Friends 6 – recognize the unwholesome

Words of the Buddha:
Young man, be aware of these four enemies disguised as friends: the taker, the talker, the flatterer, and the reckless companion.

The taker can be identified by four things: by only taking, asking for a lot while giving little, performing duty out of fear, and offering service in order to gain something.

The talker can be identified by four things: by reminding of past generosity, promising future generosity, mouthing empty words of kindness, and protesting personal misfortune when called on to help.

The flatterer can be identified by four things: by supporting both bad and good behavior indiscriminately, praising you to your face, and putting you down behind your back.

The reckless companion can be identified by four things: by accompanying you in drinking, roaming around at night, partying, and gambling.
DN31, tr. Kelly, Sawyer, Yareham

It’s not enough to cultivate wholesome friendships, we also have to abandon unwholesome relationships. If we pursue wholesome friendships, but don’t look with a cool eye at people who are feeding and supporting our unwholesome habits or inclinations, then we’re pulling in two opposite directions at the same time.

One challenge is that we often have a hard time looking at others, and even more ourselves, with a cool eye. When we interact with people, it often seems instinctive to look for common ground, to try to see ourselves in others. We look for affirmation of some (sometimes any) part of ourselves. If you confess some action that you feel regret or confusion about, beware of people who will say, “don’t worry about it”, “everyone does it”, or “you’re just normal”. These folks are not helping you become your best self.

In order to recognize people who are takers, talkers, flatterers and reckless companions, we need to find a way to step back from our normal way of looking at things, to gain more perspective. The description of these unwholesome companions given by the Buddha (above), is quite clear, though not absolutely complete. Still, it’s a handy checklist when examining your own behavior or the actions of others.

How wholesome a friend are you to others?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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2 Responses to Friends 6 – recognize the unwholesome

  1. lynnjkelly says:

    Hello Charlie(?),

    Thank you for your question. You are correct that none of us is entirely a wholesome or unwholesome friend. Most of us have our virtues and drawbacks. If you can look more at others’ virtues than their flaws, it might help you feel less irked.

    When thinking in terms of true or false friends, you can ask yourself if this person has your best interests at heart or is just massaging her/his own ego. What intention is discernible? Does this friend make it easier or harder to be your best self?

    Hope this is helpful.


  2. Hello! I came across your posts on friendship when I was looking for some guidance. Very well explained. However, I am sure the Buddha himself recognised that people cannot be pigeonholed into specific wholesome and unwholesome categories. I seem to be dealing with a friend who is a taker, a talker, but is also a helper and a mentor in some ways. How, do you think, would the Buddha then guide on deciding if someone is a true or a false friend?

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