Envy — what a dark, insidious emotion. As with the other imperfections, we carry envy to a greater or lesser degree. When we see someone dressed very beautifully, is our first response to feel that WE should have such nice clothes? If someone has a gorgeous face or body, house or car, do we immediately wish these were OURS?
The Buddha, having a higher mind, thought we might envy things that are well worth having:
Here, student, some man or woman is envious, one who envies, resents, and begrudges the gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, and veneration received by others. Because of performing and undertaking such actions…he reappears in a a state of deprivation… But if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is uninflentual…This is the way, student, that leads to being uninfluential, namely, one is envious…towards the gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations and veneration received by others.
But here, student, some man or woman is not envious, one who does not envy, resent, and begrudge the gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations, and veneration received by others. Because of performing and undertaking such action…he reappears in a happy destination… But if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is influential. This is the way, student, that leads to being influential, namely, one is not envious…towards the gains, honor, respect, reverence, salutations and veneration received by others.
MN 135:11-12, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi
Of course, when others are given respect and admiration, we sometimes might wish that we could be so admired. But it seems to me that in our times, envy is mostly experienced not in response to virtuous qualities but to superficial things: money, power, fame, or status that depends on externals rather than internal qualities.
What is the truth for us? What are the things that when we see them, wish they were ours?
Of course, there is a wholesome alternative to envy. When we see someone we admire, we might think, “How can I become more like that person?” “What can I do to more fully embody the qualities I admire in that person?”
We can work to recognize and abandon envy, while also developing our efforts to emulate those we admire. This is certainly happening at some level for each of us; maybe we can give extra attention and energy to this effort.
As the Buddha points out above, and as we have probably experienced ourselves, envy leads to an unhappy destination, and the absence of envy leads to a happy destination.