Today we have had a very special ceremony for Todd Tansuhaj, a young boy who died about two years ago and who was a novice here just prior to his hospitalization for an illness. His parents and friends have come for a memorial service. Some of them came last year. A couple more have come this year as well. So that all together, we have Todd’s parents, a cousin and several friends. During the day we had a couple of little ceremonies to commemorate Todd’s passing.
I was thinking about a theme of friendship, because Todd’s friends have made the effort to be here and Todd’s parents have made the effort to bring them. His friends were keen to come here and to do some kind of memorial commemoration for their friend, Todd. The theme of friendship is an important one to be considering as we live in the world. We were born into this world. We have a shorter or longer lifespan in this world. We don’t live separately from other people. We have the association with others as human beings. And, the friendships that we make are the ones that sustain us, support us, give us a sense of connection to each other.
During the ceremony out at the Cool Oaks today, Bennett who, in recollecting Todd, was certainly missing his friend, was also remembering the good qualities of his generosity, curiosity, and humor. It is the qualities that we remember of each other as we think about our friends. It’s the qualities that are important, and those are the things that are actually carried on—various qualities. So, for ourselves as well, trying to recollect what kind of qualities to bring into our own lives. How do we want to associate with others? And how are we able to relate to each other in ways of friendship? In particular, in Buddhist teachings, the Buddha places a great importance on spiritual friendship or admirable friendship, Kalyanamitta. When we have noble friends or have good friends, those are the things that help support us in our own life and in our own aspiration for living skillfully.
There is a very famous discourse or teaching where the Buddha was approached by his attendant, Ananda. Ananda had spent the day in solitude. When he was meditating during that day, he had an insight and was really excited to share the insight with the Buddha. So, in late afternoon he came and told the Buddha that he had been meditating through the day and had this great insight that half of the holy life, half of the spiritual life was having good friends, having noble friendship. The Buddha said, “Oh. Don’t say that, Ananda. It’s not just half of the holy life. It’s all of the holy life, to have good friends, to have spiritual friendship, admirable friendship.” That sense of the importance that the Buddha placed on having good friends, of cultivating good friendship, being a good friend of other people—these are really important qualities.
Also if we consider that the Buddha never referred to himself in an inflated way, “I am omniscient. I am omnipresent. I am the greatest. Look at me!” What he said was, “I am a Kalyanamitta for the world. I am a good friend for the world.” Again, this highlights his own sense of the importance of good friendship. The Buddha, being fully enlightened, a fully awakened being, thought the best thing that he could do was to provide spiritual friendship for others, spiritual guidance. So this quality of friendship is important.
There’s a lovely Jataka story that I remember. (Jatakas are tales or fables of the Buddha’s previous existence). It begins with a scene in the Buddha’s time when a young man and a young woman are interested in getting married. Her question to him was, “How many friends do you have?” It wasn’t–how much money do you have? Or, how much fame do you have? But, how many friends do you have? He was taken aback by that. He realized that even if one has all sorts of material well-being or has any power or influence because of birth, even if one was born in the ruling class or the warrior caste of those days; if you don’t have friends, you are really on your own. You need to have friends in time of need, in times when lacking support, or in times of problems and difficulties. When you need advice, you have to rely on friends. It really struck this young man that this young woman he was interested in and wanted to marry had real wisdom. It made him even more interested in her. He made an effort to cultivate friendship with many different people, including royal families and the monastics of the time, including being introduced to the Buddha. And, in time, they got married in a very large ceremony as he had many friends now. It was commented on by many people how many friends seemed to be there. The Buddha said, “This isn’t the first time that they have cultivated friends.”
In a past life, the couple was born in the animal realm as hawks, male and female. The same question was asked of the male hawk who was trying to seek for a mate and found this young female hawk, and her question to him was, “Who are your friends? How many friends do you have?” And he said, “Well, who would be appropriate friends for us?” She said, “In this area around here, we have a big pond over there and a tall tree. There’s a very big gull, a very large turtle and then there’s also a lion.” They cultivated friendship with these animals. They started a family. They built their nest in the big tree. One day there were hunters from the neighboring village out hunting. They weren’t very successful in finding anything that day and they stopped by this pond. There were mosquitoes out so they lit a fire to chase them away. The smoke went up high and the little hawk chicks in the nest weren’t used to smoke at all. They started to make noises, crying out and making a fuss. The hunters said, “Well, we didn’t get anything else. We could have bird meat.” So, they built up the fire and of course, put a lot of stress on the chicks. The parents were worried and concerned what to do, how to deal with it. They said, “This is the time we could ask for help from our friends.” So the male hawk went and asked the large gull who was living nearby to help out.
The gull said, “Certainly.” The gull went swooping down to the water, filled his beak and made sure his wings were dripping wet. Just as the hunter was trying to come up with a torch to burn the nest down and drive out the little birds with their parents, the gull came, swooped down, beat its wings, let loose its mouthful of water, then went back and forth until he put the torch out. Of course, the hunters got more frustrated and tried to be more persistent. The gull’s effort was successful to a certain degree but it looked like the hunters were not going to quit. So then, the hawks let the turtle know. It was a very large turtle, and as it came, it formulated a plan–it covered itself with a lot of moss and weeds from the pond, along with mud and slime. It came up and went right on to the fire and put it out. That made the hunters really angry. They started to try to catch the turtle and beat this turtle. Of course, it was very large and strong and was able to get away. Still these hunters weren’t going to give up. Finally, the hawks had to go to the last friend, the lion. The lion came and roared his lion’s roar. The hunters were finally afraid and ran away. After the hunters left, the hawks, the gull, the turtle thanked the lion and thanked each other for their friendship. They all rejoiced in their friendship with each other and determined to remain friends and live as friends in that area, which they did, helping to look after each other. As the Buddha finished this story, he said, “In that lifetime, those two hawks were this young man and this young woman. The gull was Sariputta. The turtle was Moggallana. The lion was myself. Even in these former lives, living as animals, we appreciated and saw the value in friendship.” So we can see the Buddha placed much importance in the value of friendship.
When we live in the world, even though it might not be as spectacular as the Jataka story, in many, many little ways, it always comes up in our lives how important and necessary it is to rely on our friends, and to be able to know how to be a good friend, to give friendship to others. Sometimes being a good friend isn’t necessarily always doing what your other friends want. Sometimes a good friend is one who is willing to point out when your other friends may be doing something that might be harmful, or that may not be of benefit to them, or that is going to create disharmony. Being a good friend is also sometimes being willing to criticize if it’s necessary, or if you think it’s something that is really right or appropriate. So that being a good friend is always looking out for the benefit or the good, not just in the short term but also in the long term–the benefit and happiness of one’s friends. Friendship is perhaps something that we only tend to think of as having a group of friends or helping friends or being in social situations, and of course these are very important. But as the Buddha said, so much of what supports the spiritual life is having good friends–the nurturing of our spiritual aspirations is fulfilled by how we cultivate friendship.
Another aspect that is really important is how we are a good friend to ourselves. Sometimes we are able to be good friends with others, but sometimes we may not be a good friend to ourselves. It may be that a friend makes a mistake or may have done something a bit foolish. We might say something but it would rarely be harsh or overly critical. One would say something but it would be out of care or kindness or compassion. But if we ourselves do something unskillful or foolish, oftentimes we can be really harsh on ourselves. Sometimes we are not a good friend to ourselves. It’s important to know how to be a good friend to yourself, as well as being a good friend to others–that sense of knowing how to encourage yourself, to support yourself in ways that allow you to be peaceful or at ease with yourself. We can create a lot of tension out of worry or fear–and that’s not being a good friend to oneself. We wouldn’t do that to our other friends. We wouldn’t make them worry or make them really anxious. We would want to try to protect them. But oftentimes we don’t do that to ourselves. We wouldn’t criticize our friends so much that they feel really badly. We would want to help them, maybe by giving encouragement or helping them to do something better, but we wouldn’t want to hurt them. We have to learn how to do that to ourselves as well. So learning how to be a good friend–both learning how to be a good friend to others, as well as being a good friend to ourselves.
In the teaching that the Buddha gave, when he was talking to Ananda and saying that having noble friends is all of the holy life, the Buddha actually ends by asking, “How does one have noble friendship?” And he says, by cultivating or by living this path of practice of having right view, having right intention, having right speech, having right action, having right livelihood, having right effort, having right mindfulness, and having right concentration; that is, the Noble Eightfold Path. The path of skillful living is the way we cultivate noble friendship, so that we both look after ourselves and then also learn how to look after others. Again, learning how to be a good friend to oneself is learning to be a good friend to others.
Another thing that the Buddha pointed out, when we are looking at friendship with others is, how do we decide or how does one gauge who is a good friend? The Buddha said it comes back to qualities–the qualities of having similar or compatible virtue, similar or compatible generosity, similar or compatible faith and similar or compatible discernment. These are all the wholesome qualities that we build together as friends. This is something that binds us together and provides the basis for friendship to continue over a long period of time.
Today Todd’s friends and family come to make offerings and dedicate the blessings and goodness of those offerings for Todd. That’s something which is very, very beautiful. I wish to express my appreciation to them all for coming and providing an example of friendship for us all. It’s something that is noble and beautiful in the human condition. They have come a long way. And, tomorrow they will be returning to Washington State. I wish them all a safe journey. I will close with that for the evening.
Adapted from a talk offered by Ajahn Pasanno at Abhayagiri on April 26th, 2008.