Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 1 True Type of Friend

Living near by, I often visit Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery), here in Northeast Thailand. Sometimes the resident monks aren’t around, presumably busy either with their daily chores or meditating in their kutis (meditation huts) out in the forest. This was the case on one such visit, so I sat in the main hall reflecting on the Buddharupa (Buddha statue), enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, when three Thai bhikkhus (monks) walked in. As they didn’t speak much English, and my Thai isn’t good enough for a deep discussion of Buddhism, we got by with a mixture of small talk and hand gestures.

We talked for about half an hour. It turned out that they were visiting form another monastery in the lineage of Ajahn Chah in Mukdahan (another province in Northeast Thailand), and that they’d been bhikkhus for a year. I asked if they enjoyed living a renunciate lifestyle, which they said they did, and they invited me to stay with them at their temple. I thanked them for the invitation, and we said our farewells, their faces full of bright smiles, and I thought to myself that I’d made some new friends in the Dharma.

In Buddhism, there is the word kalyanamitta which means ‘noble (or good) friend’. This true type of friend is one that sets a good example of how to apply the Buddhist Teachings to one’s life, through their words and deeds, and is most often a monk (though not necessarily). Over the many moons of being a Buddhist, I have had the good fortune to make many acquaintances in the order of monks (bhikkhu-sangha), some of them good friends. Unlike other friends that I’ve had over the years, these bhikkhus have been wholly wholesome influences on me; they’ve never used unkind or disparaging speech with me, they’ve never behaved in ways that could be described as wicked or nasty, and they’ve never bought me alcoholic beverages, encouraging me to get ‘blitzed’!
In England, I had good friends in the Dharma at both Cittaviveka and Amaravati monasteries, and in Thailand I’ve made friends with some of the bhikkhus at Wat Pah Nanachat. Sometimes, I’ve sat discussing Dharma with them for well over an hour, with their patient responses to my endless queries always directing me to the wholesome and beneficial. They are true friends (kalyanamittata), giving their time and attention with the Dharma in mind. Thank you, bhikkhus!

Buddhist monks are not the only kind of true friends, of course, and neither are Buddhists in general. I’ve had many good pals over the years that wouldn’t know a bhikkhu from a buddha, but they were nice, decent people, who lived life in a spirit of honesty and kindness. I’ve learnt many important lessons from them, and owe them a deep sense of gratitude. The Lord Buddha once instructed a layman that:

“In whatever village or town that a family man dwells, he associates with householders or their sons, whether young or old, who are of mature virtue, accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom; he converses with them and engages in discussions with them. He emulates them in regard to their accomplishment in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom. This is called good friendship.” 
(Anuttara Nikaya 8.54, Tipitaka)
And when his cousin, the Venerable Ananda, said that half of the spiritual life was good friendship, the Buddha replied in the following way:
“Not so, Ananda, not so! This is the entire spiritual life, 
Ananda, that is good friendship, good comradeship.”
(Samyutta Nikaya 45.6, Tipitaka)

Watching the monks at Wat Pah Nanachat, Wat Amaravati and other forest temples, I’ve noted how comradeship in the Dharma is so important to them as they support each other’s progress in the spiritual life. It’s easy sometimes to think that we’ve got it sussed, that we know all the answers, but no one has all the answers - not unless they’re fully enlightened. We can help each other on the Path by being kalyanamittata, by being the best kind of best friends.

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