It can be easy to think Buddhist practice is individualistic and solitary. Teachings on being mindful of oneself and taking responsibility for one’s actions can seem to emphasize a focus on oneself. The practice of sitting in meditation with one’s eyes closed can also suggest that Buddhism is about separating oneself from society. While certainly an important part of the practice is personal and inwardly focused, this is only a part of what Buddhist practice is about. A much more significant part of the practice is interpersonal; it concerns the rich world of our relationships with others. In fact, the interpersonal teachings and practices of Buddhism create the context and the foundation for the inner, personal practices such as meditation.
Though many people don’t start Buddhist practice this way, traditionally it is said to begin with creating healthy relationships with others. This part of the path is usually called training in sila or virtue. Sila is concerned with all aspects of our everyday behavior, especially in the ways that our actions involve relating with others. It is about having all our relationships be helpful and supportive for others as well as for ourselves. In some descriptions of the Buddhist path, sila begins with the practice of generosity. Done wisely, practicing generosity creates a healthy relationship between the giver and receiver. As this is at the beginning of the Buddhist path, it underscores that our social interactions are an important part of Buddhism.
The practice of living by the precepts, as one aspect of sila, is also about our interpersonal relationships. It is the practice of training to develop caring, compassionate relationships with others rather than harmful ones, generous ones rather than greedy ones, honest ones rather than dishonest ones.
The Buddhist emphasis on cultivating loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity includes developing caring and empathic attitudes toward others. With practice, these attitudes become the orientation for everything we do and the very motivation for doing the more solitary practices.
An important part of the interpersonal aspect of Buddhist practice is having spiritual friendships. The Buddha emphasized this when he said that the precursor for the Eight Fold Path is having good spiritual friends (kalyana mitta). These are the people with whom we share the practice and who support us in the practice. While it includes our peers on the path, the term kalyana mitta is also a common expression for a Buddhist teacher in our Theravada Buddhist tradition. For us, a teacher is more a friend than a guru, more a supporter than an authority figure.
The idea that good friendships are the precursor for the path of practice was particularly important in the pre-literate times of the Buddha. Since there were no books that would introduce people to the teachings and practice, the introduction always came in person, through a “good spiritual friend.” In our times, the easy availability of books on Buddhism makes it possible for people to begin their practice without personal contact with another person. While this is certainly a useful development, it is easy to lose sight of the important context that direct human relationships create in learning about the Buddhist teachings and practice.
It can be very helpful to have examples of other people’s practice. Undoubtedly, some people can learn to play a musical instrument through instructions in a book. But to watch how others play the instrument can enhance their learning. In the same way, seeing people demonstrate how Buddhist teachings can be practiced and expressed can provide important lessons for how we can practice.
Friends on the path also provide support and encouragement. Without practice friends, one can feel isolated and even a bit odd in one’s community for being the only person who meditates, or doesn’t gossip, or doesn’t drink alcohol. Knowing others who practice and who share the same values can sometimes make the difference between practicing and not practicing.
Good friends are important sources of feedback. This can happen gradually as we see ourselves mirrored by others. Our mindlessness can be seen more clearly if we are around mindful people. Our lack of ethical behavior can be highlighted by being with more ethical people. Our conceit about our understanding or our practice can become clear when we are with people who hold themselves lightly or who show no support or interest in our conceit.
Feedback can also occur explicitly. By developing friendships we can create the trust and goodwill that allows for frank discussions about our behavior, our practice, and our understanding. It is quite common for others to see things about ourselves that we don’t see. Having these things pointed out can be extremely helpful. The longer the friendship, the better our friend knows us and so the more likely the feedback is well informed.
Dharma friendships are also wonderful places to have Dharma discussions. To explore the teachings and our experiences in practice through conversations with others can deepen our understanding in many ways. It can bring us new perspectives, questions and areas for further investigation. To have these discussions with people who know us well adds to the value of these conversations.
Often enough it is not easy to create good spiritual friendships. It requires both patience and deliberate effort. Probably the single most helpful way to create friendships is to be friendly. Try to cultivate some authentic acceptance, warmth, interest, and caring for others. Become a good listener, and when asked, be willing to reveal yourself to others. Spiritual friendships grow with honesty. If we pretend to be “spiritual” or if we hide what we are really feeling or thinking, real friendship can’t grow. If we share how we are practicing, including both our successes and our shortcomings, then people will have a better chance of getting to know who we are.
It is interesting that the near enemy of friendship is flattery. In Buddhism, a near enemy of an ideal is that which looks like the ideal but actually detracts from it. A flatterer can seem like a friend but actually is undermining the possibility of a real friendship. Honesty nourishes friendship, undeserved praise does not.
Friends create an important context for any individual’s Buddhist practice. Hopefully, friendship shows that we don’t just practice for ourselves. We also practice with and for our friends, community and others. Friendships also teach us that the fruits of practice are not something we keep for ourselves. They are something that we share. We can be good friends to others. As we become freer we are thereby granting greater freedom to others, at least in terms of liberating them from having to contend with our greed, hatred, and prejudices. Mindfulness, love, and the path of practice can be the channels through which we have meaningful relationships with others. And meaningful relationships, in turn, support us on the path to greater mindfulness, love and awakening. It is my hope that we all cultivate friendships that support us in our practice.