Not associating with fools,
Associating with the wise,
Honoring those worthy of honor;
This is the greatest blessing.
(Mangala Sutta [Sn 2.4] tr. John Kelly)
In an ancient Buddhist story, the Buddha’s faithful attendant, Ananda, asked about the importance of having wholesome companions. Ananda asked the Buddha whether having noble friends and companions wasn’t half of the holy life. The Buddha replied: “Do not say so, Ananda. Noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life.” (SN 45.2, Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Whatever kind of life you have, your friends are both a part of it and a reflection of it. Work or school associates, sports teammates, companions in religious community – in all of these there is some degree of choice. You accept a job, join a team, or become a member of a social group; and you choose how closely to associate with the people in each group. Even in your family, you choose how close or distant to be with individual members.
Within each of these affiliation groups, there may be people you’d like to know better and those you’d like to avoid spending time with. How do you choose which people fall into which category? Do you like the ones who seem to like you? Or the people you consider the most physically attractive? Are you drawn to people you consider thoughtful, or wise and helpful? Do you passively wait to be contacted, by anyone at all? Somehow, by some sorting method, you end up with friends and acquaintances that influence you and whom you influence. This page is concerned with how you choose friends and what happens in these relationships.
Are your friends wholesome companions?
One definition of a good friend is someone who brings out what is best in you. She might do this by following your lead when you do something worth emulating, and by telling you directly what she admires about you. A good friend discourages what is worst in you, perhaps by declining to follow an unwise lead, and sometimes by telling you directly when she thinks something is off. By her actions and words, a good friend gives you helpful feedback. Out of genuine concern for your well-being, a good friend will support your wholesome actions and discourage your unwholesome actions.
Are you a wholesome friend to your companions?
On the other side of the question, how much of the time are you a wise and beneficial friend? Do you encourage people to do what’s best, even if there’s nothing in it for you? Are you willing to bring up awkward topics if you think it will help another person? Do you appreciate your relationships? Do you attend to them regularly, showing that you are grateful for them?
This was said by the Buddha: “It is in accordance with their properties that beings come together & associate with one another. Beings of low dispositions come together & associate with beings of low dispositions. Beings of admirable dispositions come together & associate with beings of admirable dispositions. In the past, it was in accordance with their properties that beings came together & associated with one another… In the future, it will be in accordance with their properties that beings will come together & associate with one another… And now at present, it is in accordance with their properties that beings come together & associate with one another. Beings of low dispositions come together & associate with beings of low dispositions. Beings of admirable dispositions come together & associate with beings of admirable dispositions.”
(Iti 3.29, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The people you choose to associate with affect how you think and what you do. And you affect the people you associate with. Are you spending time with people you chose? Or did they choose you? Or both? What activities do you do together? Are the activities beneficial, or at least harmless? Do you feel that others drag you down, or lift you up? And what would your companions say about your effect on them?
What did the Buddha say about friends?
In a lesson directed to a person not connected with the Buddha (DN31, tr. Kelly, Sawyer, Yareham), the Buddha outlines what to look out for in a false friend, and what actions would make you a false friend.
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.
The taker is out for herself and weighs her interactions with a view to what she can gain. This person may be marked by false generosity and by a tendency to put herself first and disregard the needs of others. Observe with discrimination the people in your life. Are any of them “takers”? Do you have tendencies in this direction?
A good friend (non-taker) is consistent in all her friendships, and treats people in a caring way in good times and bad. You can tell a lot about someone by the way she treats others. If she is kind and generous to you but cruel and stingy to others, how can you trust her? An unwholesome friend says nice things to you when you’re happy and generous but disappears when you’re broke or depressed. There’s a song about this from the 1930’s:
Nobody knows ‘ya, when you’re down and out.
In your pocket – not one penny. And your friends, well – you haven’t any.
Soon as you get on your feet again, everybody, everybody is your long-lost friend.
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt, but nobody knows ‘ya, when you’re down and out.
– Jimmie Cox
The talker is marked by saying things that she doesn’t mean, by making promises that she doesn’t keep. This is a real shortcut to determining character. Do you do what you say you will do? Do you make promises you can’t keep? Are there people around you whose words you cannot trust? Should everyone trust your word? Part of not being a (vain) talker is knowing your limits, and not promising what you cannot deliver.
A flatterer could also be called a two-faced friend, one who says one thing in your hearing and another when you’re not around. You don’t often discover how others speak of you when you’re not there, but you can listen to how they speak of others who aren’t present. Would they say the same things if the person being discussed were in the room?
Another dangerous form of flattery is the human tendency to defer to others if they seem important. The physically attractive, the glamorous, the powerful, the famous – do you (or someone else) speak to them in a way you wouldn’t address other human beings? What makes being noticed by these people so important? Is it worth giving up your integrity?
You can’t always be sure when someone else is a flatterer, but you can observe your own actions. If you catch yourself talking about someone sarcastically or disrespectfully, acknowledge that you wouldn’t say such things to the person’s face, and resolve to try not to behave that way in the future. Every situation is unique and deserves consideration, but the goal — wholesome intention — is the same. If you stop and reflect before speaking, you are more likely to refrain from empty and harmful talk than if you don’t think first. Take your own words seriously. Pay attention to whether others take their own comments seriously or not.
The reckless companion
You can easily recognize the reckless companion. This is the friend that appeals to your weaknesses; induces you to stay out later than you intended, get into situations you later regret, drink too much, and speak too carelessly. The Buddha mentions “roaming around at night” as one mark of a reckless companion. Whether you are misbehaving or not, your reputation is damaged by appearing where and when you don’t have any legitimate business. Leading another person astray may be even worse than being led astray yourself, because the underlying (perhaps even unconscious) intention is to harm another. Yet this all too human inclination – to want companions to help justify our baser instincts – is often just below the surface, waiting for an opening. If you are awake and aware enough to recognize the impulse to lead someone else astray or to wander where you shouldn’t, often you can choose a better course of action. Remember that all actions have consequences. Honor yourself and your companions by letting your caring intentions guide your actions. And look for that characteristic in your friends.
In the same lesson, the Buddha continues by outlining what to look for in a good friend and how to be that valuable friend.
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.
A helper will look after you when you need looking after (if you’ll let her) and will support you in acting responsibly with your resources. A false friend will scoff at the idea of thinking about tomorrow and help you spend whatever money you have. The helper will also take your phone call, even late at night, when you are worried or fearful, or have had bad news. She will listen sympathetically and give you emotional shelter. This friend is willing to tell you something you may be reluctant to hear, if it is for your benefit. She takes joy in being able to help. Are you a helper – a rock for your friends?
The enduring friend
The enduring friend is very similar to a helper. She confides in and trusts you, and holds your confidences with the greatest care. She doesn’t shy away from you when you are in pain or difficulty, even if you feel ashamed or reluctant to have company. The enduring friend is one of whom you could ask a great favor, and get a positive reply if it’s in your best interests.
In this category I think of a particular time, very soon after my father had died. I was in a type of shock and was feeling numb. An enduring friend of mine came to my house and sat with me. “Tell me about your father”, he said. I was very reluctant. I didn’t want to allow memory and grief in. But he just sat there until I relented. At the end of our talk, I felt deeply that my father had lived, I had known him, and now he was gone. I was immensely grateful for the wisdom and patience of my friend and grateful for our friendship.
A mentor is a special type of good friend, who gives you good counsel. A mentor will be interested in talking with you about things that matter, will listen attentively and give you advice that is sound and appropriate. You will recognize the advice of a good friend by its result. When you follow the advice, does it result in the happiness and welfare of yourself and others? Or does it result in unhappiness and grief for yourself and others? Who have acted as mentors in your life? Who do you look to for guidance? Do others see you as a mentor?
The compassionate friend
A compassionate friend rejoices in your good fortune. If you are a good friend, you will rejoice in others’ success and happiness. Envy, jealousy, and smugness can be left behind. The concept of “comparing mind” encompasses all the reactions that turn someone else’s news into a measuring stick for your own life. Whether you think you are better, worse, or the same as anyone else, every time “comparing mind” comes up, it’s an unwholesome track to follow. Your joys are your own to share. Your sorrows are your own to share. Likewise with everyone; people share what they will. The real poison of “comparing mind” is that it turns your attention away from others and towards yourself, either to what you want and don’t have, or to arrogant pride in what you do have. It moves you away from contentment and generosity and towards grasping and closing down. Thinking that you’re worse than others is just as debilitating as thinking you’re better than others. It still makes you the center of everything; it cuts you off from others. And it affirms the ego’s insatiability.
A brief conversation I had many years ago has proven to have lasting positive effects. I was discussing with D., a work friend, a wrangle I was in with a family member. She listened patiently, watching my expressions as well as hearing my words. When I finished, she allowed for a pause and a breath. She looked at me directly and asked, “Can you find any love in the relationship?” I had to think for a minute, because this question forced me off the self-righteous track I was on. Finally, I took a breath and said, “Yes. There is love in this relationship.” D. said, “Then go with the love. Just go with the love.” This conversation was like a seed planted in my heart. Every time I recall it and make use of it, it grows. Over time, it has created a habit – to seek out the love-element in every situation, especially when I feel ensnared.
People you’d rather avoid
When deciding who you want to be with more often and who less often, it’s important not to condemn or dismiss the “unchosen” people. If you feel a sense of superiority to them, then you haven’t quite understood the point yet. The people you might consider unwholesome companions may have hidden beautiful qualities; it is hard to know someone else thoroughly. Even if you can’t find anything attractive in the people you choose not to associate with, please try to have compassion for them. Everyone deserves your good wishes, even if you can’t spend time with everyone.
Kindness and gentleness
Kindness and gentleness are related, but they are not the same thing. I have witnessed friends young and old behaving boisterously and kindly at the same time. On one occasion, at a weekend retreat by the ocean, a young teenager was sulking and whining and having a hard time. A young adult, David, invited the sulker into an informal volleyball game. I could see the other participants shooting each other meaningful glances, “Oh, no!” But the strength of David’s enthusiasm carried the day. The sulker started to focus on the game after a while, and the whole situation became not just a volleyball game at the beach, but a joy for everyone. David was not patronizing the younger fellow. There was nothing he wanted to do more than to have fun together. David gave a powerful demonstration of noble friendship to all who witnessed this scene.
Conversely, cruel things can be done with a soft voice. So look beyond the surface, to the actions or words themselves, and to the effect that those actions or words have.
Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven?
He gives what is beautiful,
hard to give,
does what is hard to do,
endures painful, ill-spoken words.
His secrets he tells you,
your secrets he keeps.
When misfortunes strike,
he doesn’t abandon you;
when you’re down & out,
doesn’t look down on you.
A person in whom these traits are found,
is a friend to be cultivated
by anyone wanting a friend.
(AN 7.35 tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
Remember what the Buddha said. There is no condition of life that more powerfully influences your development than cultivating wholesome friends and companions. Start with yourself, as you are today, and build on your strengths to become a better friend and companion to others. And choose who you spend time with carefully.