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The art of friendship

Two monks walkingSpiritual friendship comes highly praised in Buddhist practice. But why are spiritual friends considered to be so crucial? What are the qualities of a spiritual friend? And do we have to leave our existing friends behind? Guest blogger Justin Whitaker investigates.

“But 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…”

Sed quoniam res humanae fragiles caducaeque sunt, semper aliqui anquirendi sunt quos diligamus et a quibus diligamur; caritate enim benevolentiaque sublata omnis est e vita sublata iucunditas.

Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia

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.”

 Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? 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.  

So despite the common image of the Buddhist as the ultimate solitary wanderer, we see from this and several other verses throughout Buddhism the central importance of admirable friendship. Here I would like to discuss two sides of admirable friendship. The first is finding and cultivating admirable friendships, as opposed to our ordinary, everyday friends. The second side is in how we, as friends, may best support one another on the 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.

I once sat before a great teacher and asked him, “why then do we feel extraordinary synchronicity around certain people [supposedly our spiritual friends] and then not with others?” “Delusion!” he exclaimed. Once we get the idea that so-and-so is a spiritual person and so-and-so is not, we are on the wrong path. Seek out the simpler qualities in others such as their service, kindness, discretion, fortitude, and generosity. In some esoteric Buddhist texts it is said that the Buddha may appear to us as a stone, as a dog, as a beggar, and so on, so that we should always be alert to the teachings that may come from such “ordinary” beings and objects. Similarly, admirable friendships may arise from a wide variety of situations. Meditating on Dōgen’s verses on the mountains and rivers of Eastern China, one can feel the sense of genuine friendship that this great master developed with the land.

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.”

Through this it appears that Buddhist views of friendship comprise a form of Virtue Ethics. The central theme is one’s personal development, the cultivation of skillful qualities and the abandoning of unskillful ones. But it is not forgotten that each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships. If our friendships are not in alignment with our practice, that practice will be ever more difficult to sustain. Quite often I have seen others and myself forgetting this, diving head-first into meditation and philosophical studies, only to see our practice crumble in the midst of unhealthy relationships.

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.


Justin WhitakerJustin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions including the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, Montana and Bristol, England. He currently lives in Missoula, where he works for the Center for Ethics, leads the University sangha, and meditates regularly on Missoula’s mountains and rivers. His personal blog is americanbuddhist.blogspot.com.

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Comment from Steve Bell
Time: June 28, 2008, 7:22 am

Thank you for an essay on such an interesting topic!

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Comment from Traci
Time: August 24, 2008, 6:27 pm

Excellent article – and I love the photo of the 2 monks walking together.

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Comment from Mary Plant
Time: August 28, 2008, 6:17 am

thank you

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Pingback from 20 de Julho – Dia do Amigo | zafu.blog.br
Time: July 17, 2009, 7:43 pm

[...] ~Justin Whitaker, The Art of Friendship [...]

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Comment from Sumi
Time: August 25, 2011, 10:59 am

Oh, this is a really lovely essay/talk and just what I need to read to prepare for a talk to Duke students. Thank you! Very wise, very lovely. I remember taking a course from Charles Hallisey on Buddhist Ethics in which he made us students find all the passages in U Pandita’s ITVL on friendship, and then read a book by a female philosopher — can’t remember her name — in friendship.

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Comment from gary arkinstall
Time: September 30, 2011, 12:12 am

It is nice to hear someone talk.

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Comment from Chris Newtom
Time: October 16, 2011, 5:41 am

Thank you this is wonderful am experiencing problems in my practic and this has encouraged me Chris

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Comment from Lila
Time: February 2, 2012, 6:46 am

Thank you! A very nice article.

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Comment from paula
Time: May 15, 2013, 6:20 pm

I am in pain from a friend in the process of her own awakening.
She has eliminated me from her life because I am not on the same
spiritual plane as she. I am trying so hard to understand that.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 16, 2013, 11:54 am

Well, I don’t know either of you! Sometimes a friend is toxic and we need to cut off communication. Sometimes people have spurious “awakenings” and behave like jerks to their friends. I’m not in a position to know what’s going on, but I wish both you and your former friend well.

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Comment from Graham Ross
Time: November 5, 2013, 9:21 pm

Many thanks for this wonderful post – it has helped me considerably.

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Pingback from On friendship. | Temple Retreat, Thailand
Time: November 5, 2013, 11:44 pm

[…] And so I ask you to recognise that friendship should be seen as central part of our practice and follow Justin Whitaker’s advice. […]

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