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The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... between
master and servant, particularly in the form of the relationship between the feudal lord and the
vassal; and this kind of relationship, when developed, gave rise to what we call the feudal system.
In the feudal system the great virtue is loyalty - loyalty to your feudal superior, that is especially
to one’s immediate feudal superior, the one directly above you, the next in the chain up. If you
were a great lord it would be the king. If you were a small landowner it would be the local lord,
or if you were an ordinary servant or ser fit would be your knight. But loyalty was the great
virtue. You’d be prepared and you’d be ready and willing to die for your feudal superior. So
coming to the modern West, to Europe and America, what do we find? Where is the emphasis
here now? In our case the emphasis is very often placed on one’s relationship with one’s sexual
partner, who may not, however, always remain the same person. This is the so-called ‘romantic’
relationship, and it is the central relationship, as we know very well, of many people’s lives. It’s
this relationship which, for many people, gives its meaning and colour to life. One is not usually
prepared to die for one’s lover! [Laughter] Then very often one declares that one cannot live
without the other. [Laughter] And also the romantic relationship is the principal subject matter of
films, novels, plays, and poems. And in the modern West, because of this emphasis on one’s
relationship with one’s sexual partner, other human relationships very often are lacking. They’re
not given the same weight, the same importance. And in particular we neglect our relationship
with our parents, and we neglect our relationship with our friends. We never take them so very
seriously. And we may not even notice that this is what is happening, because we’re so
accustomed to the idea that the sexual relationship or romantic relationship is the central
relationship of human life. We think that this is the way things are. We think that this state of
affairs is perfectly normal. We tend to think that it has always been like that everywhere in the
world, but that’s not really the case. You might even say that this is a distinctly abnormal state of
affairs. And it has one unfortunate result, quite apart from the neglect of other relationships. It
results in us overloading, as we may call it, the sexual-cum-romantic relationship. We come to
expect from our sexual partner far more than he or she is really able to give. If we’re not careful
we expect him or her to be everything for us. We expect them to be our sexual partner, friend,
companion, mother - especially in the case of men, as I understand it - father, advisor, counsellor,
source of security, everything. We expect them to give us love, security, happiness, fulfilment
and all the rest of it. [Laughter] We expect it to give meaning to our lives, and in this way the
relationship becomes overloaded, just like an electric wire becoming overloaded with a too
powerful charge of electricity. The result is that the poor, unfortunate sexual relationship or
romantic relationship very often breaks down under the strain, or at least there are some serious
difficulties. So what we need is what I’ve called a greater spread of relationships. We need a
network of different kinds of relationship, all of which are important to us, and to all of which we
give great care and attention.

So let us go back to the Sigalovada Sutta. Let us go back to the Buddha’s advice to the young
Brahmin Sigala. And specifically let us go back to what the Buddha says about friends and
companions. In the modern West, friendship is probably the most neglected of all the primary
human relationships, but from the spiritual point of view, from the Buddhist point of view,
friendship is extremely important. It has, according to Buddhist tradition, a direct connection with
spiritual life, as we shall see later on. So what does the Buddha say in the Sigalovada Sutta about
Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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friends and companions? He says friends and companions are the lords, and they are to be
ministered to, they are to be served and looked after in five ways. In other words he says we have
five duties towards our friends. If we perform these five duties towards our friends, the friendship
will be kept alive and flourishing.

First of all, generosity, giving, sharing. We should share with our friends whatever we have.
There is a lot that could be said about this. In some of our FWBO communities in England, the
community members have decided on a common purse even. They even share their money. This
isn’t an easy thing to do. Some people find it even difficult to share a book, to share a cup and
saucer. So this is one of the duties we have, according to the Buddha, towards friends, to share
with them whatever we have: time; money; resources; interest; energy - to share everything. So
this is the first of the five duties.

And then, secondly, we should speak to our friends kindly and compassionately. We should never
speak harshly or bitterly to our friends. Never be sarcastic or (unclear). Now in Buddhism, as you
probably know, we have five precepts and ten precepts and so on - and in the list of ten precepts
there are no less than four precepts which cover speech. There is only one for action even, but
there’s four precepts for speech. So why is this? It’s so easy to use wrong speech. Only so easily
we speak a bit roughly, we speak a bit unkindly, harshly even, to our friends. So the Buddha says
the second duty we have towards our friends is to speak kindly and affectionately. Not even in an
indifferent sort of way. With respect and kindness and affection, and this should be something
that we do all the time with our friends. So that’s the second duty.

And then, thirdly, we should look after the welfare of our friends, especially their spiritual
welfare. We should just see that they’re all right. Look after their health, look after their
economic well-being. Should they have any sort of difficulty, help them. Help them to grow as
human beings, help them to develop. So that’s the third duty.

And then the fourth duty is that we should treat our friends in the same way that we treat our own
self. This is a very big thing indeed. It means breaking down the barrier between ourselves and
others. There’s a very important Mahayana Buddhist text which deals with this very topic in great
detail and great depth. That’s the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva. This is very widely studied in
the FWBO. In the course of the last twenty years there have been dozens of seminars held on this
text. One of our Order members, Nagabodhi, the editor of Golden Drum, has specialised in this
text. People find his seminars on this particular text, which he’s given all over the world
practically, very very inspiring indeed. So if ever Nagabodhi gives his seminar on this text, the
Bodhicaryavatara, in Germany, make sure you attend. [Laughter] It’ll really show you how to
treat others, especially your friends, just like your own self. So that’s the fourth duty.

And the fifth duty is, we should keep our word to our friends. Keep our promise. If we say we’ll
do something for him or her, do it. Because very often we are quite careless about our promises.
Sometimes that’s because we make them carelessly. But once we’ve given our word, once we’ve
made a promise, we should adhere to that, come what may.

So these are our five duties towards our friends. But it’s not a one-way matter. These duties, we
may say, are reciprocal. According to the Buddha, all human relationships are reciprocal. So the
friends and companions thus minister to, thus serve, reciprocate, in five ways. They watch over
us when we’re(sick?). Secondly they watch over our property when we’re (sick?). In other words
they take more care of our possessions than we take ourselves. That’s a sign of friendship. And
then thirdly, they are our refuge in time of fear. They can allay our anxiety, and if we have
Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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objective cause for fear they help remove it. And then, fourthly, they do not forsake us when we
are in trouble. As the English proverb says, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’. [Laughter] And
lastly they show concern for our dependants. If we have children our friends are concerned for
our children. Or if we have disciples our friends are concerned, our fellow gurus and teachers are
concerned for our disciples. Because between them, these ten duties of the friend towards the
friend and then their reciprocal duties towards him or her represent a very high ideal of

So let us spend a little more time with ...

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