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The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism Urgyen Sangharakshita

Originally given in Berlin with a German translation (Not transcribed)

[Transcriber’s note: the microphone seems to have been placed close to, or in, the audience when recording this talk
which means that some words have been difficult to identify. I hope this does not interrupt your study in any way]


Dharmapriya, our chairman, has already referred to the fact that, standing here with all these
lights, the speaker cannot see the audience. And I’m sorry to say I can’t in fact see you. I can see
just a very few people sitting in the front, and beyond that there’s only darkness. But I imagine
you sitting there, and I’m very happy indeed to be addressing you on this occasion; on the
occasion of my first visit to Berlin, the undivided Berlin. And it gives me great pleasure to be in
the midst of all our Friends, not only members of the FWBO, but others who have come along
this evening to this talk. It’s very natural that we should gather together in this way, because man
is a social animal, and to be human at all means to be related to other human beings. The first
other human being to whom we are related, to whom we become related, is of course our mother.
That relationship is very intimate, very close, and the effects of it remain with us usually for the
rest of our lives. Then as we become a little older, of course, father comes into view. So there’s
mother and father. And then perhaps, if we have brothers and sisters, they also gradually come
into view. And then of course, if we’re fortunate, there are grandparents. [Laughter] Then of
course there are aunts and uncles. I personally had many aunts and uncles! I think I had about
twenty aunts and uncles! [Laughter] And, of course, if there are aunts and uncles there will
usually be cousins. I had many cousins.

So all of these people with whom we are in contact at that early age make up the family circle.
And then of course there are neighbours, the people who live next door. People who live in the
same street. People who live over the way. And when we become four, five or six, well, then
there are teachers. There are schoolfellows, and of course there are friends. And of course,
inevitably, in most cases as we grow up, finally, there are husbands and wives. And of course
children. And then of course there are employers and employees as we enter the sphere of work
and employment. There are our work-mates. There are government officials, bureaucrats, rulers.
And so in this way, by the time we reach maturity, we find ourselves in the midst of a whole
network of relationships. We find that we’re directly related to scores, and perhaps hundreds, of
people, and we are indirectly related to very many more; the friends of our friends, the relations
of our relations and so on.

So this network of relationships, as we may call it, is the subject matter of a very important
Buddhist text. It’s a comparatively early text, and the substance of the text at least goes back, we
can be reasonably certain, to the Buddha himself. This text is found in the Pali Canon, in what is
known as the Digha Nikaya or Collection of Long Discourses, and the text itself is known as the
Sigalovada Sutta. That means the discourse, by the Buddha, of advice to Sigala. So who is
Sigala? Sigala is a young Brahmin. He belongs to the highest caste, that is the priestly caste. They
were very important and influential in the Buddha’s day. An introduction to the sutta tells us that
the Buddha happened to meet the young Brahmin, Sigala, early one morning, and it seems that
Sigala had just taken a purificatory ritual bath. The Brahmins, it seems, attached great importance
to these purificatory ritual baths. They were always dipping in the river, reciting mantras,
purifying themselves. They do this even today. You can see if you go, say, to Varanasi, to
Benares. So Sigala had just been doing this, and as a result his clothes and his hair were
streaming wet. So, having taken his purificatory bath, Sigala is engaged in worshipping the six
Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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directions. He was worshipping the North, the South, the East and West, and the Zenith and the
Nadir. And the sutta tells us that he was worshipping them in order to protect himself from any
harm that might be coming from them. Why was he doing this? We are told that he was doing it
because his father, at the time of his death, had told him to do so. So, being a very pious son, he
was obeying that instruction. Bu tit seems that the father had not explained why he should do this.
So the young Brahmin, Sigala, was just doing it. He was doing it, we may say, blindly. And when
the Buddha asked him, ‘Why are you doing it?’, he couldn’t say. So the Buddha said, ‘What you
are doing is all right but it is not really the right way to worship the six directions.’ The Buddha
said, ‘That’s not really the way to protect yourself.’ He said Sigala hasn’t understood what the six
directions really are.

So the Buddha proceeds to explain, and with that explanation the sutta proper begins. The
Buddha says that the East, for instance, is not just the direction in which the sun rises. The East
means mother and father. In Pali and Sanskrit and other Indian languages, by the way, mother is
always put before father.

The Buddhist scriptures always say ‘mother and father’. They never say ‘father and mother’. I
just mention this in passing as a matter of interest! Perhaps it has a significance.

The Buddha says that mother and father are the East because it’s from one’s mother and father
that one takes one’s origins, just as the sun originates, so to speak, in the East. [Laughter] But in
the same way, he says, teachers are the South; child and wife are the West. Here, of course, child
always comes before wife. That also may have some significance. [Laughter] And then the
Buddha says, friends and companions are the North, and servants and workers are the Nadir; and
ascetics and holy men are the Zenith. So, having explained that, the Buddha says that true
worship of the directions consists in carrying out one’s duties towards these six kinds of persons.
In this way, the Buddha says, one protects oneself. One protects oneself in this way because
acting in this way one is acting ethically. And ethical actions, he says, are productive of

So, in this way, the Buddha sees man as being at the centre of a network of relationships. In this
sutta, of course, the Buddha does not enumerate all the possible human relationships. As we’ve
seen, he enumerates only six, corresponding to the six directions. But these six which the Buddha
enumerates represent the six primary relationships of human life, even though they may not all be
of exactly equal importance. So in this way, in this sutta, in the advice to Sigala, the Buddha
envisages a fairly widespread of human relationships. And in the discourse, in the sutta, the
Buddha does not emphasise any one kind of relationship more than the others. He seems to give
all of them equal emphasis. And in this respect, we may say, the Buddha is characteristic of his
culture. That is to say the Buddha is characteristic of the culture of North-East India in the sixth-
century BCE.

Now other cultures in other parts of the world, in other ages, were rather different in this respect.
Some of these other cultures emphasised one kind of human relationship more than the others. In
ancient China, for example, very great emphasis was always placed, especially in Confucian
times, on relationship between parents and children. Especially, emphasis was placed on the
duties of the children towards parents, and what we call, nowadays, filial piety was regarded by
the ancient Chinese as one of the greatest of the virtues. According to some Confucian writers
filial piety was in fact the greatest of all the virtues, and in classical times even monuments were
erected to sons and daughters who were conspicuous examples of filial piety. This is very strange
now. In modern times it might almost be the other way around. [Laughter] The children who
Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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were disrespectful to parents might get monuments! [Laughter] But in ancient classical China it
wasn’t at all like that. Sons and daughters who were conspicuous examples of filial piety could
even be officially honoured by the government. They might be rewarded or recognised with a
title, or given a large piece of land, or an archway named after them might be erected. They were
so pious and respectful towards the parents.

So similarly, in medieval Europe, the emphasis was rather placed on the relationship ...

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