Taking Your Practice To The Next Level: Seeking Comradeship
Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi
The Buddha did not take life out of the context of its social and human-driven necessities, but looked at it as a whole, in all its various aspects. You only need to understand the lessons embedded in The Four Ennobling Truths to know the reality of this. Those that think Buddhism is only interested in the more lofty ideals, philosophical thought, or spiritual experiences, and ignores the everyday social responsibly for self and other, above a practice totally interested in experiencing enlightenment, are wrong. This is a sad misconception due to a lack of understanding of the teaching of the Buddha, and perhaps helped along by how the media portrays Buddhism in iconography language. I hope that by now you have come to realize this on your own as you listen to how much Wayne Sensei and I speak about the dharma of human-living. The Buddha was interested in the happiness of human kind. But he knew such a life was challenged sometimes by social situations. So Buddhism recognizes the need of certain social conditions that are favorable for leading both a happy life free of suffering, and for spiritual success as well.
Engaging Buddhism as a social practice recognizes the importance of the social-self characteristics of what it means to be human. In order to achieve this we need to get out and do some “engaging”. When this happens with earnest-intent we quickly learn that it is better done with others. We need support you see, not just in our acts of giving of time and services, but in very personal ways as well. We need good friends that understand us and that provides the wise comradeship that acts as a solid foundation to steady our practice. With friends at our back, we can proceed with the knowledge that the love we receive from them, will pass though us to those we come to help.
The monk Ananda who was very close to the Buddha as his cousin, and senior attendant, sometimes acted as the straight man in the sutras by often asking questions and giving answers that had to be frequently corrected by his teacher for innocent mistakes. One day after Siddhartha complemented the Sangha for supporting his own practice, Ananda hurried to him with a great discovery and said, “Venerable Sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” “Not so Ananda,” replied the Buddha. Ananda looked surprised. He thought, you see, he had this one figured out. The Buddha continued the teaching by saying, “This is the entire holy life, when a monk has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade. It is expected that he will develop and cultivate the Nobel Eightfold Path.” This, of course, is not only a lesson for monks, but for all those on the Buddhist path, the path of engagement. In fact, it is not just a lesson for Buddhists. It is a human lesson.
The lesson to find here is that if we want to develop in our practice, we need a friend that is wise and pragmatic enough to be our Buddha-guide. We can find them in real life as well as in the past. Although Siddhartha Gotama has been dead for a very long time now, we can utilize his teachings as they come down to us in the Nikayas and the legacy Cannon as instructions on how to find spiritual friends. What might our spiritual friends be like?
A primary consideration is one of caution. We must choose our friendships wisely because who we spend time with affects us. Look at your own experiences, and you will know this is true. The environment we create around us is a key factor on how others see us, and how others choose to connect or not with us. Birds of a feather sort of thing. Who we spend time with, and what we do together affects our body-mind. Our experiences effects how we think, what and how we speak, and what we care about, and will shape our values and our worldview too. Because how we can be influenced, the Buddha suggested that we choose to associate with wise companions who will support our spiritual path. This probably highlights four of the eight spokes of the Eightfold Path alone.
The Buddha mentioned four characteristics of what to look for in a wise friend and associate. They must be helpful, trustworthy, intelligent, and sympathetic. A helpful friend is someone that will look after us and what we value most, and one that helps us when we are experiencing stress or moments of uncertainty. When our friends are trustworthy they take us into their confidence and will also keep our trust by not letting us down. An intelligent friend is someone who points out what is good for us, prevents us from doing stupid things and supports us in making smart choices. And finally, someone that is sympathetic will listen to our problems as well as show happiness for our good fortune, and speak up for us when others show us disrespect.
The Buddha would praise these kinds of friends because they live their life with integrity and bring forth all these qualities out in us as well. Those we choose to be our comrades will encourage us to be fully ourselves without any ego-driven distractions. Our dharma brothers and sisters on this path of ours will act as mentors at times by acting a little smarter than we would have on our own. Let me quickly say that our friends do not have to be Buddhist themselves, but individuals that share our own worldview, and live their life by acting with high ethical and moral standards. We must learn to change how we have connected with others now that we have made the determination for perfecting a Buddhist practice. Not that how we had selected associates before was wrong, but that we must awaken to the necessity to use a different set of parameters that guide how we interconnect with others during this formal development process. We must not be distracted. It is most important to learn that we can not do this alone. It is not impossible, but the path is much more difficult if we do.
While the Buddha instructed us on how to connect with other like-minded individuals seeking the spiritual path, he also warned against the opposite kind of individual: the unwise companionship. He said that we need to be careful not to connect with fools who are unwise, blameworthy, and unskillful. He used the word “fool” a lot, at least as the Sanskrit word is translated into English. Sometimes we think of a fool as someone who makes us laugh, but in Buddhist terms, a fool is a person who is untrustworthy, has little integrity, and influences us in harmful ways. The idea here is that if we hang out with them we become a fool too.
The Buddha mentioned four kinds of foolish people, those that are self serving, empty-mouthed, hypocritical, and of bad influence. Someone that is self serving is one that takes advantage of us, acts out of fear, and tries to get what they want out of us. We become pawns in their self-centered life. An empty mouthed person is someone that tells us what they are going to do for us and than never does them. They can not be trusted and only speak in empty words. Hypocritical individuals are those that praises us to our face but talk negatively about us behind our backs. And finally, those that are of bad influence will encourage us to take actions that do not support our practice, like using intoxicants, stealing, and any immoral behavior in general.
What is interesting about the behavior of fools, is that they are strongly disapproved of by those of our friends that are wise and caring. In other words, we know a fool when we encounter one. We might have an intuitive sense that they are untrustworthy even when they are speaking to us about things we approve, but we have strong doubts that they believe what they are saying. We might find that some of these people are fun to be around, and I am sure they are, but on the other hand they are not good for our practice in the long run. Our life is short, and time is fleeting, we no long have time to live in two dimensions; the old and the new. We must move on. And sometimes that is not so easy to do, and in some cases, it might be necessary to take actions that are less positive for others, but necessary for our own spiritual development. Here is a question to ask yourself, “When I am with my friends do I get to be me?”
Sometimes in a Buddhist practice we are confronted with some hard choices based on the criteria set out in the Eightfold Path doctrine. And that includes an assessment of who we are currently interconnected too, and have chosen as friends prior to making the conscious decision of stepping on this path of ours. Perhaps you have not thought of this before as something that pertains to us directly. When I was a probation officer I often counseled those assigned to my supervision to get rid of those so-called friends of theirs that were often the motivation for trouble. Find friends that will help you on taking a new path away from this destructive one you are on, I would say to them. But it’s true, this advice might pertain to us as well now. Yes, we are not in trouble, and our life is not on the opposite side of social norms, but those we select as comrades must not be inhibitors to our Buddhist goals either. This may be the time to reevaluate the people in our lives, and ask the question again, “ When I am with my friends do I get to be my new self?”, or do I feel alone with no one to talk to about how my worldview is changing?
When we seriously make the decision to begin to follow the Buddhist path,
we often are unaware of how this spiritual practice will, over time, change the view of the world around us, and our relationships in it. Not just with people, I might add. Our values, our preferences, the way we speak and act around others; all this will reflect our new view on life. And if we do this in earnest, those closest to us will notice the difference too. This is why it is very important to work with those in our life, especially our family and those we love, to let them know what is happening and get their understanding and support. If this does not happen, you will start to feel more isolated and alone. When you ask for quite time in order to meditate, and you disappear into your “sacred” space, others might not appreciate what is happening, and resent the increasing time you spend away from them. Especially spouses and children. So, seek a buy-in from your family and close friends, let them know they are as important to you than ever, maybe even more important now, and they will give you their support. I have personally found children respond in positive ways to anything new and different, and if they are included, your new path will be joyful. In my Maryland Meditation Center I often would have children ages 7 – 12 join our Sunday mediation session from their adjacent Churches Sunday-school room along with the Rector, and they could sit for five minutes, sometimes ten, quietly. Especially if I let them take turns ringing the ching-bell. So, try including your children, if you have them, in your meditation sessions at home. You might be surprised in their willingness to participate.
On the other hand, when no one around us meets our criteria for a wise companion, choosing isolation may be the greatest act of wisdom. The Buddha said, “If you do not have a wise companion, solitude is best.” Some of us might naturally prefer our own company to that of others. But please remember, that a Buddhist practice is one of engaging the dharma as social beings. We are challenged to find ways to include others in our practice. But sometimes we are isolated and want it to be different. If solitude is not a state that feels comfortable to you, how can we connect with good companions?
If we desire wise friends, it is up to us to make an effort to find them. It requires action on our part. It may mean finding and attending local Buddhist groups in your area on your own, something you would never have done alone before. It may require you to step our of your comfort zone and take risks. You might find the courage to make the first move in contacting someone that you find interesting and wise. In order to find a wise companion, you must also undertake to be a wise friend yourself, and present yourself to the world as someone worth getting to know. When we have the intention of bringing quality individuals into our lives, and when we start to be one ourselves, it is interesting how they seem to come out of the woodwork. This is karma in action. It only takes one connection to be connected with their network, then another, and yet another. And all of a sudden you will realize that your connected with more people that you could have imagined a year ago.
Another aspect that often comes up when discussing change on the path, is that of “they don’t understand me anymore”. I know this from my own experience, and I think Wayne Sensei can speak to this too, as we develop our spiritual lives, our friendships can get more complicated. Commonly, when we begin a meditation practice, we may worry that our friends will think we are weird or won’t understand what we are doing. In my own experience, when I began my own practice I was willing to talk about it with my friends, even when they did not show much interest. I quickly learned this was a big mistake. Because they did not have a reference point upon which to consider my leap into Buddhism, they fell back on what all humans do, they considered I was moving away from their tribe. In other words, without even knowing it, I was disconnecting from them. What to them seemed a sudden fascination with an exotic religion, was in fact, something I had been studying and researching for years, off and on. To me it was a logical next step, to them it was just uncomfortable. I found that even if my friends were not Buddhist, a lot of them practiced some of the principles of Buddhism, without all the Zen-speak. Some were wise, compassionate and serious minded, and I learned how I could relate to that and talk to them without sounding like a Buddhist evangelist. However, it became clear to me that many of my friends did not want to talk about Buddhism, so I found others with whom I could talk.
Sadly enough, I did let some of my friends go. Well, we drifted apart was more like it. Some individuals didn’t understand me any longer and over time I stopped seeing those people. I sometimes felt a sense of loss at the time, but I simply accepted the inevitable. And slowly, more and more spiritual friends came into my life.
The Buddhist term kalyana mitta (kah-lee-ah-na meet-ah) is used to mean a spiritual friend who is a peer or supportive friend throughout our spiritual journey. For me, Wayne Sensei is such a friend and dharma brother. This friend helps us over the rough parts of the path, directs us when we have taken a shortcut, inspires us when we get stuck, and shares our quite time in our intentional practice. It is important that this friend, when speaking to us, is direct, specific, but non-punishing. We need our own practice-critic to see beyond our own limitations, and when our path becomes foggy.
Eventually, as we commit more and more energy to our practice, our group of spiritual friends increases. This is especially true when we join a Sangha, like here at the Buddha Center. When I think about the things I am most grateful for in my life now, my friendships is at the top of the list. As the Buddha urged us to acknowledge, wise comradeship can be all of our spiritual life through awakening to the reality of the doctrine of interconnectiveness, and interdependence. We inter-are with all beings. Finding and staying connected with others is yet another gem to discover on this path to liberation.
And finally, let me close with these three sayings from the Dhammapada.
#76 The disciple should associate with a wise friend, who detects and censures his faults, and who points our virtues as a guide tells of buried treasures. There is happiness, not woe, to him who associates with such an intelligent friend.
#77 The man who exhorts, instructs and dissuades his follow-men from unworthy acts is dear to the virtuous and hated by the wicked.
#78 Do not keep company with evildoing friends nor with people who are base; associate with the good, associate with the best of men.