Friendship comes highly praised in Buddhist practice. But why are friends considered to be so crucial?
Due to the fragility and perishability of human things, we should always be on the search for someone to love and by whom to be loved; indeed if affection and kindliness are lost from our life, we lose all that gives it charm…
Friendship, and our human relationships in general, can at times be one of the most difficult aspects of our lives while at other times the most helpful. In Buddhism, friendship is an extremely important factor, perhaps even more so than you might expect. The most famous statement on friendship in Buddhism comes when the Buddha’s cousin Ananda is said to have approached the Buddha and remarked “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” And the Buddha replied, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”
The first thing to note in finding and cultivating admirable friendships is that we don’t have to dump our old set of friends and replace them with so-called “spiritual” people. Our current friendships, even with people who have no affiliation with Buddhism, can serve as fertile ground for admirable friendship. In the very short Mitta Sutta, or discourse on friends, the Buddha tells his monks to seek out friends with seven qualities: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.” Notice there is no mention of being well-versed in the dharma, mastery of meditation, or possessing great wisdom. Friendship, the Buddha knew, is far more foundational, far more simple.
Finding these qualities in the world brings us naturally to practice, to a sense of presence and awareness. Similarly, in good friendships these qualities are at the forefront. For example, if you were to get a raise in your job, a good friend would share in your joy, while an ordinary friend might reactively leap to comparisons and judgments: “Why didn’t I ever get a raise? Maybe the company is going to fail,” etc. That admirable friend might also kindly impart the teachings of impermanence, “don’t get attached to that job or promotion” and non-self, “a lot of people helped you along they way, haven’t they?” But the tenor is such that you are brought to a deepened sense of calm, connection, and joy, free of clinging, free of worry.
Each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships. Pema Chödrön puts it well when she writes, “The support that we give each other as practitioners is not the usual kind of samsaric support in which we all join the same team and complain about someone else. It’s more that you’re on your own, completely alone, but it’s helpful to know that there are forty other people who are also going through this all by themselves. That’s very supportive and encouraging. Fundamentally, even though other people can give you support, you do it yourself, and that’s how you grow up in this process, rather than becoming more dependent.”
So let friendship be a central part of your practice. Meditate on the relationships in your life to see how they bring you toward or away from awareness, toward or away from skillful and unskillful mental states and activities. As you become more aware of the friendships in your life that are indeed admirable, these relationships will naturally grow and deepen, while ordinary friendships will either fall away — the Buddha is also quite clear that solitude is far preferable to being in the company of those disinterested in cultivating positive qualities — or these friendships will begin to change for the better. The process is what western philosophers would call a dialectic, from the meditation cushion to the world, and from the world to the meditation cushion, a process of interrelationship and building toward awakening.
I have also started what I call Wisdom Wednesday in which I post a short video from my YouTube page to tie into todays writing. You can view todays video on Friendship HERE.
Peace and Love, Jim