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Duties of Friendship in Buddhism

by Priyavadita

... if they don’t get them,
so I’m not trying to argue that. They need love, they need security, they need moral
instruction and so on. But if you insist on rights and you ignore your duties it’s going
to lead to problems, especially the problem of selfishness. That’s primarily what’s
going to happen; you’re going to become very selfish. And also, it’s going to lead you
into a situation where you’re going to lack the ability to take responsibility because
you’re kind of waiting around all the time for someone to give you your rights, so
you’re unlikely to take responsibility. Not only that, but you’re likely to blame others
for not meeting your needs and so you’re going to give way to resentment. That’s
another problem that then arises, you’ll give way to resentment.
Another example. These days, we’re very readily able to think about our right to
consume what we wish to consume, when we want it. We’re very familiar with that
right. We’ve been told that we’ve got that right all the time. It’s very easy to get on
with it, as it were. But what about our duty towards the environment? What about
taking responsibility for the consequences of that consumption? Do we think like
that? This is very, very important and if you don’t think like that you’re missing a
whole dimension of ethics and, in a sense, you are being very selfish and you’re
potentially causing a lot of harm to others without actually realizing what you are
doing. I could give you lots and lots of examples of this sort of tendency in our
culture. The growing compensation culture, that’s another example of it. There’s
loads of things you could think about there, but I won’t say any more about that.
Visiting another culture – Indian health and safety
I suppose the thing is, that this sort of conditioning to think in terms of rights rather
than duty becomes very, very apparent when you visit another culture that isn’t like
that. So, I’ve had a bit of an experience of this going to India. I went to India in 1997 and basically, the culture is just not like that. They orientate themselves quite
differently and there’s a lot of expectation that you perform your duty and it comes
down to certain very basic things.
The area that I noticed it most strikingly was in the area of health and safety. We’re
kind of used in this culture to everything being reasonably safe. It’s not like that in
India, and in India there is no one to sue and blame and get money back from if you
have an accident. It’s your problem. I remember being in Pune just after I’d arrived
and I was going for a walk with Suvajra and he just pointed out, “Look, just keep an
eye on the pavements, will you? I know in the UK pavements are nice and flat and
they’re sort of safe and you can just sort of walk down the road and nothing is likely
to happen to you. You can’t make that assumption here. There are going to be all sorts
of often very large holes that are just unmarked. There are going to be sometimes
loose flagstones which, when you step on, will pitch you into whatever is underneath
and quite often that will be the sewer which, believe me, is not a great place to end up
in India, all right?” He was just sort of warning me, “Take responsibility. Don’t
assume you’ve just got a right to walk down the street without paying attention to
where you’re going. You haven’t got that in India, it’s not there.”
The other really striking example of this, I visited the Taj Mahal with Mokshapriya
and we were walking around the back of the Taj Mahal and there’s this sort of big
marble sort of walkway, quite a wide marble walkway. There’s hundreds and
hundreds of people, at points even thousands of people, all sort of milling around on it
and at the back of this big marble walkway is a big drop, I mean like about 40 or 50 foot onto another marble walkway. And there’s this little balustrade that’s
approximately about that tall – so it’s about shin height. So you imagine, that you’ve
just got to walk back against it and you’d be pitched over. I was quite shocked by this.
I actually found myself getting really angry, you know sort of “Well, we’ve got a
right to safety!” It’s like, well, you haven’t got that there; you haven’t got that in
India. If you fall over, that’s your problem, you’re going to have to accept the
consequences. So you know, it kind of really showed me, that type of thinking, just
how deeply rooted that kind of thinking was in my psyche, living in this particular
culture. So it’s a very, very useful way of showing yourself that.
But the point I’m driving at is that we just need to be aware that within our culture we
tend to insist on rights over duties. We forget about duties and we insist on our rights
and this has a very, very all-pervading effect on the way that we view all sorts of
things, including friendship, including that relationship.
Performing duties rather than expecting rights; generosity and Enlightenment;
duty as a gateway to freedom
Bhante then makes a further point:
“But just as in the case of a walking stick, although its two ends are inseparable, so
that one is unthinkable without the other, it is nevertheless the handle of the stick that
must be grasped, not the tip. Just so in human relationships; it’s duties that must be
performed rather than rights that must be demanded, even though the two are in fact
inseparable so that one necessarily follows from the other.”
So not only must we be careful not to insist on rights without duties, we must think in
terms of performing duties rather than getting our rights. This is what Bhante is
saying here. So the question arises, well why? And why, particularly as practicing
Buddhists, is this an important point?
So Bhante makes another point about the importance of duties here. I’ll just read this
out:
“Duties consist in what is due from us to others and are based upon giving, whereas
rights consist in what is due from others to us and are based upon, from the subjective
point of view, upon grasping and getting. The performance of one’s duty does not
mean merely the grudging recognition and half-hearted rendering of what is legally
or even morally due to one’s family and friends, social or national group, political
party or religious organisation but in the unobstructed flow of one’s love and
compassion over the whole world. Duty is not, as the poet apostrophises her, ‘the
stern daughter of the voice of God’ but the sweet child of the realisation of emptiness,
sunyata, within the depths of our own heart.”
So, basically what he is saying is that practicing your duties is in accordance with the
goal, from a Buddhist point of view, because it focuses on what is due from us to
others. It causes us to orientate ourselves towards others, so rather than towards
selfishness, towards generosity. And the complete absence of selfishness, that’s
Enlightenment; the complete fulfilment of generosity, that’s Enlightenment. Whereas,
if we take the opposite stance, if we insist on our rights, we head in the opposite
direction, we tend towards selfishness.
So Bhante’s got something else to say about the importance of duties. This is another
important point:
“The former, i.e. duties, depend upon ourselves and are therefore swift and easy of
accomplishment. The latter, i.e. rights, depend upon others and are therefore tardy
and difficult if not impossible of achievement. Rights are wrested forcibly from other
human beings outside but duties are softly and sweetly laid upon us by the voice of the
divine, our own potential Buddhahood reverberating within.”
So, when we look at the question of rights and duties like this, what we see is that
duty, contrary to perhaps our usual way of looking at it, is not some sort of a
restriction that is imposed upon us but is actually a gateway to freedom and the more
we can see it like this, the more we are going to make spiritual progress, the more we
are going to move towards freedom from selfishness and the fullness of generosity.
So that’s rights and duties, two aspects of human relationship: two intrinsic aspects of
the same thing. Rights is what others, as it were, owe to us. Duties is what we owe to
others. One without the other is an absurdity and we need to be aware that within our
culture we tend to emphasize rights and underplay duty. But for practicing Buddhists,
and ourselves as practicing Buddhists, to the extent that we are, it needs to be the
other way round and this is a very, very important point because that’s in line with our
goal.
Duty leads towards self-transcendence and it also leads towards the active taking of
responsibility because it’s something you can do. You don’t have to wait around for
others to do it, you can take responsibility and get on with it.
Befriending; Aristotle's threefold classification of friendship as discussed by
Subhuti; utility, pleasure, the Good
So, the next thing is to apply this to the question of friendship. What this basically
means is that friendship ...

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