From an essay titled Spiritual Friendship, by Bhikkhu Bodhi (full essay here – http://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl057.pdf#nameddest=a)
People new to Buddhism often take the Dharma to be a purely individual path of spiritual development. They imagine that the only correct way to follow the Dharma is to lock oneself up in one’s room, turn off the lights, and devote all one’s efforts to practising meditation. However, if we look at the Buddhist texts, we would see that the Buddha again and again stressed the value of spiritual friendship as a support for the Buddhist path throughout the entire course of its practice. …
I want to make a distinction between two types of spiritual friendship, which might be called the “horizontal type” and the “vertical type.” What I call horizontal spiritual friendship is friendship between people who are at roughly the same level in following the path; this is the friendship between “partners” in following the path, and what unites them as spiritual friends is a common dedication to following the Buddhist path. …
The other aspect of spiritual friendship is what I call “vertical” friendship. This is the spiritual friendship between people who are at widely different levels on the path. We might also call this “asymmetrical” friendship, in that the relationship between the two members is not one of equality. This type of spiritual friendship is the bond between senior and junior followers on the path, especially the bond between a teacher and a student.
In the essay, Bhikkhu Bodhi first writes about “horizontal type” friendships and I’ll address that idea in the near future. Since I’ve had a fresh experience of the “vertical” type, that’s what I’d like to share today.
Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to stay at a monastery in New Zealand at which Luang Por (Ajahn) Sumedho, an elder in the Theravada tradition, was visiting. For four days I enjoyed the power of his inner peace, hearing him teach and watching him skilfully answer the questions of both serious students and of those newer to the Buddha’s path. Sometimes there was a large group, but other times, it was quite an intimate setting. On my 65th birthday I had the extraordinary gift of sitting within a few metres of him. His words and presence were filled with joy and spontaneously filled me with joy. This was a brief but significant spiritual friendship of the asymmetrical variety.
Luang Por Sumedho’s message was simple and powerful: Trust in awareness. He demonstrated how this works with all of his actions and words. Nothing could push him off balance or alter his radiance. He somehow seemed both thoroughly solid and thoroughly ethereal. Everyone at the monastery shared in his “trust in awareness”.
For my time there, I remained de-linked from all electronics, and the peace was delightful. It made continuous mindfulness and metta seem automatic, although they were well supported by the rituals of the monastery: morning chanting and meditation, the pleasure of shared work, a dhamma talk before and sometimes after the main meal, and chanting and meditation in the evenings.
Because teachers like Luang Por Sumedho are so rare, this was an extraordinary experience for me. I’ve been lucky enough to know several friends who are further along the path than I (in my estimation). Each encounter has deepened my faith in the path.