Gawa (དགའ་བ་) or appreciative joy is the third of the four immeasurable thoughts, or the tsémé zhi (ཚད་མེད་བཞི་). Although the term gawa or joy generally denotes the experience of happiness, in the context of the four immeasurable thoughts, it specifically refers to feeling of appreciation and joy that emerges from the happiness of others. Appreciative joy, thus, rejoices in others’ happiness and thereby counters our own tendencies toward jealousy and competition. In this sense, gawa is similar to the practice of rejoicing or yirangwa (ཡི་རང་བ་) among the seven limbs of worship. While loving kindness and compassion each aspire for sentient beings to attain happiness and be free from suffering, appreciative joy takes delight in whatever conditions of happiness or lack of suffering others have already attained. Thus, it works diametrically against the ordinary sense of jealousy and the narrow pursuit of self-interest.
In traditional Buddhist practice, gawa is cultivated through rejoicing in the happiness of others and negating the vices of jealousy and/or resentment of other people’s success. By rejoicing in others’ good fortune, one is said to reap as much karmic merit as the actual act of doing good. As karmic merit is a state of mind, the mental state of exultation and joy can bring about even greater karmic impact. For example, when King Prasenjit invited Buddha and his disciples for lunch, a beggar at the palace gate is said to have accumulated greater karmic merit through his pure rejoicing than the royal host who had offered the physical food and drinks to the Buddha and his disciples. As Mahāyāna practitioners are bound by the bodhisattva vow to bring happiness to all sentient beings, it is also imperative that one takes delight in the happiness of others. Rejoicing in the good works of others also has the practical benefit of helping one to remain psychologically positive and happy.
Throughout Buddhist literature and teachings, jealousy is presented as one of the worst spiritual and social vices. A jealous person cannot benefit from the good of others, just as the Buddha’s envious cousin Devadatta could not fully benefit from the teachings of the Buddha due to his resentfulness and pride. Bhutanese Buddhist teachings contain many parables to show how jealousy breeds intense negative karma and blocks the path to enlightenment, not to mention fills the person with anguish and pain, and harms his or her community as well through the disruption of social harmony. Appreciative joy, as an antidote to such vices, is considered a spiritual practice of great benefit and expedience.
Like the first two immeasurable thoughts, appreciative joy can be classified into three types of joy: joy with the apprehension of sentient beings (སེམས་ཅན་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་དགའ་བ་), joy with insight into the truth or reality of existence, and (ཆོས་ལ་དམིགས་པའི་དགའ་བ་) joy without apprehension (དམིགས་པ་མེད་པའི་དགའ་བ་). These three types arise progressively as the practitioner develops the insight or wisdom aspect of the path. Appreciative joy and other immeasurable thoughts can be cultivated through two different methods of contemplative meditation (དཔྱད་སྒོམ་) and absorptive meditation (འཇོག་སྒོམ་). In the first case, the practitioner reflects on the various benefits of and rationale for cultivating appreciative joy. Through a rigorous thought process, the practitioner builds and strengthens his/her conviction to rejoice in other peoples’ happiness, eschew jealousy and bring about a transformation in his/her personal character and mindset. Absorptive meditation involves cultivating positive thoughts or emotions through concentration. A practitioner can choose someone like one’s mother as a focus and earnestly and single pointedly wishes her to never separated from happiness and joy. Then the practitioner can practice cultivating those same sentiments towards a person with whom they are not as closely connected. Bhutanese commonly undertake such practices while chanting the following prayer:
May all mother sentient beings as vast as space never be separated from sublime happiness and be free from suffering.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.