the practice I’d suggest focusing mainly on celebrating good qualities, good choices, and on the joy and peace that arise from them. Although we should celebrate worldly gains and good fortune when we come across them, that’s not the main point of the practice.