Deep Dive into the Seven Factors of Awakening | 4 Joy


– Sayadaw U Tejaniya


Take up a comfortable sitting position, keeping the back upright.  

Begin by bringing attention to the body as it sits, becoming aware of the sensations which make up our experience of body. 

Next we bring attention to the sensation of natural breathing. Is it flowing freely and easefully. If not perhaps take a few deep inhalations and exhalations to expand the lungs, and then allow the breathing to return to a natural rhythm. 

Now, for a moment return attention to the sensation of body. Do you notice any sensation which has a pleasant feeling tone?  If you are aware of such a pleasant feeling tone, is there any response to it in the body? Is the body relaxed with it or tense with it? 

Now bring attention back to the breathing again, and then for a moment take it back again to the pleasant feeling tone. Do you notice any response in the mind related to that pleasant feeling tone? Observe whether the mind is drawn to it or recoils from it. Does it trigger off any particular thoughts or memories? Then go back to focusing attention on the breathing once again. 

Again for a moment bring attention back to that pleasant feeling tone. See if you can settle your attention on it as a meditation object. Observe how much you can open to it, abide with it, settle into it. What does this do for the calming of the mind or focusing of attention?


The word ‘joy’ is my translation of the Pali word pīti. Normally it’s translated as ‘rapture’, but rapture may sound a bit too exotic or exalted. Rapture is similar to ‘ecstasy’ – using that word might attract a different set of readers or listeners! Using the translation ‘joy’, I think, makes it more accessible. But of course, pīti is not limited just to the ordinary, everyday experience of joy, like getting your pay cheque at the end of the month. Rather, it refers to a spiritual joy, a joy arising from a spiritual or religious experience. It may have a sense of being an ‘other-worldly’ experience. Although perhaps triggered by some sense impression, it is not dependent upon the senses as most normal happiness is.

While the word pīti appears most frequently in the scriptures in relation to the development of the meditative absorptions (jhāna),1 it is also mentioned in other contexts. For example, in one discourse it is causally related to faith,2 and in another discourse it is causally related to morality;3 in a third it arises from a deep experience of the Buddha’s teaching.4 These passages follow a stock causal formula: morality leads to freedom from remorse, which leads to gladness, to joy, to tranquillity, to happiness, to concentration. The scriptures state that these qualities are all causally linked to one another. Thus joy follows on from energy in the Seven Factors of Awakening. When energy has arisen and is flowing very freely and spontaneously, this can be the cause of the arising of joy, rapture, or bliss. And when you see this result and experience this profound joy, you’re more convinced of the benefits of the other factors, like energy or mindfulness. You do the practices of developing mindfulness, investigation of dhamma and energy, and then a little joy arises. You have obtained the results. You get some reward for your work. It’s the beginning of seeing some results in your practice. 

There are various degrees of this, of course.5 The first degree may be like experiencing some strong pleasant feeling. So if you followed the meditation instructions I gave at the beginning of the chapter, you may have noticed that a kind of feedback happens. If one attends to pleasant feeling, one may begin to feel good about the pleasant feeling, and so on.  This gives one a sense of what rapture or joy might be like. However, pīti as defined in the Buddhist scriptures is not actually a ‘feeling’ (in the Buddhist definition), but a condition of mind, a specialized state of mind – something exalted. It is related, however, to the three feelings, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Those are the most fundamental feeling tones; then various conditions of mind build upon them. Sometimes, for example, when you have had no pleasant feeling for a while, and then a pleasant experience comes along, it can be startling – oh, eureka – happiness is still there! The new experience of pleasant feeling stands out in comparison to the previous unpleasant feeling, and so it can be quite thrilling and make you exuberant. You can get quite a charge out of it – until you realize you are still your old self. But for a moment you have experienced pleasant feeling in a different way.

I think all of us have experienced joy at some time in life. A number of Thai people, for example, have said that they experience joy when making offerings at the monastery. In the beginning it may be just a little joy, such as a tingling sensation on the back of your neck. Later it may be an exhilarating rush of energy, a feeling of bliss pulsing very quickly through the body. At a very advanced stage one can dwell in this state and bathe the whole body in bliss and rapture. One has a certain amount of control over it, and one’s cells can even become charged up and invigorated by it. Of course, this is a very powerful experience, which can even be a bit detrimental to some people – they may start believing that this is the whole point of meditation and become attached to bliss. (I suppose that’s a little better than just being attached to sore knees, although it’s more difficult to let go of that bliss than to let go of sore knees).

The role of joy in meditation results from the Buddha’s own experience. He came from the religious tradition of India, in which one of the main practices was mortification – people would try all kinds of ascetic practices, believing that in this way they would burn off their attachment to the world and free their spirit. The Buddha practised asceticism for the greater part of six years, and he became so exhausted that one day he just collapsed. There’s a very impressive sculpture of the ‘fasting Buddha’, in the Lahore museum in Pakistan (although it’s not quite right to say that he was the Buddha then; it was before his Awakening). It shows dramatically just how emaciated he became. Having practiced asceticism in this way, he felt that it wasn’t the right path; it wasn’t the right direction. So he ate some food and sat down under the Bodhi tree, where he began to contemplate where his practice was going. And he remembered a time when he was a young child and his father, a tribal chief, was attending some ceremony and left him sitting under a tree. With no one to amuse or distract him, he dropped into a deep state of blissful concentration. Perhaps you can identify with that. Perhaps at some time in your childhood when you were very contented, without any worries, you sat down and ‘blissed out’. It is possible to experience these states of selfless bliss – they’re inherently there within us, but we spoil them by grasping them as part of the self or ego.

 When the Buddha remembered that childhood experience, the thought arose –- ‘Maybe this is the way. Rather than asceticism, I should try to follow this way of blissful concentration.’ And he reflected that this pleasure was not worldly pleasure. This joy was not due to sensuality, like having eaten some good food, or some similar experience. He realized that this innate state of blissful concentration wasn’t in any way dangerous or an obstacle. This experience later became formulated into the jhānas or absorptions, where attention becomes totally absorbed into a meditation object, with accompanying qualities of bliss and energy. So with a tranquil, calm and serene body and mind, the Buddha contemplated the nature of suffering, impermanence and conditionality. And through this contemplation he attained awakening. There was a combination of deep calm, deep bliss and tranquillity of mind, and also a contemplation of Dhamma, resulting in the awareness of truth. And with that he realized awakening and recognized that this was the Way. 

After this he approached his spiritual colleagues, who had also been practising asceticism and had previously given up on him, thinking – ‘This guy’s a slacker – he’s eating food. He’s given up his ascetic practices.’ But when he met his colleagues they were impressed by his serene complexion, sensing that perhaps he was indeed someone special. When he began to teach them, he emphasized that this joy he had discovered was not the ordinary worldly joy, rapture or bliss, but belonged to a different dimension altogether.

Besides the joy arising from the meditative absorptions, another source of joy is mentioned in the Discourse on Transcendental Dependent Arising, 6 which is a detailed description of the psychological origination of suffering, broken down into twelve

factors. Rather than just ending with suffering or rebirth, this analysis goes on to describe how one can actually end that cyclical process. This teaching says that suffering leads to faith. For example, when people experience some difficulty, some dis-ease, they either become very confused while trying to find a solution to their pain, or they incline towards seeking a spiritual solution to it. Some people may just seek a material solution by taking a pain-killer. Every-body has their own particular solution, and some people seek a spiritual one.

In the teaching it is said that when the Buddha came across old age, sickness and death, he asked, ‘What’s the way out of this?’ And then he came across a spiritual seeker and thought, ‘Maybe that’s the way out.’ And that’s the path he chose. So this possibility arises for some people, sometimes quite naturally. When I first came across the teaching on suffering, I was relieved – here was someone who was talking about the truth. He was not just talking about Love and Light all the time, he was telling us the way it is. At least, that’s the way it was for me. But he wasn’t just telling us that life is suffering; he was presenting a solution too, like going to the doctor and being given both a diagnosis of the ailment and a remedy for it. So the Buddha gave us the way out of suffering as well. 

When I went travelling after reading a book about Buddhism, I visited many countries where religion was fundamental to the culture. Although different countries had different cultures, it seemed to me that religion was behind them all. And then I went to Thailand, a Buddhist country where they talk about suffering quite openly, and I noticed that the people were often smiling. So I thought, ‘Hmmm, are these people being false or what?’ It’s interesting that statistically Thailand is the most Buddhist country in the world, and it’s called the Land of Smiles. One might assume that the people should be really miserable, contemplating old age, sickness, death and painful meditation – and yet they were smiling much of the time! I couldn’t quite understand this at first. But one day I spoke to one of the elderly men who came to the monastery very often. He was a reformed alcoholic, too old to become a monk, and now spent his time helping out every morning at the monastery, making ‘good kamma’. One morning I came back from almsround and happened to meet him. He wasn’t looking very cheerful, so to make conversation I asked, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m suffering’, and then he laughed. I was very surprised. He continued, ‘Oh yes, I’m really feeling spiritual despair.’ And then a big smile lit up his face! 

I realized it was almost paradoxical that these Buddhist people could both recognize suffering and then just smile at it, whereas my experience in the West was that nearly everyone ignores suffering. They all know it’s there, permeating the whole of society, but everybody tries to ignore it. And it’s so heavy trying to keep this demon hidden away, trying to hide this ‘elephant in the room’! Everybody tiptoes around, not wanting to mention it. You don’t talk about death, you don’t talk about disease – and as a result people aren’t very joyful. Actually, they’re very heavy-hearted, because they know that suffering might spill out at any minute – at any minute someone might die or fall sick. But in Thailand people could access suffering more readily, and it’s mentioned all the time. The monastery where I stayed was a cremation site for the local village, and it’s interesting that although cremations are sad events, the sadness is not really heavy. There’s a lightness about them. People come to them, they cry, but then they let the grief go and move on. People aren’t afraid of it, though I must admit things have changed nowadays.

So it is possible to open to this reality of life, rather than making it some kind of hidden secret. When we can be really receptive to suffering, more of a natural flow occurs in the heart. It means acknowledging that this is life, whereas by trying to resist it we’re

going against the flow of life, we’re trying to deny it. That may perhaps make us feel more comfortable in a way, but it’s a heavy comfort rather than a light one.

It’s paradoxical that people who live so close to death and have so few modern conveniences to buffer them from the realities of nature can be more equanimous than many others who have more comfort and shelter. And there’s a certain kind of joy about their approach. It’s not like the exciting joy of having a party, but it’s a joyfulness that has a light-heartedness to it, there’s a spontaneity and a lightness, an acknowledgment that this is the way it is.  And one can then flow with the way it is, rather than fighting against it all the time. So once this intrinsic joy becomes more recognized for what it is, a natural aspect of our life, we can give it more emphasis. We can have more lightness in our lives. 

This is very important with regard to spiritual practice, because that is a ‘serious’ matter, isn’t it? It’s about enlightenment – either we’re enlightened before we die, or we aren’t. With this kind of attitude spiritual life can become too serious. If one has a goal-oriented attitude where one is using willpower and thinking thoughts like, ‘I’ve got to get enlightened’, and so on, practice becomes just another means of reinforcing the self. But when we recognize this element of joyful light-heartedness, it allows us to flow with things. When results are happening in our practice, this may give a sense of joy, but even when results aren’t occurring one can still open up and recognize that this is the way it is. There are just ups and downs, like day and night, summer and winter and so on. And then the downs are no longer such an obstacle or perceived as a failure, but are just part of a wider picture. 

I think this is quite a significant point to contemplate, because normally so much emphasis is placed on suffering. Isn’t it good to know that the Buddha points out that joy is a Factor of Awakening? There is some resolution, some solution – it’s not just going to be suffering all the way to the end! Maybe that’s how it starts off, but if you hang in there you may get a breakthrough. 

This is not to say that you have to suffer in order to meditate, as in the saying, ‘You have to suffer to sing the blues’! If there’s too much suffering in our practice it may just make us exhausted and confused. It’s more to do with the right way of viewing suffering. The right perspective on it, the right contemplation of it, can give rise to faith. And we can intuit that yes, there have been people, such as the Buddha, who have found the way out of suffering. This is an elementary form of faith that we can put into practice, in order to find out for ourselves. We walk the path ourselves and then achieve some results. Faith can lead to the clearing of doubt. 

When I was young and confused and suffering, I heard the Buddha’s teaching and it was like a glimmer of light. But there was no opportunity to put it into practice – in Vancouver thirty-five years ago there were only books, but no teachers. It was only when I went to Sri Lanka and Thailand and began to meditate that the teaching could become more a part of my own experience. Initially it was only possible to experience moments of ‘less suffering’ (usually just after the meal, actually, especially at the meditation monastery in Sri Lanka, where they had sumptuous banquets)! But through spending many hours meditating, every once in a while my mind did go quiet. So I began to feel that realizing the teachings was possible. I had some personal experience. It wasn’t easy by any means, but it was possible. And so the initial faith became more like confidence. I knew for myself that the teachings did work, and a certain amount of peace arose with this, a certain amount of gladness. If this process continues, a more powerful joy or rapture can come out if it. And then this feeds back to our faith again. 

But it’s still important to keep in mind that joy is just one factor in the whole sequence of cause and effect, so we shouldn’t fixate on the idea that joy is the answer leading to awakening. All the Factors of Awakening are interconnected. When we initially develop mindfulness and investigate the nature of some of the experiences that come up for us, energy arises, and then a certain amount of joy arises with it. I’m sure you know for yourself what that is. But do you recognize it in the right context? Maybe some people think, ‘Oh, this is pleasure now, I shouldn’t enjoy this. I might get addicted to it.’ But that experience is a Factor of Awakening. 

I talk in a rather mundane way about what I call the ‘Pleasure Principle’, which may be a bit controversial in the Buddhist context. But it’s not against the five precepts! I came up with this concept in the context of people coming off retreats in Switzerland, where many people have very busy lives which are very much controlled by the clock, so they usually think they’ve got to sit by the clock. But it’s not quite the same when it comes to meditation practice. Maybe in a group you can endure some of the discomfort of sitting, because you get a sense of group support. You don’t want to disturb your friends, you’re all in this together. But when you’re sitting by yourself, just going by the clock may be too regimented, and maybe also a bit too egotistical. At the end of your set period you can say, ‘I’ve done it. I’ve sat my forty minutes.’. We could have meditation clock-in cards, you could just clock in with the knowledge that you’ve done your half an hour of meditation for the day – look at this, you can check my card!  And then the next thing you know, we’ll have a meditators’ Olympics! 

So I suggested that when people went back to their ordinary lives they should sit just as long as they felt good about it, as long as they felt pleasant about it. There’s a psychological principle in this. Most people sit to the point where they can’t bear the pain anymore, and then they stop. But then their last memory of meditation is pain, so when the next time for meditation comes they think, ‘Oh, gee whiz, maybe I should try something else, take guitar lessons, or something!’ However, if you sit just as long as you feel comfortable about it, your last memory of meditation is pleasant, and you want to do it again. Our body and mind are tuned to the pleasure principle. If you enjoy something you do it again. If it’s painful, you only want to do it again if you’re a masochist.

So maybe the Buddha knew about this psychology two and a half thousand years ago, and brought joy in as a Factor of Awakening because of it. He encouraged the cultivation of that quality. The Buddha knew that if people aren’t receiving some joy, some pleasure from their meditation exercises, maybe they won’t continue, or maybe the exercises will turn into self-mortification again. But he was teaching the Middle Way between self-mortification and self-indulgence, and in his view this particular joy is not a ‘worldly pleasure’, so it is outside those two extremes. One can develop joy by noticing the feedback that occurs with pleasant feeling, asking what it does to you and thus becoming more relaxed. Apart from the physiological effects, this approach can create very positive conditions in the mind, which can be useful channels for developing concentration. Concentration isn’t so much about developing will-power, but rather about attuning more to the natural peaceful tendencies of the mind. We all have concentration to a certain degree. It’s the primary attribute underlying any condition of mind. It’s not just a matter of creating it out of thin air; but rather of giving attention to what is already there; emphasizing it, and being able to develop it in a more natural way. 

And it’s the same with joy. When we recognize what effects it can have on our body and mind, we give it more emphasis. There’s a feedback loop. And you may notice that the mind becomes more tranquil. The other side of this is that if you are experiencing unpleasant feeling, the mind has the tendency to close, to become tense and tighten up. Maybe this triggers off a lot of fear of pain, of one’s past traumas, etc., and then the body becomes more distraught, more tense. Not a very good state for developing concentration. It may be a kind of concentration, but it’s based on fear, rejection and denial rather than openness, rapture or joy. 

So if we recognize what this quality of joy is in our daily lives and our meditation practice, we can begin to have an understanding of what conditions support it and lead to its increase and development, and also what is detrimental to it, what disturbs it and what destroys it. For example, when we try to control it and hold on to it, it’s like the ‘butterfly complex’, when you see a butterfly and think, oh that’s nice! I like it, I want it! –  and then you grab it – and crush it. We can do that to joy, too. It’s a very delicate quality – if we try to grab it, try to hold it, try to maintain it, we can end up crushing and killing it. So joy calls for a certain amount of receptivity. It’s like spontaneity. Can you try to be spontaneous? ‘Let’s be spontaneous’! It’s impossible to make spontaneity, it just happens. And similarly with this quality of joy; it’s there innately, and if you give it some emphasis it can become more prominent. So as a Factor of Awakening it’s accessible to all of us, but on the other hand it is also a Factor to be developed. And we can see the value it has in developing all the other qualities of awakening as well.

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