Sunday, March 01, 2015

True friendship - from a Buddhist viewpoint

The definition of a friend has changed in today’s technologically connected world. Today we may think we have many “friends.” It is true: we do enjoy the ability to be informed and to stay current with what is happening in the lives of many of our acquaintances as well as current and former friends and even people we have not met personally whom we call our friends.

In the context of social media, the term “friend” is often used to describe contacts rather than relationships. You have the ability to send your “friends” a message, but this is not the same thing as having a relationship with a person one on one.

Sometimes our preoccupation is on having friends. Perhaps we should focus on being a friend.


There are many definitions of what it means to be a friend. The signs include a mutual desire for companionship and perhaps a common bond of some kind. Beyond that, genuine friendship involves a shared sense of caring and concern, a desire to see one another grow and develop, and a hope for each other to succeed in all aspects of life. True friendship involves action: doing something for someone else while expecting nothing in return; sharing thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or negative criticism.

True friends influence those with whom they associate to “rise a little higher [and] be a little better.” You can help one another, prepare for and serve honourable missions. You can help one another remain morally clean. Your righteous influence and friendship can have an eternal effect not only on the lives of those with whom you associate but also on generations to come.

The Japanese have a term, kenzoku, which translated literally means “family.” The connotation suggests a bond between people who’ve made a similar commitment and who possibly therefore share a similar destiny. It implies the presence of the deepest connection of friendship, of lives lived as comrades from the distant past.

The question then arises: why do we have the kind of chemistry encapsulated by the word kenzoku with only a few people we know and not scores of others? The closer we look for the answer the more elusive it becomes. It may not in fact be possible to know, but the characteristics that define a kenzoku relationship most certainly are.

What draws people together as friends? I can think of four major reasons

(1) Common interests. This probably ties us closer to our friends than many would like to admit. When our interests diverge and we can find nothing to enjoy jointly, time spent together tends to rapidly diminish. Not that we can’t still care deeply about friends with whom we no longer share common interests, but it’s probably uncommon for such friends to interact on a regular basis.

(2) History. Nothing ties people together, even people with little in common, than having gone through the same difficult experience. As the sole glue to keep friendships whole in the long run, however, it often dries, cracks, and ultimately fails.

(3) Common values. Though not necessarily enough to create a friendship, if values are too divergent, it’s difficult for a friendship to thrive.

(4) Equality. If one friend needs the support of the other on a consistent basis such that the person depended upon receives no benefit other than the opportunity to support and encourage, while the relationship may be significant and valuable, it can’t be said to define a true friendship.

Buddhism teaches us that the Buddha considered living in harmony and friendship without disputes an important human relationship based on love. Metta (loving kindness) envelopes much more than mere love. In other words, a friendly spirit which is edified, not only on love, but on metta.


In the modern society, the word “love” has become a cheap connotation, but metta when taken in its real perspective, includes all the noble human feelings a person could shower on another.

People influence each other in subtle and complex ways. Therefore, it is important to develop the ability to discern the nature of that influence. According to Buddhism, a truly good friend is someone with the compassion and courage to tell us even those things we would prefer not to hear, which we must confront if we are to develop and grow in our lives.

Ananda, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, once asked him: “It seems to me that by having good friends and advancing together with them, one has already halfway attained the Buddha way. Is this way of thinking correct?”

The Buddha replied, “Ananda, this way of thinking is not correct. Having good friends and advancing together with them is not half the Buddhist way but all the Buddhist way.”

Friendship provides children with more than just
fun playmates. They learn important social skills.

This may seem surprising, as Buddhism is often viewed as a solitary discipline in which other people might be seen as more of a hindrance than a help. However, to polish and improve our lives ultimately means to develop the quality of our interpersonal relationships - a far more challenging task than any solitary discipline. Our practice of Buddhism only finds meaning within the context of these relationships.

Bad friends

When we raise the question how to recognise good friends, how to distinguish good advisors from bad advisors, the Buddha offers us crystal-clear advice. He explains the difference between the companionship of the bad person and the companionship of the good person.

The bad person chooses as friends whose conduct is marked by an absence of shame and moral dread, who have no knowledge of spiritual teachings, who are lazy and unmindful, and who are devoid of wisdom. As a consequence of choosing such bad friends as his advisors, the bad person plans and acts for his own harm, for the harm of others, and the harm of both, and he meets with sorrow and misery.

In contrast, the Buddha continues, the good person chooses as friends and companions those who exhibit a sense of shame and moral dread, who are learned in the Dhamma, energetic in cultivation of the mind, mindful, and possessed of wisdom. Resorting to such good friends, looking to them as mentors and guides, the good person pursues these same qualities as his own ideals and absorbs them into his character.

Thus, while drawing ever closer to deliverance himself, he becomes in turn a beacon light for others. Such a one is able to offer those who still wander in the dark an inspiring model to emulate, and a wise friend to turn to for guidance and advice.

The Buddha has explained how to win and keep friends. By being generous one can surely win friends and also by being courteous and benevolent. Rejoice in your friend’s achievements, praise any commendable acts and strong points. But the Buddha says that if you always keep on talking of your friend’s goodness, kindness, greatness and so on, then you are trying to deceive him. In dealing with friends, one’s word should be as clean as the actions.

By Lionel Wijesiri - Sunday Observer