What Is Schadenfreude?
In this Internet age, Schadenfreude is trending. Under the cloak of anonymity, malicious trolls will spin almost every celebrity’s mishap into an international roasting sensation. Schadenfreude is a German word that means ‘pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune’. There is no similar term for it in the English language, but it has now become worldwide lingo. A sad sign of the times it seems, when a negative word is needed to describe this prevalent phenomenon. Little did we know, schadenfreude is already found in many cultures. The Chinese have a phrase to describe it — 幸灾乐祸, which is ‘to take joy in calamity and delight in disaster’. This surely sounds more perverse than schadenfreude?
A Fine Line Between
While it should still be alright to laugh at downright silly situations, to laugh at another’s misery is, well, no laughing matter. There is a very fine line in between — should we laugh along or ‘cry’ together? Examples of silly situations would be a man bragging of his recent lottery win to everyone he knows… only to discover the newspaper results are from last week. Or a boy swaggering with pride on how he got rid of a cockroach in his room… only to shriek at the top of his lungs when an inflight one lands on his nose.
I once witnessed a classic ‘fine line’ situation while waiting at a train station. A girl was walking towards the station while typing on her phone… straight into a glass partition with a loud bang. Before I could give a gasp of ‘Oh!’, there was a loud burst of laughter from my left, from a guy in a laughing fit. I turned my glance back to the girl. She seemed okay though. While the girl’s situation was not exactly disastrous, thank goodness that the glass did not shatter, she could have fallen or bled too.
In the first two scenarios, both protagonists were not in the way of actual danger while the third had a potentially fatal outcome. I am glad I did not laugh at her mishap, but I found the guy’s reaction thought-provoking. We all laugh at life’s little glitches here and then, but where do we draw the line, and how do we know if we have crossed it if it is not clearly drawn? I thought I might have lost my sense of humour, but to laugh at someone’s pain is just too sinister. It is neither helpful nor encouraged, according to the Buddha.
Poisons And Antidotes
To celebrate others’ suffering is both excessive and unwelcomed. Arthur Schopenhauer went further to say it is devilish. But to be clearer, it also lacks empathy, loving-kindness and compassion to feel relish instead of offering relief. If we are unable to walk in the shoes of those suffering, we will neither wish them well nor take action to alleviate their pain. How dysfunctional this would be for ‘human’ beings!
According to Buddhist teachings, we should avoid giving rise to schadenfreude. To be schadenfreude-ish, there must be latent greed to gloat at the unfortunate for laughs, hatred to be gleeful bystanders, as fueled by delusion about what constitutes True Happiness. Since everything starts small, it is important to watch our minds. Callous cruelty can even begin sprouting with unchecked bullying in the nursery. Once an evil thought arises, even if it is small, it should be countered with the antidote. With greed, counter it with generosity. With hatred, counter it with compassion. With delusion, counter it with wisdom. For Mahāyāna Buddhists, perfection of great compassion (mahākaruṇā) with great wisdom (mahāprajña) is crucial for Buddhahood.
From Mitfreude To Muditā
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ‘The serpent that stings us means to hurt us and rejoices as it does so; the lowest animal can imagine the pain of others. But to imagine the joy of others and to rejoice at it is the highest privilege of the highest animals [i.e. humans].’ (He was arguably imagining that serpents do imagine the pain of others though. While some humans might be bestial in character, Buddhism does not classify humans as animals. In Buddhist culture, along with the rooster that represents greed, and the pig that represents delusion, the serpent represents hatred or ill-will, with these three poisons forming the central hub of the Buddhist wheel of life [bhāvacakra], from it extending the rounds of miserable rebirths.)
The quote equates the inflicting of pain upon others as beastly while rejoicing at the joy of others is the opposite. Nietzsche thus explained ‘mitfreude’, which is to ‘have shared joy’, or to be ‘joying with’. Being the direct opposite of schadenfreude in attitude and action, to cultivate mitfreude is also to root out schadenfreude.
There is the similar Buddhist term ‘muditā’ (随喜), as the third of the Four Immeasurable Minds (catvāri brahmavihārāḥ: 四无量心), which is translated as ‘appreciative’ joy or ‘rejoicing’. Muditā is one of the harder immeasurable minds to cultivate, with its direct ‘enemy’ to counter being jealousy — which is a potent mix of greed (for what others have), hatred (that others have what one wants), and delusion (about what is True Happiness).
The greatest challenge then, is to maintain muditā even in the face of personal tragedy. Are we still capable of celebrating others’ happiness and accomplishments then? If we cannot genuinely feel sad when a hardworking colleague failed to get the promotion he worked so hard for, we surely lack compassion. If we cannot truly feel happy for him if he does get the promotion, we surely lack rejoice.
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Fifth Great Vow
In the Āvataṃsaka Sūtra (华严经), Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (普贤菩萨) spoke of his Ten Great King Of Vows (十大愿王) necessary for Buddhahood. The fifth vow is ‘to accordingly rejoice in meritorious virtues’ (随喜功德). To truly rejoice in others’ goodness, we need to diminish what is not good — the three poisons that lurk within us. One way is to cultivate acceptance (of others’ greater well-being) and repentance (for one’s lesser well-being).
We should recognise that we are not fundamentally different from those we are jealous of. We all yearn for well-being, although our karmic rewards and retribution (业报) might differ, with all according to the good and evil that we have done and not done. Spitefulness at others’ joys and gleefulness at others’ suffering only obstruct our own path to True Happiness.
To urge our need to repent, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva taught that if an individual’s evil karma takes tangible form, even the entire universe cannot contain it. This is how immense our evil karma is. Without constant practice of sincere repentance, we will be giving green light to our three poisons, to grow and further cloud our Buddha-nature. The stronger the poisons become, the further will they corrupt our perception, till we lose the instinct to avoid evil and do good.
As an example of reducing our three poisons, we should see the occasional big bully, who did not hesitate to risk his life to rescue an old dog in a flooded canal, to be performing a meritorious act. This he might have done without discriminating between a stray animal or a human being, between the young or old, which is indeed virtuous. For this, we should rejoice, even if he is a bully on other occasions. We should beware of potential schadenfreude moments too, say if we hear that he was almost blinded by a serious eye infection from the dirty water. We can genuinely rejoice in his heroic act, instead of gleefully and hatefully thinking the bully finally had his just deserts.
Guarding Our Subtle Minds
As famed psychiatrist and philosopher Victor Frankl wrote, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’ We must choose well then, from moment to moment, on how we think, speak and act. As a Holocaust survivor, what iniquities had Frankl not experienced? Having lost his parents and pregnant wife, he was on the verge of death too. Yet, he was able to emerge to serve the public with the goodness of his heart, without losing his humanity.
Many survivors like Frankl, had to relearn how to be happy again, while grappling with survivor’s guilt. They chose ‘yes to life’, to live their lives well, that the Nazis failed to destroy. Although how our karma bears fruit in this moment might not be in our full control (due to ignorance of what we have done in our past lives), we are still responsible for how we respond to these fruits now. Let us then stop giving our insecure selves with bruised egos excuses to think, speak and do any evil. Because for all evils thought, said and done, painful consequences await. The hells have no ‘real’ gates, while fools continually rush in with their hellishness.
Learning From The ‘Buddha’s Past Example
In the Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Parables (佛说譬喻经), Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) narrated a misdeed in one of his past lives. Shǒudá (首达) (Śākyamuni Buddha-to-be) was a respected elderly man who had taught 5,000 people. Despite his youthfulness, Wéixiān (维先) (Amitābha Buddha-to-be) was extremely wise. Having taught 60,000 people throughout many lands, he went to meet Shǒudá. When Shǒudá’s disciples learned of Wéixiān’s wisdom and courage, they all wished to honour him. Shǒudá however said, ‘Wéixiān is young. His wisdom is shallow and inadequate.’ Wéixiān overheard Shǒudá and said, ‘Those practising the Bodhisattva Dharma (菩萨法), should make offerings to one another, to practise in all lands, with seeing them like seeing Buddhas. Now, I am without shelter, yet giving rise to understanding of the same Dharma.’
Wéixiān returned to his land in silence that night, as he wanted to let the people make offerings to Shǒudá instead. Shǒudá, having slandered Wéixiān, fell into a great hell for 60 kalpas. After becoming human again, he did not have a tongue for 60 kalpas. He had lost the Bodhisattva Dharma because he did not control his mind and speech. Only after his transgressions’ retribution was exhausted, with furthering of his past meritorious virtues, did he attain Buddhahood later. Those who heard the Buddha’s account exclaimed, ‘That mistake was only small, yet attaining transgressions that were extremely great.’ (其失小耳，得罪甚大。) Shǒudá should have simply rejoiced at Wéixiān’s achievement instead of belittling him with jealousy. (In the Mahāyāna Vaipulya Dhāraṇī Sūtra [大乘方广总持经] is a similar account, with more severe transgressions done.)
We Are Our Choices
Genuine rejoice and repentance are truly meritorious and virtuous as they are undefiled by the three poisons. They are wholesome, selfless and inspire others to practise similarly. With genuine rejoicing and repenting, we will be able to see our flaws and amend them. On the other hand, insincere rejoicing or repenting only creates negative karma. It would be worse if there is deceit to oneself during Dharma assemblies, with recitation of sūtras, names of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Pretentious lip service only deepens expression of moral shamelessness. If this forms a strong habit, one might become Nietzsche’s serpent, with vicious unsubdued thoughts, speech, and actions. This life is short, but the duration of karmic retribution can be lengthy, as Shǒudá’s case shows.
As old habits die hard, it is not easy to simply be mindful of our thoughts, which direct our speech and actions. If so, why not practise with the most spiritually powerful subject of mindfulness, with sincere mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha’s name — Āmítuófó (阿弥陀佛)? Embedded in his name are the blessings of all Buddhas, which are showered upon all sincere practitioners. Recite ‘Āmítuófó’ whenever an evil thought arises, to transform it into a pure thought that offers blessings to one and all. With each sincere recitation is true repentance for the evil thought too. As taught in the Contemplation Sūtra (观经), ‘Reciting the Buddha’s name thus, in thought to thought within, eradicates eighty kotis’ kalpas’ transgressions of births and deaths.’ With constant diligent practice, Amitābha Buddha and his Pure Land await, where we will surely be able to purge all of the three poisons.
To end, is another quote by Frankl, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedom — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.’ The choice of your attitude and action is always yours.