I have been thinking about, and meditating on, the concept of friendship a great deal recently. In particular the characteristics that define those “kalyana-mitta” (spiritual friends) that we are fortunate enough to have in our lives.
Throughout my time at Wat Sri Boonruang I have had the good fortune to add many names to the list of companions who are accompanying me along this challenging Path that we have chosen to walk. I feel honoured to be a part of their journey in some way and to know that they are alongside me on mine.
Ultimately however we have to walk this path alone and Pema Chödrön summed this up nicely when she wrote, “The support that we give each other as practitioners is not the usual kind of samsaric support in which we all join the same team and complain about someone else. It’s more that you’re on your own, completely alone, but it’s helpful to know that there are forty other people who are also going through this all by themselves. That’s very supportive and encouraging. Fundamentally, even though other people can give you support, you do it yourself, and that’s how you grow up in this process, rather than becoming more dependent.”.
So, how do we know a “good” friend? How do we identify those we can draw inspiration and support from? Well, the Buddha had some great advice on what to look out for on this very topic which can be found in one of my favourite Suttas –
“The friend who is a helpmate, the friend in happiness and woe, the friend who gives good counsel, the friend who sympathises too — these four as friends the wise behold and cherish them devotedly as does a mother her own child.”
These roles are defined nicely on the site The Buddha’s Advice to Laypeople as follows –
The helpmate –
A helper will look after you when you need looking after (if you let them!) and will support you in acting responsibly with your resources. A false friend will scoff at the idea of thinking about tomorrow and help you spend whatever money you have. The helper will also take your phone call, even late at night, when you are worried or fearful, or have had bad news. They will listen sympathetically and give you emotional shelter. This friend is willing to tell you something you may be reluctant to hear, if it is for your benefit. They take joy in being able to help. Are you a helper – a rock for your friends?
The friend in happiness and woe –
The enduring friend is very similar to a helper. They confide in and trust you, and hold your confidences with the greatest care. They don’t shy away from you when you are in pain or difficulty, even if you feel ashamed or reluctant to have company. The enduring friend is one of whom you could ask a great favour, and get a positive reply if it’s in your best interests.
The friend who gives good counsel –
A mentor is a special type of good friend, who gives you good counsel. A mentor will be interested in talking with you about things that matter, will listen attentively and give you advice that is sound and appropriate. You will recognize the advice of a good friend by its result. When you follow the advice, does it result in the happiness and welfare of yourself and others? Or does it result in unhappiness and grief for yourself and others? Who have acted as mentors in your life? Who do you look to for guidance? Do others see you as a mentor?
The compassionate friend –
A compassionate friend rejoices in your good fortune. If you are a good friend, you will rejoice in others’ success and happiness. Envy, jealousy, and smugness can be left behind. The concept of “comparing mind” encompasses all the reactions that turn someone else’s news into a measuring stick for your own life. Whether you think you are better, worse, or the same as anyone else, every time “comparing mind” comes up, it’s an unwholesome track to follow. Your joys are your own to share. Your sorrows are your own to share. Likewise with everyone; people share what they will. The real poison of “comparing mind” is that it turns your attention away from others and towards yourself, either to what you want and don’t have, or to arrogant pride in what you do have. It moves you away from contentment and generosity and towards grasping and closing down. Thinking that you’re worse than others is just as debilitating as thinking you’re better than others. It still makes you the centre of everything; it cuts you off from others. And it affirms the ego’s insatiability.
Taken from the same Sutta DN 31 the Buddha also had some advice on how to recognise false friends –
“The friend who appropriates, the friend who renders lip-service, the friend that flatters, the friend who brings ruin, these four as enemies the wise behold, avoid them from afar as paths of peril.”
The taker can be identified by four things: by only taking, asking for a lot while giving little, performing duty out of fear, and offering service in order to gain something.
The talker can be identified by four things: by reminding of past generosity, promising future generosity, mouthing empty words of kindness, and protesting personal misfortune when called on to help.
The flatterer can be identified by four things: by supporting both bad and good behaviour indiscriminately, praising you to your face, and putting you down behind your back.
The reckless companion can be identified by four things: by accompanying you in drinking, roaming around at night, partying, and gambling.
Don’t despair! Advice on how to recognise true friends can be found in the short and concise Mitta Sutta AN 7.35 as the Buddha offered his thoughts on the qualities that we should look for –
“Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”
And so I ask you to acknowledge that friendship should be seen as central part of our practice and follow Justin Whitaker’s advice.
“Meditate on the relationships in your life to see how they bring you toward or away from awareness, toward or away from skilful and unskilful mental states and activities. As you become more aware of the friendships in your life that are indeed admirable, these relationships will naturally grow and deepen, while ordinary friendships will either fall away — the Buddha is also quite clear that solitude is far preferable to being in the company of those disinterested in cultivating positive qualities — or these friendships will begin to change for the better. The process is what western philosophers would call a dialectic, from the meditation cushion to the world, and from the world to the meditation cushion, a process of interrelationship and building toward awakening.”
One of my favourite images from the life story of the Buddha is the enduring friendship between himself and his attendant (and friend!) Ananda. In the Upaddha Sutta SN 45.2 Ananda approaches the Buddha and, after paying respect, sits by his side and says –
“This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” to which the Buddha gives the memorable reply “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
Your choice in friends is an important one. Cultivating wholesome companions can have a powerful influence on your development and being a good friend can have a powerful influence on those around us. On this Path however the practice, as ever, begins with ourselves. Begin by learning to forgive yourself, learn to be kind and gentle with your own heart. Learn to love again. Begin to let that unwholesome emotional baggage that you carry around with you go – it is only weighing you down and serves no skilful purpose. Only then can you become a better friend and companion, a kalyāṇa-mitta, to inspire and support others. Most importantly however, choose who you spend time with carefully.
With much metta my friends.