Musings on Friendship

In tonight’s Dharma-talk, a recording of Jack Kornfield reading from “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology,” he mentioned two very poignant things.

The first was a quote from a Chinese (his attribution) teaching that:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

(from here, Unknown Source)

Actually, in the recording it was more like:

Watch your intentions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

– or at least that’s how I remember it. But anyway, the point is the same. For me, it was a call in particular to examine my habits. I feel like my intentions are generally in the right direction, but habits often enough derail those intentions, or at least diminish their strength. Perhaps I still need to look more deeply at those intentions…

But another area began to come to mind in our post-meditation discussion when someone brought up appreciating Jack’s quoting of this story between Ananda and the Buddha:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops right resolve…right speech…right action…right livelihood…right effort…right mindfulness…right concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.

“And through this line of reasoning one may know how having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life.”

SN XLV.2 (borrowed from Bhikkhu Bodhi here – the whole article is more than worth reading)

It’s long, but worth quoting and reading in full. Jack just mentioned the first two bits. But the stress on admirable friendships is the important thing.

I spent last night hanging out with a dear spiritual friend – and former student! – Larry. He’s retired from a big oil company, spends lots of time at the University, and acts as a Jesuit Spiritual Director here in town. And together we’re working on a paper comparing the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises and Buddhist metta-bhavana, looking at the emotionally evocative tone of these deeply ethical meditative techniques (more on all of this to come soon). It was wonderful to reconnect. Grounding. Invigorating.

And now tonight, in the midst of a really fantastic, solid sangha, we discussed the importance of good friends. And I can’t help but be thankful for them, for my other sangha (the Wednesday night crowd), and my other, other sangha, the Campus Sangha, which should get started up again soon. And then there is my broader sangha, my many, many friends spread throughout the world.

While some people may think of Buddhism as a very solitary life – or Buddhist practice as a solo pursuit – the truth is that Buddhists still must act in the world like everyone else. And ethical activity especially requires other people. Paticca-samuppada, or dependent-origination, reminds us of our inextricable connections with the world and other beings within it. The more we understand reality, the more we know that we cannot retreat or make excuses for not caring for those around us.

In August of 2006 I was in Spain and was invited, by a very good friend, to give a talk at a local Buddhist center. The topic of that talk was friendship and I utilized the Hiri Sutta: On Friendship. It’s another sutta worth reading, repeatedly.

The Buddhist view of friendship, it should be seen, is different from our general sense today. Today we value length of friendship, we value the fun we have with people, the activities we enjoy together. But the Buddhist standard requires us to look more deeply, at our friendships and at ourselves.

“One who bears the human burden of responsibility, with it fruits and blessings in mind, [s]he cultivates a cause [viriya - effort] of joy and happiness worthy of praise. Having tasted the flavor of solitude and peace one is free from fear and wrong-doings imbibing the rapture of Dhamma.”

The “burden of responsibility,” to my mind, today is enormous. If we live in America or a similarly wealthy country and enjoy the consumption available in such places, we MUST take responsibility for the poverty, the pollution, the political and economic instability, and more that follow from our actions (these results are generally unseen, but viewable if we only take the time).

It is all too easy to overlook this. In fact it seems to be a human hobby to overlook “the plank in our own eye” while seeking to remove the speck in our fellow human’s eye (Luke 6:42). Jesus saw it, the Buddha saw it. The more things change, the more things stay the same, right?

But that is why, at some point, we seek out people willing to examine the plank in their own eye. I think of many of my friends, online and off, who have done enormous work to see just what is causing their dissatisfactoriness, their suffering. Because, in my experience at least, these are the people best suited for pointing out the plank in mine. And together we undertake the heavy work of liberation, you, me, and all the aspiring bodhisattvas out there.

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