Friendship is the most constant, the most enduring the most basic part of love.
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.
~Digha Nikaya 31
Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.
It’s good to see Noble Ones.
Happy their company — always.
Through not seeing fools
constantly, constantly one would be happy.
~Dhammapada, Verse 206
It’s a cold night in Connecticut and we had snow flurries yesterday while parts of California are burning and folks are losing their house and lives. I am imagining that anyone in that position is struggling with grief and fear, dislocation, despair, and longing for physical safety. I hope those who are losing homes and neighbors have good friends who can comfort them and let them know they are not alone. We are not born to be solitary beings. We all do better with support and community and the kindness of friends can help make tragedy more bearable when we are met with compassion.
Friendships according to the Buddha are not only a way to make life more enjoyable, but are an essential ingredient in waking up. It’s recorded in the Upaddaha Sutta when Ananda asked the Buddha if good spiritual friends are half the holy life, the Buddha replied “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life” (Upaddha Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). The Buddha repeatedly counseled his followers to seek Kalyanamittata [good friendships]. While friendships with those who are not interested in waking up can lead us off the path, friendships with those who are wise and have an evolved spiritual practice can guide and be a support for us.
When we experience doubt or the pain in our lives seems too heavy for us alone, we can borrow the skillful qualities of others. We can find strength and renew our confidence in our own goodness and capability through the examples of others. When we see someone do something we would like to do, we learn how to do it ourselves. The more we are witness to kind speech, thoughtful generosity, or patience, the more realistic living those virtues becomes. The Buddha tells us the one who wants to have a peaceful and calm life will spend their time with the “young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He [She] talks with them, engages them in discussions. He [She]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” (Dighajanu Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.) Emulating friends we admire is a way to catch the contagion of goodness and faith in our own ability. Our wise friendships are not limited by time and space; we can use the example of Mother Theresa’s steadfast compassion and humility when we feel wearied by so much suffering around us, or Nelson Mandela’s nonviolence and patience when we witness injustice and unfairness, or in the face of personal attack or prejudice, borrow the equanimity of the Buddha who did not hate or condemn his cousin Devadatta, although he tried to assassinate the Buddha killed three times. Making a place in our lives for those we admire and see as wise, gives us the courage to be bravely true to our most cherished intentions.
The Buddha warns of friendships with those who engage in bad habits, of drinking, gambling, gossip, lying, harsh speech, sexual misconduct, who are lazy and do not seek any transformation, are ungenerous or give gifts without care or believe that they make a difference. Hanging around with this crew will likely not advance your path towards enlightenment and most likely add some heavy karmic load to your luggage. But for those who are capable of discernment and knowing what true friendship is, they are able to find others, “who are endowed with conviction, conscience, concern; who are learned, with aroused persistence, unmuddled mindfulness, & good discernment” (Dighajanu Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.).
The Buddha was called a physician who cured suffering and a teacher, but he also thought of himself as a worthy friend for his followers to rely on. It is the Buddha’s commitment to friendship and the compassion for his followers that created the conditions to end their suffering. He tells Ananda that “It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, … from aging, …release from death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair” (Upaddha Sutta, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). The body of the Buddha is no longer in this realm, but the energy of the Buddha’s friendship lives on in the sangha, the community that supports and guides us as we all travel together.
As I write this I am thinking of all the opportunities for care and togetherness we have in this lifetime. The physical presence of the sangha who encourages us with their kind eyes and gentle speech, examples of those who have gone before and show us the way to walk with strength and conviction, and the wise teachers we include in our lives who demonstrate kindness, generosity, and fearlessness.
May we all trust our light,