On Friendship: Views of a Philosopher and of a Zen Priest

At times, I have been dismayed at how readily others are called friends. In this post, I’ve taken passages from Aristotle and Katagiri Roshi to examine what deep friendship is. Aristotle shows us that there is only one complete friendship–one that is an equal and mutual giving that comes from the desire to better the excellence, the good, in another; while Katagiri shows that while we walk alone through life, we can encounter true friends who show us wisdom and noble action. Katagiri tells us how to recognize them when we encounter them and how to act toward such true friends. On some level, these two expositions are dramatically different, but on some level they are the same. Katagiri emphasizes how one could be a friend for the universe with the example of the Buddha in mind. This goes much beyond the rarefied virtue of those magnanimous souls that, rare indeed, can share this equality of virtue enhancement a la Aristotle, yet is it not true that such a friend, the true friend in line with the example of the Buddha, seeks to uphold the best in all that exists, the basic goodness that underlies every sentient being, taking pleasure in this simple act of goodness for its own sake? Both indicate that this friendship is rare, but it is also clear that this is what friendship really is: sharing a deeper truth with someone who brings it out in you as well.

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So there are three species of friendship, equal in number to the kinds of things that are loved; for in accordance with each, there is a reciprocal loving which one is not unaware of, and those who love one another wish for good things for one another in the same sense in which they love. So those who love one another for what is useful do not love one another for themselves, but insofar as something good comes to them from one another. And it is similar with those who love on account of pleasure, since they are fond of charming people not for being people of a certain sort, but because they are pleasing to themselves. So those who love for what is useful have a liking based on what is good for themselves, and those who love for pleasure have a liking based on what is pleasant to themselves, and the other person is loved not for what he is, but insofar as he is useful or pleasant. Therefore, these are friendships of an incidental kind, since it is not insofar as the one loved is the very person he is that he is loved, but insofar as he provides, in the one case, something good, or in the other case, pleasure. Hence, such friendships are easily dissolved, when the people themselves do not stay the way they were, for when the others are no longer pleasant or useful they stop loving them. And what is useful does not stay the same, but becomes something different at a different time. So when that through which they were friends has departed, the friendship is dissolved, since the friendship was a consequence of that.

But the complete sort of friendship is that between people who are good and are alike in virtue, since they wish for good things for one another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves. And those who wish for good things for their friends for their own sake are friends most of all, since they are that for themselves and not incidentally; so the friendship of these people lasts as long as they are good, and virtue is enduring. And each of them is good simply and good for his friend, since good people are both good simply and beneficial to one another. And they are similarly pleasant since the good are pleasant both simply and to one another, for to each person, actions that are his own and such as his own are according to his pleasure, while the actions of the good are the same or similar. And it is reasonable that such friendship is lasting, for all those things that ought to belong to friends are joined together in it. For every friendship is for something good or for pleasure, either simply or for the one who loves, and is from some sort of similarity, and in this sort all the things mentioned are present on account of themselves, since in this sort the people are alike, and all the rest of it; and what is good simply is also pleasant simply, and these things most of all are loved, and so the loving and the friendship among these people is the most intense and best.

But such friendships are likely to be rare for such people are few. Also, there is an additional need of time and intimate acquaintance, for according to the common saying, it is not possible for people to know one another until they use up the proverbial amount of salt together, and so it is not possible for them to accept one another before that, or to be friends until each shows himself to each as lovable and as trusted. Those who quickly make gestures of friendship toward one another want to be friends, but are not unless they are also lovable and know this, since wishing for friendship comes about as something quick, but friendship does not.

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as in what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good.

–Selections from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapters 3 & 5, translator: Joe Sachs


The Buddha also taught that if you come across a true friend–one who is noble, fearless, thoughtful, and wise–then walk with that friend in peace. If you find such a friend, you can walk together for life. But don’t be too eager to find such a friend. If you become greedy for such a friend, you will be disappointed, and you will not be able to live in peace and harmony with others.

Learning to live alone also means that, whatever the situation, you have to live quietly. All you have to do is just walk, step-by-step. It’s not so easy, but it’s very important for us. And if we are not too greedy, the good friend will appear.

In ancient times in India, people would look to find such a good friend meditating in the forest. If they found such a person, they would sit with him. This is how it was with Buddha. As people began to gather around him, he called them shravakas, which means “listeners.” The relationship between the Buddha and those who came to listen to his teaching was not like that of a boss and an employee or a parent and child. It was more like that of a master and an apprentice. If you go to see and listen to such a wise friend, you are not a student, exactly; you are just a listener. The idea of being called a student came about in a later age.

At the time of the Buddha, there were four castes of people, and depending on caste, there were many formal rules for how people should address one another. But the Buddha was beyond classifying or discriminating among people. He used the same kind, gentle, and polite form of expression to address everyone, no matter what the station. He only said, “Welcome.” That’s it. People didn’t go through any particular ceremony that certified them as followers of the Buddha. They just received this simple greeting. This is the origin of the sangha.

In Sanskrit the term sangha literally means “group.” It was used to refer to religious groups as well as political groups. When the Buddha visited different regions, the people would gather together to listen to his teaching and to practice together. Then, after he left, they would settle into small groups or take up traveling.

Today, how do we find a wise friend? I don’t know. There is no particular pattern. But even though you might not find a good friend in the world, still you can find a good friend in the example of the Buddha. And if you do come across such a friend, walk with him. Just remember, if this person is a good friend for you, he is also a good friend for others, so don’t attach too strongly to him.

You can feel something from such persons as you walk with them. And remember, though they are human beings living now, through them you can meet the Buddha. And through the Buddha, you can see such a good, pure friend.

–Dainin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight, pp. 54-55.


May this set of thoughts give you insight into friendship and how to act as a friend. May you aspire to being a noble, fearless, thoughtful and wise friend who takes pleasure in the good of others rather than the incidental connection of usefulness or mundane pleasure.

Keep on Walking

Recently, I’ve questioned whether I should continue this blog. It has never been about me–I don’t care if I have 1 follower or 10,000. However, I’ve written every word of this in the hopes of engaging others, impacting their lives. The intention has always been to help others, calling them to see their lives differently. I’ve poured my heart into this recently, writing post after post–some quite challenging for me to write, as I’ve tried to balance difficult topics with a level of expression I hope will be readable for most everyone. Yet, my numbers in terms of views have been low, and I’ve started to doubt, to question whether these posts really make any difference to anyone out there.

Again, this doesn’t hurt my ego, as such accomplishment and feedback is not my aim. However, it has made me feel like it’s not worth the effort to post here if this is becoming an online journal. It’s precisely because I don’t want this to be a space of my self-aggrandizement that I wonder if I should stop. Luckily, I’ve had a couple friends respond to these feelings of mine, and I’m grateful for what they had to say.

One told me that if my purpose is to inspire others, I should take a long-term view. Perhaps the words I write will take time to find the right readers. I should keep writing for those readers, even if they aren’t reading yet and may not be for some time to come.

The other friend told me to keep posting and not worry about readers. Just write.

Both of these acts of support show true friendship: neither offered simple words about how smart or great I am, a little warming blanket of comfort. Instead, they called out the virtue of my efforts and reinvigorated my intention for this blog.

Finally, these words from one of the books I have read recently act as one more source of inspiration in this choice. They resonate well with my recent post about the way being in the heart. If you would like further understanding of bodhicitta, please see that post:

Rousing bodhicitta is an occasion for continual delight. We can hardly wait to raise it again. If we were the only person in the whole world to be generating love and compassion, we would generate it with fearless joy and delight until the day we die. Our aspiration to help others is so great that we would gladly spend an eternity in hell even to help a child be less afraid to speak in class. – Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally, p. 207

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I keep offering my words here again and again: keep walking the Way.

May I aspire to such awakened heart myself, and may my words help all who need them.

Gassho.