And now we come to the positive side – the qualities to be looked for in friends and to strengthen in oneself to become a better friend to others.
The Buddha’s words:
Young man, be aware of these four good-hearted friends: the helper, the friend who endures in good times and bad, the mentor, and the compassionate friend.
The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.
The enduring friend can be identified by four things: by telling you secrets, guarding your own secrets closely, not abandoning you in misfortune, and even dying for you.
The mentor can be identified by four things: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, telling you what you ought to know, and showing you the path to heaven [lasting happiness].
The compassionate friend can be identified by four things: by not rejoicing in your misfortune, delighting in your good fortune, preventing others from speaking ill of you, and encouraging others who praise your good qualities.
That is what the Buddha said.
In general, these instructions help us to recognise specific ways in which good friends behave towards each other. What exactly do we mean when we say, “She’s a good person”, or “He has a good heart”? At least part of what we’re referring to is these very qualities the Buddha proposes that we look for in the friendships we cultivate.
The helper could be called the opposite of the taker. One who gives more than is asked, who always stands ready to take an interest in what you care about and listen to your concerns. The helper comes to you as an independent person who wants to support you in any wholesome way. This person might recognise that you are vulnerable even before you do, and will make it clear that you can lean on her/him. Better, she will welcome it when you do ask for and receive her help.
Give a little thought to the ways in which you help others – or intend to and then don’t. And who are the people you would call on if you needed help? How sure are you that they would respond positively?
I think of the friends of my youth who actually showed up to help me (us) move house, more than once. I remember my aunt, who took me and my older brother into her home while my mother was busy delivering her third child. My good neighbours and our children now look after our mail and rubbish bins when we are away. There’s a concreteness to these acts that make me cherish the friendships that underlie them. What comes to mind for you?