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Duties of Friendship in Buddhism

by Priyavadita

Duties of Friendship in Buddhism

By Priyavadita

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM492
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2001

Spiritual friendship and shared ideals; The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam by
Al-Ghazali; why duty?
Thank you Jnanavajra. Ok, so this is an introduction to the retreat but it will probably
be a fairly full talk – I’m not quite certain how long it will be but make yourselves
So, the basic theme of this retreat is spiritual friendship, spiritual friendship, Kalyana
Mitrata. So, as we’ve already been exploring on the weekend that has preceded this,
it’s the friendship, the association, the brotherhood that you can develop with others
with whom you are treading the Buddhist path. Those who share your ideals and
share, to some extent, your commitment to Buddhist ideals; who, to some extent, go
for refuge to the Three Jewels. That’s the way we usually talk about it.
The Three Jewels being:
The Buddha: the ideal of human Enlightenment. That being an ideal that we can all
aspire towards and move towards.
The Dharma: the Truth which the Buddha perceived when he gained enlightenment.
Also, the path that he communicated to enable us to experience that enlightenment for
And then there’s The Sangha: the spiritual community. In particular, it really means
as an ideal, “the community of those possessing insight.” And in a sense the type of
communication and association and brotherhood that those people have.
Okay. Each night on this weekend we’re going to be hearing talks, talks about
specific spiritual friendships that are drawn basically from the Buddhist Canon. So
we’ll be hearing about some of the Buddha’s friendships. The Buddha was, in a
sense, the primary spiritual friend or Kalyana Mitra. So we’ll be hearing about some
of his friendships with some of his disciples. We’ll be hearing about some of those
disciple’s friendships with one another and we’ll also be hearing about the friendship
which existed between Milarepa and his teacher, Marpa, coming from the Tibetan
tradition. So, you’ll be hearing one of these talks each night. Hopefully, they’ll
provide us, well, with a certain amount of inspiration; you know when we actually
hear the stories of these friendships, certain duties could be drawn out of them and
I’ve no doubt that our speakers will actually do that. There are certain duties we can
draw from those stories that we can actually apply to our own lives and to our own
practice of friendship.
The title of this retreat, which I think came up with Katannu – I think Katannu
actually suggested this, I can’t quite remember – “Duties of Brotherhood in
Buddhism.” It’s a sort of bastardisation of a book title and it’s a book that comes
from the Islamic tradition, strangely enough, a book known as “The Duties of
Brotherhood in Islam.” Those of you who’ve been here on the weekend, I think
you’ve heard that mentioned, I think Paramabandhu mentioned it last night. It’s by a
Sufi writer, known as al-Ghazali, “Duties of Brotherhood in Islam.” This book is one
which Sangharakshita once led a seminar on. The reason being, that although it’s a
book from the Islamic tradition, it’s actually got a lot to say about friendship which
we as Buddhists can actually draw on and make something of.
So, tonight by way of introduction to this particular retreat, I just want to first of all
explore the question of duty. Why do we talk in terms of duty, for example, with
regard to brotherhood? Why even think in those terms? I want to explore that
question. Perhaps because, well, for some of us, thinking in terms of duty with regard
to friendship and brotherhood is a rather unfamiliar thing to do. We might be more
inclined to think in terms of rights, you know, what we would get from friendship. So,
it may be a little bit unfamiliar to think in terms of duty. Again, this theme has kind of
come through on the weekend already and, in a sense, actually, there is probably
nothing that I’m going to say in this talk tonight that you didn’t hear, well for
example, last night. Paramabandhu covered quite a lot of the ground that I cover but
it’s worth actually just hearing it again.
Anyway, I’m going to explore this question of duty and I’m going to do that by
looking particularly at an essay that Bhante, Sangharakshita, wrote many years ago.
It’s in a collection of essays known as “Crossing the Stream.” It’s published as
“Crossing the Stream.” The essay itself is entitled “Rights and Duties.” It’s a very,
very important little essay and there’s a lot in it. So I’m going to look at what he’s got
to say in there, or at least some of what he’s got to say in there, and then I’m going to
make a few general points about duties in friendship, this question of duties in
friendship, and then I’m going to finish by just saying something about the program
that we’ll be following for this retreat and how to engage with it and get the most out
of it, and how well we can use it to really explore the practice of friendship. Because
in the end friendship is not something that you theorize about, friendship is something
that you do, that you engage with and you experience.
Ok, so first of all, the general question of rights and duties.
Rights and Duties - an essay by Sangharakshita; attitudes to rights in the west -
parents, consumption
So to orientate ourself towards this question, what we really need to ask to begin with
is “what are rights and duties?” What are they? When we use these words what
exactly are we talking about? So, let’s see what Bhante’s got to say in his essay. I’ll
just read a little bit now:
“Human relationships are not only reciprocal but complementary. The concept of
Father cannot exist without the complementary concept of child and the ideal of ruler
is meaningless without the corresponding idea of subjects for him to rule over. The
two ends, so to speak, of a human relationship are in fact as inseparable as the two
ends of a stick. Just as we may run our hand either from the top to the bottom or from
the bottom to the top of the stick so, in human relationships, we may precede either
from ourselves to others or from others to ourselves, considering either what is owed
by us to them or by them to us. The first comprise what we call duties, the second
what we call rights but the relationship nevertheless remains in itself an indivisible
So just to reiterate what he’s saying there. Rights and duties are basically an intrinsic
aspect of human relationship, of which, friendship, brotherhood, Kalyana Mitrata, is
one example. There’s the aspect of what we may expect from others - what’s, as it
were, due to us from others - and that’s rights. And there’s the aspect of what others
may expect from us - what we owe others, as it were - and that’s duty.
So then he goes on to say this:
“The idea of rights with duties or duties without rights is, therefore, an absurdity, a
palpable contradiction in terms, for the two are in reality one, being nothing but the
same object looked at from different points of view, approached from different ends.”
So, rights without duties and duties without rights is an absurdity, it ignores one or
other of the poles of the human relationship, which doesn’t really make sense. If you
just insist on rights you’re ignoring or you’re negating other. If you just insist on duty
you’re ignoring or negating self, you know, duty without rights. Rights without duties
you’re negating other.
At different times and in different cultures one pole or other tends to be emphasized,
and one pole or other tends to get lost sight of, and in our own culture, something that
Bhante goes on to argue, we’ve tended to lose sight of the pole of duty and we tend to
insist on the pole of rights. That’s kind of the general trend. And this is worth
reflecting on, it’s worth reflecting on a lot, because it’s going to rather twist our
perception of the whole question of rights and duties in any given relationship and it’s
certainly going to twist our perception of rights and duties in friendship, and there’s a
number of mistakes we may make if we’re not clear about this.
So, for example, we can easily, perhaps, recall not getting from our parents what we
ought to have done or, at least, what we thought we ought to have got, what in a sense
we had a right to. And it’s very easy to forget that actually we’ve got a duty to our
parents, so we can sort of insist on the rights, perhaps, that we felt weren’t fulfilled
and forget that actually we’ve got a duty towards our parents. It’s a very common
problem and we forget, for example, to look after them when they get older. They are
your parents after all.
So, I’m not trying to argue that the notion of rights is a bad thing. Children actually do
need certain things from their parents and there are problems ...

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