Buddhist approach to friendship

Friendship can be a difficult and complex topic for a young person to grasp. At times it can be difficult to know who means one well and who does not. This article aims to shed some light on this topic from a Buddhist perspective, especially for the benefit of young adults.

Someone can either be a friend, an enemy or neither a friend nor an enemy (neutral). However this can also be subject to change (anicca). Generally friends are the beings that are dear, mean one well and offer protection. Enemies on the other hand are the opposite of this; they are not dear, wish to cause one harm and to see one’s demise, suffering, loss and unhappiness. Neutral beings (e.g. acquaintances) neither mean one well nor any harm. The Lord Buddha outlined how to different between friends and enemies in depth in the Sigalovada Sutta. As a basic guideline, any being who acts to cause one harm can be considered an enemy, while any being that causes no harm to one and give rise to happiness and well-being can be considered a friend. Someone who does neither can be considered neutral.

Sometimes the line between a friend and an enemy can become blurred. A friend can act like an enemy and an enemy can act like a friend. This is consistent with the law of impermanence (anicca) where everything, including relationships, constantly changes. So regardless of whom one deals with, it is important to do so with wisdom (panna). It is of paramount importance to not let others take advantage, use, abuse, trap, mislead, or do any other harmful thing to one when dealing with others, whether they are classed as friends, enemies or neutrals. There are wise and skilful ways of preventing others from causing one harm that are in-line with the Dhamma (reality, truth, the way things are) teachings, which cause no harm to either oneself or others.3 This way no matter how others change, one will always be protected.

The Lord Buddha advised to avoid companionship with the foolish. ‘Foolish’ here refers to those lacking in wisdom and live unskilfully – this is essentially those who lead ignoble lives that contradict basic moral values and decency and/or takes one away from the correct Path. If one associates with such beings, one will be at the risk of falling down to their level through association and bad influence and may even miss the chance to find the lasting peace of Nibbana. The Lord Buddha said that if one cannot find a wise and good companion to associate with, someone who is on the same ‘level’ as one or better, to lead a life of solitude – that is to live alone.4 This advice is completely contradictory to the cultural outlook and thinking of Western societies where a life of solitude can be looked down upon. It is important to not get influenced by such thinking and to always resort to the Lord Buddha’s words for better guidance instead.

People need and seek out friendship for many of the benefits that it brings. Good friends can be depended on in times of need, are good advisors and companions. It helps to understand why people seek friendship at a deeper level. From a Buddhist perspective people seek the friendship to be ‘happier.’ How is this ‘happiness’ defined in Buddhist terms? It is defined as pleasure. Friends are associated to please the eye with their pleasant sight (seeing them), to pleasing the ear with their pleasant sound (their voices), to please the body with the pleasant touch (e.g. hugging) and also to please the mind with the pleasant ideas that friendship gives rise to (e.g. good memories). It is when this ‘happiness’ (pleasure) is missing that one feels ‘unhappy’ (displeasure). Under this condition, one is said to be ‘lonely.’ Enlightened beings and others advanced along the Path do not need nor seek companionship as they do not desire pleasures of any kind.5

Generally beings that primarily give rise to pleasure (causing attachment) are classes as ‘friends’ and beings that primarily give rise to ‘displeasure’ (causing aversion) are classed as enemies.. The choice of friends is a personal thing, based on personal likes/dislikes, standards, ideas, views, beliefs, etc. It is natural for like beings to be drawn to other like beings and unlike beings to be repulsed from other unlike beings. Some beings become one’s enemy because of a personal weakness they possess, be it fear, insecurity, desire (lobha) and competition for something, aversion (vyapada) or even stupidity and confused thinking (moha) and not because of anything that one has done to them. Especially in such instances, there is nothing to take ‘personally’.6 One needs to understand this with wisdom (panna) as to why beings act the way they do.

Everyone has friends, enemies and neutral beings. Generally friends mean one well, enemies mean one harm and neutral beings mean one neither harm nor happiness.7 The distinction between friends and enemies can sometimes blur, so it is always important to use wisdom to employ skilful means of preventing anyone, be it a friend, enemy or otherwise, from causing one harm. The Lord Buddha has explained in detail how to determine between friends and enemies in the Sigalovada Sutta. Outwardly appearance/behaviour is not always a good way of judging this. The Lord Buddha advised to avoid companionship with the foolish and to only associate with beings who are the same as one or more advanced along the Path. It is better to live alone if one does not find such a companion despite societal/cultural pressures. People seek friendship and companionship for various reasons, including deriving pleasure, which is widely viewed as ‘happiness.’ Beings may become enemies due to their own personal weaknesses and it may have nothing to do with one’s behaviour towards them.

May you find good friends to help you on the Path and if not the strength to travel the Path in solitude and peace towards the lasting peace of Nibbana!