Spiritual Friendship

Ajahn Pasanno

Spiritual Friendship

Recently, I came across a sutta (MN 97, the Dhanañjani Sutta) that illustrates the themes of kalyānamitta (spiritual friendship) and making choices. The sutta begins with the Venerable Sāriputta walking with a group of monks in the hills south of Rājagaha. He had been away from the main community of monks for some time and a monk who had spent the Rains Retreat in Rājagaha at the Bamboo Grove came down to that region and met with the Ven. Sāriputta. Because the Buddha had been living in the Bamboo Grove, Ven. Sāriputta asks the monk,

“How is the Buddha? Is he well and strong?”

“Yes, the Buddha is well and strong.” “How is the Sangha faring?”

“The Sangha is faring well. It’s well and strong.”

Ven. Sāriputta then asks after a layperson that he had known: “How is the brahman Dhanañjani?”

The monk replies, “The brahman Dhanañjani is well and strong.”

“Is he diligent?”

“Oh, how can he be diligent? He has been dishonest and corrupt within society. He has been cheating the king and using his influence with the king to plunder the lay community. His wife—who was a woman of faith and came from a clan that was established in faith—has passed away, and he has now married someone else who doesn’t have faith and comes from a clan who doesn’t have faith.”

And Ven. Sāriputta says, “Hmm… okay. Well, maybe when I get back to Rājagaha, I’ll have to talk with him.”

That incident highlights one aspect of kalyānamitta—how Ven. Sāriputta, a fully enlightened Arahant—asks questions on a very conventional level. Just because he’s an Arahant, it doesn’t mean he speaks only in transcendent modes. He speaks on a human level. The Buddha is his teacher and the Sangha is a community he has many close relationships with. When the Buddha states that spiritual friendship is the whole of the holy life, it’s not just a theory; that’s how it’s lived, even among the members of the Sangha who have done their work, who are completely liberated. When someone like Ven. Sāriputta, whom the Buddha declared as foremost in wisdom, recognizes the importance of spiritual friendship, then for the rest of us it’s a very good reminder of how essential that quality is.

The sutta goes on with Ven. Sāriputta wandering by stages back to Rājagaha and staying at the Bamboo Grove. When he’s there, he takes the opportunity to visit the brahman Dhanañjani. He asks him,

“How are you—are you well?”

Of course, Dhanañjani says, “I’m well.”

Ven. Sāriputta just asks innocent questions: “And are you diligent, brahman?” in the sense of, “Are you keeping up with your practice, are you maintaining your training?”

“Oh, how can I be diligent? I’ve got to look after my parents, my wife and my children. I’ve got to look after my family, friends and workers. I’ve got to perform all of the functions of my duties toward the king, and then I have to maintain my own physical body. So it’s difficult to be diligent.”

Then Ven. Sāriputta asks a question again: “If one is neglectful of the Dhamma, is not living in accordance with the Dhamma and is living unskillfully, when one dies and is faced with the wardens of hell, and you try to tell them, ‘It’s because of my parents that I’ve been living unrighteously and have not been living in accordance with the Dhamma,’ what do you think they’d say to that?”

“Well, I don’t think that would make much of an impression with them.”

“And what if your parents tried to convince the wardens of hell that you’ve been living unrighteously and not in accordance with the Dhamma because you’ve been looking after them?”

“I don’t think they’d listen to me.”

Then Ven. Sāriputta goes through the whole list of people after the parents and asks the same questions—your wife and children, circle of family and relatives, workers and associates, the king, and your body. Of course it’s all the same answer. These are not convincing arguments when it comes down to the particulars, especially if one takes it as a reflection upon the impersonal nature of kamma. When one comes to the end of one’s life, that kamma is still ripening in a particular fashion, despite the different excuses and rationalizations. And saying, “I was too busy to be doing this or doing that, I was too busy to practice, I was too busy to be keeping the precepts, I was too busy to develop—it doesn’t wash. One of the chants that the Buddha has us use as a daily reflection is, “I’m of the nature to age, I’ve not gone beyond aging, I’m of the nature to sicken, I’ve not gone beyond sickness, I’m of the nature to die, I’ve not gone beyond dying. All that is mine that is beloved and pleasing will become otherwise and will become separated from me.” The last part, on kamma, says, “I’m the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or for evil, of that I will be the heir.” So that is the fundamental truth of nature—that we receive the fruits of our actions, and it’s our actions of body, speech and mind that designate our well-being or our suffering, that designate our rebirth as well as the quality of being from moment to moment. This is just a fundamental principle of nature, despite the various excuses or rationalizations that we come up with.

Ven. Sāriputta’s way of teaching is quite interesting to me because he doesn’t just go to the brahman’s house and upbraid him. He just asks questions. Of course, they are skillfully placed questions, very pointed questions, and the brahman has a foundation in faith. Ven. Sāriputta wouldn’t ask after him if he hadn’t had a good association with him and if Dhanañjani didn’t have a fairly good foundation in his perspective, views, beliefs and training. Ven. Sāriputta is concerned for him, which is another aspect of kalyānamitta. Asking questions is like holding up a mirror; the brahman answers very honestly, and he reveals the truth to himself.

Then Ven. Sāriputta continues: “Brahman, which is better, a person who looks after his parents in an unrighteous way, not according to Dhamma, or one who looks after his parents in a righteous way and in accordance with Dhamma?” The brahman answers, “Well, it’s a better person who looks after his parents in a righteous way and in accordance with Dhamma.” Ven. Sāriputta then says, “There are ways to live that are blameless; one can avoid what is unskillful and unwholesome, still do one’s duty and also bring benefits and blessings into one’s own life and into the life of one’s parents.” Then he goes through the whole list of people again. And Ven. Sāriputta leaves it there. He doesn’t push the brahman at all; he just leaves the brahman to figure it out for himself. One assumes that the brahman took it seriously and changed his ways.

The sutta continues on at a later time when the brahman becomes ill. He sends one of his servants to inform Ven. Sāriputta that the brahman Dhanañjani is ill, afflicted, in great pain, and may not live much longer and to request Ven. Sāriputta to visit him, which Ven. Sāriputta does. He arrives and asks the brahman quite directly, “How are you faring? Are you in comfort or in discomfort? Are your painful feelings increasing or decreasing? Are you able to bear this?” And the brahman answers, “Basically, I’m doing awful. It’s getting more painful and more uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m going to survive this.” Again, as a kalyānamitta, as a good spiritual friend, when somebody is sick, one goes to visit them to give them encouragement and support but also to be quite direct and open.

Sometimes, somebody can be on his or her deathbed and looking awful, and the relatives show up from time to time and say, “Oh, you’re looking good today,” and so on. They try to keep the banter upbeat and get out as quickly as possible. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. Instead, to actually say, “Yes, you’re in a lot of pain and discomfort, this disease is progressing like this and that, and are you able to deal with it? How can you work with it?”—that’s honesty as to the reality of the situation, which is something that we generally avoid in society. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s American society or Asian society—there’s a willingness to live in denial of old age, sickness, and death. It’s a common thread that goes through the human condition.

There’s something really refreshing about the Buddha’s teachings, as he looks quite directly at things—at aging, sickness, death, and suffering in different ways, in terms of being in a difficult situation, being blamed or criticized, or feeling overwhelmed. When one is willing to look directly at the feeling or the situation, the circumstances, and the way the mind responds—the more directly one is able to look at them, the less threatening and difficult they actually are. Or looking at one’s own defilements, one’s own greed, desire, lust, aversions, irritations, fears, views and opinions—if one is able to look directly at them, they tend to have less power. It’s when we skip over them or aren’t willing to look that they’re too intimidating, too threatening. That’s where the actual strength of the Dhamma comes from— from our willingness and ability to apply mindfulness and awareness at the very root of the experience, at its arising, at its establishing, to be really present. So that’s what Ven. Sāriputta is doing by being quite forthright and saying, “What’s the experience? How are you doing, really?”

Then Ven. Sāriputta asks, “Well, which is more desirable, the hell realms or an animal rebirth?” And the brahman replies, “An animal rebirth.” “And which is more desirable, the animal realm or the realm of ghosts?” “Actually the realm of ghosts is better.” Then Ven. Sāriputta goes through the ascending cosmology of Buddhism in Indian culture, recognizing the desirability of the human birth, the deva realms and then the realm of the Brahma Gods. Ven. Sāriputta thinks to himself, “These brahmans hold rebirth in the Brahma realms and union with Brahma as the highest rebirth.” He asks, “Do you want to know the way to union with the Brahma Gods?”, and of course, the brahman says yes. Ven. Sāriputta then teaches the brahmavihāras: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—how to develop them and establish the mind in these refined qualities. Then the brahman passes away and is reborn in a Brahma realm.

Again, it’s interesting how Ven. Sāriputta teaches in terms of questions and making choices, because often the choices that we make are not very conscious. By asking questions, one starts to recognize, “I’ve got a choice whether I let my mind go towards wholesome or unwholesome states.” And whether one believes in the cosmological structure of the universe or one perceives it in psychological terms, we still choose how we direct the mind. Do we let the mind go towards suffering and misery, which is equated to a hell realm? Do we let our minds be overwhelmed by the base qualities of fear and desire, which is more like an animal realm? Do we get caught up in asura states of mind, which are indulging in anger and ill will, seeking power, and functioning from fear? Do we make choices going toward the human realm, establishing the human qualities of empathy, responsibility and effort? Or do we direct attention to the heavenly realms of bliss and unalloyed happiness? These can be depicted and conceived of as psychological states or as actual realms. But however one conceives them, they’re still choices that we make. Do we take responsibility for those choices or do we just drift into the choices out of habit and conditioning? Are we blindly led by others? Even if we’re taking responsibility for them—are those choices wisely informed? Are they clearly considered? By seeing those aspects of making choices, we realize that our lives are confronted with making choices all the time. The result of the choices that we make has implications. When we choose to get angry and upset at something, it has a result personally and it has a result for the people around us. When we’re able to restrain ourselves and make a choice to train ourselves in particular ways, particularly towards that which is virtuous and peaceful, it has results and implications. We need to recognize that we’re making these choices all the time.

As the sutta finishes, the Buddha is in the Bamboo Grove teaching and says to the community “Ven. Sāriputta has let this brahman be reborn in a Brahma realm and has shown him the inferior path of the Brahma world.” We see the Buddha’s ability to know the mind of his disciples and to recognize that if the brahman Dhanañjani had been encouraged to reflect on the Four Noble Truths or some particular essential teaching, he could possibly have realized stream entry. But Ven. Sāriputta hadn’t taken it to that level. When Ven. Sāriputta comes back, the Buddha relates that to him; it was a bit of a rebuke and an encouragement that if there is the opportunity to bring somebody to an understanding of the Dhamma rather than a lesser spiritual attainment, that’s the duty of a kalyānamitta. One reads the sutta and here’s the Buddha knowing the thoughts, mind, and states of mind of other beings, even while he’s sitting and giving teachings. It’s 2500 years ago and it’s utterly fantastic. Is it possible? These are abilities that come with a purified mind.

I think of Ajahn Mun’s biography, when Ajahn Mun is sitting in his cave in Saraburi and he turns his attention to his friend Chao Khun Upali. He recognizes that Chao Khun Upali is reflecting on dependent origination and is tripping himself up with a particular perspective on it. The next time Ajahn Mun sees his friend in Bangkok, he says, “On such and such a day…” and lays out what had happened. Chao Khun Upali says, “That was exactly it,” and Ajahn Mun gives him a teaching on the nuances of dependent origination. And just thinking of dependent origination reminds me of when Ajahn Chah was sick. By that point he wasn’t able to help himself or to speak. A monk came and sat in meditation to see how Ajahn Chah was doing. He came out of his meditation and said, “You don’t have to worry about Ajahn Chah; his mind is really bright. But he likes reflecting on dependent origination, so it’d be nice for you to chant the Vipassanā Bhūmi.” It’s a chant on the basis of insight and dependent origination forms a part of it. The monk said that he’d really appreciate that. And we did—we ended up going every week and chanting for many years.

So these teachings are illustrations of kalyānamitta. Ven. Sāriputta acts as a spiritual friend by encouraging the brahman not to be dishonest and corrupt and to instead live a skillful life. The refinements of insight and encouragement towards awakening all rely on spiritual friendship. But in the end, they also rely on the individual to make skillful choices and to take responsibility for those choices.

From A Saturday night Dhamma reflection offered by Ajahn Pasanno on April 10, 2010