July 5, 2022

The Sweet Joy of the Way

This is a shortened version of a dharma talk given by IMS Teacher Narayan Helen Liebenson at the Forest Refuge in May of 2022.


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
—Czesław Miłosz

When we hear the word “joy,” we might think that we’re not joyful, or that we’re not joyful enough, or other people are more joyful than we are. But joy is just a word. And although words do point to where our hearts are yearning—which matters—that’s only a small part of the story.

The Pali word pīti describes phenomena that happens when we experience some concentration. And while pīti is translated as joy, it does not feel like joy. Instead, it can feel uncomfortable, like ripples in the body. So it may seem odd that pīti means joy. We can have preconceived ideas about what joy should look or feel like, so we have to find out for ourselves.

Joy can be quiet or quite lively. The “is”-ness of joy is what we want to access, embody, and know deeply. Whatever it is, it is inevitable—with a steadfast and dedicated continuation of practice. Yet in principle we might reject it. We might say, “I don’t really need joy.” We might think it’s unseemly. We might think, “I shouldn’t be joyful in a world of such great sorrow.” Yet joy is actually inevitable. We could say that it’s lawful.

Joy is a provocative word. Sometimes better words might be “sky mind” or “star body”—you’ll have to forgive my poetic license. Gratitude might be a word for joy or wonder or mystery or delight. Joy is not denial of the way things are. It is not denial of sorrow, horror, or anguish. As Wendell Berry says, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

To despair incapacitates our aspirations to be of benefit in this world, as I trust we all aspire to be. Joy is one of the essential components in living in a way that is a blessing, and not a burden or problem.

If we continue to practice, if we are dedicated and steadfast, joy is inevitable because our practice is to relax the grasping. In doing so, we have access to joy.

Here, we look at three kinds of joy.

Conditional Joy

The first is conditional joy. There’s nothing wrong with relying on conditions for a sense of joy. But sometimes conditions do not offer joy. Sometimes, even often, conditions are not pleasurable. So, an over dependence on conditional joy, or the joy of pleasure, is going to let us down. We can’t rely upon it.

Joy is not always something like the pleasure of having a cookie, it’s also the pleasure of thinking about having that cookie. It’s anything that we rely upon—conditions, situations—because anything that can arise can also pass away. We don’t need to deny it or push it away or be rigid or stoic. Sometimes a moment of pleasure is a wonderful thing.

For example, I remember on my first three-month retreat when someone left a cookie outside of my door, and it saved me. That’s how I felt at that moment. It was a pretty big cookie! There was a saving grace about receiving the cookie because it made me feel loved and appreciated. It was a lovely experience—more than the sensuality of eating the cookie.

While these things are delights, we don’t want to be overly dependent, attached, or reliant upon them.

Meditative Joy

Another kind of pleasure is meditative pleasure. This is pleasure that is experienced in practice, with refined mental states or samadhi. To those of us who have faith, trust, and experience in this practice, meditative pleasure is harder to let go of than a cookie because it’s so much better than a cookie. (The cookie is my stand in for the whole huge world of conditioned experiences.)

Meditative pleasure can catch us in a way that makes us think it’s the end of the path. I remember many years ago, loving meditative pleasure. I’d heard the teachings about getting attached to meditative pleasure, but they didn’t really penetrate because I loved what I was experiencing. I was attached. Then I met with a teacher whom I liked, respected, and trusted. Conditions came together—a person I trusted, my readiness to let go, my feeling a little bit bored with the meditative pleasure, etc. And at the same time, I felt that my fingers were on the windowsill, and that this teacher had me by the ankles and was pulling me off. That’s how it felt. But I was ready to fly, so wings emerged. I didn’t fall into catastrophe.

We aren’t negating meditative pleasure, because it’s a support, but looking at the attachment is crucial because otherwise we’re going to be stuck.

Unconditional Joy

The third kind of joy is unconditional joy. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast says, “Joy is the kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens.” I would add, “as well as on what doesn’t happen.”

We access unconditional joy through understanding that letting go is the path and that relaxing the grasping is the way we fall into joy. It’s not something we want or don’t want or have attitudes or beliefs about. This understanding is what I mean by the inevitability of joy.

It is inevitable. It happens simply because of going in the right direction, being present here and now. Non-grasping is counterintuitive as a path of joy because everything is telling us to hold on, to claim, to accumulate. And, of course, in the culture we live in, joy becomes just another consumable product that we either have or don’t have.

Dharma joy is so different than this. It cannot be consumed. It’s a bubbling up from within that is enduring. It’s a matter of accessing, not creating, concocting, or making it up. In non-grasping, in letting be, letting go, it just is.

Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ryōkan wrote:

Nothing satisfies some appetites.
but wild plants ease my hunger
Free of untoward desires,
All things bring me pleasure.
Tattered robes warm frozen bones.
I wander with deer for companions.
I sing to myself like a crazy man
and children sing along.

Now we look at renunciation which is both powerful and joyful. We get stuck when we recognize only one of these qualities of renunciation and forget the other.

It can be sad because we’re putting down that which is familiar. We are saying that our old ways have not worked as we had hoped or wanted them to work. Sometimes we even must re-examine our relationships when we come into a different way of being. It can be so powerful to examine our old relationships, which does not mean abandoning anyone. But it does mean choosing those relationships that are real and wholesome.

Even regarding practice, putting down the familiar can be sad. We get conditioned by our years of practice. We’ve believed in it, and we’ve done our best and tried as hard as we could. And then we get to a point when we hit the wall. And it’s sad to change course. And yet, there’s no other way.

Yet it’s also joyful because a greater perspective opens up. And this kind of joy is dharma joy, a kind of confidence in the direction that we are taking now. It’s trusting more than our habit patterns, our past—which is both trustworthy and untrustworthy. Trusting what has been beneficial in our past but opening that trust up far bigger. The past doesn’t have to own us or lay claim to this moment of life. Dharma joy is an incredibly joyful, light way of being here in this world together.

Dharma joy is renunciation in another way, too. It’s being content with less. It’s appreciating simplicity. It allows for space to be able to see into complexity in different ways. It is an inner simplicity, where we don’t make things more complex than they are. We try not to add ourselves into the equation. Then when things swirl around us, we’re free within.

The Buddha speaks about the “sweet joy of the way.” During the height of the pandemic, many people experienced an enforced renunciation, which was very hard, painful, and difficult. And, renunciation is a learned love. When we choose it, it’s delightful.

Have you ever known joy when there was absolutely no reason for it? When the facts opposed your experiencing joy? From a conventional point of view, there should not be joy under such conditions. And yet, it is undeniable. This is the inevitability of joy.

When conditions are dire, difficult, and painful, because we are forced into the now, we have no option other than to be here, now. The past does not look so great. Thoughts about the past that used to look good, that we might have been able to find pleasurable, turn on themselves. Now conditions are neutral, unpleasant, or painful. Because we’re looking at the narrative of our lives in a different way, there’s no comfort or solace in thinking about the past, and no sense of possibility for the future, no sense of vision. Of course, if we have Dharma, we have a kind of vision that holds us in these times.

Dharma practice includes our relationship to conditions and, as well, points beyond conditions. It is not only about what might be possible in this lifetime regarding conditions. And so, it forces us into the here and now. Now is all there is, and there is joy. And we are surprised by joy in these moments. This is unconditional joy.

Learning how to let everything be on its own terms—because it will be anyway – is a timeless space: no past, no future, no time. That’s where the joy lies, in this taste of nirvana. We don’t forget the past and there is joy. We don’t forget what needs to be engaged with in the here and now, and there is joy and non-grasping. Here is the stillness of the Buddha.

Where do you find joy? What brings you joy? And then what arises? Have a sense of what it is. And let that wonder take you somewhere. Gratitude is a tried-and-true pathway of appreciation for the smallest of blessings. Find mudita—appreciation for the ways someone else is happy, doing well, enjoying themselves, or succeeding—and then join in that appreciation. Joining in the delight of others, we feel their joy too.

Remembering that we are part of a greater whole reestablishes a sense of connectedness instead of separation. Recognizing how many billions of beings are on this planet connects us with the reality that we are not alone. We are part of a whole and we are whole within ourselves.

Buddha in Glory

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

—Rainer Maria Rilke