Friendship is the theme that has arisen for me in this time of thanksgiving, a time for offering and sharing our gratitude. For much of my life I considered the highest blessings to be those exceptional ecstatic or contemplative moments in which consciousness fills with, or is blown out by, awareness of God’s immediate presence. However, with time I came to see that the blessing of friendship is even more important. If we would only realize it, friendship is one of the most direct and beautiful ways that God is present to us, whether or not we are engaged in any “spiritual” practice.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 1st John 4:16
It’s that simple! Yet some of us have the notion that the more enlightened, illuminated, sanctified, holy, or, well, “mystical” we are then the less regard we give to friendship as an important and worthwhile experience in human life. Doesn’t it seem odd that sometimes our obsessions with things like philosophy, theology, and mysticism should lead us into places where we feel a need to justify enjoying something as natural and beautiful as friendship? Yet it happens, and it happens because somehow we come to believe that our great teachers are pointing us in that direction. With the rest of this post I hope to show that this is not actually the case, and that friendship is not only okay, it’s highly recommended!
As someone who feels a certain affinity with Buddhism, and who values the dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, I lament that people often consider the Buddha and his followers as models of this disregard for friendship. I find a number of things in Buddhist scripture that challenge that belief.
Consider this conversation between the Buddha and his disciple, attendant, and friend, Ananda, where Ananda begins:
This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.
The Buddha replies:
Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html
On another occasion, the Buddha teaches:
With regard to external factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training, who has not attained the heart’s goal but remains intent on the unsurpassed safety from bondage. A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.1.001-027.than.html#iti-017
And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a layperson, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.054.than.html
Yes, friendship does, at least for most of us, include greater attachment, and the Buddha acknowledges this when he says to a grieving woman, “’Those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred pains.”
He then sings:
The sorrows, lamentations,
the many kinds of suffering in the world,
exist dependent on something dear.
They don’t exist when there’s nothing dear.
And thus blissful and sorrowless
are those for whom nothing
in the world is dear anywhere.
So one who aspires to be stainless and sorrowless
shouldn’t make anything
in the world dear anywhere.
Notice that he did not tell her to give up having dear ones. Rather he solemnly reflects on the profundity of what we all know in common sense, which is that personal suffering accompanies personal love. If you aspire to be free of that suffering, he says, then you have to free yourself from personal love, and I swear I can hear the Buddha in the subtext saying, “So, is that the kind of bliss you really want? Hey, if it is then knock yourself out.”
With these scriptures in mind, listen to the poetry written by Ananda after the death of his friend and teacher, the Buddha:
All the quarters are bedimmed
And the Path is not clear to me,
Indeed my noble friend has gone
And all about seems dark.
The friend has passed away,
The Master, too, has gone.
There is no friendship now that equals this:
The mindfulness directed bodywards.
The old ones now have passed away,
The new ones do not please me much,
Today alone I meditate
Like a bird gone to its nest.
We can hear both Ananda’s suffering and his awareness that his suffering points him back toward the practice of mindfulness, acceptance, and letting go; it bears awareness of both his personal love and a transcendent love. For all of Buddhism’s apparent renunciation of personal attachment, it is not an effort to induce psychological denial. It is not an either/or dichotomy in which attachment is a “wrong” to be avoided at all costs and an emotionally disconnected detachment is a “good” to be purchased at any expense. Rather, I hear an acknowledgment that all at once we can know both the suffering of our personal losses and the bliss of that which transcends holding and losing.
As followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have a number of scriptures that actually extol friendship.
The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life;
a wise person wins friends. Proverbs 11:30
The heartfelt counsel of a friend
is as sweet as perfume and incense. Proverbs 27:9-10
Jesus speaks of friendship as a special relationship:
Greater love has no one than this, to lay day one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:13
Both the Gospels and the apocrypha also allude to Jesus having closer relationships with some of his disciples than others, perhaps even what we might call “favorites” or “best friends,” such as Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and James.
And there is this classic teaching from St. Paul about the kind of friends Christians should be with each other:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Romans 12:9-13
In the first sentence, agape is the word Paul uses for love. Christians conventionally understand agape to be a love that is unconditional and charitable in the broadest sense. The word translated as “devoted” is philostorgos, which means to love each other like family, which is emphasized by the word philadelphia, the love of siblings or the closest of friends. Koinoneo, meaning “to partner with,” is translated here as “share with” pointing to the commitment and depth of hospitality, philoxenia, we should practice even with those we would regard as strangers.
The writers of the New Testament epistles often speak with terms of warmest affection and personal endearment for their colleagues and followers, frequently referring to them as friends, siblings, and children. They apparently found no shame at all in this, and even saw the cultivation of such relationships as central to living their faith. As John says at the end of his third letter:
Peace be with you. Your friends here send you their greetings. Please give my personal greetings to each of our friends there.
Can you imagine the feelings that our earliest siblings in Christ must have felt for each other? It seems to me that the apostles must have missed each other dearly as they each headed off on their missions to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love and grace. They suffered the cruelties and injustices inflicted upon each other, celebrated each other’s accomplishments, and grieved sorely when they heard of each other’s passing, even as they rejoiced at the ascension of their souls. They were human after all, and they loved as humans filled with faith in a love that transcends but does not negate the temporary joys and pains of personal affections.
So, I close this post with gratitude for the blessings of friendship by sharing the words of one of my favorite mystics of the 19th century, Albert Pike:
That I can be a friend, that I can have a friend, though it were but one in the world: that fact, that wondrous good fortune, we may set against all the sufferings of our social nature.
May you all enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving, whenever, wherever, and with whomever you may celebrate it.