Some notes on envy in Buddhism

Sanskrit irshya, Pali issa

Envy in English is: “A feeling of grudging or somewhat admiring discontent aroused by the possessions, achievements, or qualities of another” (Collins dictionary)

  1. Angelo Bronzino, Wikimedia

    It may be ethically neutral – “I do envy you your lovely house”.– Simply a form of praise.

  2. It may represent mild covetousness, actually wishing you did have a nicer house, but not with any enmity involved.
  3. Then it can become negative where you feel that they have something that you deserve better than they do.
  4. Finally a strong hatred or aversion, where you want to hurt the possessor that you envy.

 It is one of the five poisons (kleshas)

  1. Craving
  2. hatred
  3. ignorance
  4. envy (irshya)
  5. pride

Irshya can arise as an unskilful response when we notice the possessions, the good qualities or the achievements of others. We wish we had those things ourselves, so it is a form of craving. But it goes much further than covetousness or craving, because we don’t simply notice something which we then want to have, we actually resent the person who’s got it. So it is a mixture of craving and hatred. The Buddha says that envy arises when we can’t bear the success or possessions of other people. We find it difficult or impossible really to appreciate other people’s joys and achievements. They seem painful to us, because they remind us too strongly of our own deficiencies, as we see them.

The Alexander Berzin archive defines irshya as: “A disturbing emotion that focuses on other peoples’ accomplishments – such as their good qualities, possessions, or success – and is the inability to bear their accomplishments, due to excessive attachment to one’s own gain or to the respect one receives.”

Consider:

  1. Envy among children…
  2. envy at work…
  3. envy in romance and friendship…

Kant defined envy as “a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being, but how it compares with that of others.”  So if we are completely at ease with ourselves as we are, the qualities and achievements of other people are not threatening at all, in fact we can appreciate them, and enjoy them. Envy comes from comparison, and from the feeling that I am special, so that I deserve things in preference to others, or the feeling that I have a special entitlement.

Everybody needs a certain amount of approval and appreciation, and perhaps if you lack it as a child, you are likely to have that sensitivity to being reminded, as you see it, of your deficiencies, by the qualities and achievements of others. The metta bhavana is a wonderful practice for tackling a lack of self-worth, because it doesn’t stop with encouraging a sense of love and well wishing towards yourself, but it expands to others as well, and that process of expansion is what establishes a robust mental emotional positivity in yourself. You no longer need the outside world to treat you well, because you feel okay about yourself.

Someone once asked the Buddha: “what is it that traps people, so that, though they wish to live in peace, without hate and hostility, they yet live in conflict, with hate and hostility.” The Master replied: “It is the bonds of envy and avarice that so trap people that, though they wish to live in peace, they live in conflict, with hate and hostility.”

“If we trace external conflicts back to their source, we will find that they spring up because we envy others for the qualities they possess which we desire for ourselves, and because we are driven by an unquenchable avarice to extend the boundaries of what we can label ‘mine’.  Envy and avarice in turn are grounded in two more fundamental psychological conditions. Envy arises because we identify things as ‘I’, because we perpetually seek to establish a personal identity for ourselves internally and to project that identity outward for others to recognize and accept. Avarice arises because we appropriate: we attempt to carve out a territory for ourselves and to furnish that territory with possessions that will titillate our greed and sense of self-importance.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In the beginnings of envy, perhaps skilful desire is there, and is being used positively, to stimulate action. In the Mandala of mythical Buddhas, there is a green Buddha in the Northern quarter, his name Amoghasiddhi means “infallible success”, his quality is action or karma, and he transforms the poison of envy into the all performing wisdom.  The mental state that counteracts envy is mudita or sympathetic joy, but we can also say that actively intervening in your life is important if you find yourself experiencing envy, realising that you do have the ability to make a difference, to change things, looking at what you are doing, rather than worrying too much about whether people are better or worse than you.

Fearlessness is also an antidote to envy, and the green Buddha holds up his right hand in the gesture of courage, or bestowing fearlessness, as in the story of a furious elephant being set upon the Buddha by his envious cousin Devadatta.

The meditation on sympathetic joy (mudita).

First of all making a connection with a lighter, more at ease part of ourselves, wishing ourselves well. Then thinking of somebody we like who is happy or fortunate, at present at least, and seeing if we can rejoice in their happiness or good fortune. Then thinking of a neutral person, and if necessary imagining their happiness or good fortune, and rejoicing at that. Then a difficult person. Then equalising the mudita for all four people, and spreading it out to everybody in the world.

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