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Lions Roar : May 2016
ONCE THE BUDDHA’S DISCIPLE ANANDA asked him about friendship. Ananda knew that having good and encouraging friends was very important for the path. He even wondered whether having good friends is half the path. “No, Ananda,” the Buddha told him, “having good friends isn’t half of the Holy Life. Having good friends is the whole of the Holy Life.” The Meghiya Sutta is my favorite Pali text about friendship. It tells the story of the eager young monk Meghiya, who wanted to practice meditation alone in an especially peaceful and beau- tiful mango grove. But Meghiya’s meditation was anything but peaceful and beautiful. To his shock, he found his mind a snarl of malicious, lustful, and confused thoughts—probably because his practice was too self-involved. When Meghiya rushed back to report his confusing experience, Buddha was not surprised. He took the opportunity to give Meghiya what he must have hoped was a relevant teaching. “Five things induce release of heart and lasting peace,” the Buddha told him. “First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Sec- ond, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy, and enthusi- asm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence.” Then, for Meghiya’s further benefit, and to the cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: “When there is a lovely inti- macy between friends, then there is virtuous conduct,” et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else naturally flows from it. I appreciate the truth and beauty of this teaching more and more as the years go by. To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years is a special joy. So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendships even more important. When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible—just as the Buddha says—for spiritual qualities con- ducive to awakening not to ripen. For those on the bodhisattva path, loving and appreciating your friends, even when they are difficult, as they sometimes are, is the path’s fullness and comple- tion. Friendship ripens and deepens our capacity for compassion. THESE DAYS we talk a lot about “relationships.” The word usually suggests romantic relationship, but we might also mean our connections with parents, children, siblings, and colleagues. But we don’t hear so much about friendship. Yet friendship may be the most wonderful form of human relationship. Emerson called it “the masterpiece of Nature.” That we and our friends can communicate intimately with one another and support each other unselfishly come what may— this truly is a masterpiece of Nature, and one of our brightest human achievements. It is also, I believe, our best hope in troubled times. When things are tough, having a trusted friend to help shoulder the burden makes survival not only infinitely more possible, but also much lovelier. In his essay on friendship, Emerson writes, “The laws of friendship are great, austere, and eternal, of one web with the laws of nature and of morals... but we seek our friends not sacredly but with an adulterated passion.” In other words, most friendship falls short of the spiritual friendship the Buddha is referring to in the Meghiya Sutta and Emerson takes as his ideal. We are looking for something from the other person—entertainment, sympathy, some kind of sup- port. Unable to stand the fullness of the other, we don’t want to discover and offer our own. “Almost all people descend to meet,” Emerson says. “What a disappointment is actual society!” Real friendship, he says, includes the depth of solitude of each of us. Real friendship is profound. Real friendship is always spiritual. Perhaps Emerson is a bit too idealistic. I feel that ordinary friendship is good, as far as it goes. We come together out of mutual interest, attraction, or social necessity. We need people to talk to and to play with. This is normal and healthy. There’s joy in it. And we do care about one another. Yet spiritual friendship—the friendship the Buddha called the whole of the Holy Life and that Emerson considered true friendship—is different. IN THE BUDDHIST PATH, spiritual friendship takes place in the context of community. Life in a sangha is built on teaching, dedicated meditation practice, and a shared commitment to going beyond self-interest and personal need. ZOKETSU NORMAN FISCHER is founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation and a frequent contributor to Lion’s Roar. His most recent book is Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion. PHOTOCOURTESYOFSHERRILJAFFE LION’S ROAR | MAY 2016 60