issue 17 winter 01
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Good Company

Friendship is vital to the spiritual community, argues Subhuti. For peers on the path – as well as teachers or students – can spur and support our growth.

There is an intriguing account of a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda, whose name appears frequently in the Buddhist scriptures. He was the Buddha's younger cousin, and the two must have known each other since Ananda's boyhood. In the last 25 years of the Buddha's life, Ananda was the Buddha's personal attendant, storing up the Buddha's words so that they could be passed on to later generations. We can also see from these accounts that the Buddha and Ananda were close friends.

At the start of the discourse in question Ananda approaches the Buddha, intent on sharing a thought. Something – perhaps the cumulative affect of day-to-day association with the Buddha – has suddenly made him realise that such 'lovely companionship' is far more crucial to spiritual progress than he had imagined. He enthusiastically declares, 'Lord, this spiritual friendship, spiritual companionship and spiritual intimacy is no less than half of the spiritual life.' 'Say not so, Ananda,' the Buddha replies. 'It is the whole, not the half of the spiritual life.'

Many of those Buddhists who are familiar with this concept of spiritual friendship or kalyana mitrata think of it in terms of a 'teacher-disciple' relationship (or 'vertical' friendship). As a result they pay little attention to a vital dimension of spiritual friendship that could be called 'horizontal' friendship: that is, friendship with one's peers. Those who are fortunate enough to enjoy intimate, day by day contact with their teacher may not feel they are missing anything. Few, however, are so fortunate. My own experience has taught me that a small circle of spiritual peers, enjoying intimate friendship and in close mutual association, can aid one another's progress greatly, provided they also have some contact with more mature friends. The ideal situation is actually to live with spiritual friends, or to work with them, or both.

One could ask for no better example of horizontal friendship than the two close friends who were also the Buddha's most famous disciples: Moggallana and Sariputta. As young men they had gone out into the world together in quest of wisdom. They made a pact that if one of them attained 'the Deathless' he would tell the other. Sariputta met a disciple of the Buddha and heard from him a brief summary of the Buddha's teaching, the inner meaning of which he immediately penetrated in a profound insight.

Sariputta immediately set off to tell his old friend. Moggallana saw instantly that his friend had attained 'the Deathless', and the two became followers of the Buddha. Notwithstanding the common image of the Buddha as solitary and withdrawn, in the East many images depict the Buddha accompanied by his chief disciples Sariputta and Moggallana, with hands raised in respect before them. Such images are, in effect, representations of the Buddha and the Sangha, incorporating the vertical and horizontal axes of spiritual friendship in a single image.

Anyone who has taken up the spiritual life in earnest knows that it isn't easy, and may frequently feel tempted to give up the struggle. We may lose confidence in our ability to meditate. If we have given up worldly opportunities to work for the Dharma, we may find ourselves wistfully thinking that we could easily have more money and more comfort. We may doubt the tradition we are following, or the Dharma itself. Worst of all, we may feel estranged from our fellow practitioners.

Often in such cases, only a trusted friend can bring our spiritual ideal back to life. As well as reviving the flame when it is sputtering, friends can feed it up into a blaze. Mere association with them constantly nourishes that part of us that loves the good. Conversely, if we spend time with people who have no interest in spiritual life, our own feeling for it will fade and our whole spiritual ideal may start to seem unreal.

Our peer friends can help us in refining our ethical awareness. In some regards they will be more sensitive than we are. Through frequent contact with us, they may be much more aware of our ethical blind spots than our mature friends (with whom, in an unfeigned way, we tend to be 'at our best'). Peers can help us to overcome these blind spots, not by pointing accusing fingers, but through benevolence and intimacy. Sometimes we are unable (or unwilling) to recognise that something we have said or done is contrary to our spiritual aims, but a friend can help us to see this, without offending us.

True spiritual friends do not let us off the hook, but at the same time are gentle, sensitive and kindly in their speech, choosing their moment carefully. They try to emulate the sensitivity of the Buddha, who 'knows the time' to say things that are 'true, correct and beneficial' but also 'disagreeable' to the hearer. Friends also help us to eradicate the unwholesome in ourselves by receiving our confessions, and by rejoicing in our merits, reinforcing the good in us. By seeing and loving the best in us, they draw it out more fully, just as rain and sunlight nourish a plant.

Far from being an incidental pleasure in the essentially solitary business of spiritual life, there are passages in the Buddhist scriptures which suggest that friendship between peers belongs not only to the Path but also to the Goal. An example is the moving story of Anuruddha and his friends, found in the Culagosinga Sutta.

Anuruddha, Nandiya and Kimbila are staying together in a quiet forest grove, where the Buddha goes to visit them one evening. He asks whether they get on well with one another. Anuruddha confirms that he and the other two are 'living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.' The Buddha (who knew that not all his monks got along so cordially together) enquires how they do this. Anuruddha explains that he considers himself fortunate to be living the spiritual life together with such companions as Nandiya and Kimbila. To do so is a 'great gain'.

The way they live together is an expression of metta, that is, of loving kindness or friendliness. Accordingly, he 'maintains' towards the other two a kindly attitude that manifests in kindly deeds, affectionate speech and loving thoughts. In conclusion, he tells the Buddha, 'We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.'

The Buddha expresses pleasure at these words and asks whether they are living 'diligent, ardent and resolute'. In other words, are they striving for spiritual progress? Anuruddha confirms that they are and he describes their shared way of life, which seems to be the natural expression of the spirit of harmony and mutual service that they have already mentioned. His description imparts a sense of how their spiritual practice flows from their friendship, just as much as their friendship flows from their spiritual practice:

'Whichever of us returns first from the village with alms-food prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes; otherwise he throws it away where there is no greenery or drops it into water where there is no life. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and for washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing or the latrine are low or empty takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out into speech. But every five days we sit together all night discussing the Dhamma. That is how we abide diligent, ardent and resolute.'

In other words they just silently serve and help each other, each attending to whatever needs to be done for the sake of the others, without pausing to calculate whether the distribution of labour is fair, nor to check up on whether the others are doing their share. They live in constant kindly attentiveness to one another's needs, and their kindness goes beyond mere reciprocity.

Such untallied acts of mutual care are the bricks and mortar of friendship. They avoid unnecessary speech on mundane matters and hence keep silent most days, thus maintaining the thread of their mindfulness. Far from observing perpetual silence, however, they have regular discussions of spiritual matters, and obviously take the view that the opportunity to do so is one of the advantages of living together.

The Buddha expresses approval of these friends' way of life and asks, 'While you abide thus É have you attained any superhuman state, a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones?' Anuruddha reveals that all three of them are Arahants, all fully Enlightened. Needless to say, the Buddha is delighted by this wonderful news.

The success of the three friends suggests the profundity of the practice of friendship at its fullest development. The three were 'different in body, but one in mind' and so dwelt together in the bliss of Enlightenment. Borrowing a phrase from the great Buddhist poet Shantideva, we could call this 'the exchange of self and other'.

As unenlightened humans, we divide the world into self and not-self, separating what is 'in here' sharply from what is 'out there'. This dichotomy of subject and object is the most fundamental pattern in our feeling and thinking, structuring our perception of everything. Yet Buddhism teaches that this distinction is not given in our experience but something we impose upon it. It is in fact precisely this delusion that is the ultimate cause of our suffering – the ahamkara or 'I maker', the invisible and baneful house builder who incessantly 'raises the roof-tree of deceits' and builds 'the walls of pain.'

Our sense of self and other is a practical necessity. If we didn't learn to organise our world in this way, we would remain stuck in the infantile stage of psychological development. A baby sees no distinction between itself and the world, and only gradually learns to perceive the dividing line. The subject-object dichotomy is therefore something we have all had to hammer out by trial and error in our early lives. Indeed, for many people a more accurate perception of the boundary between self and other is still a big part of their spiritual task.

Nevertheless Buddhism teaches that, having become individuals, we are still far from Reality. We still don't see things as they really are. Spiritual growth, although it may begin by completing and securing a true discrimination of self and other, must go on to transcend it. Until we can do so we remain preoccupied with 'looking after number one'. In the abstract, we know that others are, like us, centres of consciousness, desire and suffering. At a deeper level of our minds, however, they remain 'objects' – aids or hindrances to our private goals.

The spiritual life consists in realising ever more fully that others, too, are subjects, and in living from that realisation. This can be a spiritual practice, something undertaken outside meditation as well as within it, just as systematically as other practices. The method is to adopt the 'self' of another person as our own – that is, to give it equal or even preferential treatment.

Shantideva expressed the idea beautifully in his classic poem the Bodhicaryavatara:

'All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others. For one who fails to exchange his own happiness for the suffering of others, Buddhahood is certainly impossible.'

The capacity to identify with others is thus an attack on our root delusion of selfhood, and an avenue to Enlightenment. Shantideva makes it clear that we must ultimately practise this exchange of self and other in relation to all beings, but we can hardly hope to go straight to that ultimate stage. Common sense suggests that, until we can practise it in relation to a few people – at least one – we have little hope of doing it indiscriminately.

Metta, or loving-kindness, is the basis of the exchange, so it is logical to start with someone for whom we already feel benevolence. Lovers and family members are too close to being extensions of 'self', so the best choice will surely be a close spiritual friend. The warmth and intimacy of friendship provide the perfect springboard for the dive into selflessness. And a friend (unlike someone to whom we are attached by possessive affection) is not an object of needy attachment, so our dive will not unwittingly lead us into a subtler form of selfishness.

We can practise the exchange of self and other with spiritual friends by developing mindfulness of their needs and putting them before our own. Whenever we give up something for the sake of our friends, we take another small step forward on the path of transcending ourselves. We enter more deeply into their subjectivity and let go of our attachment to our own. In Anuruddha's words, 'Why should I not set aside what I wish to do, and do what these venerable ones wish to do?'

Eventually, we will be able to identify not just with friends but with all beings, and not just in flashes, but as our habitual mode of consciousness. In short, friendship can be the path on which we travel from selfishness to selflessness. Here, perhaps, is the deepest meaning of the Buddha's saying that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. It gives us a context in which to practise selflessness. And since selflessness is the goal of the spiritual life, friendship must be co-extensive with that life.

Spiritual friendship (not just including friendship between peers) is also vital to Buddhism socially or collectively because it creates the Sangha. Membership of a spiritual community consists not in adherence to a list of abstract propositions, but in participation in a common spirit, and this spirit can only be adequately experienced in friendship. One of the benefits of spiritual friendship is the development of the Sangha, with the Aryasangha – the community of the Enlightened – at its summit. It is only through the medium of the Sangha, especially the Aryasangha, that the Dharma (the truths that Buddhism imparts through its teachings) can be perpetuated as a living force over a period of generations.

The great sociologist Max Weber identified a pattern in the development of religious groups that he called the 'routinisation of charisma'. This is the phenomenon whereby the followers of a 'charismatic' religious teacher attempt to perpetuate their cohesion and purpose by codifying a doctrine, formulating rules and founding institutions. This process is probably necessary, yet how often, in the history of religious movements, it seems to contribute to the loss of what was most vital in the founder's vision.

A striking historical example of this phenomenon is the rapid rise and equally rapid ossification of the Franciscan Order within the Catholic Church. The Order, inspired by the leadership and example of Saint Francis himself, grew very swiftly in his lifetime. Not long after his death, however, a serious conflict developed between two wings – the 'spirituals', who wanted to stick to the pure vision of Francis, and the 'conventuals', who wanted to establish the Franciscans on the same lines as the other monastic orders of the time. The conflict finally ended in the triumph of the conventuals and – tragically – the execution of some of the spirituals.

Although Franciscans remain numerous in the Catholic Church to this day, they are divided into many separate orders, for the same tension has been played out again and again since that time. What is more, the bitterness of the original conflict seems to show that Francis failed to transmit his own inspiration fully. The most likely explanation of his failure is that he allowed his order to grow too fast for the successful communication (and therefore the preservation) of his spiritual vision. There was no possibility that his influence – his spiritual friendship, as one might call it – could be transmitted throughout such a rapidly expanding body.

One lesson from this story is that a spiritual community can only expand at the speed at which a circle of friendships can grow. Otherwise it becomes merely an institution. An institution may still be a force for good in the world: it may still be animated here and there, from time to time, with flashes of the original fire, but in itself it is something less than a spiritual community. A mere institution lacks the spiritual community's harmonious unity – its 'oneness in mind' – and its spiritual vitality.

Let me emphasise that I am not saying that 'institutions' as such are the enemy of harmony or vitality. Actually, they are indispensable if a spiritual group wishes to grow beyond a small, private circle, to have a real influence on the world. But institutional growth must be the servant of an expanding network of friends, not a substitute for it.

A test of the spiritual vitality of any spiritual institution is therefore whether there are strong friendships among its members. A clue would be found in the relative importance given to friendship over other kinds of relationship. If, on examining such a group, one saw that even married members put more emphasis on their spiritual friendships than on their family relationships (while not shirking their family duties, of course) it would augur well for the survival of that fellowship as a true spiritual community. One should also, however, consider whether the members not only got on well among themselves, but were also friendly to people beyond their own charmed circle. True friendship is not exclusive; it always includes a willingness to make new friends.

Through the Sangha, the Dharma can live on as something more than a body of texts or an institutional 'shell'. In this way, spiritual friendship, as well as benefiting the individuals who practise it, also benefits future generations. This gives us yet another perspective on the Buddha's statement that friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.