With the change in our web name and another lockdown, we felt this was perhaps the right moment to reflect on the importance of seeking and maintaining our spiritual friendship.
Why make the effort?
We feel our friendship cannot be secondary to our practice or just an ‘add on’ or ‘extra’ to the basic menu of our practice – not even under the ‘specials’. It feels integral – part of the main course.
The Buddha mentions this on numerous occasions during his teaching life and each time he tries to get the point across on how we shouldn’t underestimate the power and the significance of True friends referred to as Kalyana mitta – literally translated as admirable friends.
If as a companion you find a wise and prudent friend, one who lives well, you should overcome all impediments and keep this person’s company, joyously and mindfully.
If you do not find a wise and prudent friend, one who lives well, like a king who abandons his conquered kingdom, or a lone elephant in the forest, you should go your own way alone.Dhammapada, v325, 326
So why has the Buddha said that Kalyana mittas are so significant to our practice?
Why would he say that it is better to go our way alone than to follow the way of those who are not Kalyana mittas?
Is it really so?
To answer this, we should perhaps begin with the question,
Why do we practice?
We practice, so there is an end to this cycle of being born into suffering in every moment.
What is it then that we practice?
It is the Noble Eightfold Path.
How do we truly practice?
It is with firm faith in the practice, the Noble Eightfold Path that we truly practice.
Why have firm faith in the practice?
When we have firm faith – one truly enters the Path. Often referred to as entering the stream. Once we are firmly on the Path, we know for ourselves what the Path is and what it is not. We do not get lost – we are not swayed – we know for ourselves – so we just continue the practice.
So, what would help us enter the stream, enter the Noble Eightfold Path? The Buddha once asked Sariputta, his Chief disciple, this very question,
Buddha: “Sāriputta, in the Dhamma, there are factors leading to stream-entry. What are those factors leading to stream-entry?”
Saripuuta replies, “Bhante, the factors leading to stream-entry are,associating with good people (Kalyanamitta sevana), listening to the Dhamma (Saddhamma savanna), wise contemplation (Yonisomanasikara) and practicing in line with the Dhamma (Dhammanudhamma patipada).”
The Buddha affirms, “Good, good, Sāriputta! The factors leading to stream-entry are associating with good people, listening to the Dhamma, wise contemplation, and practicing in line with the teachings.”
So, to develop this firm confidence in the Path leading to an end to our suffering, our spiritual friendship is no less important than listening to Dhamma talks, contemplating the Dhamma and practicing the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma.
We now take a moment to reflect and see if this is so, in our lives.
Have we given this as much importance? ….
It seems associating Kalyana mitta should be part of our very practice itself.
The Buddha’s attendant Ananda, once said to the Buddha,SN 45:2
‘having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, this is half of the holy life, lord.”
We may be surprised to hear that the Buddha disagreed.
The Buddha replies, “Don’t say that, Ānanda. Don’t say that. Having admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”
So fascinating don’t you think, to hear that our friends are not just part of our life in this practice. The Buddha says they are the whole of our life. We hear this repeatedly in the Buddha’s words:
Buddha: “Bhikkhus, in regard to external factors, I do not perceive another single factor so helpful as good friendship for a bhikkhu who is a learner, who has not attained perfection but lives aspiring for the supreme security from bondage. Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who has a good friend abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome.”Itivuttaka 17
“When a bhikkhu has good friends, And is reverential and respectful, Doing what his friends advise, Clearly comprehending and mindful, He may progressively attain, The destruction of all fetters.”
So, the Buddha affirms that having a Kalyana mitta is the most important external supporting element to our practice.
Do we feel the same in our lives?
Nowadays, we don’t have the external physical environment of the monastery or the atmosphere of retreats but we can still connect with our Kalyana mittas. So, we take a moment to reflect to see,
Have we kept our Kalyana mittas alive in our hearts?
Further reflecting on the passage we see that it is not just having a Kalyana mitta in our hearts or as namesake, but it is actually following their advice and putting it into practice through wise contemplation and by being mindful that helps us progress in this Path, helps us to free ourselves from the bonds that keep us in this cycle of suffering.
The Buddha has further expanded on this in the Paññā (wisdom) Sutta (AN 8:2) and also the Sambodhi (Self awakening) Sutta (AN 9:1). The Buddha says there are eight conditions that lead to the development of discernment, wisdom and awakening within oneself. Of these, he mentions as the first condition – associating a wise teacher or respectable companion.
Why is this?
The Buddha says, it leads to the second condition.
Through this association we engage in questioning and conversation at the right time. The companion or teacher is then able to show us what has been unknown to us, help us untangle any misunderstandings and guide us in the right direction. Again, here he mentions how it is not just the mere association but the Dhamma discussions, teachings and guidance we have with them. So, we need to engage with our Kalyana mittas – are we doing this?
Yet, that engagement alone won’t lead to the development of wisdom. There are six other conditions that need to be in place for wisdom to arise. Our Kalyana mittas themselves will not help us gain our own release. We have to realise the Dhamma (wisdom) for ourselves.
So, the Buddha says, we need to create conditions that are conducive to seclusion of the body and seclusion of the mind, we need to practice our sila (virtue), we need to discuss the Dhamma and contemplate the Dhamma, we need to make effort to abandon unwholesome qualities and develop wholesome qualities, we need to practice noble speech (not engaging in idle speech, speaking the Dhamma and inviting others to speak the Dhamma, else remaining in silence) and develop mindfulness with regards to the arising and passing away of phenomena (the five khandhas) (Paññā Sutta; AN 8:2).
In doing so, one then contemplates and lets go of desire, contemplates and lets go of ill-will and develops mindfulness by letting go of distracting thought. As mindfulness is developed, there is seeing and understanding of the arising and passing away of phenomena, finally conditioning the arising of the penetrative wisdom (Dhamma) that sees through the conceit of ‘I’; thus leading to our own awakening – in the here and now (Sambodhi Sutta: AN 9:1).
Kalyana mittas, spiritual companions, True friends – we are truly blessed to have so many in ALBA. We are grateful for the support and encouragement that our friends give us in our practice that we do not need to be the lone elephant in the forest.
Yet, we also know that though we walk this Path in the company of our friends, each of us are making our own journey, discovering the True Dhamma within our own hearts.
With metta Randula On behalf of all friends (elephants) of ALBA 🙂 2 Nov 2020