Spiritual Friends

“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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –

*all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Company

If, while befriending someone, the three poisons increase,

The activities of study, reflection, and meditation degenerate,

And love and compassion disappear,

Then it is the practice of the bodhisattvas to give up this company.”

The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 4. *

The motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

I don’t think this is literally true. It doesn’t sound like it’s the product of some sort of scientific study. BUT I do think he’s getting at something important and in line with what we’re studying here. Who you spend time with has an impact on you in various ways.

My son told me about an incident in school where some he was hanging out with some friends and one of them got in trouble. So what happened? Everyone got in trouble. He expressed exasperation about getting in trouble when he’s not the one that did anything. That can happen to any of us. The message is pay attention to who you spend time with. Don’t spend time with the people who are getting in trouble all the time, because that will spill over onto you.

Atisha says, “One should give up friends who arouse negative emotions and rely on friends who increase virtue.”

We can choose to devote more of our time to being around people that inspire growth. It’s our job to grow and who we spend time with plays a role. This is not to say that you should cut off many of your friends, but I know I’ve seen a common situation in my own life. There was a period where I spent a lot of time with someone who was always making fun of other people and saw the world in a very negative way. And I started to emulate some of that. This was not intentional on my part, it just started to happen. Being around that person was changing me. I don’t see that person anymore. Being around people who don’t want to grow inhibits our growth.

Shantideva says, “Being in the company of childish beings will cause me to praise myself and belittle others.”

So, being around certain people causes the three poisons to increase. What are the three poisons? They’re three things that often get in our way and causes us to suffer. Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. I like to describe them as obsessions. We are obsessed with the things we want, that’s attachment. We are obsessed with the things we want to get away from, that’s aversion. And we don’t see things clearly, that’s ignorance. Sometimes these are called greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s different words for the same concept. If you know someone who’s invested in nurturing these three things in themselves, you’re probably already aware of it. We can try to help someone in that situation, it may even be you. What we don’t want is for someone we spend time with to inspire us to nurture the three poisons.

Instead, we want to nurture our practices of study, reflection, and meditation. These things are safeguards against the three poisons and they help us to generate love and compassion. And the truth is a bad influence can get in the way of these practices. Because, again, if we’re spending a whole lot of time with people that don’t want to grow, it can sap our motivation.

The Nirvana Sutra says, “The bodhisattva’s fear of bad company is not like the fear of a mad elephant. The latter will only trample the body, but the former will destroy the purity of both one’s mind and one’s virtue.”

We are training in Virtue and Wisdom. Good conduct as well as clarity and awareness. That’s what this is all about.

So, this is why the Buddha said that community is very important. Of course it’s important to have a sacred space to go to and a teacher (or teachers) to learn from. But it’s also important to have a community. This is a place you can go to spend time with people who have some of the same personal growth goals that you do. If we spend more time with people like that, then we they can inspire and motivate us.

So we can just think about this when we’re doing anything really. “Is what I’m doing helping me accomplish my growth goals?”

That’s not to say we have to be focused on that all the time. But it is to say that we should be mindful of how much energy we’re putting into transforming ourselves.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

  • all italicized quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Abandon Negativity

Abandoning negative places, disturbing emotions gradually subside;

Being free from distraction, the practice of virtue spontaneously increases;

With brightened awareness one feels confidence in the Dharma;

To adhere to solitude is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 3.*

We need to be aware of where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sometimes in life we just do things and don’t give it much thought. The truth is that everything can be part of our spiritual journey. Actually everything is, whether we like it or not.

What do we mean when we say things like “Abandon negative places”?

Sometimes in life we feel trapped. In a job, in a relationship, in a social group, whatever. Rarely are we as trapped as we think we are. None of that really bind us. In the song “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is the line: “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”

I love that line. It really says what I’m getting at. You are not trapped. You can empower yourself to get out of anything. That’s what we’re talking about here. Staying in a situation that doesn’t serve your growth gets in the way. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to get ourselves out.

I’m being vague on purpose here. I can’t tell you what is or isn’t a negative place. I can’t tell you if your job or your friendships or your relationships are toxic. But you know. With just a little introspection you know exactly what situations would be good to get out of. Also, it’s true there are some outlier situations where people are really trapped. I do need to go out of my way to mention that. Speaking just for myself, I’ve felt like I was trapped and been wrong before. I have usually had more power to get out than I believed I had.

I think we can add habits to this too. What are the habits that keep us away from our spiritual journey? And then what habits can we add to our lives that inspire more practice?

The Ornament of Sutras says:

The place where intelligent ones practice

Is well supplied, an excellent dwelling place,

An excellent soil, endowed with good companions,

And graced by yogic bliss.”

Several years ago I got divorced and I was really struggling. I stopped trying to cultivate mindfulness and virtue and just sort of wallowed in my struggle.

Then I started going to a Buddhist temple all the time, the Rime Center. I wanted to spend some extra time dwelling in a sacred space and also meeting good companions, people with the same spiritual goals that I have.

If you go less often to the places and situations that get in the way of your spiritual journey, then that can really help. If you go more often to the places and situations that help inspire your spiritual journey, then that can help too. I want to compare it to filling your diet with vegetables so there’s less room for chips.

And it doesn’t have to be a temple, of course. Plenty of people feel motivated and inspired by going out to the woods or something. Your mileage may vary, but I think you probably know already what things and places work for you.

I still like to go to the Rime Center to feel inspiration, but I also have a statue garden in my backyard that I can go to for that. Where do you go?

Nagarjuna said, “One remains in a place that is conducive and relies on holy beings.”

The Buddha said that having a community is important. I think he was right. Getting together with other people that have the same goals as us can motivate us in a way that nothing else really seems to. Some people want to put that aside because they’re introverted. I am sympathetic to that, I used to be quite introverted myself and I still am sometimes.

The Buddha’s student Ananda said, “You know, I think spiritual friendship is half of the path.”
And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. It’s the whole path.”

I don’t, however, need to appeal to authority really. I can point to my own life. In the past I spent time with people who looked down on and made fun of others often. And then I stopped. And I could really see my own personal growth, just from getting out of those situations.

That’s really what it comes down to here. Spend time with virtuous people. You don’t have to go to a temple or join a group to find them. You just have to pay attention to the people in your life and dedicate time to the ones who have qualities that you think are positive. That’s it.

Obviously we still have a lot of work to do on our personal growth, but spending time with positive people really puts you ahead.

Spend more time in the places that inspire you. Spend more time with the people that inspire you.

That is how to unleash your potential.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –

*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa