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15 Points for Friendship

by Paramabandhu

15 Points for Friendship by Paramabandhu

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM491

Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, May 2001

When Priyavadita asked me to give this talk, at first I was very pleased, I think primarily because I like thinking about the practicalities of the spiritual life. I find it quite hard to bend my mind towards the theory of it unless there is a definite practical relevance to that theory. So at first I thought: 'Oh, great, I'll be very pleased to do this talk.'

And then I had second thoughts about it. Not because I think friendship is unimportant - I feel very strongly that friendship is very important - but, in terms of friendship, in terms of that aspect of the spiritual life, it is not something that I tend to think about in terms of how you do friendship. I have certainly given a lot of thought to 'how do you meditate', or 'how do I practice the Dharma when I'm in the workplace', but 'how do you do friendship' is not something that I've really thought about.

It almost didn't feel right to think about it, from a certain point of view, because there is the irony that trying to think about 'how do you do friendship; what are the nuts and bolts of friendship?' seemed to make it sound all rather mechanistic. I think of friendship much more as a flower that may bloom given the right conditions, perhaps; something that is organic, not something that you can mechanically 'do' or make happen. So it somehow didn't feel quite right for a moment to talk about 'how to do friendship'.

Anyway, having accepted the talk, I felt I must just go ahead and do it! So I have come up with 15 points. It's not a recipe for friendship; it's certainly not a prescription for friendship. It's not meant to be dogmatic. It is perhaps some guidelines; some suggestions. And it's certainly not exhaustive either. I just hope there will be some pointers to think about and reflect on in terms of moving towards developing and sustaining friendships.

So, I've got 15 points. I'll read them first of all and then go through them one by one:

1. Take the initiative, and take an interest.

2. Don't expect friendship.

3. If you like someone, make friends with them.

4. If you don't like someone, make friends with them.

5. Friendship - or at least spiritual friendship - is not based on the romantic ideal.

6. Work together.

7. Go on retreat together.

8. Live together.

9. Eyeballing is not the whole story.

10. Help your friend.

11. Be faithful.

12. Befriend their family.

13. Try to understand your friend from the inside.

14. Be prompt to resolve conflicts.

15. Base your friendship on common spiritual ideals.

I'll go through those one by one. The first few are mostly to do with how one goes about starting friendship; the ones after that are more about developing and maintaining friendship.

1. Take the initiative, and take an interest

It seems to me that it is very important that we take initiative if we want to be effective in terms of developing friendship. I remember in my pre-Buddhist days, in my first year at university, I was particularly drawn to a group of people in my year in the college, where one person in particular was a guy called Jeremy who I was attracted to - he seemed a very talented person. So I just kept going along and hanging out with that group of people and taking an interest in some of those people, including Jeremy.

And in the second year I remember Jeremy made a comment about the fact that he was a friend of mine, and we were friends - and I was surprised, because I hadn't expected it. It was what I wanted, but I almost hadn't dared hope that he and I would become friends. He seemed much more talented and charismatic; he seemed to have lots of qualities that I didn't have, and it just seemed unlikely that we would become friends.

But it seemed to me, reflecting back on it, that it had largely come about simply because I had wanted to become a friend of his and I had taken the initiative - I just kept taking an interest in him.

I think it is unlikely that you are going to develop friendship if you don't take initiative. It is insufficient to wait around for other people to come and make friends with you - you have to do the running. Perhaps especially with Order members, you need to do the running.

So, even if you are a shy person - a lot of people feel shy, they lack self-confidence - it is terribly important to try and overcome that in whatever way you can, and take some initiative. This is true for everything. It's our life - if we want something, we have to do it. If we wait for things to be provided for us, we will probably just end up feeling resentful. This is certainly the case with friendship; we need to go out to other people.

And again, in the case of Order members, very occasionally you can be an Order member and get the experience of feeling that you are seen as a sort of friendship-providing machine, but actually we're just human beings trying to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha - just as you are trying to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So we need to take the initiative, particularly by taking an interest.

If you don't take an interest in the other person I don't think friendship is going to happen. I don't know if you have had the experience of being with someone where you feel they are not really interested in you, and you think, 'I'd quite like to have a little cardboard cut- out I could just park here and I'll come back later...' - so we need to try and take an interest in the other person.

2. Don't expect friendship

My second point, 'don't expect friendship', is sort of a counterpart to 'taking the initiative'.

When I was thinking about this talk I was reminded of a poem about compassion, by Bhante. The poem is called, 'The Unseen Flower', and although it is about compassion I think it applies very much to friendship, in a way:

'Compassion is far more than emotion. It is something that springs up in the emptiness which is when you yourself are not there, so that you do not know anything about it. Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it. If they knew it, it would not be compassion. But they can only smell the scent of the unseen flower that blooms in the heart of the void.'

I think friendship is a bit like that. If you go trying to grasp after it you won't find it. It is something that blooms mysteriously if you are not actually looking for it.

So we need to take initiative, we need to take an interest in the other person, but not expect anything back - certainly not expect that friendship is going to happen. It may well happen, and in my experience it often does happen, but we can't necessarily expect it to happen, and if there is a very strong 'wanting friendship', that will tend to put people off. All we can do is set up the conditions in which friendship may bloom, but it is a bit like when you are growing something - you can't keep pulling the thing up to see if the roots are growing; it just doesn't work.

A related thing to that is that friendship takes time. Friendship is really the work of years rather than weeks or months. It takes a long time, I think, for friendship to really mature. One can think of friendship as 'prolonged mutual metta'. We can start developing metta right away, we can start being friendly to people right away, but it needs to be prolonged, and mutual, before friendship can really bloom, really happen.

So we have to have a balance between these first two points: on the one hand taking initiative, taking an interest in other people; but on the other hand not expecting friendship necessarily to happen. Taking the initiative, but holding that lightly. I sometimes feel that my general motto about things is 'hold them lightly'. It's certainly true in terms of pursuing friendship.

My next two points are a pair that I borrowed and adapted from Ratnaguna's talk on '15 points for Dharma study'...

3. If you like someone, make friends with them

Often we feel attraction to people: it may be because we have a similar background to them, we have a similar interest with them, we have similar life experience, or we may be attracted to their appearance, their personality, their qualities, their virtues.

I suggest we make use of that attraction. It is good glue to get us going. Real friendship is so rare in this world, it is good to use anything that can help. Any sort of attraction, if it brings you into relationship with someone, well, use it.

Eventually you will need to go beyond it, because real friendship is not just based simply on that attraction, except perhaps a mutual attraction for real virtue - we could see that as an attraction that is a real basis for friendship - but most of our likes are really quite superficial in terms of attraction. But we can use them, so let's use them as a starter, even though we must eventually go beyond them.

4. If you don't like someone, make friends with them

Just as our likes of people are often quite superficial, quite often our dislikes of people are relatively superficial too. Someone in the group was giving me a nice story of how he disliked someone because he was a bit balder than he was. He eventually realised that. And it is ...

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