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.

hands-compassion

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.

Tao a Day — Verse 38: The Sage’s Relation to “Self”

To give without seeking reward
To help without thinking it is virtuous–
     therein lies great virtue
To keep account of your actions
To help with the hope of gaining merit–
     therein lies no virtue

The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without condition
The highest justice is to see without preference
– Trans. Jonathan Star (excerpt – opening lines)


We live in a time of little virtue. We are told to look out for number one. Famous writers have propounded philosophies in which greed is a great virtue which helps everyone. It seems that all around us, most of the time, people are concerned most about what they will get out of a situation; we are told that this is natural and good to be self-involved like this.

From a certain perspective, spirituality is in utter opposition to such a view. The stance of what can I take, what can I get, is yet another way of maintaining the certain safety of ego. It upholds I, me, and mine, and it furthers the goal of solidifying them as of the utmost importance. According to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, spirituality moves against this but stands in constant danger of falling into the traps of ego-fulfillment. We all too readily fall into spiritual practice as something to hoard, something to show that I’m wiser than others, or something that makes me remarkable and worthy of being looked up to by others as a guru, realized one, or some other egoic hero. The Buddhist emphasis on the practice of compassion is both a means to reach enlightenment, and at the same time, compassion–focusing on others as more important than “me”–keeps us from falling prey to these traps. I’m not implying that Buddhism is superior to other spiritual disciplines. Hardly. I’ve known Christians and pagans who displayed compassion first and foremost, and their spiritual practices and personal virtues were all the more noteworthy and admirable because of this outward oriented engagement with the world.

The Sage also exemplifies the Te (virtue) which does not focus on self above all else. She gives without seeking reward. She does not tally up her great deeds. Instead, she, like water, acts in a way that supports all, rather than herself. This was discussed in a previous post about being in accordance with the flow of nature–the unfolding of Tao. Having virtue, Te, is completely about actualizing the Tao as the microcosm of the macrocosm. That was discussed in my post on inner virtues to some extent. In this case, let’s remember that the Tao continuously gives the 10,000 things. It is both the origin and totality of all. This totality continues to ebb and flow into being. It continually gives. Nothing statically remains as some sort of beloved object that Tao holds onto for itself. Rather, Tao loves bringing forth the ever-arising new of change. So why do we grasp at possessions and holding back that which is mine, when Tao shows us to move and flow: to give and support life without interest in self-bolstering?

Tao supports all. Those seeking to cultivate Te should as well. I heard an interesting Dharma talk last night in which the priest ended in saying that compassion is being able to hear whatever another person has to say without limiting those words to what we want to or are able to hear from “my” perspective. Letting go of oneself enough to be completely present to what appears (in this example, the words of another) is Te–it is being in harmony with nature and being able to act within that harmony, wu wei. Thus, the Sage responds to what arises: recognizing that “The highest justice is to see without preference.” The Sage opens his eyes, sees the world as it is–Tao, and acts skillfully from this proper seeing. Such a proper seeing shows that the “self” is an ever-unfolding process of emergence, one that mirrors Tao: the appearance and disappearance of the 10,000 things of Tao–the mysterious flux of universal becoming in all its myriad forms.

Having “Te” requires seeing and actualizing “Tao”


Here is the rest of the verse for further reading. Have a look at the closing lines if nothing else:

When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
And when the high-blown rules of conduct are not followed
people are seized by the arm and it is forced on them
The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty–
quite confusing to the heart
And when men rely on these rules for guidance–
Oh, what ignorance abounds!

The great master follows his own nature
and not the trappings of life
It is said,
“He stays with the fruit and not the fluff”
“He stays with the firm and not the flimsy”
“He stays with the true and not the false”
-Trans. Jonathan Star

Tao a Day – Verse 26: Inner Virtues

Heavy is the root of light
still is the master of restless
thus a lord might travel all day
but never far from his supplies
even in a guarded camp
his manner is calm and aloof
why would the lord of ten thousand chariots
treat himself lighter than his kingdom
too light he loses his base
too restless he loses command
– Trans. Red Pine


I present this translation first to show how mysterious the Tao Te Ching can be. Translators often turn it in their own way to express their understanding of it to readers. Let’s ponder this translation which attempts to get as close to the original text as possible before moving on to another translator’s expression of the meaning.

I feel that the first four lines are key to the meaning of the verse. The first two lines tell us that light comes from heavy and that stillness supersedes restlessness. The Tao Te Ching emphasizes time and again this distinction about how certain qualities are primary and represent the more primordial nature of potential — of Tao. A good example is that hardness comes from softness. Here, it seems that the secondary qualities of lightness or restlessness lead away from the virtue of the primary qualities, and it’s implied that a follower of the Way will cultivate the primary qualities of heaviness and stillness. What’s so important about these two qualities? They’re not readily moved. In other words, they are not reactive to the external changes of the world. They work along with the ways of the world without reacting in either the senses of being swept along with them or fighting back against them. Lines three and four complete this personal teaching of Te (virtue) in saying “thus” (not that this implies a conclusion from the first two lines) the lord travels at length without leaving his supplies. The supplies are these qualities which keep the lord stocked for any situation that life brings, no matter how far he may go or what he may do. These virtues are internal strengths of proper relationship with Tao, and no matter what happens, the walker of the Way can bring these along and act in accordance with the Tao.

The rest of the passage emphasizes that the ruler has the proper relationship of treating himself well (treating himself no less than he does his kingdom). This means that he cultivates these inner supplies of stillness and heaviness: not being swayed by reactivity–rather, acting in accordance with his kingdom from this fundamental inner stillness of the potential for perfectly attuned action in all situations, the action in accordance with nature–wu wei. Rather than being reactive and trying to rule her kingdom through force, she sees the Tao and rules in a way that flows with its unfolding. Such virtue is not about imposing his ends or acting in order to impose his story upon the world; rather, her stillness mirrors the manifestation of the world–this is precisely the path of one who walks the Way. The one who walks the Way cultivates the proper relation with the external world of the “kingdom” by developing the virtues of the internal qualities of stillness and heaviness. Being a Sage entails a perfection of understanding of the Tao in one’s own personal character. The Te, your virtue, is a personally perfected mirrored manifestation of the Tao, the origin and nature of everything. Te mirrors Tao. The microcosm displays the secret of the macrocosm.

Now, for comparison, Jonathan Star strengthens this analysis through his own poetic translation:


The inner is foundation of the outer
The still is master of the restless

The Sage travels all day
    yet never leaves his inner treasure
Though the views are captivating and beg attention
    he remains calm and uninvolved
Tell me, does the lord of a great empire
     go out begging for rice?

One who seeks his treasure in the outer world
    is cut off from his own roots
Without roots, he becomes restless
Being restless, his mind is weak
And with a mind such as this
     he loses all command below Heaven
-Trans. Jonathan Star

May you cultivate your own stillness in studying the Way.

Gassho.