When Harvard psychologist Jack Engler was doing his research, he asked my teacher Dipama about the place of joy. “This all sounds very gray,” he said. “Getting rid of greed, getting rid of hate, getting rid of ignorance. Where’s the juice?” “Oh, you don’t understand!” Dipama burst out laughing. “There is so much sameness in ordinary life. We are always experiencing everything through the same set of lenses. Once greed, hatred and delusion are gone, you see everything fresh and new all the time. Every moment is new. Life was dull before. Now, every day, every moment is full of taste and zest.”
When love meets pain it becomes compassion. When love meets happiness, it becomes joy. Joy is an expression of the awakened heart, a quality of enlightenment. When we live in the present, joy often arises for no reason. This is the happiness of consciousness that is not dependent on particular conditions. Children know this. Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, describes how enthusiastically children write to him. “One day a little boy sent me a charming card with a drawing. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters – sometimes very hastily – but this one I lingered over. I sent him a postcard and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim, I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
We have seen how joy can come in deep meditation. Students describe trembling, tears of laughter, cool waves, ripples of ecstasy, floating joy, joy like turquoise water, bodily thrilling, grateful joy, playful, delighting joy and ecstasy of stillness. They describe joy in the body, heart and mind, joy in the beauty of the world and joy in the happiness of others.
Sometimes people mistake Buddhism for a pessimistic view of life. Certainly the Noble Truths teach about suffering and its causes and in Buddhist countries there are a few very serious, grim–duty style meditation masters. I, myself, like many other Westerners, sought them out. I was so determined to transform myself and attain some special realization that I went to the strictest monasteries and retreats, where we practiced 18 hours a day and sat unmoving in the face of enormous pain. And at these monasteries I learned many important things.
But somehow in the seriousness of my quest, I failed to notice the extraordinary buoyancy of the Buddhist cultures around me. Seeking austerity, we serious Westerners failed to notice that most Buddhist temples are a riot of colors, filled with paintings and statues and images of fantastic stories of angels, devas, bodhisattvas and Buddhas. We ignored the community life that centered around the temples, the cycles of rituals, dances, celebrations, feasts and festivals. In our ardor, we did not appreciate how many of our greatest teachers, Ajahn Chah, Maha Ghosananda, Ananda Maitreya, the 16th Karmapa, Anagarika Munindra, had marvelous, easy laughs, and an infectious sense of joy.