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The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... the duties, particularly with the first set of five. If we look
at this first set of five duties, we may notice something interesting; that is if we know a little bit
about Buddhism. The first four duties of this set are identical with another well-known set of
categories, a set of categories that occupies an important place, especially in Mahayana
Buddhism. The first four duties of the friend are identical with the four Samgrahavastus, as we
call them. The term Samgrahavastus is usually translated as ‘the four elements of conversion’,
and these four elements of conversion form a part of the seventh paramita, the seventh out of the
ten Perfections to be practised by the Bodhisattva. Some of you may know the Bodhisattva not
only practises the ten paramitas or perfections but passes through ten stages of development. The
seventh paramita or perfection is what is called upayaparamita. Upayameans skilful means, and
the four Samgrahavastus are part of upaya. So the fact that the four Samgrahavastus are called
such - that they are called the elements of conversion - is very interesting. It suggests that the best
way of converting people is simply by being friends with them. Some people try to convert you to
their point of view or their religion almost forcibly. They bring pressure to bear on you, but in
Buddhism that’s not the right path. In Buddhism we convert people - if that, in fact, is the right
word at all - simply by being friendly. We just make friends, and there’s no need to preach to
them. There’s no need to knock on their door and say ‘Have you heard the word?’, whatever that
word is. [Laughter] Quite a few people have tried to convert(?) me in that sort of way. I’m glad to
tell you they didn’t succeed. So if you want to convert someone, so to speak, or to bring that
person on to your path, just be friends, just be generous, just share with them whatever you have.
Speak kindly and affectionately. Show concern for their welfare, especially their spiritual
welfare, treat them in the same way that you treat yourself, and keep your word to them.

So these five things themselves, in fact, constitute a communication of the Dharma. You
communicate the Dharma itself by practising friendship in this way. You could even go so far as
to say friendship is the Dharma, in fact. I’m reminded - this is a little bit out of the way, but I’m
reminded of a saying of William Blake, the great English poet and artist and mystic. In one of
these he says ‘Religion is politics’. In one place he says ‘religion is politics’, and he says ‘politics
is brotherhood’, so that means also religion is brotherhood, the Dharma is friendship. If you’re
practising friendliness you’re not only practising the Dharma, you’re spreading the Dharma. Now
there’s a lot more that could be said on this topic but there’s no time. But I will say a few words
about our fourth duty to our friends and companions, which is also the fourth element of
conversion. In Sanskrit it is samanarthata. In other words, treating our friends and companions
like our own self, treating them equally. Saman means equal. So we could even say that a friend
is, by definition almost, one whom you treat equally, and it’s interesting to note in this connection
that the English word ‘Friend’ is etymologically connected with the word free. I don’t know
whether it’s the same in German or not. [Laughter]

So Friendship is a relationship that can exist only between two, or more, free people, that is to say
people who are equals. The ancient Greeks realised this, and the ancient Greeks maintained that
there could be no friendship between a free man and a slave. We can take this metaphorically as
well as literally. And this brings us to another very important point - the relation between master
Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

Page 5
and slave is based upon power. It’s an expression of what we sometimes call in the FWBO ‘the
power mode’. But friendship is based upon love. It’s an expression of what we’ve come to call
‘the love mode’. Unfortunately the English word ‘love’, L-O-V-E-, is highly ambiguous. It can
mean a number of different things. So here I’m using ‘love’ as the equivalent of the Pali Metta or
Sanskrit Maitri. In both Pali and Sanskrit, metta or maitri is very sharply distinguished from
pema or prema. Pema or prema is what we may call ‘attachment love’. It’s characterised by
clinging and possessiveness. It’s fundamentally selfish, and it can very easily turn into hatred.
And sexual love, of course, is very often of this kind. But metta or maitri is non-attached. It’s
concerned only with the happiness and the well-being of the other person or persons. It’s
unselfish, as we say. So friendship is of this kind. Friendship, therefore, is an expression of ‘the
metta mode’, as we should perhaps call it. Now the Pali word mitta or friend comes from metta,
just as the Sanskrit word mitra comes from maitri. Many of you, I expect, are already familiar
with the word, the Pali word, metta. You’ve heard of it in connection with the Metta Bhavana,
that is to say the development, as a form of meditation, of strong positive feelings of friendliness
towards all living beings. Those of you who have done the metta bhavana practice know that first
of all you develop metta towards yourself. Then you develop it in the next stage towards a near
and dear friend, but not to a sexual partner. And then in the third stage you develop that same
feeling of metta, which by this time is quite strong, towards a neutral person - someone you know
fairly well but you neither particularly like them nor dislike them. And then in the fourth stage
you develop that same metta towards the enemy. Someone whom you regard as an enemy or
perhaps who regards you as an enemy, or both. It might sound incredible that you could develop
metta towards an enemy, but people who have done the metta bhavana practice know, from their
own experience, that it is actually possible. And then in the fifth stage you develop metta towards
all four persons - to yourself, friend, neutral, enemy - and then we can start, as we say, expanding.
You develop that same metta to all the people in the room; all the people in the house; all the
people in the neighbourhood; and your whole country; whole continent; and you do this in so
many different ways. You can say all men, all women. Traditionally we say ‘gods and men’,
because in Buddhism even the gods need your metta. So there are so many ways of practising,
but you end up, hopefully, directing your metta towards all living beings. Not just human beings,
but also animals.

So in this way we develop what we may call a friendly attitude. With the help of this metta
bhavana practice we shift from ‘the power mode’ to what I’ve called ‘the metta mode’. You
know very well that only too often we operate in accordance with the power mode. We try to get
what we want - if necessary even by force. We manipulate other people. We try to get them to do
what we want them to do, and we try to get them to do it not for their good so much as for our
good. We try to coerce them. Very often of course we don’t do this very openly. We do it very
subtly, very indirectly. Some people are very good at this. You hardly know that they are
manipulating you. They don’t know it themselves, some of them. It’s so indirect. We do it by
deception; we do it by cheating, by emotional blackmail, and of course we do it by lying. But in
metta there’s nothing of all this at all. In friendship there’s nothing of all this. In friendship there
is unselfish affection. In friendship there is only concern for the happiness and wellbeing of the
other person, which of course is mutual. In fact in friendship there’s only equality. There’s no
question of operating in accordance with the power mode. No question of using force of any kind.

So from all this we can perhaps begin to see that there’s more in the idea of friendship than
maybe we thought. We can begin to see perhaps that friendship has a very definite spiritual
dimension. We can begin to see the meaning of friendship in Buddhism.

Lecture DE01: The Meaning of Friendship in Buddhism

Page 6
So let’s go a little further. Let’s turn to another early Buddhist text, a Buddhist text that may be
even earlier than the Sigalovada Sutta. Let’s turn to what is called The Udana, chapter Four. In
this chapter of the Udana we find the Buddha staying at a place called Calika. With him there is
a monk called Meghiya. Just the two of them - the Buddha and Meghiya. So one day Meghiya,
who seems to be quitea young monk, happens to see a beautiful grove of mango trees. You may
have eaten mangoes, but I’ve seen many mango groves. In India you ...

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