Category Archives: Friendships

Wise intentions

[The Buddha responded:] “Here, monk, a wise person of great wisdom does not intend for his own affliction, or for the affliction of others, or for the affliction of both. Rather, when he plans, he plans for his own welfare, the welfare of others, the welfare of both, and the welfare of the whole world. It is in this way that one is a wise person of great wisdom.”  – from AN 4:186, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

There are a number of similar suttas in the Pali canon in which the Buddha points out that some people consider only their own welfare, some consider only the welfare of others, some don’t think of the welfare of either themselves or others, and some think of the welfare of both themselves and others.

This categorization broadens our consideration from friendships between two people to how we relate, not just to an individual friend, but to all those we come into contact with. If we consider the welfare of ourselves and others, then our attitude towards other beings isn’t divided into us and them, but takes in the question of whether an action is good for everyone affected. If not, we can try to figure out how things might be arranged so that everyone benefits. We can try to cleave to this principle of setting our intentions so that no one (including ourselves) is harmed and that, as much as possible, everyone’s situation is improved. Once the intention is set, then every new set of circumstances presents us with a fresh opportunity to hone our wisdom.

It’s true that these decisions are not always clear-cut. Sometimes we find out later that our good intentions didn’t bring about the desired results, or we discover that someone we didn’t know might be affected by our action felt hurt. Often we think there’s no time to consider all the consequences, that action must be taken now.

One way we can mature on the path is to incorporate a moment of reflection before we take action or speak to others. In that momentary pause, we can ask ourselves whether we are acting from kindness or compassion, and also whether anyone might be harmed. Even if there is no discernible answer, no way to know, it’s worth asking ourselves the question. It’s a training in attitude, which will make us wiser, more compassionate human beings.

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Good friends

We’ll get to communal harmony soon, but for now, another thought about friendships:

[The Buddha is speaking to a young man named Sigālaka:] Young man, there are these four kinds of kind-hearted friends: the friend who is helpful; the friend who shares one’s happiness and suffering; the friend who points out what is good; and the friend who is sympathetic. – from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The sutta goes on to parse these statements. Here is a summary:

Helpful: A helpful friend looks after you, provides refuge when you’re afraid, and is generous to you.

Shares one’s happiness and suffering: Such a friend guards your secrets, shares her secrets, and stays involved even when there’s trouble.

Points out what’s good: This friend encourages you to do good and abstain from harmful acts, keeps you informed of useful information, and helps you remember your best intentions.

Sympathetic: A sympathetic friend stays present when you suffer, rejoices in your good fortune, defends you when you’re not present, and affirms those who speak well of you.

Such true friends are rare, and we would be wise to cultivate and cherish them.

It’s equally important to BE a good friend. We can review for ourselves: how many people do we treat with this steady helpfulness and good will? This is a pro-active stance, not one in which we simply answer the phone when called. We know who our good friends are; we keep in touch with them; we tell them regularly that we’re thinking of them and wishing them well. When they need something, we are happy to respond right away.

Even people we don’t see very often can be valued friends. Sometimes just thinking about them helps us to make better choices, to be kinder to others and to invest our energy wisely.

Dharma buddies are obviously in this category of kind-hearted friends because we share the desire to move in the same direction, and take joy in supporting each others’ efforts. Some of our kind-hearted friends are not on the Buddha’s path; people who identify as Buddhist don’t have a lock on good intentions. Whenever and wherever we find trustworthy people who will support our wholesome desires and discourage decisions that will harm us, we can (and should) be open to letting them into our hearts.

As the Buddha said, noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life, or, in other words, there’s nothing we can do that is more supportive of awakening our highest potential than cultivating supportive friendships. And there’s no greater gift we can give than to be kind-hearted, supportive friends ourselves.

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Friendships and communities

Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between their members, and the most basic relation between people outside the family connection is that of friendship. … The Buddha placed special emphasis on one’s choice of friends, which he saw as having a profound influence on one’s individual development as well as on the creation of a harmonious and ethically upright community. Good friendship is essential not only because it benefits us in times of trouble, satisfies our social instincts, and enlarges our sphere of concern from the self to others. It is critical because good friendship plants in us the sense of discretion, the ability to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, and to choose the honorable over the expedient.
— from the introduction to chapter “Good Friendships” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi

What choices do we have regarding friendships? We have relationships with family members, co-workers, fellow students, neighbors, members of our various communities, and others with whom we come into contact, but only a subset of these relationships develop into friendships.

There’s no magic formula for making and keeping friends. Some essential ingredients are: a desire for connection, regularly giving our time to our friends, listening and attending to what they say and do, avoiding comparing them with ourselves, overlooking small flaws, and wishing them well. If we find a friendship rewarding, we look past habits that we don’t like because the overall package is so worthwhile.  When we are annoyed with someone we generally like, it pays to remember their favorable qualities. Someone who is generous, kind, and thoughtful might be a sloppy eater or housekeeper. So what? Someone who is honest and humble may be a very slow walker – again, so what? We can ask ourselves, what’s important here? And as a friend once advised me: “Go with the love.” When given the choice of criticizing or loving, we can choose to go with the love.

In the suttas, there are examples in which monks get along well with each other and when asked how they live harmoniously they describe the specific ways in which they defer to each other, make way for each other, clean up after each other, and prepare things for each other. Just as the people who cared for us when we were newborn did, we can care for those in our immediate world. With friends, this is a reciprocal process and only grows more rewarding with practice.

In the previous post, Sumi Loudon Kim used the word “attunement” to describe how parents empathetically observe their children, and suggested that this is a skill we can develop and (eventually) apply to all of our relationships. May it be so.

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Harmonious communities

Harmony in any community, whether a small group or a whole society, depends on a shared commitment to ethical conduct. … social harmony requires at a minimum that the members of any group share the conviction that there are objective standards for distinguishing between good and bad conduct and that there are benefits, for the group and its individual members, in avoiding the types of behavior generally considered bad and in living according to standards generally considered good. – from the Introduction to section I, Right Understanding, in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony

In the Buddha’s teachings, mundane right view is distinguished from supramundane right view. The first understanding is that we have personal responsibility for our actions and will reap the rewards of those actions, sooner or later. Supramundane right view goes a bit further in that the scope for the results of our actions to ripen extends over lifetimes and a deep understanding of right view can lead to full liberation. As Bhikkhu Bodhi does in his new book, we will do here, and focus on mundane right view.

At the very beginning, we recognize that we have views; whether we’re conscious of them or not, we hold underlying assumptions about meaning. There are many wrong views we could hold, for example that if we can get away with a selfish act without being punished then no other ramifications need be considered. Or that if a generous act on our part goes unacknowledged, then it didn’t count.

While the Buddha promoted ethics on the basis of the view of the moral efficacy of action – the principle that good actions lead to desirable results and bad actions to undesirable results – he also offered independent grounds for the ethical life. (quoted from the same source as above)

We’ll be looking at what makes a community harmonious in upcoming posts, but for today it seems important to point out that we can’t wait for everyone in the community, or even a majority, to behave ethically before we take on the commitment ourselves. Our own attitudes and behavior form the boundary of what we control. Our life is our lesson to others. If those around us like what they see, they’ll be drawn to it and modify their own actions accordingly. It doesn’t take great insight to see that repellent behavior repels people and harmonious behavior attracts others, at least on a personal level. This is our power of persuasion: how we behave in everyday life, how we treat people, whether we project anger or fear or kindness or calm. We begin right where we are, here and now.

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Filed under Causes and results, Friendships, Relationships, The 8-fold path

Christmas for everyone

Christmas Buddha

Some of us identify as followers of the Buddha’s teachings; some don’t. Regardless, in the holiday season, we can acknowledge our own traditions and the traditions of others. If we are part of a family or group that includes people of different faiths, we can make an effort to acknowledge, to understand and respect those faiths. So, if Christmas has meaning for us, we participate in rituals that affirm that meaning. If Christmas has no particular meaning for us, we can still participate in some rituals if it will express our care for people we love.

The abbot of our local monastery gave a short talk about Santa Claus today. Santa is depicted as always smiling; he’s joyful, laughing even. Why? Because his primary activity is giving, unrestrained giving. The connection between giving and joy is universal.

The picture above says to me that we try to be a Buddha (awake) every day, and this day happens to be Christmas. As we do every day, we make an effort to see each other with eyes of compassion, we practice mindfulness of our words and actions, and we curb any aggressive or harmful impulses that arise. We can make a special effort to contact people who might feel lonely or neglected. The simple gift of showing up is the most powerful of all.

In our local newspaper when people on the street were asked “What is your favorite part of Christmas?”, two-thirds replied that it was having time with family and friends. The warmth of the connections between hearts can overrule any objections we have to each others’ habits and views.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama said: “Be kind as much as possible; it is always possible.” Isn’t this the spirit of Christmas?


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Appreciating friends

Again, Nandiya, you should recollect good friends thus: ‘It is truly my good fortune and gain that I have good friends who take compassion on me, who desire my good, who exhort and instruct me.’ Thus you should establish mindfulness internally based on good friends. – from AN 11.14, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Another way to phrase the above verse might be that a friend is someone who accepts your past, supports your present, and encourages your future.

It could be said that our greatest assets are not material but relational. Whether our closest friends are blood family or not, our chosen relationships are our most precious ones. Anytime is a good time to let the friends whom we appreciate know that we’re thinking of them. On my end-of-year list are my wise teachers: Shinzen Young, Ven. H. Gunaratana, and Patrick Kearney. I often rely on the lessons they (and others) have taught me, by their words and actions.

Bhikkhus, I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decline as good friendship. For one with good friends, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen unwholesome qualities decline. – from AN 1.74, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The people we value and seek to spend time with have a greater influence on us than any other factor. Sometimes even thinking about how someone we respect would respond to a question or situation clarifies things for us. We carry our true friends in our hearts, as companions and as guides. Recognizing that our true friends have our best interests at heart, we seek ways to support and appreciate them, which in turn nourishes our own good qualities.

Our most cherished friendships may be old or new, with people near or far, young or old, similar to us or very different. The essential quality of a “noble” friend is that they encourage what is best in us and discourage what might harm us. This is not an esoteric teaching – we have to look with discerning eyes at what it is we like and don’t like about other people. The person who points out our faults for our own good, not to set themselves above us, is a friend indeed. The person who inspires and encourages our generosity and upright behavior is likewise to be appreciated. One who can give and receive gifts freely is one we want to be near.

As we seek out and nourish our good friendships, it is equally important to endeavor to be a good friend to others. This is the most profound gift we can give another person – to care for them, for their physical and spiritual welfare. This gift benefits the giver and recipient equally. Let us befriend each other as well as possible, and let us appreciate each others’ friendship.

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More on patience

Still thinking about Ajahn Sucitto’s reflections on patience (khanti), there are two points to  add. In a section of the essay called “Recognizing Patience Teachers” Ven. Sucitto says:

Living with other people, in families, relationships and communities, can be an occasion for developing patience.

This should probably be classified as an understatement. We may feel entirely peaceful in body and mind after a good meditation or (even more) a long retreat, but when we encounter other people, that serenity is likely to be shattered. As Jack Kornfield’s book title has it, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It is a particular form of dukkha to feel that we’ve crashed to earth from a refined and lofty mental state. But as Ajahn Sucitto wisely counsels, if we see other beings as our teachers (of patience), we understand that it’s our own defilements, our expectations and demands, that make others seem difficult.

(The full book, Pāramī [Perfections], can be downloaded here:

The second point to share is regarding the importance of patience in shaping our intentions.

All the perfections merge in the highest wisdom, the steady insight into suffering. But it is patience, if cultivated thoroughly and insightfully, that penetrates our will to do, or intention (cetana). Intention is the mental activation that seeks, wavers and tightens. It is also the source of kamma, because kamma is based on the intention behind the mind’s thinking, responses, habitual strategies and general jumping around. Intention directs one’s attention and interest in a particular way, so corresponding concerns and aims come to mind, and sometimes speech or bodily action follows. And this is what our “world” is made of.

So, patience has the power to penetrate to the deepest roots of our desire and aversion, and reveal their workings to our conscious mind. This is no small thing. Even a slight increase in our patience can have profound effects on our relationships with others and our thoughts about our place in the world. Patience may be our best tool for wearing away our unwholesome habits of body and mind and for remembering our best intentions in more and more situations.

If we are alert to opportunities to cultivate patience as they arise, we may be able to stop resisting and reacting to these “teachers” and start welcoming them as chances to develop our wisdom.

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