In an ancient Buddhist story, the Buddha’s faithful attendant, Ananda, asked about the importance of having wholesome companions. Ananda asked the Buddha whether having noble friends and companions wasn’t half of the holy life. The Buddha replied: “Do not say so, Ananda. Noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life.” (SN 45.2, Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Whatever kind of life you have, your friends are both a part of it and a reflection of it. Work or school associates, sports teammates, companions in religious community – in all of these there is some degree of choice. You accept a job, join a team, or become a member of a social group; and you choose how closely to associate with the people in each group. Even in your family, you choose how close or distant to be with individual members.
Within each of these affiliation groups, there may be people you’d like to know better and those you’d like to avoid spending time with. How do you choose which people fall into which category? Do you like the ones who seem to like you? Or the people you consider the most physically attractive? Are you drawn to people you consider thoughtful, or wise and helpful? Do you passively wait to be contacted, by anyone at all? Somehow, by some sorting method, you end up with friends and acquaintances that influence you and whom you influence.
Are your friends wholesome companions?
One definition of a good friend is someone who brings out what is best in you. She might do this by following your lead when you do something worth emulating, and by telling you directly what she admires about you. A good friend discourages what is worst in you, perhaps by declining to follow an unwise lead, and sometimes by telling you directly when she thinks something is off. By her actions and words, a good friend gives you helpful feedback. Out of genuine concern for your well-being, a good friend will support your wholesome actions and discourage your unwholesome actions.
Are you a wholesome friend to your companions?
On the other side of the question, how much of the time are you a wise and beneficial friend? Do you encourage people to do what’s best, even if there’s nothing in it for you? Are you willing to bring up awkward topics if you think it will help another person? Do you appreciate your relationships? Do you attend to them regularly, showing that you are grateful for them?
What did the Buddha say about friends?
In a lesson directed to a person not connected with the Buddha (DN31, tr. Kelly, Sawyer, Yareham), the Buddha outlines what to look out for in a false friend, and what actions would make you a false friend.
Young man, be aware of these four enemies disguised as friends: the taker, the talker, the flatterer, and the reckless companion.
The taker can be identified by four things: by only taking, asking for a lot while giving little, performing duty out of fear, and offering service in order to gain something.
The talker can be identified by four things: by reminding of past generosity, promising future generosity, mouthing empty words of kindness, and protesting personal misfortune when called on to help.
The flatterer can be identified by four things: by supporting both bad and good behavior indiscriminately, praising you to your face, and putting you down behind your back.
The reckless companion can be identified by four things: by accompanying you in drinking, roaming around at night, partying, and gambling.
In the same lesson, the Buddha continues by outlining what to look for in a good friend and how to be that valuable friend.
Young man, be aware of these four good-hearted friends:
the helper, the friend who endures in good times and bad, the mentor, and the compassionate friend.
The helper can be identified by four things: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, and in various tasks providing double what is requested.
The enduring friend can be identified by four things: by telling you secrets, guarding your own secrets closely, not abandoning you in misfortune, and even dying for you.
The mentor can be identified by four things: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, telling you what you ought to know, and showing you the path to heaven [lasting happiness].
The compassionate friend can be identified by four things: by not rejoicing in your misfortune, delighting in your good fortune, preventing others from speaking ill of you, and encouraging others who praise your good qualities.
That is what the Buddha said.
Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven?
He gives what is beautiful, hard to give,
does what is hard to do,
endures painful, ill-spoken words.
His secrets he tells you,
your secrets he keeps.
When misfortunes strike,
he doesn’t abandon you;
when you’re down & out,
doesn’t look down on you.
A person in whom these traits are found,
is a friend to be cultivated
by anyone wanting a friend.
Remember what the Buddha said. There is no condition of life that more powerfully influences your development than cultivating wholesome friends and companions. Start with yourself, as you are today, and build on your strengths to become a better friend and companion to others. And choose who you spend time with carefully.