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), it is also mentioned in other contexts. For example, in one discourse it is causally related to faith, and in another discourse it is causally related to morality; in a third it arises from a deep experience of the Buddha’s teaching. 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. The first degree may be like experiencing some strong pleasant feeling… 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.
This reflection by Ajahn Thiradhammo is from the book, Contemplations on the Seven Factors of Awakening, (pdf) pp. 68-69.