Spiritual Friendship: A Relational Path

“I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One [the Buddha] was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara. There Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
“Don’t say that, Ananda [replied the Buddha]. Don’t say that. Good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship is actually the whole of the holy life. When [one] has good and admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, [they] can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” –– from Upaḍḍha Sutta (SN 45:2)

When I was in the Rehab center last fall recovering from a severe bicycle accident, a member of the Valley Insight (VIMS) Support Sangha Care team came to talk with me about how the group might best support me as I made the transition to home. I knew I would need help with meals, shopping, transportation, and so many other logistics; and I knew I would need and benefit greatly from companionship––friendship. With this in mind, we arranged that someone would bring me a meal each evening and stay to eat that meal with me. This built-in daily companionship was invaluable to my healing! I got to have stimulating conversations with old and brand new friends from our practice community. I got to catch up on the lives and concerns of those I know well but don’t see often. These amazing offerings went on nightly for over a month! Then we cut back to every other night for three or more weeks. As this level of care grew less necessary, I still wasn’t able to drive, so I needed rides to work and to PT appointments. Thus, the regular connection with others continued for several weeks. This felt––and still feels––like a miracle!
I recently heard Dharma teacher Jan Surrey say that sangha and good friends help us “bear what we cannot bear.” Such good and kind companionship nourishes our sense of connectedness. At a very deep level, our heart and mind feel safe; our nervous system relaxes and unwinds into the joy of the present moment. As the overall stress levels diminish, our body’s energy is freed up to be used in the very active processes of adapting and healing.

“Friend is not a noun, it is a verb.”
––Jan Surrey, teacher in the BCBS Spiritual Friends Retreat

I was fortunate to be well enough to attend two retreats at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies this March. The first one was on “Spiritual Friendship within the Buddhist Path”; the second focused on the very important meditation practice called “Mindfulness of In and Out Breathing.” The retreats had in common that the nonscheduled parts, including meals, were held in silence; but in all other respects, they were quite dissimilar. In addition to having the two very different focus topics, there were different teachers, different participants, and very different formats for each retreat. The first retreat was rooted in a lot of guided interpersonal sharing: each day we had about seven to eight hours of such practice, including teacher talks and group discussions, and about two to three hours of formal meditation. The second study retreat had three hours a day of interpersonal, large and small group discussions and the teacher’s presentation of material––with six to eight hours of sustained silent meditation periods. It was very interesting to me, and very wonderful, that in each of these different experiences, a palpable feeling of friendship and community arose. In both, there was a deep sense of respect and trust towards the teachers, towards one another, and for the Dharma teachings we were studying.
We can often feel a similar experience of community and safe connection in our three regular weekly VIMS sitting groups. Laughter, joy, and a sense of camaraderie arise. In each one of these gatherings, we practice formal meditation together in silence; we hear a presentation of the Buddha’s teaching––often related to material we have read; and we join in small groups to discuss this material. As we read and talk about the Dharma teachings and relate them to our lives, there is a growing sense that, in addition to the good “lateral friendships” we are developing as peers on a shared path, there is something in the teachings themselves that is supporting the growth of our community. In a subsequent verse of the Buddha’s teaching on friendship, which I quoted at the outset of this essay, the Buddha speaks to Ananda of this “vertical” type of friendship between teacher and student. First he speaks further on the horizontal, peer camaraderie as it relates to understanding and living the path together:

And how does [one] who has good, admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, develop and pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where [one] develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. [One] 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 one who has people as friends, companions, and colleagues, develops and pursues the noble eightfold path.
And through this line of reasoning one may know how good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as a good 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, and despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.

In a retreat at IMS last spring, Jon Kabat-Zinn said that in recent years, when he is asked to define mindfulness, he first says it is relational––whereas he used to emphasize it as “nonjudgmental awareness in the present moment.”
Since the earliest years of my meditation practice, I have increasingly understood and experienced it as a relearning of how to relate to the world. We are always in relationship––both on and off the meditation cushion––whether to the breath, to the body, to our own feelings and preferences, to the mind; or to impermanence, conditionality, death, catastrophe; or to our next-door neighbor, the immigrants detained in prisons or camps, our fellow sangha members; and to the houses and trees and squirrels and highways that we share the world with; and to the earth itself. Mindfulness teaches us how to be in relationship with care and compassion and without “making things worse,” and harming ourselves and others.
Many of us come to meditation as a way to get away from the world, for the tranquility it offers. This calming effect can be so helpful, in and of itself, but sooner or later we find that we are also gradually learning how to get back to and live in the world in a wiser, kinder, happier, lighter, and friendlier manner.

“Although mindfulness [sati] requires cultivation, being a quality that needs to be established, such cultivation is not a forceful matter. Here it can be useful to take into consideration that the word sati in Pali is feminine. My suggestion would be to relate to sati, to mindfulness, as a feminine quality. In this way, sati can be understood as receptively assimilating with the potential of giving birth to new perspectives. Right away, from the moment of waking up in the morning, our good friend sati can already be there, as if waiting for us. She is ready to accompany us throughout the rest of the day, encouraging us to stay receptive and open, soft and understanding. She never gets upset when we happen to forget about her. As soon as we remember her, she is right there to be with us again.” (Bhikkhu Analayo, Satipatthana Meditation: A Practice Guide, p. 7)

An important view that was expressed in the study retreat on Spiritual Friendship is that friendships are not just about the two people engaged in the relationship; they are also about the world. The whole world is in the relationships we form.
This idea points to the profound yet simple and clear implication of the Buddha’s teachings on conditionality: what we do in this world has an effect on this world. There are always repercussions to our actions and to our interactions. We learn this in our meditation practice as we follow the instructions to note experiences “internally and externally and both.” I think of “both internally and externally” as pointing to the relational field, which is neither self nor other, but something in between, and which is being created, and is changing, moment by moment. Someone in the study retreat on “Mindfulness of In and Out Breathing” suggested the phrase “situational creativity.” Maybe this has something to do with good friendship. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in reflecting on generosity––which is, of course, what friendship is a form of—wrote:
“When you interact with another person, a connection is made. Now, it can be a positive or a negative connection, depending on the intention. With generosity you create a positive connection, a helpful connection, a connection where you’re glad that the boundary is down, a connection where good things can flow back and forth.” (from Meditations, page 5)
As he points out, intention is a key to good and admirable relationships. The word spiritual is suggestive of an intention. In Michel Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, he refers to a definition of the word “spiritual” as meaning “non-egotistical.” I have found this to be very helpful. “Spiritual” in this sense can be related to the Buddhist understanding of the end of Dukkha (un-satisfactoriness), which is connected to the release of preferences and reactivity from the mind and heart, and which is again related to trust and safety and to “staying open and soft and understanding.” Here is a reflection from Buddhist scholar and activist Bhikkhu Bodhi in the Buddhist Publication Society’s Newsletter, no. 57, 2007:

“In our worldly life, our friendships are very closely connected with personal attachments, which in turn are rooted in our own egocentric needs. Even when we think we love the other person, often we really love that person because this relationship in some way satisfies a deep need within ourselves. When the other person fails to satisfy this deep need within us, our feelings quickly become embittered and our love turns into resentment or even enmity.

“But when we enter into a spiritual friendship based upon dedication to a common goal, this friendship helps us to transform our attachments and ego-centered drives. Even more, it helps us to transcend the very idea of the ego-self as a substantive reality. Spiritual friendship, we discover, is not about satisfying my personal needs, or even about my satisfying the other person’s personal needs. It’s about each of us contributing as best we can to uplift each other, and to bring each other closer to the ideals of the Dharma.

“In spiritual friendship we are concerned with the other person not because of the ways that person satisfies us, but because we want to see the other person grow and develop in the direction of greater wisdom, greater virtue, greater understanding. We want the other person’s wholesome qualities to attain maturity and bring forth fruits for the benefit of others. This is the essence of “horizontal” spiritual friendship: a keen interest in helping our friends grow and develop in the practice of the Dharma, in maturing their potential for goodness, for understanding, for wholesomeness.”

May we increasingly understand, trust, and realize good and admirable friendship as the basis and the whole of this life we share.

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