friendship

10+ Genuine Buddha quotes on friendship

Photo by dominiqueb on Flickr.

Recently I did a search on Google for “Buddha quotes on friendship,” and was shocked to find that the top result was a page where 100% of the quotes were fabricated. They are either quotes by other people that have been misattributed to the Buddha, or someone has sat down and composed a bunch of Hallmark-sounding quotes, and put them on a website, stamped onto images of the Buddha.

I’m not even going to link to the site in question, but here’s a sample of the BS they’re trying to pass off as being from the Buddhist scriptures:


(I’ve had to present these in the form of an image, because guess what text Google decided to display in the search results? Yes, the fake quotes!)

None of these, and none of the other five quotes on the site, is genuine. None of them is from the Buddha. They’re all fake.

Presumably this act of deception was done in order to make money through advertising, although I can’t rule out the possibility that the creator of the quotes also took malicious pleasure out of fooling people.

One of the most startling things about this is the failure of Google’s quality filters. They boast of bringing high quality information to internet users, and they largely do, but here they’re offering up complete garbage, ranking this site in first place. They rank it above a number of excellent articles on friendship in the Buddhist tradition (including one by by Norman Fisher and another, on this site, by Justin Whitaker) ,and also above Wikipedia’s article on kalyāṇa mittatā, which is the Pāli word for spiritual friendship.

With that introduction out of the way, here are some genuine quotes from the early Buddhist texts on friendship, with a little context thrown in.

1. “Good friends, companions, and associates are the whole of the spiritual life.”

This is from a passage in the Upaḍḍhasutta (SN 45.2) where the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, Ānanda, comes to him to express his realization of how important friendship (kalyāṇa mittatā) is in the spiritual life:

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans where there was a town of the Sakyans [the Buddha’s tribe] named Nagaraka [“Little Town”]. Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”

“Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu [monk] has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

Ānanda’s realization was important, but from the Buddha’s point of view it didn’t go far enough. The Buddha recognized that without the support of other people, we won’t make much spiritual progress. In fact, the support of others is indispensable.

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Sometimes people think that the Buddha got enlightened all on his own. In a sense he did, but you can’t take his moment of enlightenment out of the context of his entire life, where he no doubt received spiritual instruction at home, and then after his “going forth” he had two teachers, Āḷāra of the Kālāma tribe and Uddaka Rāmaputta (son of Rāma). After that, he had five companions with whom he practiced until shortly before his enlightenment. He may even have clarified his understanding of spiritual practice through the act of teaching. Any of us that teaches knows that the act of teaching helps us to become clearer about what we know.

2. “By relying upon me as a good friend … beings are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair.”

Later in the same conversation, the Buddha points out how he himself is a spiritual friend to the entire world.

By relying upon me as a good friend, Ānanda, beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to aging are freed from aging; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. By this method it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.

3. “A true friend is one who stands by you in need.”

Actually this one does sound a bit like something from a Hallmark card! It’s from a section in the Sigālovāda Sutta, where the Buddha summarizes, in poetic verse, some teachings he’s just given to a householder called Sigālaka, on how to avoid bad deeds and bad influences. The verse that contains this line says: “Some are just drinking buddies, some call you their dear, dear friend, but a true friend is one who stands by you in need.” Another translation renders this as “Some are drinking buddies, some say, ‘Dear friend! Dear friend!’ but whoever in hardship stands close by, that one truly is a friend.” A strong emphasis in this section of the discourse is avoiding friends who would be bad influences.

This not the only thing that the Buddha has to say to Sigālaka about the value of friendship. There’s a section on fake friends, and another on “good-hearted friends” (suhada-mitta).

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4.  “A friend gives what is hard to give, and does what’s hard to do. They put up with your harsh words, and with things hard to endure.”

There’s a lovely little teaching called the “Mitta Sutta” (the “Discourse on Friends”) where the Buddha tells a bunch of monks about seven qualities they should look for in a friend. The seven are:

  1. They give what is hard to give.
  2. They do what is hard to do.
  3. They endure what is hard to endure.
  4. They reveal their secrets to you.
  5. They keep your secrets.
  6. They don’t abandon you in times of trouble.
  7. They don’t look down on you in times of loss.

“The person in whom these things are found is your friend,” the Buddha says, as he sums up his teaching in a verse that includes the headline quote above.

As Justin Whitaker points out in another article on friendship we’ve published on this site, it’s notable that the Buddha doesn’t say that your friend should be wise, or a great meditator. This is good, basic stuff to do with integrity and mutual respect.

5. “Recognize these four good-hearted friends: the helper, the friend in good times and bad, the counselor, and the one who’s compassionate.”

The Buddha has warned Sigālaka how to recognize those who are only after your money or who want to lead you into drinking and gambling, but he also encourages the young man to appreciate good friends. He not only lists four types of good-hearted friend, but gives Sigālaka tips on how to recognize each type:

  • The Helper: “They guard you when you’re negligent. They guard your property when you’re negligent. They keep you safe in times of danger. When something needs doing, they supply you with twice the money you need.”
  • The Friend in Good Times and Bad: “They tell you secrets. They keep your secrets. They don’t abandon you in times of trouble. They’d even give their life for your welfare.”
  • The Counselor: “They keep you from doing bad. They support you in doing good. They teach you what you do not know. They explain the path to heaven.”
  • The Compassionate Friend: “They don’t delight in your misfortune. They delight in your good fortune. They keep others from criticizing you. They encourage praise of you.”

The Buddha rounds out this advice once again in poetic verse: “An astute person understands, these four friends for what they are and carefully looks after them, like a mother the child at her breast.”

6. “Emulating consummate conviction … consummate virtue … consummate generosity … and consummate discernment. This is called admirable friendship.”

Here the Buddha is giving advice to another householder, Dīghajāṇu the Koliyan, who has asked for some general advice on what would contribute to his and others’ “welfare and happiness in this life and in future lives.”

The Buddha offers advice under the four categories of ethical livelihood, protection, good friendship, and balanced finances. The condensed quote above obviously comes from the advice on admirable or good friendship (kalyāṇa mittatā).

In full, that advice reads as follows:

“And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.”

7. “One who has spiritual friends abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome.”

I’ve changed “bhikkhu” (monk) to “one” in this quote from the Itivuttika because although the Buddha was talking to monks when he made this statement, it’s obviously true for everyone. Anyone can benefit from having a spiritual friend (kalyāṇa mitta).

In the full passage I’ve quoted from, the Buddha says in fact that spiritual friendship is the most important external factor in a spiritual practitioner’s life:  “I do not perceive another single factor so helpful as spiritual friendship for a monk who is a learner, who has not attained perfection but lives aspiring for the supreme security from bondage.”

8. “You should train like this:  ‘I will have good friends, companions, and associates.’”

This is something that the Buddha said to his friend, King Pasenadi of Kosala, after the ruler had made a statement praising the importance of spiritual friends. The Buddha went on to say, “When you have spiritual friends [kalyāṇa mittas], spiritual companions, and spiritual associates, you live supported by one thing—diligence in skillful qualities.”

9. “As the dawn is the forerunner of the sunrise, so spiritual friendship is the forerunner of the arising of the factors of enlightenment.”

There are a number of discourses where the Buddha emphasizes the importance of spiritual friendship as a support for following the eightfold path. Here he switches things up and refers to another version of the path — the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. He also adds the nice simile of the dawn’s first light heralding the arrival of the sun.

The Buddha talked elsewhere about friendship being one of the factors that prevents a spiritual practitioner from slipping away from their practice: “One with good friends, easy to admonish, reverential and respectful, can’t decline, and has drawn near to nirvāṇa.”

10. “Regard one who sees your faults as a guide to a hidden treasure. Stay close to one so wise and astute who corrects you when you need it.”

This advice doesn’t mean you should hang out with negative, overcritical so-and-so’s. It assumes that the person is wise, and is able to point out faults in a spiritually beneficial manner. In fact the Buddha offered five considerations we should apply to ourselves is we consider offering criticism: “I will speak at the right time, not at the wrong time. I will speak truthfully, not falsely. I will speak gently, not harshly. I will speak beneficially, not harmfully. I will speak lovingly, not from secret hate.”

The quote in the heading is from the Dhammapada, where verses 76 to 78 are about the benefits of spiritual friendship, as contrasted with “low” friends who lead you astray.

  1. Regard one who sees your faults as a guide to a hidden treasure. Stay close to one so wise and astute who corrects you when you need it. Sticking close to such an impartial person, things get better, not worse.
  2. Advise and instruct; curb wickedness: for you shall be loved by the good, and disliked by the bad.
  3. Don’t mix with bad friends, nor with the worst of men. Mix with spiritual friends, and with the best of men.

11. “A spiritual practitioner with good friends, companions, and associates can expect to be wise.”

One of the main teachings about the value of friendship to be found in the scriptures recounts an incident where the Buddha’s attendant, Meghiya, abandons him to go off meditating in the shade of a lovely mango grove he’d spotted. (For obvious reasons Meghiya was not the Buddha’s attendant for long!)

In the quote above I’ve rendered “bhikkhu” as “spiritual practitioner” instead of monk, because the point the Buddha’s making isn’t valid only for males who have a certain ecclesiastical status, but to all of us.

Back to Meghiya: He apparently expects he’s going to have great meditations in his beautiful mango grove, but instead he’s assailed by distractions. When he comes back to the Buddha with his tail between his legs, the Buddha gives him an extensive teaching on the ways that friendship is a support in the spiritual life.

He says that monks “with good friends, companions, and associates” can expect:

  • To be ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken.
  • To take part in talk about self-effacement that helps open the heart, when they want, without trouble or difficulty. That is, talk about fewness of wishes, contentment, seclusion, aloofness, arousing energy, ethics, immersion, wisdom, freedom, and the knowledge and vision of freedom.
  • To have their energy roused up for giving up unskillful qualities and embracing skillful qualities.
  • To be wise. They have the wisdom of arising and passing away which is noble, penetrative, and leads to the complete ending of suffering.

When the heart’s release is not mature, these five things together (the four in the list, plus friendship itself) help it mature. In other words, friendship helps support us all the way to enlightenment.

Meghiya himself, in abandoning the Buddha, has not been a good friend. He’s also turned down an opportunity to be on the receiving end of the Buddha’s friendship and companionship. His ego got in the way of his friendships, and thus of his spiritual growth.

So there you have ten Buddha quotes from the scriptures on the topic of friendship.

If the author of the site I started off talking about had good friends in the sense that the Buddha used that term — people who exemplify ethical qualities and restrain us from doing bad things — then they wouldn’t be aiming to make money by lying to people.

And if you have a chance to hang out with genuine quotes from the Buddhist scriptures, maybe we shouldn’t be like Meghiya and head off for the flashier, feel-good, but fake versions.

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“We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role as a teacher I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

What I’ve just described is perhaps more common when we’re first starting to get to know and to work on ourselves, but even after decades of practice I’m still learning that there are things about myself I haven’t allowed myself to acknowledge. It’s only through being mirrored by others that I come to recognize some of my faults.

And those faults are the ones I find hardest to see, because I’ve spent longer learning how not to acknowledge them, and trying to hide them from others. For example, I have habits of dishonesty that I haven’t been very aware of. I can tend to rationalize and whitewash my actions, so that I do things for one (not very noble) reason and then, when called on this, claim that my motivations were much more noble than they actually were. Or I’ll say something, have it pointed out that I was incorrect, and then claim I meant something different from what I actually said. Sometimes I’ll speculate about something, and then try to convince others that I’m more certain in my knowledge than I actually am. Sometimes I’ll feel or think one thing (usually critical) but present another thing to others.

I wouldn’t be aware of those habits if it wasn’t for one friend who has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and in fact experiences acute distress when people around her are being inauthentic. As a result, she’s particularly demanding when it comes to dishonesty. In the past I’d probably have found her scary and made sure I avoided her. Actually, I do find her a little intimidating, but I really value how she’s pressuring me to be more honest and authentic. I’m finding that I like myself better when I live that way. So on the whole I really value our connection. It’s liberating to be called on my bullshit.

Looking back, I see a pattern in my life. I have to be with someone who’s kinder than I am in order to learn to see my own unkindness. I have to be with someone clearer than I am in order to see my own unclarity. I have to be with someone more honest than me in order to become more authentic and to see the ways in which I’m dishonest.

This is work that I could never have done on my own. We all need others as mirrors so that we can learn to see ourselves more accurately. It’s a scary process to have mirrored those aspects of ourselves that we least admire, but it’s necessary and rewarding work.

Just one other thing: often I hear perfectly lovely people express the belief that they’re actually horrible and unlovable individuals. Sometimes I have my good qualities reflected back to me and am surprised. De la Rochefoucauld was a cynic, and so less inclined to see that just as we forget our faults when they’re known only to ourselves, we also forget our virtues when they are known only to others. A true mirror reflects, impartially, both the good and the bad that is within us.

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Why I observed Ramadan as an aspiring Muslim/Buddhist Jew

GOOD: I recently spent two months living in Ibri, Oman, learning Arabic. I was there as part of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program run by the U.S. State department. Having just graduated from college, this seemed like the perfect reason to postpone the job search and flee the country. In doing so, I felt that I may be able to find answers to some of the questions that have evaded me up until now.

For those of you who have never heard of Ibri, let alone Oman, here’s a brief background. Oman is located in the Arabian Gulf, surrounded by the…

Read the original article »

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Who you hang out with can affect your mental health, for good or for bad

One of the things the Buddha stressed very strongly in his teachings was being careful who we choose to spend time with. This is because our values and our mental habits will tend to align themselves with the values and mental habits of others.

At his bluntest he said things like: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.” (Dhammapada 61).

He also praised association with friends who embody skillful qualities:

“I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decine as good friendship (kalyana mittata). For one with good friends, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen wholesome qualities decline.” (AN I, VIII, 1)

A new study with college roommates gives support to these beliefs by showing that a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression can actually “rub off” on others, increasing their symptoms of depression six months later.

The research, from psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Studies show that people who respond negatively to stressful life events, interpreting the events as the result of factors they can’t change and as a reflection of their own deficiency, are more vulnerable to depression. This “cognitive vulnerability” is such a potent risk factor for depression that it can be used to predict which individuals are likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they’ve never had a depressive episode before.

Individual differences in this cognitive vulnerability seem to solidify in early adolescence and remain stable throughout adulthood, but Haeffel and Hames predicted that it might still be malleable under certain circumstances.

The researchers hypothesized that cognitive vulnerability might be “contagious” during major life transitions, when our social environments are in flux. They tested their hypothesis using data from 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs, all of whom had just started college as freshmen.

Within one month of arriving on campus, the roommates completed an online questionnaire that included measures of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same measures again 3 months and 6 months later; they also completed a measure of stressful life events at the two time points.

The results revealed that freshmen who were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability; those assigned to roommates who had low initial levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced decreases in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the 3-month and 6-month assessments.

Most importantly, changes in cognitive vulnerability affected risk for future depressive symptoms: Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first 3 months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at 6 months than those who didn’t show such an increase.

The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers’ initial hypothesis.

Based on these findings, Haeffel and Hames suggest that the contagion effect might be harnessed to help treat symptoms of depression:

“Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual’s social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention,” they write. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”

According to the researchers, the results of this study indicate that it may be time to reconsider how we think about cognitive vulnerability.

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” say Haeffel and Hames. “This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”

Of course it would be terrible if this was taken to mean that people with depressive tendencies should be shunned. It would be far better if, as the researchers suggest, they “surround” themselves others with more resilient mental habits, and avoid others who are disposed to react badly to setbacks.

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Meditation is not enough

Meditation is a cool means of transformation, and essential as part of our practice, but the Buddha offered much, much more.

Last night at a Dharma study group that I meet with on Skype, we looked at the Meghiya Sutta. Meghiya was an attendant of the Buddha, and one time when the two of them were together, Meghiya asked if he could go off and meditate in a lovely looking mango grove that he’d spotted when he was off on his alms-round. Meghiya had thought that the mango grove would be the perfect place to meditate.

The Buddha asked him to wait, though, since he would be left alone. Presumably he wanted the company, or might need Meghiya for some practical reason, or perhaps he thought it would benefit Meghiya to stay with him.

But Meghiya was very insistent about going off to meditate. He kept asking and asking (parents are very familiar with this!) and the Buddha eventually said (and I imagine him with a wry smile on his face), “Well, Meghiya, what can I say when you talk of practising meditation? Do what you think it is time for.”

Meghiya’s obsessing with the mango grove as a perfect place to meditate sounds like a kind of spiritual materialism. It’s like when you or I might get really excited because we have a new meditation app on our smartphone, or a new meditation bench; surely now our meditation practice will really take off!

So Meghiya goes off and has a terrible meditation. He’s assaulted by craving and ill-will. This isn’t surprising. He’d been craving to go off to the mango grove to meditate, and he took his craving with him. Of course that’s wat he experienced in meditation! And he’d been anticipating having a great meditation, and when we have expectations like that and they aren’t fulfilled, we tend to get frustrated and angry.

So he goes back to the Buddha and expresses his puzzlement about what’s gone wrong.

In response, the Buddha outlines five things that lead to the heart’s release (enlightenment). These are:

  1. Spiritual friends, good associates, and the companionship of good people.
  2. Being virtuous, keeping to one’s vows, practising ethical behaviour, seeing danger even in small faults, training oneself in the precepts.
  3. Being surrounded by talk that is serious and opens up the heart, that conduces to detachment, to dispassion, to calm, to understanding, to insight, to nibbāna.
  4. Being firm and energetic in abandoning what is unskilful and acquiring what is skillful, and being stout and strong in effort, not laying aside the burden of pursuing what is skillful.
  5. Being endowed with the penetrating insight that sees all things rise and fall, and leads to the end of suffering.

The Buddha makes it clear that this is a progressive list, and that spiritual friendship is the foundation of all the rest. So there’s a teaching here for Meghiya. Meghiya had become obsessed with going off and having great meditation experiences, but he hadn’t been a friend to the Buddha. He hadn’t taken the Buddha’s needs into account, and instead had followed the path of self-centered craving. Also, he’d been with the man who was arguably the greatest spiritual genius the world has ever seen. And what does he want to do? Go off and meditate in a pretty spot in the countryside! Talk about skewed priorities! Think of the opportunities that he had for learning in the presence of the Buddha. Think of the opportunities he had to transcend his craving-based desires by staying, and being helpful, and practicing lovingkindness, taking another person’s needs into account as well as his own.

It may not be obvious at first sight, but the Buddha’s five-point response is based on the well-known eight-fold path. Meghiya has been fixated on meditation, which corresponds to Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, the 7th and 8th factors of the path.

The Buddha counters with “virtue” (Right Action and Right Livelihood), “talk that is serious and opens up the heart” (Right Speech), being energetic (Right Effort), and insight (Right View and Right Intention). It’s as if he’s saying — sure, meditation is important, but it’s not enough. You need the other six factors of the path as well.

And the key to successfully practicing all the factors of the path is, perhaps surprisingly, friendship, or kalyana mittata. Getting enlightened, as I’ve said before, is a team sport. We need other people to inspire us and to support us, and we also need them in order to transcend our own self-clinging — something Meghiya had forgotten, and which we’d do well to remember, especially with the rise of the various “mindfulness-based” approaches that treat the practice of meditation in isolation from the other factors of the path.


To get a little bit meta, I should point out that this realization that the Buddha was bringing to Meghiya’s attention the rest of the eightfold path besides the meditation that he was fixated upon would not have arisen if it wasn’t for the fact that I was discussing the text with friends. It’s very unlikely that I’d have stumbled upon this myself, and it was only a stray question from one of the other group members that let me in this direction. So yay for spiritual friendship and “serious talk that opens the heart.”

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How to appreciate and receive life’s gifts

Life gives to each one of us in so many ways.

For starters, there’s the bounty of the senses – including chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, sunsets, wind singing through pine trees, and just getting your back scratched.

What does life give you?

Consider the kindness of friends and family, made more tangible during a holiday season, but of course continuing throughout the year.

Or the giving of the people whose hard work is bound up in a single cup of coffee. Or all those people in days past who figured out how to make a stone ax – or a fire, edible grain, loom, vaccine, or computer. Or wrote plays and novels, made art or music. Developed mathematics and science, paths of psychological growth, and profound spiritual practices. A few people whose names you know, and tens of thousands – millions, really – whom you will never know: each day their contributions feed, clothe, transport, entertain, inspire, and heal us.

Consider the giving of the natural world, the sound of rain, sweep of sky and stars, and majesty of mountains. How does nature feed you?

How about your DNA? The moment of your conception presented you with the build-out instructions for becoming a human being, the hard-won fruits of 3.5 billion years of evolution.

You don’t earn these things. You can’t. They are just given.

The best you can do is to receive them. That helps fill your own cup, which is good for both you and others. It keeps the circle of giving going; when someone deflects or resists one of your own gifts, how inclined are you to give again? It draws you into deep sense of connection with life.

And if nothing else, it’s simply polite!

How can we learn to be receptive to life’s bounty?

  • Start with something a friend has recently given to you, such as a smile, an encouraging word, or simply some attention. Then open to feeling given to. Notice any reluctance here, such as thoughts of unworthiness, or a background fear of dependence, or the idea that if you receive then you will owe the other person something. Try to open past that reluctance to accepting what’s offered, to taking it in – and enjoy the pleasures of this. Let it sink in that receiving generosity is good.
  • Next pick something from nature. For example, open to the giving folded into an ordinary apple, including the cleverness and persistence it took, across hundreds of generations, to gradually breed something delicious from its sour and bitter wild precursors. See if you can taste their work in its rich sweetness. Open even more broadly to the nurturing benevolence in the whole web of life.
  • Then try something unliving, perhaps something with no apparent value, like a bit of sand. Yet in that single grain are echoes of the Big Bang – the gift that there is something at all rather than nothing. Who knows what deeper, perhaps transcendental gifts underlie the blazing bubbling emergence of our universe?
  • Take a breath, and enjoy receiving trillions of atoms of oxygen – most of them the gifts of an exploding star.
  • Consider some of the intangibles flowing toward you from others, including good will, fondness, respect, and love. See if you can drink deeply from the stream coming from one person; as you recognize something positive being offered to you, try to experience it in a felt way in your body and emotions. Then see if you can do the same with other people. If you can, include your parents and other family members, friends, and key acquaintances.
  • Try to stretch yourself further. Recall a recent interaction that was a mixed bag for you, some good in it but also some bad. Focus on whatever was accurate or useful in what the other person communicated, and try to receive that as a valuable offering. Open your mind to the good that is implicit or down deep in the other person, even if you don’t like the way it has come out.
  • Keep listening, touching, tasting, smelling, and looking for other overflowing generosity coming your way.

So many gifts.

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10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

happy buddha

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

[By the way, since this article was first published it’s been viewed more than 340,000 times!]

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous

“Make altruism and giving part of your life, and be purposeful about it,” Yes magazine says. “Researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that those who spend money on others reported much greater happiness than those who spend it on themselves.”

And in fact Buddhism has always emphasized the practice of dana, or giving. Giving hasn’t been seen purely as the exchange of material possessions, however; giving in Buddhist terms includes non-tangibles such as education, confidence, and wisdom.

“And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

2. Savor everyday moments

“Study participants who took time to savor ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”

This of course is an example of another fundamental Buddhist practice — mindfulness. When we’re mindful we stay in the present moment, and really pay attention to our experience. Walking meditation, and even eating, can be ways of savoring everyday moments. In being present, we dwell in the present without obsessing about the past or future, and this brings radiant happiness:

They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.
(Samyutta Nikaya)

3. Avoid comparisons

“While keeping up with the Joneses is part of American culture, comparing ourselves with others can be damaging to happiness and self-esteem. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, focusing on our own personal achievement leads to greater satisfaction.”

Buddhists are advised to avoid “conceit.” Now in the west we think of conceit as a sense of superiority, but in Buddhism conceit includes thinking you’re inferior to others, AND it includes thinking that you’re equal to others! What’s left? Just not thinking in terms of self and other at all. The ideal in Buddhism is a kind of “flow” state in which we un-selfconsciously respond to others without any conceptualization of there being a self or an other.

“Though possessing many a virtue one should not compare oneself with others by deeming oneself better or equal or inferior.” (Sutta Nipata 918)

4. Put money low on the list

“The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” [researcher Richard] Ryan says. “The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.” People who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Despite western preconceptions to the contrary, the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it! Money’s useful to the extent that it supports our physical needs, allows us to make others happy, and — most importantly — to the extent that we use it to support genuine spiritual practice. In Buddhist terms we validate our wealth creation by giving our money away to support what’s really important in life, which is the pursuit of wellbeing, truth, and goodness. The idea that materialism can bring us genuine happiness is what Buddhism calls a “false refuge.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. (Dhammapada 186)

Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

5. Have meaningful goals

According to Harvard’s resident happiness professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

The Buddha’s last words were “strive diligently.” The whole point of being a Buddhist is in order to attain spiritual awakening — which means to maximize our compassion and mindfulness. What could be more meaningful than that?

“He gains enthusiasm for the goal, gains enthusiasm for the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

6. Take initiative at work

“How happy you are at work depends in part on how much initiative you take. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements, or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”

The Buddhist teaching on work is called the practice of Right Livelihood. And the Buddha saw work as being a way to show initiative and intelligence:

“By whatsoever activity a clansman make his living … he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind in to ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
… [these are factors] leading to welfare & happiness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

7. Make friends, treasure family

“We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones,” says Yes magazine.

To the Buddha, spiritual friendship was “the whole of the spiritual life.” And even though people tend to think about monks and nuns leaving home, for those who embraced the household life, close and loving relationships with others was highly recommended. “Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of events” are the things that hold a family together, according to the Buddha.

Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering. (Dhammapada 376)

Support for one’s parents,
assistance to one’s wife and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest protection [from suffering].
(Mangala Sutta)

8. Look on the bright side

“Happy people … see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say [researchers Ed] Diener and [Robert] Biswas-Diener.

Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to have a false sense of positivity, but neither are these researchers. They’re suggesting that we find the good in any situation we find ourselves in. Buddhism encourages positivity through practices such as affectionate and helpful speech, where we consciously look for the good in ourselves and others.

The strongest expression of this is where we’re told to maintain compassionate thoughts even toward those who are sadistically cruel toward us:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

9. Say thank you like you mean it

“People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons.”

The Buddha said that gratitude, among other qualities, was the “highest protection,” meaning that it protects us against unhappiness. And:

“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people.”(Anguttara Nikaya)

To one ever eager to revere and serve the elders, these four blessing accrue: long life and beauty, happiness and power.(Dhammapada 109)

Gratitude in Buddhism helps us to align our being with the good (kusala) so that we’re more likely to live in a way that leads to happiness and wellbeing.

10. Get out and exercise

“A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense.”

And the Buddha said — well, I don’t think he said much about exercise! In a culture like the Buddha’s where most people worked manually, and where walking was the main form of transportation, there wasn’t much need to emphasize exercise as a thing in itself. It’s only in sedentary cultures like ours that people have to make a special trip to the gym to exercise — although they usually park as close to the entrance as possible to minimize the amount of exercise they have to do in order to get to the exercise machines! But walking meditation was, and is, a key practice in Buddhism, even though it’s sometimes done very slowly. However the Buddhist scriptures commonly mention that such-and-such a person was “walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise,” suggesting that monks, with their own form of semi-sedentary lifestyle, needed to set aside special time to get their bodies moving.

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. (Anguttara Nikaya)

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A path to live life to the fullest

In Buddhism there are four reminders, things we should consider to make the most of our lives and to prepare us for death.

The four reminders are:

  • our lives are precious
  • we are not immortal
  • our actions have consequences and
  • we can learn to transcend pain.

These reminders can make a difference in how we live our lives, if we keep them in mind and reflect on them each day.

1. The preciousness of life – our lives are precious and our physical and mental health, energy, freedom, food, and money give us opportunities to make the most of each and every day. So each day, we might ask ourselves, “Am I making the most of my life?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “Am I aware of my thoughts, speech and actions?” “Do I react by habit or respond creatively to situations and people?” “Am I working at a job that is ethical and helpful to people?” “Am I spending as much time with my family as I want to?” “Am I spending as much time with my friends as I want to?” “Do I take time for leisure activities?” “Am I getting enough rest and sleep?” There may be other questions you would add to this list.

2. We are not immortal, although, in our culture we do not think about death until a loved one is very ill or we hear of someone dear to us who is dying. One thing is for certain — we will all die. We cannot avoid death. We all age, day by day we get older. We may think we are immune, but we are not. And there are other causes of death: illness, accidents, natural disasters and violence. We may die after an illness or we may die suddenly without being able to say good-bye to friends and family. Facing death takes courage and a clear conscience. We become more alive when we contemplate death.

3. Actions have consequences. We are the sum of many influences: family, religion, culture, education, relationships, friendships, diet, exercise and more. We are also the sum total of all the many choices and decisions we have made; our actions and our emotional lives. There may be some things we cannot change and we must accept that we cannot change them. We can, however, change the way we think (rather than letting the mind think in a random, unrestrained way). We can become more positive and loving by practicing meditation and yoga. When our actions are honest; when our speech is kind, helpful and harmonious; when we are positive, generous, loving and wise — all this will affect how we feel. We can commit to acting in a way that is beneficial to ourselves, to those around us, and to the world.

4. Learning to transcend pain and suffering.  Each day there is stress and striving. We are always searching for something: a faster, newer car; an updated computer; the latest technological toy; something different in our marriage; a new relationship; more fashionable clothing; a different job; an understanding boss; people to act differently; a bigger house; or greener grass. The list is endless — take a few moments and consider what you strive for, what you would like to be different or new in your life. Along with striving and stress — there is illness, injury, depression, fear, mental anguish — all of which contribute to feeling that we do not have enough, we are intrinsically not enough, we wish things/people/situations were different. Our bodies continue to grow older, our thoughts never end and keep us awake at night and distracted during the day. This is life, what the Buddha called samsara. We search for happiness and fulfillment in what we do not have, rather than finding contentment and joy in what we do have.

This dissatisfaction often brings us to question the meaning of life, or to a spiritual quest. We often need a wake up call to be jolted out of our complacency. We need to wake up to the truth – that we will not live forever, our actions have consequences for ourselves, others and the world, we can find happiness and joy, and we need to be aware enough to make the most of this precious life.

There are different ways of reflecting on these four reminders: meditation, silent reflection, writing and discussions with others.

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Meditation on happiness

Happiness – we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Self-help books on happiness line the shelves of book shops and libraries and there are all kinds of theories about happiness.

Over the years what I thought about and desired as a means to gaining happiness have changed as I have… matured (I like the word matured better than aged). Here is my list, organized by decades.

From ages:

0-10 I wanted to be cared for, safe, nourished and nurtured to be happy (although I could not articulate all this at the time).

11-20 I wanted friendships, fun, freedom, popularity, a car and someone interesting and sexy to date.

21-30 I wanted a college education, to go to lots of parties, a satisfying career, a marriage partner, pregnancy and healthy children, and a nice house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

31-40 I wanted to further my career as a Social Worker and Educational Consultant, a happy marriage, and healthy, independent kids.

41-50 I wanted to understand what spirituality meant, to know the meaning of life, to go beyond my self and live in an altruistic manner.

51-60 I want freedom, health, prosperity, deep friendships and to simplify my life more and more.

Throughout these decades there have been some things that did not change from decade to decade, including:

  • health, love and happiness for myself, my family members, friends and all people
  • stimulating work that helps people
  • a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home
  • good friends, a happy marriage and independent children
  • peace in the world
  • that everyone have food to eat

For the past ten years, my quest for happiness has focused on things that, at younger ages, I would not have thought important, including:

  • a spiritual practice and community
  • deep friendships based on caring, trust and mutual generosity
  • a life simplified by having less – fewer material things, a small living space
  • simple pleasures – watching otters and ducks on the pond by my cottage, watching the seasons change, spending time in natural settings, cooking for friends, phone calls and visits from my kids
  • peace, tranquility, compassion, and acceptance of myself, my children, my friends and acquaintances
  • acceptance for all that is
  • living mindfully, ethically and compassionately

I realize happiness comes from what I value most, what brings me pleasure, challenge, contentment and peace.

Whatever is on your list of things or values that bring you happiness, I hope you revel in them.

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The art of ditching old friends, and of finding new ones

What do you do when you find you’ve changed — but your friends haven’t? Bodhipaksa recounts how he found himself growing apart from one set of friends, and closer to a new set who were more supportive of his spiritual quest.

I was at university when I started practicing Buddhism. I was surrounded by fellow students who were like me. We thought the height of happiness was to party, to drink, to trade insults, and to find someone to have sex with. I was at vet school, and most of us thought that meat-eating was natural and right, and that animals existed in order to be devoured. When I took up meditation I found myself changing. Over time I started to find myself more at home with the people who hung out at my local Buddhist center — people who were vegetarian, interested in philosophy and meaningful conversations, and people who valued tranquility as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness.

I started to find many (although not all) of the people that I used to hang out with at college to be rather negative and shallow. Their conversations often didn’t interest me. Since I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice, I was rather judgmental, and socially inept to boot. I experienced a lot of ill will towards people because they weren’t spiritual enough, which is rather richly ironic. This caused me a lot of pain, and probably didn’t make others happy either.

   Thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’ while others aren’t is an ego trip.

But I was relatively lucky in that I made new friends in the Buddhist community, and had a gradual switch over from one set of friends to another. I experienced tensions between the two communities I was involved in, but at least I wasn’t isolated. A lot of people find themselves in a similar situation as they begin to practice. They start to find their work colleagues gossipy and trivial. They can find that family members resent the fact that they’re changing. How do we deal with this?

I think you have some valuable spiritual opportunities when we’re in this kind of situation. One opportunity is to practice patience with your old friends. It’s good to remember that at one time you did fit in with them, and at that time presumably you had much the same conversational style and interests as they still have. Thinking that we’re “spiritual” while others aren’t is an ego trip.

Another opportunity we have is to learn to be more skilled in communication. This can have a big effect on people. I had a friend in Scotland of whom I can honestly say that I never heard him criticizing anyone at any time. In fact if he heard me being critical then he would almost always present another point of view about the person or thing I was criticizing, which shifted the perspective and really brought me up short. And he did this in a very friendly way that gave me no cause for reactivity. He never pointed out, for example, that I was being critical — he just quietly came in with a more considered point of view. I’d suddenly realize that I had been unkind and one-sided in my speech.

   We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others.

And there’s an art as well in steering people into deeper levels of conversation. You can bring the topic back into focus when people are wandering off into other areas. You can ask questions to go deeper (basically being a good, active listener). You can challenge in a friendly way. If you’re challenging how the group as a whole communicates, then it’s far better to talk in terms of how “we” communicate rather than how “you” communicate. You can share something deeper from your own experience (although you have to be careful about this since it’s not helpful to offer up your soul to be trampled on). You have the opportunity to be, in short, a leader — the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

We can also practice “rejoicing in merits,” or “giving positive feedback”, as it’s more commonly known. We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others. When we’ve decided that other people are “unspiritual” we can find ourselves focusing on what we consider to be their faults, and filtering out anything positive that they do. Our perceptions of others can be very selective. People are “stubborn” when they stick with a point of view we don’t agree with; they’re “committed” when they stick with a point of view we find favor with. People are “fickle” if they change their minds and disagree with us; they’re flexible when they change their minds and support our opinions. We need to learn to see the positive in others, and also to support its development. Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

   Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

If, as sometimes happens, we find ourselves stuck with “old” friends but haven’t found a new community to practice with, we have an opportunity to seek out people who are more like-minded. We may have to take the initiative and to be more out-going, rather than hoping people will magically find us. If we make the first move, the magic may well happen. I had a lovely experience some years ago when I was speaking at a conference in Missoula. At lunch time someone sat beside me (because I looked friendly, he said). It turned out that he, like me, had recently moved to Missoula, he had lived in Scotland (my homeland), had an interest in the relationship between Buddhism and business (my master’s degree topic), and had like me run a retreat center. It was rather eerie, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. But I had to make the decision to go to the conference, and be open to meeting new people.

But there may be some of the people that you currently hang out with that you don’t want to maintain contacts with. That would be a very sensible thing to do. The Buddha was forever warning people to hang out with friends who would actually support and encourage what is best in you rather than undermine it. If people have a very negative effect on you, despite your best efforts, those are relationships you may want to put behind you. At the same time there’s no point in isolating yourself. You need to find a balance.

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