Envy and the way

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

To be touched, caught, consumed by envy, to be unable to endure the success or happiness of others, especially our friends, is a miserable business. To be so wounded, so debilitated by the good fortune of our rivals is almost too shameful to be talked about. We rightly fear the invasion of envy; it can paralyse our love and creativity, making us prey to sickening fantasies. In its deepest most pathological forms we willingly derail and subvert our own life if only we can thwart the other's success. Envy makes us feel shameful and ashamed, absurd, grotesque, ridiculous.

Envy is considered to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, keeping company with pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony and sloth. For Hesiod in the eighth century BC, envy was one of the Brood of Night born from the union of Chaos and Night. In this brood Envy was brother to Doom, Old Age, Sleep, Death, Strife, Lamentation, Destiny, Deceit, Dream and others like Continence and Murder. So envy has long had a secure home in our cultural underworld. Joseph Losey's film Accident (1967) and Andrew Brown's film Prick up Your Ears (1987) are compelling studies of envy and its power to destroy relationships, initiate desperate misfortune, and in the case of Prick up Your Ears lead to murder, - the artist manqué; Arthur Haliwell, deranged by envy, kills his lover, Joe Orton, just as Orton is coming into his own as a playwright.

A friend of mine, a psychotherapist, tells me he has patients who refuse to acknowledge any recovery because their own envy of him is so strong they want to deny him the pleasure of a therapeutic success. An old Jewish story hinges upon the words, 'Lord, let me be blinded in one eye, if only he is blinded in both.' Envy aims at the defacement of the other, even at his complete destruction, even if the one who envies is destroyed in the process. Envy also secretes hatred and rancour and is commonly the source and deep fuel of grudges and vendettas.

We speak of being touched by envy. Touched means what it says, but also suggests that envy can make us a little crazy. When we're envious the psyche seems open to all kinds of fantasies - our enemies getting richly and undeservedly praised.

Envy is also a form of possession. So much so that even when we find out that those we envy are not as powerful, or blessed as we thought; even when we learn of their catastrophes, we can remain in thrall. Longfellow reasonably suggests that if we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility, and we might suggest, all envy. But envy is curiously immune to reason.

For Thomas Moore envy is linked to what he calls hyperopia of the soul to an inability of the soul to see what's close, what belongs to it, and what's valuable about the life. When this occurs we're captured by something outside of ourself, in thrall to some fantasy vision of the lives into which we lean, and about which we often know next to nothing. At such a time we are the prisoner of another. When this occurs we're rendered alien to our own power and richness. It's like being trapped in a diseased form of interbeing. We find ourselves spellbound, poverty stricken. We're not going to achieve any of our goals, we'll always be left behind, others will always surpass us.

When we envy deeply, our heart, our very being is stolen from us. One psychologist talks of theinner void, the no breast state of envy. Rabbi Bonder characterises the inner life of people who prefer to extinguish themselves rather than face envy as coming to a premature end. He goes on to say: 'They wither emotionally from dedicating their lives to avoiding the pain of envy [and] expending energy to ensure that the other will not find success. The person who envies stands before his own lifeless body, since he is no longer capable of feeling for its own sake.'

Deep envy plunges us into profound shame. We get to experience all over again, in what feels like a profound insult, the stark miseries of childhood - abandonment, powerlessness, the fall into wet darkness where we are worthless, unlovable, and unreachable. And the self-loathing and self-disgust in which we're entrapped make us vulnerable to deeper and continuing envy.

Sharon Salzberg in her book Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness talks of her experience of envy in the early years of her meditation practice. She spent a lot of time struggling with sleepiness, distraction and inability to stay with her practice. Eventually she would sneak a look around the dojo to see what other people were doing. And they were all sitting there so serenely, everyone of them looking so deep. Obviously these people must be deeply enlightened or be about to experience deep enlightenment. And she felt incredible envy. She was struggling to stay awake and here she was surrounded by great meditators and enlightened beings. She felt like a child with her nose pressed against the window of the bakery, looking at the goodies through the window, but unable to have them. However, sometime later, when she talked to these people, she found that they were experiencing the same things that she was experiencing. She was so heartened to hear this. Tendrils of envy growing towards each other beneath the dark waters of Zazen.

Who gets leadership, perceptions of who is close to the teacher, and who is doing well in their practice can make Sangha a breeding ground for competitiveness and envy. 'She's racing through hundreds of koans while I'm still mired in my first koan.' 'I hear loud laughter from the dokusan room while I'm stranded at the back of the dokusan line. My dokusans are always quiet, uneventful - how small I feel.' 'How fruitless and dry the Way feels. I wish I was like -'. In these ways, as one of my students, Ian Sweetman, puts it, 'Sangha relations become compete.'

True realisation can shift us profoundly in the depths of our life and give our fears of living and dying a good shake. It can give us confidence, equanimity and joy, at least for a time, and open a window onto the old koans and stories. It might enable us to croak out a few words that could be helpful to others. What it doesn't, shouldn't and can't guarantee is that we'll somehow be free of the passions after we get a taste of realisation. Indeed such an experience can open us to our pain and anger. In fact, many students report that after a glimpse of the empty realm, they're besieged by anger, or envy. It's as though a little too much of the luminous-numinous Dharmakaya realm provokes a kick from below, or behind, to bring us back to our grittier, dirtier humanity. I remember returning to my family after a particularly deep and fruitful Sesshin. I'd bought my children kites and all of us, together with a close friend, went up to a local park to fly them. The children couldn't get them to fly, and when I came to their assistance I couldn't either. But there was my friend running backwards, the strings of both kites taut in his hands and both kites stretched fully open red, gold against the huge West Australian summer sky. And I simply hated him - all thoughts of realisation completely out the window!

Walking the Zen path can open us to the suffering of others. We are able to sit day and night holding the hand of someone who is dying, providing a space of great love and support for them. We tend to be good at this, while being a lot less skilful when envy and rancour arise. Rabbi Milton Bonder says that 'strange as it may seem, it is easier to empathise with the sufferings and failures of others than to offer solidarity in [their] times of happiness and success.' True for humanity generally, and Zen people perhaps most particularly, for the practice can become a form of luminous denial that keeps the subtler and darker moments of our inner life at bay. Nowhere is this more marked than when we are called upon to be with others in their times of greatest happiness and fulfilment. Aitken Roshi asks, 'How does it feel to be number two? Perhaps you can smile bravely, but is your heart also smiling?' Here is an old story at that frontier where we can catch a glimpse of our real selves.

When Kuei-shan was with Pai-chang's assembly, he was cook of the monastery. Pai-chang wanted to choose a founding teacher for Mt. Ta-kuei. He invited all this monks to make a presentation, saying: 'The outstanding one will be sent.' Then he took a water bottle and set it on the floor, and said: 'Don't call this a water bottle. What would you call it?'

Hua-lin, the Head Monk said: 'It can't be called a wooden clog.'

Pai-chang then asked Kuei-shan his opinion. Kuei-shan kicked over the water bottle and walked out.

Pai-chang laughed and said: 'The Head Monk loses.' Kuei-shan thereupon was made head teacher at Mt. Ta-kuei.

Aitken Roshi asks: 'Suppose that you were Hua-lin, the Head Monk, what would you say in response to Pai-chang's judgement: 'The Head Monk loses'? Would sympathetic joy characterise your words and manner? Could you clap your hands and call out: 'Congratulations! Congratulations!'

I think I'd have had some difficulty with this one! I suspect Hua-lin may have had too. Let's imagine that he felt deeply envious of Kuei-shan, and deep offence at Pai-chang's words and laughter. The whole matter set fire to his complacency and seared his heart. His fall into envy and the resulting shame and humiliation was made worse for him because Pai-chang had once suggested that he might be the founding teacher at Mt. Takuei. He now felt abandoned and betrayed, and because he was a sincere student, deeply ashamed by the invasion of these ancient, infantile feelings. Because as Head Monk he had become attached to the Eros of power, of being looked up to by the monks and being close to his teacher, he experienced his envious angry feelings as a profound fall from grace, as being cast into the outer darkness. Better to die than to take the brunt of such envy and hatred, but if that were not possible, to retire to the mountains. There he would be far away from the solicitations and knowing smiles of the junior monks, and Pai-chang's penetrating questioning concerning his feelings about Kuei-shan's appointment. And he wouldn't have to listen to the endless rehashing of Kuei-shan's kicking over the water bottle - the celebratory verse, the invidious comparisons between the brilliance of Kuei-shan's Dharma eye and the lacklustreness of his own. Better to withdraw and to live alone than to face this.

Hua-lin built his hermitage deep in the mountains and the hard physical work in extreme heat and cold gave him some respite from the savage and debilitating emotions that he was feeling. Yet after he had settled in and began to sit long hours of devoted Zazen the corrosive envy and burning resentments returned. And because he was high-minded he struggled with these, thinking: 'I should be better than this. I should be beyond this.' And this doubled his agony. A wandering monk brought him news that Kuei-shan was having trouble establishing the new monastery at Mt. Ta-kuei. It was in remote country and few monks were prepared to make the arduous journey there. Yet this news of Kuei-shan's difficulties did nothing to ease the profound envy that he felt. Even the complete abandonment of the Mt. Kuei project wouldn't have helped.

One night, sitting late and trying to practice sympathetic joy for Kuei-shan with Pai-chang's words reverberating in his ears and burning in his heart, he suddenly heard them as if for the first time. The Head Monk loses was no longer words directed at him, no longer words circumscribing his life as abject and infantile, but was just: The Head Monk loses - like a pillar of fire, like a great wave crashing on the beach, like the clouds silvered by moonlight just visible through the back window of his hermitage. He wept and made bows in the direction of Pai-chang's monastery, and then in the cool vastness of his relief, he made bows in the direction of Mt. Kuei.

This opening in the midst of his struggle brought deep changes to his life. Legend has it that he had been feeding two abandoned tigers. He would leave out meat for them which they would grab and then retreat back into the wilderness of rock and pine, but he couldn't get close to them or tame them.

Now they came to him readily and took food from his hands. And sitting regally behind his hermitage, obedient to his call, they guarded him against the other marauding beasts. His companionship with them was linked to the vastness that had opened for him when he truly experienced Pai-chang's words on that memorable night, so he named them: Big Void and Small Void.

As the years passed and Hua-lin enjoyed his life as a hermit on the trackless, secluded mountain, his reputation grew and many people came to pay their respects and to receive his teachings. Elsewhere in this issue, Robert Aitken retells a lovely story about Hua-lin and his tigers, which shows the boundless equanimity of his mature practice:

One day a high official called upon Hua-lin and remarked: 'It must be very inconvenient to live by yourself in this way without an attendant.'

Hua-lin said: 'Not at all, for I have two attendants.' Turning his head, he called out: 'Big Void, Small Void'.

In reply to his call, two tigers appeared from the back of the hermitage, roaring fiercely. The high official was frightened out of his wits. Hua-lin spoke to the tigers saying: 'This is an important guest. Be quiet and courteous.' The two tigers crouched at his feet and were as gentle as kittens.

All I would add to his fine commentary on this story is that in Hua-lin's great heart, fierceness and gentleness lie down together. This is the outcome and fruit of long struggle to come to terms with profound envies, a long night journey with humiliation, of allowing his envy-driven rage to become conscious. With glacial slowness the lower layers of his grief began to break up. Such movement - glimpsed, touched, included - was deeply painful but ultimately releasing. It's also about his slow embodiment and maturation of the vastness, its moonlight revealing by degrees the sheer juts and dark falls of his inner life. We emerge blinking in the sunlight and find that the tigers come at our bidding and enjoy our company. They get all the jokes and know exactly what to do to make a terrified politician feel completely at home.

The root of passion is the Latin passio which means; suffering. One meaning of suffering is allowing or permitting, as in Christ's words: 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.' The allowing or permitting of our suffering is implicit in the ancient dialogue between Chao-chou and a monk. Chao-chou said in a teisho on Buddha [enlightenment] and Buddhahood [how it is to live your enlightenment]:

'Buddhahood is passion: Passion is Buddhahood.'

The monk asked: 'In whom does Buddha cause passion'

'Buddha causes passion in us all.'

'How do we get rid of it?'

'Why should we get rid of it?'

This is a great challenge: How do we walk the way when we're beset by envy, or sunk in the green ooze of jealousy? The passions are bodhi (enlightenment), but it certainly doesn't feel like that when we're swept about, over our heads or seized from below by them. We understand all too clearly that the passions are suffering at such a time, that the torrent of fantasies and the feelings of affliction are like a great cloud, opaque as a rock, obscuring the moon. I sense that this is what is behind the monk's question: 'How do we get rid of the passions?' How do we get rid of the confusion of being on a roller-coaster of elation and despair; how do we eliminate the pain of being cut off from the peace and security of deep Zazen? Chao-chou responds: 'Why cut off the passions?' A delicately poised response. He doesn't use the occasion to indulge the ancient Buddhist notion that we can purify ourselves by cutting off our attachments - a view that, misunderstood, has been the occasion for so much mortification of flesh, misogyny, and a menagerie of psychic ills. Neither does he entertain any idea of indulging the passions.

His response points to a middle path of opening to receive what arises in our hearts, honouring the passions when they're there and not clinging to them when the wave goes out. Being there for whatever is.

Envy is suffering. How do you open to it? Bonder talks of envy in terms of: 'A deep sorrow that takes over the body and installs itself in the throat.' However it is for you, it's important not to add a layer of judgement when you become aware of the body's suffering, its unique and tender geography's of pain and unease.

The practice of Mudita is delight in the joy and success of others. Sharon Salzberg describes it as follows:

As we undertake sympathetic joy as a formal meditation practice, we begin with someone we care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. It may be somewhat difficult even then, but we tend to more easily find joy for someone on the basis of our love and friendship. Choose a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in their life. Do not look for absolute, perfect happiness in their life, because you may not find it. Whatever good fortune or happiness of theirs comes to your mind, take delight in it with the phrase: May your happiness and good fortune not leave you. This will help diminish the conditioned tendencies of conceit, demeaning others, and judgement. Following this, we move through the sequence of beings: Benefactor, neutral person, enemy, all beings - all beings in the ten directions.

If you cannot find anything at all to rejoice over, send sympathetic joy as best as possible, to purify your own mind of the tendencies towards envy and jealousy. Sometimes we feel compassion for someone when they are down, but we actually resent it if their fortunes change, and we longer feel as secure in relationship to them.

We live mudita when we open a space in which we allow others to express their happiness, feeling of success or gladness. The Yiddish expression of this is to farginen someone - to open space for them, to share their pleasure. Because this rarely comes naturally to humans (although dogs seem to have it in abundance), it is a discipline that is learned, like not stealing, by consciously responding to the unending insults to ego that life provides.

So when envy comes, how are you with it? Do you draw back in fear? Fear of envy can be very strong. If you've been through the suffering of deep envy, you probably don't want to go through it again if you have any choice. So do you draw back or cynically dismiss the person - 'Well, he's probably a fraud anyway'. Or get angry - 'What right do you have to break into my life like this?' - which is part anger at the person and part at the invasive quality of envious feeling. Or do you take action to relieve your heart and begin to complain about the person, finding fault with them, subtly denigrating them and enlisting the support of others against them? Envy entangled with hatred and private grievance gets karmically propelled into public conflicts, factional quarrels and vendettas. How do you feel when you're the recipient of envy? Do you try to diminish yourself to appease the envious one - 'I'm not really that brilliant or talented or successful', or do you protect your back? The whole field of envy can be weird, and interactions in it characteristically have the taint of insincerity and bad faith.

Or, perhaps you don't even know you are envied, and you are suddenly subject to violent, unexpected attack. Zen Master Ryokan had such an experience:

Once, during the time for transplanting rice seedlings, the Master [Ryokan] was staying at our home. There was a certain crazy priest named Chikai, whose extreme arrogance had driven him insane. He was always declaring, 'I will found my own school of Buddhism in order to save sentient beings!' and compared himself to the eminent monks of the past, while disparaging his contemporaries as children. Hence, the great esteem accorded the Zen master Ryokan made him seethe with envy.

On this particular day, Chikai got roaring drunk and announced that he was going to help till the fields. He arrived at our home, caked with mud. When he saw the Master was there, his long-festering anger suddenly exploded, and, without a word, he started to slap the Master with his soaking belt. All of this happened entirely without warning. The Master himself had no idea what it was all about, and since he did not make any attempt to escape, the people with him were alarmed and subdued the priest. They then pulled the Master into another room and threw the priest out of the house.

At dusk, a heavy rain began to fall. The Master came out of the room and asked casually: 'Did that monk have his rain gear with him?' He said nothing more about the incident.

Ryokan's compassion for Chikai, so piercing and so unadorned, is moving beyond words.

The new age shadow of Zen Buddhist practice can be a kind of naïve sanctification of our gut reaction, in the name of authenticity. Under the banner of being there for what arises we can subtly sanction our own malevolence and walk a long dark path involving huge sufferings for ourselves and others. In the light of this it might be helpful to be careful with what we allow to enter into our heart and mind. Hatred and envy don't degrade readily in the psyche, but as stored rage and rancour, embalm our energies and cut us off from our treasure, our life.

Relatedly, do we bear a responsibility for provoking envy in others when we have the power to do so? Do we need to take care when promoting someone to leadership or teaching rank, for example, to ease envy in those who might also wish to get that position? These are difficult issues, but honesty and compassion towards those who are going to miss out might minimise the suffering that ensues. When we make an important decision we act in a complex interconnected field, and it is good to look deeply into our heart's intentions and to widen our compassion to include the inevitable pain, disappointments and envies that flow from it. In such a case, it can deepen the damage to write off all questioning of the decision, or objections to ones style and behaviour, as merely envy or jealousy. Such discounting provokes justifiable outrage and much needless suffering for those who feel disempowered in the situation; it also pins a long karmic tail on the decision.

There is a moment of falling in envy like there is a moment of falling in love. There is an opportunity, usually brief, to fully open to what's in our heart before we embark into the justification of our feelings, and of our actions, before we hide in the shame of defeat and nourish our resentments, before envy and hatred ossify and become chronic. It might be good to ask: 'How long will I carry this? Till tomorrow? Till Christmas? For life?' Fronting the envy as it appears, and taking our quivering smile and aching heart to the winner's party, and generally opening to the generosity of the real, even when it's harsh, may be our best defence against the long-term corrosive suffering of hatred and envy.

So when envy announces itself with a soft avalanche in the heart, an ache that comes on slowly, in a forced smile - what is it asking of us? Most simply, I think, to look at the areas of neglect in our lives. This can be a spur to finishing a thesis, completing a novel, connecting again with old friends, or getting some much needed encouragement from our peers. A lot of artistic work comes to fruition in milieus rife with competition, rancid with envy.

Yet when we are losing blood from it, it's not so simple. We can remain deeply entrapped. At such times the envy we feel may be inviting us to look further in to the unacknowledged desolation and despair which underlie and feed our envious fantasy - inviting us back to our ancient griefs, the place where we feel most utterly worthless and unlovable. Psychotherapy can be a good companion to zazen in this undertaking.

To adopt Dylan Thomas' great line, we toil towards the ambush of our wounds. Each time we touch our envy, or its deep underlying sorrow, we encourage a release, We can weep for awhile, then breathe a little deeper. In time we get less self preoccupied and the moon rises and reflects in the great dark lake of our ancient sorrows. The passions roll through like the seasons; Great moods of the soul.

So you cultivate kindliness and compassion, do your best to take joy and delight in the success of others, practise sympathetic joy - and sometimes your heart is open, and sometimes with the best will in the world it is clenched. And all this goes along with practising Mu or Who hears or other koans, or the breath, or Shikantaza - a great mulch, dark, alive, creative. This is the path of liberation. We are all suffering bodies and we get our release, we see into the vastness of our true nature through the haze of our pain and our love; Our pain and our love is the moon by which we see.

This is a revised version of a talk first published in Bright Water (Summer, 1997), one of a series on the Passions given at the Western Australian Zendo, originally transcribed by Lesley Hanks.


1.James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, Harper and Row, New York, 1979: 32-33.

2. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, Harper & Collins, New York: 114.

3. Murray Stein, Sibling Rivalry and the Problem of Envy in: Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1990, p161 where he quotes M. Forham, Explorations into the Self, Karnac, London, 1985:.199.

4. Rabbi Milton Bonder, The Kabbalah of Envy, Karnac, London, 1985: 199.

5. Sharon Salzberg, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Shambhala, Boston and London, 1995: 127-128.

6. Rabbi Milton Bonder, op. cit.:5.

7. Robert Aitken Roshi, Sorting the Wisdom of Words - Milan Kundera and the Four Noble Abodes, elsewhere in this issue.

8. Robert Aitken Roshi, The Gateless Barrier, The Wu-men Kuan, Case 40, North Point Press, San Francisco: 241.

9. Robert Aitken, op. cit.

10. Zenkei Shibayama, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Harper and Row, New York, 1974: 282.

11. Chang Chung-Yuan, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, Random House (Vintage Books), New York 1971: 166.

12. Sharon Salzberg, op.cit.: 134-5.

13. See Bonder, ibid.: 104-7.

14. Ryoichi Abe and Peter Haskel (translators), Great Fool, Zen Master Ryokan, University of Hawaii , Press, Honolulu 1996: 72. I am grateful to Mary Jaksch for drawing my attention to this story.

No reproduction without the authors permission please.