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Buddha’s Words: Good Friends on the Path

January 19, 2013
'Two old friends out for a stroll' by smigg44_uk via

‘Two old friends out for a stroll’ by smigg44_uk via

The central thesis of the Buddha’s teaching is that deepening one’s perspective on the world is transformative. In Chapter VII The Path to Liberation of his book, In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi says “It aims to lead the practitioner to the state of liberation that lies beyond all realms of conditioned existence, to the same sorrowless and stainless bliss of Nibbana that the Buddha himself attained on the night of his enlightenment.” (p. 223) This enlightenment is the transformation from suffering to peace and desire to contentment.

This transformation was not merely brought about by a new mental understanding, but through changes in behavior that Buddhists typically characterize as “the path.”  Bhikkhu Bodhi continues: “…the Buddhist path is not designed to provide theoretical answers to philosophical questions.” (p. 223)  It is a practical path anyone can follow at their own best speed.  The various components of the path are designed to complement one another and one may start out with the one most suited. Three broad categories of the path include moral discipline or sila, concentration or samadhi, and knowledge/wisdom or prajna.  Yet, I am coming understand that more important than the aspects path itself, is having others to share it with.

But let’s start at the beginning.  For me, the best starting point one of intellectual curiosity.  Why do people do what they do? This leads me to pursue the path of knowledge and wisdom. It’s brought me quite far, but fundamentally the path is holistic.  It is more than intellectual or mental or physical or social. In response to over-thinkers like me the Buddha refused to answer some questions which are considered central to the doctrines of other religions.  These include questions about whether the universe in infinite or finite or whether an eternal soul exists or does not exist.

These suttas show that all such questions are based on an underlying assumption that existence is to be interpreted in terms of a self and a world in which the self is situated.  Since these premises are invalid, no answer framed in terms of these premises can be valid, and thus the Buddha must reject the very questions themselves.

However, while the Buddha had philosophical grounds for refusing to answer these questions, he also rejected them because he considered the obsession with their solutions to be irrelevant to the quest for release from suffering. (p. 223-4)

It is very easy me to become caught up in intellectual games.  First, it is because I am predisposed to enjoy the jumping jacks of my own mind.  Second, it is because I have few pressing problems to demand my attention.  Despite the stress I bring on myself, I live a fairly comfortable lifestyle, rarely in danger of disease, starvation, deprivation, or violence. Too little suffering can lead to complacency and laziness on the path.  Moral discipline, concentration, and knowledge are not the goals of the path, merely way-stations on the journey to “unshakable liberation of the mind.”  We should not settle for less.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the classical formula for the road to the end of suffering. They are not linear steps, but concurrent components which are often broken down into three groups:

  1. Moral Discipline (sila) – Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood
  2. Concentration (samadhi) – Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration
  3. Wisdom (panna or prajna in Sanskrit) – Right View and Right Intention

The Buddha also provided some advice for what can help us along the path, including spiritual friendship, a description which may serve as a basis for Buddhist chaplaincy and pastoral theology.  This is also very important guidance for me, because it points out that my tendency to introvert, isolate, and assume I can accomplish everything on my own is an inherently dangerous one.  I need other people to aid me far more, in fact, than I need my intellectualism.  This has become increasingly obvious to me over the past years of studying to become a chaplain among fellow Buddhist seekers.  I value my spiritual friends very highly, which drives me to be a spiritual friend to others as much as I can.

This is related to the truth of our existence, which Bhikkhu Bodhi hinted at when he pointed out that the premise that the self and world are separate is invalid.  Later Buddhist schools would take these ideas much further, contemplating emptiness, interdependence, and the common buddha-nature of all beings.  If it is true that we are not as separate from others as we often suppose, then it is reasonable to assume that achieving enlightenment alone is very difficult.  The Buddha himself had several spiritual friends along the path, although he ultimately left them to pursue his own meditations. While we all posses buddha-nature, fully self-enlightened Buddhas are exceedingly rare. Most of us need help of not just teachers, but of fellow seekers.

This social dimension is taking on new meaning as Buddhism and Western culture collide.  Many of the social structures which supported Buddhism in Asia do not exist in America and Europe.  Western society will also change as Buddhism begins to exert its influence, for the better, I hope.  We will all help build this part of the path together.

Anyone can practice the Eightfold Path, but the typical journey to liberation is conceived of as a monastic journey starting with renunciation.  The advice of the Buddha on the gradual training towards enlightenment is therefore often geared toward monks and nuns.  It begins by renunciation and “going forth into homelessness.”  In the monastic sangha one learns the rules of discipline, how to be content with few material possessions, restrain their senses, and cultivate mindfulness and concentration.  In time, the renunciate may abandon their hindrances and cultivate ever deeper states of meditative attainment, culminating in enlightenment.

This model is set forth in great detail in the Pali suttas, however, it is not the model being followed by many American Buddhists, who remain laypeople.  They may choose to practice the Buddhist path through devotion and the traditional support of the monastic sangha or through the cultivation of virtue, concentration, and wisdom through various meditative practices themselves.  Most follow some combination of the above.  Last year, my class on Buddhism in the U.S. began a blog which explored many of these issues: Dharma Dialogue.

However, as detailed as the suttas can get about the nature of the jhanas and the two-hundred-plus rules of monastic discipline, in the end the Noble Eightfold Path is simple – simple but not easy.  In fact, it’s fiendishly difficult.  Which is perhaps why so much has been written about how to follow it, for both laypeople and monastics. Which is why we all need good friends to help us along that path.

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara. There Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

“And how does a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, develop & pursue the noble eightfold path? There is the case where a monk develops right view dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops right resolve… right speech… right action… right livelihood… right effort… right mindfulness… right concentration dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk who has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, develops & pursues the noble eightfold path.

“And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”

-SN 45.2 Upaddha Sutta, translated by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu and available on Access to Insight


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