Try our new website New materials, revised articles, guided meditations, new design

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Dealing with Jealousy

Alexander Berzin
March 2004

Disturbing Emotions

We all experience disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha, afflictive emotions) – states of mind that when we develop them cause us to lose our mental peace and incapacitate us so that we lose self-control. Common examples are greed, attachment, hostility, anger, and jealousy. They trigger various mental urges (karma) to arise, usually ones that lead to destructive behavior. The urges may be to act destructively toward others or to act in some self-destructive way. The result is that we create problems and suffering for others and, inevitably, for ourselves.

There is a vast range of disturbing emotions. Each culture mentally draws some arbitrary line around a set of common emotional experiences that most people in its society experience, decides on some defining characteristics that describe it as a category, and then give the category a name. Of course, each culture chooses different sets of common emotional experiences, different defining characteristics to describe them, and, in this way, makes up different categories of disturbing emotions.

Categories of disturbing emotions specified by different cultures usually do not exactly overlap, because the definitions of the emotions are slightly different. For example, Sanskrit and Tibetan each have one word for "jealousy" (phrag-dog, Skt. irshya), while most Western languages have two. English has "jealousy" and "envy," while German has "Eifersucht" and "Neid." The distinction between the two English terms is not precisely the same as that drawn between the two German words, and the Sanskrit and Tibetan do not correspond exactly to any of the terms in either language. If, as Westerners, we experience emotional problems in this general category, designated by the categories formulated by our own cultures and languages, and we wish to learn Buddhist methods for overcoming them, we may need to analyze and deconstruct our emotions, as we conceptualize them, into a combination of several disturbing emotions as defined in Buddhism.

"Jealousy" as Defined by Buddhism and "Envy" as Defined in English

The Buddhist abhidharma texts classify "jealousy" (phrag-dog) as a part of hostility. They define it 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 our own gain or to the respect we receive."

Attachment, here, means that we are focused on some area of life in which others have accomplished more than we have, and we exaggerate its positive aspects. In our minds, we make this area one of the most important aspects of life and base our sense of self-worth on it. Implicit is an inordinate preoccupation with and attachment to "me." Thus, we are jealous because we are "attached to our own gain or to the respect we receive" in terms of this area. For example, we may fixate on the amount of money we have or on how good-looking we are. As an aspect of hostility, jealousy adds to this attachment a strong element of resentment at what others have achieved in this area. It is the opposite of rejoicing and feeling happy at what they have accomplished.

In English, one of the definitions of jealousy is "hostility toward someone believed to enjoy an advantage." It has only part of the Buddhist definition; it omits the factor of attachment to the area in which the other person has the advantage. The definition only implies that the advantage may be true or not, but does not question the actual importance of the area or the preoccupation with "me."

Furthermore, jealousy, as defined in Buddhism, covers part, but not all of the English word envy. Envy adds a little more. It adds what Buddhism calls "covetousness" (brnab-sems). Covetousness is "the inordinate desire for something that someone else possesses." Thus, the definition of "envy" in English, is "a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else, joined with the desire to enjoy the same advantage." In other words, in addition to the inability to bear others’ accomplishments in an area of life that, as Buddhism points out, we exaggerate the importance of, envy is the wish to have these accomplishments ourselves. We might be poor or lacking in this area, or we may already have an adequate or even above average measure of it. If we are envious and want even more, our covetousness has grown into greed. Often, although not necessarily, envy entails the further wish for others to be deprived of what they have achieved, so that we can have it instead. In this case, there is an even further ingredient to the emotion, spite.

Envy, as a combination of jealousy and covetousness, leads to competitiveness. Thus, Trungpa Rinpoche discussed jealousy as the disturbing emotion that drives us to become highly competitive and to work fanatically to outdo others or ourselves. It is connected with forceful action – the so-called "karma family." Because of being jealous and envious of what others have accomplished, we push ourselves or we push others under us to do more and more, like with extreme competition in business or sports. Thus, Buddhism uses the horse to represent jealousy. It races against other horses because of jealousy. It cannot bear that another horse is running faster.

[See: Five Buddha-Family Traits in Daily Life: Gelug Anuttarayoga Tantra and Karma Kagyu Mahamudra Presentations.]

Jealousy and Competitiveness

It is true that, in Buddhism, jealousy is closely related to competitiveness, although the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. Someone could be jealous of others, and with low self-esteem, not even try to compete. Similarly, being competitive does not necessarily entail jealousy. Some people like to compete in sports simply for fun, to enjoy themselves and the company of others, without ever wishing to keep score.

Buddhism connects jealousy and competition differently. For example, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicaryavatara), Shantideva puts together in one discussion jealousy toward those in higher position, competitiveness with equals, and arrogance toward those who are lower in status. His discussion is within the context of learning to view all beings as equal.

The problem Buddhism is addressing here is the feeling that "I" am special, which underlies all three disturbing emotions. For example, if we think and feel that "I" am the only one who can do a specific task well or correctly, like teaching our friend to drive a car, we become jealous if anyone else teaches him or her. That does not necessarily lead to competitiveness. If, on the other hand, we think and feel that "I" am the only one who deserves to do a specific thing, such as get ahead in life, and we are envious if someone else succeeds, we become competitive. We have to outdo the other person, even if we are already moderately successful. In both examples, underlying jealousy and envy is a strong feeling of "me" and a strong preoccupation with us alone. We do not consider others in the same way as we do ourselves. We consider ourselves special.

The remedy Buddhism offers to the problems and unhappiness caused by these types of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and arrogance is to treat the underlying fallacy concerning "me" and "you." We need to realize and view everyone as equal. Everyone has the same basic abilities, in the sense that everyone has Buddha-nature – the potentials that allow for the attainment of enlightenment. Also, everyone has the same wish to be happy and to succeed, and not to be unhappy or to fail. And everyone has the same right to be happy and to succeed and the same right not to be unhappy or to fail. There is nothing special about "me" in these regards. Buddhism also teaches love – the wish for everyone, equally, to be happy.

When we learn to view everyone as equal, in terms of Buddha-nature and love, then we are open to see how to relate to someone who has either succeeded more than we have or who has succeeded when we have not. We rejoice in his or her success, since we want everyone to be happy. We try to help our equals also succeed, rather than competing with them and trying to outdo them. Toward those who are less successful than we are, we try to help them do well, rather than gloat and arrogantly feel better than they are.

Cultural Reinforcement of Jealousy and Competitiveness

These suggested Buddhist methods are extremely advanced and particularly difficult to apply when our automatically arising jealousy and competitiveness are reinforced, strengthened and even rewarded by certain Western cultural values. After all, almost all children automatically like to win and cry when they lose. But, on top of that, many Western cultures teach capitalism as the naturally best form of a democratic society. Underlying it is the theory of the survival of the fittest, which sets competition as the basic driving force of life, rather than, for instance, love and affection. Further, Western cultures reinforce the importance of success and winning with an obsession with competitive sports, and their glorification of the best athletes and the richest people in the world.

In addition, the whole political system of democracy and voting entails competition – offering and then selling ourselves as candidates, by publicizing how much better we are than our rivals for office. As commonly practiced in the West, campaigning adds to this an intense effort to find out every possible weak point in the rival candidates, even in terms of their private lives, and inflating them out of proportion and widely publicizing them in order to discredit him or her. Many people even view such type of behavior, based on jealousy and competition, as praiseworthy and just.

Tibetan society, on the other hand, frowns on anyone who depreciates others and claims he or she is better than they are. These are considered negative character traits. In fact, the first root bodhisattva vow is never to praise ourselves and belittle others to people in positions lower than ourselves – which would include, here, advertising such words to the voting public. The motivation is specified as desire for profit, praise, love, respect, and so on from the persons addressed, and jealousy of the persons belittled. It makes no difference whether what we say is true or false. In contrast, when speaking about ourselves, extreme modesty and saying "I have no good qualities; I don’t know anything" is considered praiseworthy. Thus, democracy and campaigning for votes are totally alien and do not work in Tibetan society if practiced in the usual Western form.

Even just to say that we want to run for office is taken as a suspicious sign of arrogance and of a nonaltruistic motive. The only possible compromise may be for representatives of the candidates – and never the nominees themselves – merely to speak to others about their candidates’ good qualities and accomplishments, without comparing them to those of the rivals for the office or saying anything bad about them. This, however, is hardly ever done. Usually, candidates who are well known, such as from noble families or incarnate lamas, are nominated, without even asking them if they wish to run. If they say they do not wish to run for office, this is taken as a sign of modesty, since immediately to say "yes" indicates arrogance and greed for power. It is almost impossible for someone nominated to refuse. Voting is then done, without campaigning. People usually vote for the candidate who is most well known.

Thus, the Buddhist method of rejoicing in the victories of others – and the even stronger one of giving the victory to others and accepting defeat for ourselves – may not be the most suitable first remedy to try for Westerners who are strongly convinced of the virtues of capitalism and of the Western electoral system of campaigning. As Westerners, we might need first to reevaluate the validity of our cultural values and deal with the doctrinally based forms of jealousy and competition that arise from accepting those values, before addressing the automatically arising forms.

An example that may help us to see the relativity of Western culturally based jealousy and competitiveness is an Indian market. In India, there are cloth markets, jewelry markets, vegetable markets, and so on. Each has row after row of stalls and shops, right next to each other, all selling almost exactly the same goods. Most of the shopkeepers are friends with each other and often sit drinking tea together outside their shops. Their attitude is that it is up to their karma whether or not their shops do well.

Jealousy in the Western Sense

While the discussion of jealousy in Buddhism primarily addresses, although does not overlap with, the disturbing emotion of what English defines as "envy," English specifies another similar disturbing emotion that it calls "jealousy." For most Westerners, this type of jealousy gives them even more suffering than the types that Buddhism discusses.

Rather than focus on what another person has received that we have not, this form of jealousy focuses on someone who gives something to someone else, rather than to us. Thus, in English, the first definition of jealousy we find in the dictionary is "an intolerance of rivalry or of unfaithfulness." For example, we feel jealous if our partners flirt with other men or women or spend a lot of time with others. Even a dog feels this type of jealousy when a new baby arrives in the house. Thus, like jealousy in Buddhism, it has elements of resentment and hostility. But, in addition, it has strong elements of insecurity and mistrust.

If we are insecure, then when a friend or partner is with someone else, we are jealous. This is because we are unsure of our self-worth, insecure of the other person’s love for "me," and thus we do not trust our friend. We fear that "I" will be abandoned.

To deal with this type of jealousy, we also need to learn the equality of everyone. But here, our problem is not doctrinally based on cultural values, so perhaps it is easier to go directly to trying the Buddhist insight. The heart has the capacity to love everyone – this is an aspect of Buddha-nature. Reaffirming this fact is a way to overcome jealousy. In other words, everyone’s heart has that capacity, including our friend or lover. If they are so closed that they have no room in their hearts for me, we can develop compassion for them. They do not realize their Buddha-nature capacities and, consequently, are depriving themselves of some of the greatest joys in life.

We ourselves need to become open to everyone. With open hearts, we can have love for friend, partner, child, pet, parents, country, our people, Nature, God, hobby, job, etc. There is room in our hearts for love for all of them. Love is not exclusive. We are perfectly capable of dealing with and relating to all these objects of our love, expressing our feelings in manners appropriate to each object. We do not express our love and affection to our dogs in the same way as we express it to our wives or husbands, or to our parents. We do not have sexual relations with all of them.

The issues of monogamy and sexual unfaithfulness are extremely complex and bring in many further issues. They are not the topics here. In any case, if our sexual partners, especially our marital spouses and especially when we have young children together, are unfaithful or spend a great deal of time with others, jealousy, resentment, and possessiveness are never helpful emotional responses. We need to deal with the situation in a more sober manner. Yelling at our partners or trying to make them feel guilty can hardly ever succeed in making them love us.

Also, these disturbing emotional responses are, in part, culturally influenced. For example, a traditional Japanese or Indian wife does not expect her husband to spend his social time with her after work, rather than to follow the norms of his society and go out with his male friends. Thus, in most cases, she will be content to lead her social life with her women friends, separately from that of her husband.

Further, when we think that love and having a close friendship can be only with one person exclusively, and if he or she has a friendship with someone else, there is no room for "me," this is jealousy. It is based on the feeling of a solid "me" who must be special, and a solid "you" who is so special that we want only this person’s love. Even if there are many others who love us and whom we love, we tend to ignore that fact and think, "That doesn’t count."

Continually opening our hearts to as many others as possible and acknowledging the love that others – friends, relatives, pets, and so on – have for us now, have had in the past, and will have in the future helps us to feel more emotionally secure. This, in turn, helps us to overcome any fixation we may have on anyone being a special object of love, not even ourselves.

Omniscience and all-loving both imply having everyone in our minds and hearts. Nevertheless, when a Buddha is focused on or with one person, he or she is 100% concentrated on that person. Therefore, having love for everyone does not mean that love for each individual is diluted. Therefore, we need not fear that if we open our hearts to many people, our personal relations will be less intense or fulfilling. We may be less clinging and less dependent on any one relation to be all-satisfying, and we may spend less time with each individual, but each is a full involvement. The same is true in terms of others’ love for us when we are jealous that it will be diluted because they also love someone else.

Also, it is an unrealistic expectation that any one person will be our special perfect match, like our "other half," who will complement us in all ways and with whom we can share every aspect of our lives. Such an expectation is based on the ancient Greek myth told by Plato that originally we were all wholes, who then were split in two. Somewhere "out there" is our other half; and true love is when we find and reunite with our other halves. Although this myth has become the foundation for Western romanticism, it does not refer to reality. To believe in it, like believing in the beautiful prince who will come to rescue us on a white horse, is an acquired, culturally specific phenomenon.

The Deceptive Appearances Underlying Jealousy and Envy

As we have seen, jealousy is the inability to bear someone else’s achievement in an area that we exaggerate the importance of, for instance his or her financial success. Envious of it, we wish that we could achieve it instead. We also have seen the variation of this, which occurs when someone receives something from someone, such as love or affection. We wish that we could receive it instead.

This disturbing emotion derives from two deceptive appearances that, because of confusion and just not knowing how things exist, our minds create and project. The first is the dualistic appearance of (1) a seemingly concrete "me" who inherently deserves to achieve or receive something, but did not, and (2) a seemingly concrete "you" who inherently did not deserve to get it. Unconsciously, we feel that the world owes us something and it is unfair when others get it instead. We divide the world into two solid categories: "losers" and "winners," and imagine that people truly exist and are findable inside the boxes of these seemingly solid true categories. Then we put ourselves in the solid permanent category of "loser" and we put the other person in the solid permanent category of "winner." We might even put everyone in the winners’ box, except ourselves. Not only do we feel resentment, we feel doomed. This leads to fixation on the painful thought, "poor me."

Naivety about behavioral cause and effect usually accompanies jealousy and envy. For example, we do not understand and even deny that the person who received a promotion or affection did anything to earn or deserve it. Moreover, we feel that we should get it without having to do anything to bring it about. Alternatively, we feel that we did do a lot, but still did not get the reward. Our minds thus create a second deceptive appearance and project it. Our confused minds make things appear to happen for no reason at all, or for only one reason: what we alone did.

Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances

We need to deconstruct these two deceptive appearances. Our cultures might have taught us that the driving principle inherent in the world of living beings is competition: the drive to win, survival of the fittest. But that premise might not be true. Nevertheless, if we have accepted it, we then believe that the world is inherently divided, by its very nature, into an absolute dichotomy of winners and losers. Consequently, we perceive the world in the fixed conceptual categories of winners and losers, and of course view ourselves with the same conceptual framework.

Although these concepts of winners, losers, and competition may be useful for describing evolution, we need to realize that they are only arbitrary mental constructions. "Winner" and "loser" are only mental labels. They are convenient mental categories used to describe certain events, such as coming in first in a race, getting a promotion at work instead of someone else getting it, or losing a client or student to someone else. We could just as easily divide people into the categories of "nice persons" and "not nice persons," depending on how we define "nice."

When we see that all such dualistic sets of categories are merely mentally constructed, we start to realize that there is nothing inherent on the side of "me" or "you" that locks us into solid categories. It is not that we are basically losers, inherently, and, in thinking of ourselves as losers, we have finally discovered the truth – the real "me" is a loser. Poor "me." Rather, we have many other qualities besides losing a client to someone else, so why dwell on that one as if that were the real "me."

Furthermore, it is only because of our limited minds and preoccupation with thinking "poor ‘me’" and "you bastard ‘you,’" that it seems like success and failure, gain and loss, happen for no reasons at all, or for irrelevant reasons. That is why we think that what happened to us was unfair. What happens in the universe, however, happens because of a huge network of cause and effect. So many things affect what happens to us and to others, it is beyond our imaginations to include every factor.

When we deconstruct these two deceptive appearances (winners and losers, and things happening for no good reason) and stop projecting them, we relax our feelings of injustice. Beneath our jealousy is merely awareness of what has been accomplished, what has happened. We lost a client to someone else and now someone else has this client. This makes us aware of a goal to achieve. If we do not begrudge someone else for achieving or receiving it, we can perhaps learn how the person accomplished the feat. This enables us to see how to accomplish it ourselves. We only feel jealous because of overlaying this awareness with dualistic appearances and concrete identities.


Thus, Buddhism offers a variety of methods to deal with the disturbing emotions of jealousy and envy, whether we define them in the Buddhist manner or in Western ways. When we are troubled with a disturbing emotion in these general categories, the challenge is to recognize correctly the defining characteristics and our cultural backgrounds. When, through meditation practice, we have trained ourselves in a variety of methods, we can choose an appropriate one to help us work through any emotional difficulties we may be experiencing.