The Great Pathetic Joy

I’ve been reading Edward Conze’s translation of The Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines, a far longer and more elaborate discussion of emptiness than The Heart Sutra. In a section describing the thought of enlightenment–the selflessness that makes ordinary generosity, patience, discipline, exertion, meditation, and wisdom infinitely more effective–there are lists (as is often the case in Buddhist texts) of the practices and experiences to be developed by the bodhisattva. These lists include a host of exotic-sounding practices (including “the four trances, the four Unlimited, the four formless attainments, the eight deliverances, the nine attainments of successive stations, and the nine unlovely perceptions”), some of which I’ve heard of (and perhaps even tried) and some of which I haven’t. At the end of the last list, there are these four generally more comprehensible-sounding experiences: “the great friendliness, the great compassion, the great pathetic joy, and the great evenmindedness.” I say generally more comprehensible-sounding, because I have some idea of what’s meant by friendliness, compassion, and even-mindedness, but “the great pathetic joy” is a little harder for me to parse.

My first instinct was to check the dictionary entry for “pathetic” to see if there’s more to that word than I’m familiar with, and it turns out there is. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, pathetic comes from the Greek pathetos, meaning “liable to suffer.” That makes some sense to me, though perhaps not others. After all, how can there be a great joy that is liable to suffering? That question is a powerful and pithy indication of the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism.

The Hinayana notion of enlightenment (typically referred to as Nirvana) is the cessation of suffering. This is generally understood to be a personal attainment, with little concern for the suffering of others (though someone attaining this enlightenment would no longer cause suffering for others, which is no small achievement). Mahayana practice begins with the insight of no-self that is the basis of the Hinayana cessation of personal suffering, and radically expands its implications in an attempt to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Where the Hinayana view of no-self is taken to mean that there is no self to suffer, the Mahayana view is taken to mean that there is no self that can be separated from suffering. The primary fact of emptiness is indivisibility. Therefore, any joy separate from suffering is illusory (as are all apparently separate entities according to prajnaparamita). The joy of enlightenment isn’t the absence or opposite of suffering–it’s a joy that contains suffering. It is, indeed, the great pathetic joy.

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