Monday, 8 April 2013

The Reality of Spiritual Friendship

This talk was given at Triratna Order Day in Cambridge Buddhist Centre    April 7th 2013

We have all heard the story about Ananda and the Buddha. Ananda says to the Buddha that he has realised that Kalyana Mitrata is half the spiritual life and the Buddha responds – "say not so Ananda, say not so, it is the whole of the spiritual life.

Here is how it is told in the Samyuta Nikaya and following this story the message is repeated and emphasised in a dialogue between Sariputta and the Buddha.

"Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Shakyans where there was a town of the Shakyans named Nagaraka. Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side and said to him . Venerable sire, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.

"Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a Bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the noble eightfold Path. And how, Ananda does a Bhikkhu who has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, develop and cultivate the noble eightfold Path? Here, Ananda, a Bhikkhu develops right view, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. He develops right intention – right speech – right action – right livelihood – right effort – right mindfulness – right concentration, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion and cessation, maturing in release. It is in this way, Ananda that a Bhikkhu who has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, develops and cultivates the Noble Eightfold Path. By the following method too, Ananda, it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship: by relying upon me as a good friend, Ananda, beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to ageing are freed from ageing; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. By this method, Ananda it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship." Samyutta Nikaya ,p. 1524

I have realised that although I have been familiar with this story for a long time and have accepted it on a superficial level, I am not sure I have ever really fully believed it. So I thought I'd use this talk is an opportunity to reflect on this exchange between Ananda and the Buddha and explore what it might mean in practice if one was to fully accept and act on the assertion that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.

I want to start my reflections by trying to clarify what we mean by the spiritual life, then I want to explore what the Buddha meant by Kalyana Mitrata and hopefully that will help to show that Kalyana Mitrata is indeed the whole of the spiritual life.

The spiritual life is the phrase we use to translate Brahmacarya and it's worth noting that it's not a literal translation. Brahmacarya is an image, spiritual life is a concept. Brahma is in Indian mythology the king of the gods – so Brahma stands for that which is highest in the universe. From a Buddhist perspective that which is highest in the universe is Nirvana, Buddhahood, Enlightenment; so the Brahmacarya is the Buddhacarya or the Bodhicarya. We have come across the term Bodhicarya before – as in the Bodhicarya avatara. Carya is the way, as in the path or the practices or the methods or means. So the Bodhicarya is the way or the means to Awakening. If we say Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the Brahmacarya, this means that Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the Bodhicarya – the whole of the way or means to Awakening. The means and the end are not separate – the end is included in the means – so that which is the whole of the way is also the whole of the goal.

What Is Awakening? It's worth noting that it's an image – a metaphor of waking up from a sleep. Shakespeare says "our little life is rounded out by a sleep" – however the Buddha says our life is one big sleep and we need to wake up. The metaphor of sleep and waking only partially works, because of course we cannot stay awake permanently. Sleep is essential to our well-being, whereas Bodhi is a permanent Awakening And when the Awakening that is Bodhi happens, it is not possible to go back into the sleep of ignorance. Ignorance is not essential to our well-being. What the metaphor is really doing is trying to give us a feeling for the experience of realisation or spiritual awakening, by saying it's like waking up from a deep sleep. It's contrasting two states that we are familiar with – sleep and wakefulness - to hint at what Bodhi is. Nirvana is also a metaphor – the blowing out of the fires of the passions. Enlightenment is another metaphor – bringing light into the darkness.

After his awakening the Buddha spoke of his experience in terms of liberation from the rounds of rebirth – another metaphor and he spoke of the house builder who had been seen and could no longer build the house – an image of discovery a revelation. Conceptually, probably the most familiar description of the Buddha's insight is in terms of pratitya samutpada – the law of dependent origination or conditioned co production – or more simply the law of conditionality. The Buddha saw or experienced or woke up to the fact that everything arises in dependence upon conditions and ceases when those conditions cease or in other words he saw or understood or experienced or awoke to the fact that everything is impermanent and insubstantial.

The Brahmacarya is the way or the means leading to this insight into or experience of the nature of reality. The spiritual life is the life that is lived as a means of reaching this insight this vision, experience or realisation of reality.

So when it is said that Kalyana Mitrata is all of the spiritual life, a definite link or connection is being made between Kalyana Mitrata and pratitya samutpada, a definite link or connection is being made between Kalyana Mitrata and impermanence and insubstantiality. A definite link is being made between Kalyana Mitrata and all those metaphors pointing to the Buddha's experience – Awakening, nirvana, liberation from rebirth, bringing light into the darkness, destroying the house of ignorance – all of these are linked to Kalyana Mitrata and the Buddha seems to be saying that Kalyana Mitrata is essential, indeed the most essential element needed if we are to achieve this insight or realisation. It would appear therefore that it's important to get a grasp of what is meant by Kalyana Mitrata.

Mitrata means friendship (Mittata in Pali) and is of course related to Mitra meaning friend and maitri meaning friendliness. In the Pali English dictionary Kalyana Mitra has two meanings – one general and one more technical. Here is how Subhuti describes it in his book on spiritual friendship, "the Pali Text Society's Pali English dictionary offers two definitions of Kalyana Mitra. The first one is 'a good companion, a virtuous friend, an honest, pure friend.' Such a friend is said to 'have faith, be virtuous, learned, liberal and wise.' In the second sense, a Kalyana Mitra is 'a spiritual guide, a spiritual adviser.' In this case there clearly is an unequal or hierarchical aspect to the relationship: a guide must be someone whose spiritual knowledge and experience are superior to one's own". Subhuti, Buddhism and Friendship, p.25.

The phrase Kalyana Mitrata encompasses both of these meaning and this corresponds to what Bhante calls horizontal and vertical friendships. Vertical friendship refers to the relationship between teacher and pupil and the Buddha refers to himself as a Kalyana Mitra in the story quoted earlier from Samyuta Nikaya.

The other use of Kalyana Mitra seems to be often combined with two synonymous phrases  kalyānasahāyo and kalyānasampavanko which are translated as 'good associates, good companions' by John D Ireland. Sometimes the word 'comrade' is used. This usage emphasises a personal relationship. In the Rhinoceros Horn Sutta, which is often taken to be an exhortation to live in seclusion – what the Buddha actually says is – if you can't find a good friend then you're better off living alone.

"If one finds a wise friend, a companion living according to good virtues, prudent and having conquered all dangers, then live with him happily and mindfully. Certainly we praise the acquisition of friendship and friends – those who are either higher or equal in attainment or development should be associated with. Not finding such friends enjoying blameless food, let one live alone." Saddhatissa, Sutta Nipata, 1985, p.5.

This aspect of Kalyana Mitrata as a personal relationship is further emphasised on other occasions by the Buddha. For example in the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha gives a teaching to his lay disciple Dighajanu:

"And what is good friendship (Kalyana Mitrata)? Here – in whatever village or town a family man dwells, he associates with householders or their sons, whether young or old who are of mature virtue, accomplished in faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom; he converses with them and engages in discussions with them. He emulates them in regard to their accomplishment in faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom. This is called good friendship." Nyanaponika & Bodhi, Numerical Discourses,1999, p.221.

On another occasion the Buddha speaks to King Pasenadi. He tells the King the story of how Ananda came to him saying that Kalyana Mitrata was half the spiritual life and he recounts his response to Ananda. He continues – "therefore, great King, you should train yourself thus: I will be one who has good friends, good companions, good comrades. It is in such a way that you should train yourself." Samyutta Nikaya, p.181.

Kalyana Mitrata covers a spectrum of relationships from friendship with fellow aspirants who are pursuing the path with us – this is the spiritual community whether lay or monk and the spectrum goes through to teachers, guides and Awakened Ones. The Buddha seems to be saying all of this is essential – all of this wide spectrum of Kalyana Mitrata is the means to bodhi – is the whole of the Bodhicarya. This is the beginning, middle and end of the spiritual life.

To understand this better I think we need to explore more deeply and in more detail what the Dharma life is about. The Buddha talks about his realisation in terms of liberation from the rounds of rebirth, he also speaks of it in terms of discovering the builder of the house of ignorance and of being like finding a lost city in a great jungle. Then in what seems like more conceptual terms he talks about his realisation in terms of pratitya samutpada.

"When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases."

This insight that everything arises in dependence upon conditions is to be applied to our human predicament. What is the human predicament? The human predicament is that our lives are unsatisfactory and the ways in which we go about trying to find happiness and security don't work and then we die. As Woody Allen puts it:

"Life is full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness and it's all over much too quickly." Woody Allen. Annie Hall, opening scene.

Here is how Vishvapani puts it in more Buddhist terms:

"Dukkha encompasses all the unsatisfactoriness that is inherent in life, and the sense that something is awry even when things go well. For Gautama, this was more than a mild unease: it was a shattering awareness of aspects of reality he had previously ignored. He had a remarkable talent for identifying the universal truths in particular experiences, but he may have been helped by spiritual teachings heard in Kapilavastu. He later quoted powerful verses, attributed to an ancient teacher called Araka, which say that human life vanishes as quickly as
  • the dew drop on the tip of a blade of grass –
  • a bubble on the surface of the water –
  • a line drawn on water –
  • a river that has arisen faraway in the mountains –

the life of humans is brief and fleeting and full of pain and despair, the verses continue. You should heed advice, do what is wholesome practice the spiritual life; there is no escape from death". Vishvapani, Gautama,2012, p.32.

So the question for Siddhartha and the question for all thinking human beings is what can we do about this state of affairs. What is life about really?

Dukkha arises in dependence on conditions. Therefore if we can discover those conditions and eradicate them we can destroy Dukkha. When the Buddha looked deeply into his mind he saw that craving and attachment were root causes of suffering. So the question becomes, how do you remove craving and attachment from your mind?

Craving and attachment are so strong because of the notion of a fixed permanent and substantial self, - so this notion, which is ignorance, is also a cause of suffering. And because of the notion of self there is also a strong urge to protect that self and this gives rise to aversion and hatred.

So this unholy threesome of belief in self that is fixed and permanent, craving to satisfy that self and aversion to protect that self – these three are causes of suffering. But these go very deeply and cannot be dismissed just by saying so.

First it has to become ever more clear to the individual who wants to be free that the fixed and permanent self is not real. Pratitya samutpada applies to the self – it says everything is process and what we think of as 'I' or 'me' is also a process – an ever changing process. So first we need to see that. And to see that we have to become aware of our own experience in more and more subtle ways.

We need to become aware of the fact that we do have the notion of a fixed, separate permanent self – more than a notion – a deep attachment and we need to become aware of how we build and protect and enhance this sense of self – this sense of I and me and mine. However, There is a danger here too – if we spend a lot of time and energy on the self or ego – trying to undermine ego clinging or thinking in terms of 'my ego does this or does that' we can inadvertently create more self and more ego.

Bhante warns about this in his new book – Living Wisely:

"The language we use can be less than helpful when it comes to the ego. Expressions like "transcending the ego" can create a lot of confusion by apparently fixing something non-existent in the form of an apparent object of knowledge. The result is nonsensical: we talk of getting rid of something that never existed or even denying this object of intense interest and concern any reality at all. The ego we say is not real. If we are not careful, we can spend a lot of time talking about something that does not exist in such a way that it becomes more real to us than it was before we started making so much of it."
Living Wisely, 2013, p. 25.

Bhante's remedy for this is as usual quite clear and simple. He says:

"If our gut feeling is that we have or are a self, it can feel as if the Dharma is going to take something away from us that is central to who we are, when in fact the Dharma is there to help us see ourselves, whatever we may be, more clearly. Instead of challenging ourselves to explode our deluded conception of the self directly, it may be more helpful to think of breaking out of the closed circle self interest that is the emotional expression of our delusion. We can think of expanding that circle through the cultivation of Metta or lovingkindness until our self interest is absorbed in a concern for the welfare of all living beings. Overcoming ego is not just an idea; it is an experience, a way of life." Living Wisely, 2013,p. 23.

So we want to be aware of our ego identity in the sense of being aware of when we are closed in on ourselves, when we are too self concerned, or self obsessed, but at the same time we want to avoid that awareness becoming another form of self-centredness of self obsession. "The ego is a way of behaving a kind of revolving on our own axis",  as Subhuti puts it. To free ourselves from this we need to behave differently, more expansively – as Bhante puts it "by going out of yourself, by orbiting around something bigger than yourself".

Bhante goes on to say: "Instead of saying that the ego does not exist or that it is not real, you could say instead that to be constantly turning in upon yourself is not the most satisfying form of existence. There are better options available to you. Instead of saying to yourself "just drop the ego", you can say, "let yourself open up a little" or even "let yourself go". To the extent that you think of others with genuine concern, you are non-egotistic. Even if you are just thinking of your own wife and children, that is an important step towards being non-egotistic. Thinking about your family is certainly a more effective way of beginning to realise the truth than just reading about it and understanding it intellectually." Living Wisely, 2013,p. 26.

In the Buddhist tradition there are methods for doing this more systematically as a practice. For me it has been the Ratnasambhava practice – which is all about expansiveness, abundance and richness. There is also the practice of exchanging self for other in different forms – Bodhichitta practice, tonglen, Brahma Viharas.

Because self view is a delusion – other-view is also a delusion and because this is the nature of reality the implication of realising this reality is that we become naturally compassionate. By practising compassion in the form of exchange of self for others and developing empathy we begin to embody the wisdom of pratitya samutpada.

Coming back to the theme of spiritual friendship, it is perhaps obvious, that if we are to practice exchange of self for other we have to begin with those others who are closest to us. There is no point in making practice more difficult than it has to be. It should be easier to practice exchanging self for other with close friends and then in time we may be able to extend that further and further until it encompasses all beings.

As Subhuti puts it: "we can start to practice the exchange of self and other simply by being more and more mindful of the needs of our friends, and putting them before our own. Whenever one makes some kind of sacrifice, and gives up something for the sake of a friend, one takes another small step forward on the path of transcending self: one enters more deeply into the friends subjectivity and lets go attachment to one's own. In Anuruddha's words, "why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable one's wish to do?" Subhuti, Buddhism and Friendship, 2004, p.110.

Any shraddha, any motivation to spiritual practice, must include a spark of compassion. Those who see and experience the human predicament as a spiritual problem already have sufficient imagination to see that this is not just their personal predicament. Those who consider what is a universal predicament to be their very own predicament, will look for solutions that in the end won't work. Those who lack the imagination to see the predicament at all will not be motivated to a spiritual path.

Siddhartha was motivated by his own suffering – mental, psychological and existential suffering – but he also saw that his predicament was a universal problem so there was the spark of compassion in his quest from the beginning. Most of us will have had something of this experience even if we were only dimly aware of it.

After his enlightenment the Buddha's life is all about sharing his insights with others and doing what he could to help them to alleviate their suffering. Compassionate activity is the expression of the wisdom that sees the impermanence and insubstantiality of self and others.

You may have wonderful peak experiences in meditation, but unless they manifest in the world as friendly, kindly activity, they are of no greater significance than getting drunk.

You may study the Pali canon, the Sanskrit sutras and all of Tibetan Buddhism, but unless it leads to friendly, kindly activity in the world, it is of no more significance than reading a newspaper.

Buddhism makes no sense without compassion or to put it more explicitly in terms of today's topic – Buddhism makes no sense without Kalyana Mitrata. As Bhante puts it in Living with Kindness:

"Metta and insightare not separate aims. Indeed, Metta is a necessary aspect of insight, and with reflection on the real nature of Metta, insight will shine through. Having developed Metta in a limited sense as an equal kindness towards others, you can go on to reflect on whether there is really any difference between yourself and others and, if so, what that difference might be. Thus reflecting, you will begin to see that the idea that ' I am I' and ' he is he' is no more than a delusion, and in that way Metta begins to blend with insight."  "When Metta is experienced in this fully expansive mode and is universal in its scope, there is no experience of a self that is separate from anyone or anything else. To speak of oneself at this stage is almost a contradiction in terms. Forgetting the self as a reference point, no longer asking what any given situation means for you alone, you can go on indefinitely and happily expanding the breadth and depth of your interest and positivity." Living with Kindness, p. 134 &136

Kalyana Mitrata whether vertical or horizontal, whether we are guiding or teaching others, learning from others or being mutually supportive is all part of the flow of compassionate activity and that's why it is the whole of the spiritual life.

At the beginning when we can only be receptive, our motivation for wanting to learn has within it the spark of compassion. The unease, the Dukkha, which propels us to take up the spiritual quest is not just a purely personal unease – it is an intuitive sense that life has meaning beyond our current understanding and experience.

And with a bit of luck or is it merit, we find someone, or a group to teach us the path and put our yearnings into context and our first experiences of Kalyana Mitrata are of being helped by those more experienced.

Each one of us can probably make a list of those who helped us get started on the path. Some who had not much more understanding than ourselves, some who had vastly more understanding, some we met only through books or videos, some we had very personal relationships with. I think immediately of Danavira,Vajracitta, Atula, Dharmarati, Cittapala, Sumangala, Jayamati and many more who looked out for me when I was torn and troubled in those first few years.

They all acted in a selfless way with great kindness and got precious little back from me as I was so self obsessed and troubled by psychological conflict. It was my first experience of Kalyana Mitrata and I was mainly unaware of it and often ungrateful. Only later did I realise how much people had done for me and experience a great deal of gratitude. I try to be aware now of what is being done by others that benefits me – they may not even be trying to benefit me in particular but I am a recipient of a lot of selfless acts on the part of many people. Of course there are also people who do give to me personally and often I find myself receiving help in my spiritual practice from people who don't know that they are helping me – I'm inspired by someone's enthusiasm, chastened by their ethical sensitivity and encouraged to reflect more deeply by their questions.

Kalyana Mitrata is the living out of the compassionate project of Buddhism, the project of friendly and kindly activity. For Order Members it means sharing our experience of living the spiritual life, whether in our chapters, in one-to-one conversations or in formal teaching situations. Our participation in the life of the Order can be Kalyana Mitrata, our participation in the life of the local centre can be Kalyana Mitrata, all of our interactions have the potential to be Kalyana Mitrata.

Finally, and I will finish with this, here is how Bhante sums up this whole topic with his characteristic clarity and simplicity. I am quoting from The Essential Sangharakshita.

"The Brahmacarya or spiritual life is that way of life that leads to the Brahmaloka or spiritual world. But how is it able to do this? To fully answer we must turn to yet another early Buddhist text: in the MahaGovinda sutta we find in it this very question being asked: "how does a mortal reach the immortal Brahma world?" In other words how can one cross from the transient to the eternal? And the answer given is short and simple. "One reaches the Brahma world by giving up all possessive thoughts, all thoughts of me and mine." In other words, one reaches the Brahmaloka by giving up egotism and selfishness, by giving up all sense of I. Thus the intimate connection between spiritual friendship and spiritual life starts to come into focus. Spiritual friendship is a training in unselfishness, in egolessness. You share everything with your friend or friends. You speak to them kindly and affectionately, and show concern for their welfare, especially their spiritual welfare. You treat them in the same way you treat yourself – that is, you treat them as being equal with yourself. You relate to them with an attitude of Metta, not according to where the power between you lies. Learning to relate to our friends in this way, we will gradually learn to respond to the whole world with Metta, with unselfishness. It is in this way that spiritual friendship is indeed the whole of the spiritual life." The Essential Sangharakshita, p. 511 & 512

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