Ultimately we are alone in life. It is a truth we can not escape. We both have the capability and responsibility to live our life well. At the same time, it is equally true that friends can help us while we try. A friendship holds great power. We can help each other to find freedom, joy and develop altruistic love. But where to find such ‘spiritual’ friends?
I have lived long enough to know that friends, in the mundane sense, come and go. Just like every moment in life. Some take that as a sad fact. They might even stop trying to sustain their current friendships and / or making new ones. However, I have found it to be reason to cherish my moments with friends even more and deeply enjoy them. As long as they last.
Recently I was invited by two friends, Ellen and her husband George, to join them on a road-trip in the United States of America. We shared many hours driving from Ellen her home in Bonney Lake (in the state of Washington) to vist mutual friends, Tina & Loren, whom live near Zion National Park (in the state of Utah). Though Loren could not be at home, he joined us through video-calls at times. Ellen and George took me on hikes in national parks nearby. On Sunday they rested and I joined Tina to a Church Service (of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
After staying some days with Tina, and making our journey ‘home’ again, I enjoyed some more days in Bonney Lake. During all these moments we played games, enjoyed good food, went our own ways every now and then and, very often, spoke about all kinds of things in life. Though knowing that eventually our ways would part again, I felt great joy and gratitude for these friendships and allowing me to stay with them and their family-members for a little while. Which also included some unexpected and wonderful meetings with others. It is curious how meeting them in Jerusalem for the first time, ended up in sharing time together in United States. Yet, there I was. Among friends. Not only friends in the mundane sense, but spiritual friends too.
When is someone a spiritual friend? Clearly, this does not mean we necessarily share the same ‘wisdom tradition’ or ‘religion’. They all follow a particular Christian faith, be it different ones, while I am on a Buddhist path. As a consequence there are some differences in our views & practices, which oftentimes lead to lively discussions. Yet, when we talk about ethical values and the underlying purpose or meaning in life, it seems we are more like brothers & sisters than we are strangers. In fact, I feel deeply that these friendships help me to become wiser and more compassionate. Besides moments of silence, walking, and so on, the lively discussions about our differences certainly contribute to that as well.
In other words. A friend can be someone we go out with for a cup of coffee, watch a movie, speak about our job or, surely with those we know for a long time, recollect memories. Such friends are nice and have a value of their own. It turns into a spiritual friendship if someone becomes a great source of inspiration, guidance and who holds a mirror to show our flaws, harmful habits, confusion and so on. We could also say that in such moments this person is our teacher. Indeed, as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (DPR) points out in his book Rebel Buddha, when the historical Buddha spoke about the value of a teacher or guru, he meant spiritual friend. DPR then goes on to clarify that authentic spiritual friends have two main qualities:
“The first is to be learned, to have both vast knowledge of the Buddhist teachings and profound insight into their meaning. The second is to hold correct ethical discipline, which is the basis for maintaining all the trainings of the Buddhist path.”
Neither of my friends mentioned earlier are buddhists. Does that mean they can not be authentic spiritual friends? As I was contemplating the idea of a spiritual friend and started to write this article, our main resident teacher Acharya Tashi appeared in the community room in NalandaWest. He asked me what I was doing and we ended up talking about spiritual friendship. Considering the context in which DPR describes those qualities, a traditional buddhist teaching, it makes sense he limits it to the buddhist path. However, as Acharya Tashi emphasizes, according to the Vajrayana tradition everyone can be your spiritual friend.
Our conversation reminded me of one of the unexpected and wonderful meetings: visiting the paternal grandparents of Ellen. We discussed all kinds of things over dinner (including Christian and Buddhist views & practices) and recollected some dishonest or foolish things we did in our lives while having some tea later. When we are about to leave and say goodbye, I told Acharya Tashi, Ellen her grandmother spoke some last words to me: “have a good life.” That moment of contact felt, paraphrasing DPR from Rebel Buddha, so intimate and striking that it penetrated right to my heart. I responded to her say “Thank you,” and continued as we were walking away, by telling her that I will do my very best.
When Acharya Tashi heard about this example he said that possible differences in our views, whatever tradition we have or whether we have no tradition at all, do not really matter. Whatever helps us to open our mind and heart to its true nature, has infinite meaning. The words ‘good life’, Tashi explained, carried this for me in that moment. Someone that inspires to do positive things can be considered a spiritual friend. In that sense, we concluded together, everyone can be a spiritual friend. In fact, every-thing can be our teacher because they can help us see the natural qualities of compassion and clear awareness within. Whoever, or whatever, helps giving rise to an ‘awakened’ heart or mind, which is basically the same thing, is a spiritual friend. And in a way they are everywhere since our way of looking makes the difference.
Our teacher, or spiritual friend, Acharya Tashi pointed out that there are different views and a lot of concepts and texts about this in the buddhist tradition. For example the concept of Kalyāṇa-mittatā and the Meghiya Sutta in which Ananda asks Buddha about friendship. Maybe here he showed to be not a spiritual friend in the broader sense, but more in the buddhist sense as DPR explained earlier. Thus I ended up in our library at NalandaWest, where I write these last words. Knowing that I have still a lot to learn, but also with a sense of joy & gratitude for having seen some spiritual friends, non-buddhist and buddhist alike, that guide me on the path. In that sense we are not alone. And ‘living a good life’ will echo as an imperative on my journey and helps me recognize my own heart. Beautiful, isn’t it? But then, as DPR wrote, “Beauty is everywhere because mind is beautiful.”