“When relying on the sacred spiritual friend, our faults become exhausted
And our good qualities increase like the waxing moon.
It is the practice of bodhisattvas to value such a sacred spiritual friend
As more precious than their own body.”
–The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 6.*
What is a spiritual friend?
In this context it’s someone with the qualities that we want to embody ourselves. We have the ability to choose who we spend time with. The truth is that if you’re spending your time with people who are trying to be wise and virtuous in their own lives, then it’s a little harder to be a jerk. When we spend time with people that are trying to grow and are encouraging us to grow, that is a great value. And the flip side is if we’re spending time with people that are rude or mean, those qualities will grow in us.
Nagarjuna said, “Through relying on a spiritual friend, pure conduct will be completely perfected.”
There’s a story from the Buddha’s life that I want to share with you.
The Buddha’s assistant Ananda (who was also his cousin and best friend) went up to him and said, “You know, I’m beginning to think that half of the path is just spending time with spiritual friends.”
And the Buddha said, “No Ananda, it’s the whole path.”
I love that story. It really gets at what matters. Being on this growth journey alone is incredibly difficult. It’s so easy to get off track without friends. In the same way people seem to have an easier time getting to the gym and working out when they have a buddy. In the same way support groups really help people that are battling addiction. We don’t need to do this alone.
The spiritual community can be like a support group. Or even just one friend who is trying to grow like you are can be a great help.
I wanted to practice without that community aspect. I am, by nature, more than a little introverted. Social gatherings aren’t my favorite thing and meeting new people isn’t my favorite thing either. It takes me a long time to get comfortable with other people. And I’m telling you that because I am certain many of you struggle with that as well.
I tried to practice Buddhism without a community for a long time and I really regret that. That’s not to say those years were wasted but I could have had so many more opportunities for learning, practice, and encouragement if I had just been willing to utilize what was around me. But I was too busy thinking I didn’t need the support of a community because I didn’t really want to meet people. That seems so silly now. But I know plenty of people think that way. There are a lot of people interested in these kinds of teachings that do not take that crucial step of engaging practice in a community.
But now I think what the Buddha said to Ananda is correct. It is the whole path.
What I recommend is finding a Buddhist community where you live. That being said if there’s not one within an hour of where you live, there are other possibilities. Plenty of people in this world are looking to improve themselves. There are countless Bodhisattvas all around and we just have to seek them out. Go volunteer at a charity. That’s a good way to meet virtuous people a lot of the time.
The people we spend time with can water the seeds of good qualities in us.
There’s another meaning to “spiritual friend” in this context. It can also mean teacher. It’s good to have a teacher. It’s good to have someone that’s been working at this stuff longer than you that can advise you and maybe point to trouble spots.
But in my personal opinion having a community is significantly more important than having a teacher to look up to. The truth is we can all learn from each other.
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*all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa