spiritual 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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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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In a little park in Ghent

Yesterday i was sitting in a little park in Ghent together with a friend talking about….friendship. The sun was shining gently and cosy on us as if she was warming our love for beauty and truth. And i remembered Narziss and Goldmund, the novel of Herman Hesse, about the remarkable story of two friends.

A few weeks ago i left my job to work for the Buddhist Centre in Ghent and so i had to say goodbye to my colleagues some of whom i have known for years. I definitely wanted to leave my job yes but i didn’t want some of my colleagues to dissapear. I wanted to hold them, to grasp them, i wanted them near me, to stay near me, i wanted our experiences with one another to last. I realised that a good part of my life is over. So i looked for all kinds of reasons to justify that things could go on just like they used to do, as if i would still be working there. What a difference with Narziss and Goldmund!

These two people are friends and they don’t even see each other that much. Most of the time they are living separately but they are in each others’ minds nearly all the time, as a guide, as a mentor. And if they do see each other they don’t waste time. They ask questions to one another, penetrating questions to help the other live his qualities. To help the other unfold the fullest possible potential as a human being. And all that space…they don’t limit each other, they give one another space to breath, to grow, to explore…And there was i manipulating reality, colleagues and myself because i find saying goodbye and things changing uncomfortable, even painful.

Narziss and Goldmund rejoice in each other as well. Rejoicing too is connected with the flowing nature of reality. And their rejoicing in each other is fluent, spontaneous. Sometimes i rejoice in friends as well and sometimes i almost immediately think, in a secretly way, i can do that too and probably even better. But other times when i really succeed in rejoicing wholeheartedly and sincerely, wow, what an energy is flowing then, what a fountain of joy and happinness, what a flow of reality itself.

Narziss and Goldmund showed me that friendship is about letting things flow, about relaxing in reality, about pointing out to each other the qualities one has in order to unfold these and realise a more creative life in accordance with reality.

And i had tried for days on end to deny all this, to capture others in my nets, to limit myself and them to an illusion of holding, not letting go…but now Narziss and Goldmund are my friends.

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“The Yogi’s Joy,” by Sangharakshita

"The Yogi's Joy," by SangharakshitaHow would you feel if your teacher burned your book collection? A new book by Sangharakshita highlights a challenging friendship between a Tibetan guru and his disciple.

A good dharma book is humbling. It is like a spiritual friend who isn’t afraid of cutting through our defenses in the service of positive change. Sangharakshita’s new book, exploring three songs of Milarepa, challenged me in this way. The material is compiled from edited transcripts of seminars Sangharakshita gave to members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) in the late 70’s, about Milarepa, his songs and the spiritual life. The songs chosen are about spiritual friendship and its challenges. We get to see Milarepa beginning a relationship with one of his close disciples, Rechungpa. We get to watch as they get in tune with each other.

Title: The Yogi’s Joy: Songs of Milarepa
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 1-899-57966-4
Available from: Windhorse Publications (UK), and Amazon.com.

Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived 1052–1135 C.E. in medieval Tibet. The basic outline of Milarepa’s life is that he was cheated out of land by some relatives. He used black magic to create a storm that killed the thieves, and then, fearing that he would have a bad rebirth, he turned to the spiritual life in order to save himself. He went to Marpa for teachings. Marpa made him build, tear down and rebuild a tower, as a way to cleanse his karma. (You can go see the last tower Milarepa built, it still exists, the tower is situated in Lhodrak district, north of the Bhutanese border.) When Milarepa was ready and his karma was cleansed, Marpa told him to go and meditate in caves.

 Legend has it that in Milarepa’s last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate.  

Milarepa is famous for his rigorous practice and his asceticism. He is said to have turned green from eating nettles, which formed the main component of his diet. One day the wind was so fierce that Milarepa passed out, and when he awakened his robe was gone. He liked to flout convention, and there are many stories of him being naked, or showing his body. Legend has it that in his last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate. There is a spiritual intensity here that’s not for dilettantes. This is more of a spirituality of confrontation than of comfort, and Milarepa’s spiritual intensity and commitment, while it can seem inspiring, can also seem extreme and frightening.

The songs in The Yogi’s Joy are taken from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, which is the written records of Milarepa’s songs: the spiritual poems that he would sing as a way of teaching people the Dharma. Apparently it’s not too hard to improvise songs in the Tibetan language because of its structure. Ordinary folk would often sing as they worked, and Sangharakshita met many Tibetans in Kalimpong in the 1950’s who would improvise songs. The Yogi’s Joy is good at setting the historical stage, and at translating Milarepa’s teachings into a modern context.

 We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.  

Milarepa’s relationship with his discipline Rechungpa is at the heart of this book. Rechungpa went off to India to get some teaching, and comes back haughty and puffed up. He no longer wants to hang out with his guru Milarepa in caves, and instead wants to find some sponsors to give him a good meal and lodging. But Milarepa gets Rechungpa to go out for water, and while he’s away on this errand, Milarepa burns his books. This would have been a challenging moment in a spiritual friendship, I imagine. There’s something emotionally challenging in being receptive to another person, because of the level of trust and vulnerability involved. It’s not easy to be open to a true spiritual friend.

As well as being a story about the friendship between Milarepa and Rechungpa, The Yogi’s Joy is the meeting between Milarepa and Sangharakshita — two people of great spiritual depth. Sangharakshita was born in England in 1925 and spent almost 20 years in the east practicing Buddhism. In 1967, in England, he founded a Buddhist order — the Triratna Buddhist Order — which has spread around the world. Sangharakshita says, “If any westerner practices even a hundredth part of what they have read, they are probably doing pretty well.” You could say this about reading Sangharakshita’s book. He has many intense spiritual teachings, which it would be easy to just keep reading past as we move on to the next one. But to connect with spiritual teachings, to let them percolate into the deepest part of us, requires lingering reflecting, and — most importantly — putting the teachings into practice in one’s life.

Sangharakshita goes so far as to suggest that the many Dharma books we read, often quickly and superficially, hinder our spiritual progress. My spiritual friends read very slowly while I have gobbled Dharma books over the past seven years, and I even read this book quickly when it first came out. Rereading it has been a sobering lesson on how little sticks when you rush. In another way it heartens me because there’s so much depth, I can return and return to the book and still find things I’ve not understood or forgotten. We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.

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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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“Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With” by Gaylon Ferguson

Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon FergusonA new book by Gaylon Ferguson argues that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the materialism that has us all in its grip, and that meditation and spiritual community are the antidotes. Pam Dodd is our guest reviewer.

Gaylon Ferguson, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, has studied and taught meditation for over 30 years. During that time, he has probably met all kinds of people from all walks of life who have actively pursued, or fallen onto, the spiritual path. Ferguson believes that the normal human condition is natural or basic wakefulness. Wakefulness is the fundamental goodness of who we really are, independent of our circumstances, that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be actualized.

Unfortunately most of us have learned from infancy to be distracted by thoughts and feelings that keep us reacting to life automatically, like robots. We get stuck in the past. We fantasize and daydream. We think incessantly, allowing our monkey mind to jump wherever it pleases. Ferguson calls these habitual patterns reruns. We blindly move through our lives, in prisons of our own making, and we don’t even know it. Looking outside ourselves for our inner well-being, we live with a restlessness that never goes away.

Title: Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With
Author: Gaylon Ferguson
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-657-4
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

The way to wake up from this “sleepwalking” state is not by trying to force or fix ourselves but by gently befriending ourselves in the practice of lovingkindness that is meditation.

Meditation is a commitment to being here now, no matter what. It’s accepting ourselves exactly where we are, working with what’s available in us, and bringing ourselves back to the present again and again whenever we our minds wander. Ferguson maintains that “sitting quietly in meditation is the best research lab to observe the mind’s behavior when it isn’t being interrupted” (p.98).

Meditation is nothing special. Yet if practiced consistently and regularly, it wakes us up to the basic goodness of our lives, not while we’re squirreled away in some far off, quiet sanctuary, but in the midst of living out the ups and downs of each ordinary, busy day.

Ferguson goes to great lengths to provide useful insights and instructions to the practitioner (for the reader of this book must be an active practitioner if the lessons are truly to be learned). It’s clear he knows the ins and outs of meditation.

 Practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change

After the initial chapters on wakefulness and natural training, the middle chapters cover guided exercises, reflections, stories, and student questions on the most important aspects of meditation practice. Central to the book’s approach is the idea of “bare noticing.” This is not “thinking about,” reflection, deliberation, or theorizing, but rather the application of one’s unadorned attention to what currently is. Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.

The book’s meditation lessons start with guided training on mindfulness of the physical body and breathing and move on to mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of feelings.

Along the way we learn how important it is not to be too tight or too loose; how to touch the texture of our emotions; how to lean in to unacceptable thoughts and feelings without being hooked by them; and how respectfully to watch the inner critic or voice of judgment that continuously comments on and criticizes what we think, say, and do.

The last two chapters discuss two central contexts for awakening, the nightmare of materialism and the spirit of community.

Ferguson maintains that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the world of materialism that has us all in its grips. He traces the roots of our constant sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and feeling like something is missing to our neurotic pursuits and thinking. We “fake it,” putting on masks to compensate for what we think we lack. We constantly chase after physical comfort, security, and pleasure. We rely on belief systems and concepts to filter our perceptions. We become addicted to altered or higher states of consciousness through drugs, prayer, yoga, and even meditation.

One antidote to materialism is genuine community. Communities of sanity, generosity, and celebration help us learn how to overcome a sense of scarcity and fear. In community, we work productively with our attention, care, and concern as we learn how to be present with others’ strong feelings without running away or trying to fix things. We nurture the compassionate heart, strengthening our wishes for the well-being of others. We learn to be skillful, waking up into trust and living courageously with others. In this larger sense, “practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change” (p. 170).

 Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.  

The hopeful message of Natural Wakefulness is much needed in today’s stressful times. Unfortunately, the book’s structure gets in the way of a full appreciation of its wisdom and lessons.

First, the wording of the chapter titles is too abstract. The clearer descriptive subtitles would have made better titles. Also subheadings throughout the book are uneven; some make sense while others are too vague.

This lack of clarity carries over to the numbering of the guided contemplations and exercises, which doesn’t follow a consistent style from chapter to chapter. Also, the exercises would have stood out more if each had been put in boxes or otherwise highlighted so the practitioner could return to them easily. The same goes for the valuable question-and-answer exchanges; their inconsistent formatting is distracting, making it difficult to follow the insights meant to support the main instruction.

Other issues include the lack of a bibliography, a few muddled metaphors and analogies, and several abrupt or incomplete transitions that leave the reader hanging.

Last, teaching meditation necessarily involves using abstract language. While much of this language may be familiar to the seasoned meditation practitioner, it can be difficult for the neophyte. Add the burden of structural issues like this book has, and despite the great content, it will be a challenge for some to read.


Pam Dodd, PhDPamela Dodd has practiced Korean Zen Buddhism since the mid-1990s. She’s always returning to beginner’s mind as her love of learning takes her into new fields of knowledge.

Pam has a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. She’s the co-author of The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques, an Amazon bestseller.


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“Razor-Wire Dharma” by Calvin Malone

Razor-Wire Dharma, by Calvin MaloneFor some inmates imprisonment offers an opportunity to reflect on the causes and conditions that have shaped their lives, and a powerful incentive to bring about personal change. Calvin Malone’s first book, Razor Wire Dharma, elegantly and powerfully outlines the challenges and rewards of practicing behind bars.

Calvin Malone began practicing meditation and Buddhism soon after he entered prison — about twenty years ago. In “Razor Wire Dharma,” he gives an account of time served, of fellow prisoners, and of his attempts to practice the Buddha’s teaching in this most challenging of environments.

And challenges Calvin Malone has encountered in plenty. In a series of short and very readable chapters, he describes the difficulties inherent in prison life and, as a Buddhist, the patience, tolerance and sympathy such a life demands of him.

Title: Razor-Wire Dharma
Author: Calvin Malone
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 0-86171-563-2
Available from: Wisdom Publications or Amazon.com.

The regimented, and sometimes baffling, routine of life behind the wire is conveyed with insight, compassion and humour. But he never underestimates the suffering of prison existence. Nor the extent to which that suffering impinges on his Buddhist practice. He tells us, for example, that a significantly large percentage of the prison population is made up of the mentally ill, the addicted and the psychologically damaged. Given this fact, his Buddhist practice of loving kindness is challenged, on a moment to moment basis, by an “endless onslaught of hatred, indifference and anguish.” But the power of Razor-Wire Dharma consists in Malone’s ability to demonstrate that a good and ethical life can flower in such extremely difficult circumstances. Perhaps even because of the extremity of the circumstances.

Malone’s observations are always interesting and perceptive, conveyed in a deceptively simple style which often nails an aspect of prison life with precision and clarity. As in this passage, where he’s writing about the constant flow of arrivals and departures amongst the prison population:

This constant upheaval forces one to be alert to potential danger, scams, or the unexpected. If you take a risk and attempt to connect with a human being, that relationship is under constant scrutiny by those too bored to find something more productive to do. The fluidity of any prison population makes for short-lived associations. The only constant is the ticking of the clock.

Despite this, Malone manages to make some strong friendships in prison. His associations and friendships with his fellow prisoners and cellmates are described in a winning, often humorous, but always kindly way. Calvin Malone obviously values friendship and his genuine compassion and concern for others very much shines through. For me, the descriptions of the people he meets in prison are the most engaging parts of the book. Malone manages to describe their individual personalities and eccentricities very well and he sees the good in even the most difficult inmate who can, if nothing else, provide him with an incentive to practice meditation harder!

 Malone demonstrates that a good and ethical life can flower in extremely difficult circumstances  

So we meet Munny, who escaped from Cambodia with his family, but who found life in America confusing and unsettling; Hacksaw, of the hacking cough and clumsy manners; Shawn, who has a horrific history of physical and psychological abuse; Derick, who has lived a life on the streets…

Some of these stories don’t end happily. Malone doesn’t sentimentalize and it’s fitting that he doesn’t just include the stories where meditation or Buddhist practice has a positive or transformative effect. But there are plenty of “transformative” stories too and they are conveyed very movingly. Particularly poignant are those episodes in which Malone, through his Buddhist practice, manages to facilitate some breakthrough in communication with another inmate, testifying both to the power of the Buddha’s teaching and Calvin Malone’s exemplification of it.

Occasionally I longed to hear the prisoners own voices a bit more. When we do hear those voices, it’s delightful. For example, we are given a description of the aggressive (and rather scary) character of “Bulldog,” who Malone invites to his little Christmas party and who, like the elephant, doesn’t forget. When Bulldog meets Malone in another prison, he gives him a crushing hug and tells Malone he now knows what “Booty-hists” (Buddhists) are…

“Oh?” I yelled. “What are we?”

“Santa Clauses without the suit,” he shouted, then laughed and walked out of my life.

Such snatches of dialogue add to the already authentic descriptions of the characters, but they are fairly rare. Usually Malone just reports conversations, which means such exchanges can lack vitality. He misses a chance to make his colorful descriptions of character even more colorful.

Razor-Wire Dharma will be an inspirational book for any prisoners who are trying to meditate or practice Buddhism. Indeed Calvin Malone’s approachable style could make the book accessible for anyone attempting to lead a lifestyle in prison which goes beyond mere self concern and survival.

It is also relevant for those on the other side of the wire. As the editor says in the preface, “Whether we are in prison or not, there is not much difference between us; it is more a matter of difference in degree than kind.” In this respect, “Razor-Wire Dharma” serves as more than just sensation value for those to whom prison may be a foreign experience. The extreme nature of Malone’s situation highlights what meditation and Buddhist practice is there for. For beginners to meditation and Buddhism, Calvin Malone provides practical advice and illuminating insights. For those of us who have been practicing for longer, the account of his experiences may provoke us to reflect on our Buddhist practice. To what extent is it really challenged? How would we respond to some of the situations described in the book?

Calvin Malone is a writer of integrity and insight and I sincerely hope that “Razor-Wire Dharma” attracts a wide readership in prisons – and beyond. It deserves it.


Sarvananda / Alastair JessimanSarvananda was born in Scotland and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He lives in Norwich, England.

Under the name Alastair Jessiman he is a noted writer of plays for radio, who has had many of his works produced by the BBC. His most recent production is Boxer and Doberman, a comedy police drama, which was described by the Telegraph as “funny in a wonderfully macabre way.” Sarvananda has taught meditation and Buddhism in prison.

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Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)I sometimes think that my life has proceeded by way of a series of breakdowns and reconstructions. Such episodes haven’t exactly been frequent in my life, but they have represented important turning points. There have been three times I can recall where I’ve hit emotional bottom, learned something important about myself, and found a release that led to significant growth taking place.

In each case there had been a long period of holding on to some pattern that had been causing me pain (usually unacknowledged). I’d been a tightly-closed bud. This was followed by a catalyzing event (in each case it involved being on retreat) in which I became fully aware of the pain I’d been causing myself. The pain of remaining closed became too much. Then there was a grand finale of emotional release and a spiritual awakening into greater wholeness and well-being. The bud opened, albeit painfully. Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)’s quotation* — “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” — seems to perfectly encapsulate that process.

  …to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs.  

I realized how important friendship was to me a few years after taking up Buddhist practice. I was on a retreat which had the theme of spiritual friendship (coincidentally the theme of last month’s blog). As part of the retreat we studied a series of talks on the theory and practice of friendship, or kalyana mitrata, and we also spent time with each other, as we do in my tradition, getting to know one other and developing friendships. (It’s not like that in all Buddhist traditions — sometimes retreatants are not allowed to talk to each other or even to make eye contact). All of that was great — the part of the retreat I was anxious about was where we were going to talk in small groups about the spiritual friendships in our lives.

Basically I thought that it just hadn’t happened for me — that spiritual friendship just wasn’t a significant part of my life. I mentioned the word anxiety in relation to this part of the retreat, but it wasn’t the terror of public speaking or the nervousness one experiences about revealing oneself to relative strangers that I was experiencing, it was more a kind of embarrassment at not having anything to say, while everyone else (I imagined) would.

The evening arrived when it was my turn to “share” and I started off by apologizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say much. But there were a few people who had helped me or attempted to befriend me, to various degrees of success, and I thought that I should at least say something about them. And to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs. I’d collect myself, let the emotion subside to the point where I could speak once again, and the same thing would happen again. And again.

Loneliness became my defense against loneliness.

I realized a number of things. I’d remained tight in a bud. I’d come to Buddhist practice because of painful experiences in which I’d lost friends and experienced loneliness and suffering. Those experiences revealed the world to be an unreliable place, and I was looking for a spiritual tradition that emphasized looking within for happiness. I thought that with Buddhism I’d found a way to close myself off from the world. A famous Buddhist saying was “Fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn.” And inspired by this kind of thinking I’d been resistant to opening up to friends. I was guarded and wary, and suspicious of looking outside of myself for happiness and wellbeing.

The isolation I was imposing upon myself created a deep sense of loneliness, but I managed to avoid acknowledging those feelings. After all I didn’t want to take the risk of developing and losing friends again. Loneliness became my defense against loneliness. So remaining tight in a bud was painful. But not painful enough to make me change.

It was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself.

It took two weeks spent on retreat, reflecting upon friendship — and more importantly experiencing friendship in the form of the small group in which we were sharing our stories — before I could really start to experience the pain of the closed bud. I always think it’s very significant that it was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself, that the moment in which I started to open up to others was the moment in which I opened up to myself and acknowledged my pain.

But the bud was now opening.

Difficult though it was to experience the pain that I’d managed up to that point to avoid, there was also a sense of the light finally making its way into the heart of the bud. I experienced gratitude towards those who had been kind to me in the past and who had tried to be a friend to me. And I could see how I’d limited myself, and how I could no longer keep doing that. I’d seen the risk of remaining tightly closed, and it wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I’d been stuck, but now (for a time at least) I was unstuck, free, an open and opening bud.

And in that moment, as I sat in a circle, I realized that I was being fully accepted. No one was judging me. No one was thinking less of me for having been a closed bud, or for having shown my vulnerability. Instead they were quietly and compassionately being there for me. We were a circle of opening buds, all of us having decided that the risk of remaining closed to each other was greater than the risk of opening up. We were open to each other, blossoming. And the reward of that was more than worth the pain of having opened up.


* This quote was originally attributed to Anais Nin, but it appear that these words are not found among her works and that the quote was actually composed by Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton). You can read the story here.

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