I am writing this blog in response to a comment made by Peter, about something I wrote in my meditation blog about friendship. I felt that it was too important to leave the subject to just a comment.
The term kalyanamitta has been around in Buddhism for long time, and its use is often attributed to the Buddha. The most common translation is ‘spiritual friend’, although I have seen other translations. For me the term ‘admirable friendship’ sits better but I am sure there are objections to this term as well.
Probably the best know reference in the Pali Canon to kalyanamitta is from the Upaddha Sutta, from the Samyutta Nikaya.
“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, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”
My understanding is that the term as it is used in traditional Buddhism describes the relationship between for example a Lama and a disciple or a senior monk and a junior monk. This to me seems to suggest an unequal relationship, between someone who is a teacher, therefore, having superior ‘spiritual’ knowledge and the other a student who learns from the former. This notion of kalyanamitta is also strongly emphasized in the Triratna Buddhist community (Formally known as the FWBO). I found this quote on one of their websites.
“Sangharakshita maintains that in practising Buddhism we need other people to learn from. Buddhism, he argues is best ‘caught’ not taught. He believes that our relationships with teachers and fellow practitioners must be characterised by honesty and clear communication. He also stresses the value of friendships with peers, in particular having at least one friend (not a lover) with whom we can be intimate and completely open.”
Although Sangarakshita has attempted to bring a traditional term into the modern world, it strikes me from the above that notion has moved very little away from the traditional definition. My experience of kalyanamitta while I was involved with the FWBO as they were called then, was that the whole thing seemed a little false. I suspect that is what happens when an organization attempts to formalize something, which is essentially a personal thing. The friends I choose and how I go about developing those friendships, will be probably different from the approach other people may take.
The whole idea of formal friendships I think is fraught with problems. From my understanding from the little I have read in the Pali Cannon I don’t see where this formal approach came from. These quotes seem to me to be about forming good relationships with people to have a shared vision and intended to be supportive of practice. I suspect that the more formal aspect may have been a later development after Buddhism became essentially monastic. For example there is this:
“There is the case where a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening.”
The friend who is a helpmate,
the friend in happiness and woe,
the friend who gives good counsel,
the friend who sympathises too —
these four as friends the wise behold
and cherish them devotedly
as does a mother her own child.”
“And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.”
I could go on. Some of the above were said to groups of monks and others to lay people. What ever the occasion and who ever the audience it seems to me that the message is the same, that is friendship is important.
The last quote I found of particular interest for two reasons, first as it seems to refer to a lay person to lay person relationship and secondly the method seems to be engaging in discussion.
While I think Sangharakshita may have a point that we need people that we can be honest, open with and with whom we can have a clear communication. However I do have concerns about his suggestion we learn our practice “from”, rather then how I would prefer to see it as being ‘along side with’ someone. What he seems to suggest is that the teacher has all the knowledge, where as for me the process is more an exploration about what it means to be human and live a human life, which to me seems to be a shared experience, with equal validity. That is not to say I don’t need teachers. I am prepared to listen, learn, and apply teachings, but how I apply them in my life is individual to myself. Some things may be useful to me, while others may not. Where I think friendship comes in is as an honest sounding board, or mirror to help reflect back to me, how I am doing. This not easy thing to do on both sides of the relationship. For me this needs to be done with great kindness. I need a friend to put aside their own views about me, and who really listens to me, who empathize with me. I need someone who stands on the side line supporting my endeavours rather the trying to push me in a direction that may not be right for me. For me a friend stand along side me in happiness and sorrow, without judging me, but also to give me unbiased advice when needed. I do try to support my friends in the same way.
In a recent discussion with Stephen Batchelor he talked about kalyanamitta as being like a kinship. He did not really explain what he meant but I thought it was an interesting idea. I also wondered if this concept could be useful in building a Secular Buddhist network?