Virtue, meditation, and wisdom are the tools we use in training ourselves in how to relate to the world around us. This training will help us to see the qualities that bring true benefit to our society – the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. These are the Brahma viharas, or divine abodes. In a way, these can be considered a goal of social action: creating a way in which human beings should live.
Loving-kindness is the wish for another’s happiness. Compassion is the wish to alleviate another’s suffering. Sympathetic joy is the happiness we feel in the success of another. And equanimity is the ability to stay centered in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
The quality of sympathetic joy is an interesting one in terms of social action. Its opposite is jealousy or envy. In many ways, envy is the foundation for competition and conflict. If a society is based upon competitive accumulation – like some societies we know – it can create conflict and a lack of appreciation and willingness to enjoy each other.
Having come to the United States after living in Thailand for twenty-three years, the sense of competition here is very striking. In Thailand, there is a wide stratification in terms of socioeconomic level and opportunity with in society, but there is not a lot of envy or competition. People are often motivated to improve their economic lot, but they don’t resent those who already have wealth or privilege. Similarly, there is usually not a looking down on or shunning of those in economic difficulty or from a poor background. There is an acceptance that people have accumulated different tendencies and have different abilities.
This acceptance has imbued people’s consciousness. It is a sense of karma playing a role in people’s lives over many lifetimes, a feeling of ‘who knows?’ One’s fortunes in this lifetime can change; one’s fortunes in other lifetimes might be different. Rebirth is an accepted part of how they perceive the world – it’s a long view on life. This takes away the edge of selfishness and competitiveness and brings a sense of appreciation for each other as human beings, a joy in each other’s happiness. By turning toward this quality of joy, we can draw on our wish to help others, to be of service.
This reflection by Luang Por Pasanno is from the book, The Dhamma and the Real World, (pdf) pp. 19-21.