260 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field One - Bodhicitta: Way-Seeking Mind
262 - The Value, Care, and Feeding of Dharma Friendships – Part 2

The Buddha famously said “admirable friendship,” or what I’m calling Dharma friendship, is the entirety of the holy life. In this episode, I discuss the value and nature of personal Dharma friendships. In Part 2, I will talk about what makes a good Dharma friendship and offer some practical ideas about how to find, form, and maintain such relationships.

Read/listen to Part 2



Quicklinks to Content:
My Experience with Dharma Friendships
Dharma Friendship as the Sangha Jewel
The Value of Personal Dharma Friendships
Good Dharma Friendships: Shared Practice


My Experience with Dharma Friendships

Over the course of my 25 years of Zen practice, Dharma friendships have been extremely important to me.

When I first showed up at my Zen center, I knew next to nothing about Buddhism or meditation or any of the other things the Sangha did. I was an eager student, attending everything I could and doing my best to incorporate practice into my everyday life. The whole endeavor seemed somewhat idealistic and abstract, however, until one day a woman about my age invited me out to lunch. It turned out a group of 5-10 people would gather at a local restaurant every Sunday after services.

It was nice to feel seen and welcomed, and the people at lunch were very nice. Our ages varied widely, and everyone seemed relaxed and very ready to laugh. We talked about the food and the weather and health issues and all the normal stuff, but we mostly talked about practice – reflecting on the Dharma talk we had just listened to, sharing our own ideas, and discussing teachings we were struggling to understand. We talked about challenges we experienced in our zazen practice, in keeping the precepts, and in daily mindfulness. We shared with the others the “edge” of our practice: The limits of our understanding and capacity, and lingering experiences of inhibition, longing, or fear.

During my regular lunches with this intrepid and friendly group, we discussed insights we had experienced on the meditation seat or off, which resulted in greater freedom and hope; practices we had discovered or created which helped us stay more present, mindful, and compassionate; relationships within the Sangha, both challenging and rewarding; relationships with teachers, including both helpful and frustrating interactions; dreams we had and what they might say about the state of our mind and heart; emotional and physical challenges and how we were practicing with them. These Dharma conversations helped me realize that practice was not limited to zazen, study, or attending events at the Zen center. Practice meant living deliberately – looking at each and every moment, in each and every situation, for choices we can make to alleviate suffering and respond more compassionately and skillfully.

Over time I developed close friendships with a number of individuals in the Sangha. We were drawn to one another the same way you’re usually drawn to friends – because you’re of a similar age or gender, or have a similar life situation (e.g. raising young kids, being a busy professional, or being retired), or share a sense of humor, or because of some inexplicable affinity. When spending time one-on-one with these people, we continued the kinds of conversations typical of the Sunday lunch crowd but were able to get even deeper and more personal. One friend and I backpacked together each summer for many years. We would wake up late and talk for hours over coffee. Then we hiked in silence for the day, set up camp, and stayed up talking over the campfire every night. We discussed everything from Emptiness to our annoying Dharma brother. Another friend lived about 2 hours away. I would travel with one of my teachers to visit the Zen center where she practiced and then stay overnight. After everyone else had gone home from the Zen center and my teacher had gone to sleep, my friend and I had passionate conversations into the wee hours about the nature of existence and our efforts to awaken.

I can’t imagine having walked the path of practice all these years without the companionship, support, and inspiration of my Dharma “sisters and brothers.” In this episode and the next, I will explore the meaning and value of Dharma friendship, what good Dharma friendship looks like, and how to find, form, and maintain these important relationships.


Dharma Friendship as the Sangha Jewel

There are different ways to define Dharma friendship. The personal stories I just related describe a personal, peer-level relationship, and these are the main focus of these two episodes. However, personal friendships are just one part of the larger “Sangha Treasure.” As I discussed way back in Episode 2, the “Three Treasures” of Buddhism are Buddha (the historical teacher or our own awakened nature), Dharma (the Buddhist teachings or truth itself), and Sangha, the community of practitioners. From the beginning, Buddhism has contained a strong social element.

You might assume, given that Sangha is one of Three Treasures, that positive human relationships compose about a third of our practice. However, the Buddha famously remarked that it was a misunderstanding even to say that such relationships compose half of our practice. The Upaddha Sutta relates a conversation between the Buddha and his closest disciple (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”


“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”[i] 

In an essay called “Association with the Wise” on the Access to Insight website, Bhikkhu Bodhi beautifully describes the reason for this teaching of the Buddha:

Contrary to certain psychological theories, the human mind is not a hermetically sealed chamber enclosing a personality unalterably shaped by biology and infantile experience. Rather, throughout life it remains a highly malleable entity continually remolding itself in response to its social interactions. Far from coming to our personal relationships with a fixed and immutable character, our regular and repeated social contacts implicate us in a constant process of psychological osmosis that offers precious opportunities for growth and transformation. Like living cells engaged in a chemical dialogue with their colleagues, our minds transmit and receive a steady barrage of messages and suggestions that may work profound changes even at levels below the threshold of awareness.


Particularly critical to our spiritual progress is our selection of friends and companions, who can have the most decisive impact upon our personal destiny. It is because he perceived how susceptible our minds can be to the influence of our companions that the Buddha repeatedly stressed the value of good friendship (kalyanamittata) in the spiritual life. The Buddha states that he sees no other thing that is so much responsible for the arising of unwholesome qualities in a person as bad friendship, nothing so helpful for the arising of wholesome qualities as good friendship (AN 1.vii,10; I.viii,1). Again, he says that he sees no other external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship, and no other external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship (AN 1.x,13,14). It is through the influence of a good friend that a disciple is led along the Noble Eightfold Path to release from all suffering (SN 45:2).[ii] 

The state of our mind and heart is profoundly influenced by other people, directly or indirectly. Even if we are fiercely independent, even if we’re rather socially awkward and find it difficult to form many friendships, it is unlikely we can make much progress on the path of healing and transformation alone. Many aspects of the Dharma seem counterintuitive, obscure, or daunting, at least at first. Without the encouragement and example of others, who among us would know what to do, let alone the strength and courage to do it? If others weren’t encouraging you to sit silently facing a wall and do nothing, would it occur to you? Would you think to spend a whole day doing that, keeping silence, even though it’s sometimes physically or mentally draining? Would you have the faith required to keep turning toward your suffering, to keep trying to get more intimate with it, instead of distracting yourself from it or trying to make it go away? Would you have the courage to radically accept who you are instead of trying to fulfill your ideas about who you think you should be? To keep up a challenging, demanding practice over a long period of time even though you may not be seeing satisfying signs of “progress”?

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said:

In my tradition they say that when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowland, it will be caught by humans and killed. When practitioners leave their sangha, they will abandon their practice after a few months. In order to continue our practice of transformation and healing, we need a sangha.[iii] 

I have done a number of podcast episodes now on the importance of Sangha, including Episode 16 – Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community and Episodes 245-247 – Sangha Challenges: How and Why to Open Up to the Treasure of Sangha (parts 1-3). In those episodes I discussed how Sangha includes all kinds of different relationships, including those with peers, with seniors, with juniors, and with teachers. Our relationship with certain individuals may take all of these forms at different times.

Not all Sangha relationships are the kind of personal Dharma friendships I am focusing on today, but it’s important to remember that these friendships take place in a larger social context. Particular friendships may wax and wane, but the Sangha jewel remains. And Sangha on the whole is not about becoming buddy-buddy with every member of a community, or even liking all of them. It’s important within the context of Sangha that our personal friendships and preferences do not undermine the value and purpose of Sangha, where, ultimately, we aspire to treat all Sangha members with equal respect, goodwill, and compassion. 


The Value of Personal Dharma Friendships

On the other hand, Sanghas are composed of human beings. Try as we might, we are not going to feel the same about all the people we encounter, Buddhist or not. Some people inspire our trust and help us relax and be authentic. Others – usually without even being aware of it – trigger in us defensiveness or judgmentalism. It’s easy for us to talk to some people, while being around others will leave us tongue-tied and anxious.

It’s perfectly fine to seek out more intimate friendships with those in Sangha with whom we feel more comfortable. We can do this in a way that respects the Sangha jewel as long as we recognize it is our own karmic limitations that lead to our natural affinities. It is extremely easy to judge and blame the people we don’t like, especially if we can find others to support our case against them. Our practice challenges us to acknowledge our feelings, reactions, judgments, and preferences while refraining from creating a story about how awful someone is. It can help to think, “My karma doesn’t mix so well with so-and-so.” We don’t have to judge ourselves, either. And you never know, things may change in the future, and you will end up feeling great gratitude for someone you currently can’t stand. It’s happened to me on numerous occasions.

As long as personal Dharma friendships don’t cause us to compromise our relationships with other Sangha members, personal friendships are natural and supportive. You might think of it as an organic, self-organizing buddy system. We all benefit from more personal interaction than what general, somewhat impersonal Sangha relationships provide. We thrive when someone knows our name, when they are clearly glad to see us, when they know something about our life. The conversations go deeper with those who have gotten to know us over time, and our personal Dharma friends will be the first ones to notice if we are struggling. As the sole teacher in a community with over 100 members, I can’t keep track of everyone no matter how much I care about them. It does my heart good when I find out someone has a personal Dharma friend.


Good Dharma Friendships: Shared Practice

Our Dharma friends share our aspiration to study ourselves, face our shit, see through our delusions, live according to the precepts, cultivate compassion, let go of self-centeredness, and take responsibility for our behavior instead of blaming it on others. We mutually inspire one another to be diligent in practice through what I like to call “positive peer pressure.” It’s not that we criticize one another’s practice or need to hold one another accountable – our practice is still our own responsibility – it’s that we are inevitably influenced by the people we spend time with, as Bhikkhu Bodhi stated in the passage I read earlier. For example, we may think some aspect of practice is way too hard, but then we see a friend sticking with it and making progress. Or, as we hear someone reflect on their moral choices, it’s likely to make us think about our own.

In the Meghiya Sutta, the Buddha says this (translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu; I have taken the liberty here of replacing the word “monk” with “practitioner” as what the Buddha says applies equally to lay people):

“Meghiya, when a [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, it is to be expected that [s]he will be virtuous, will dwell restrained in accordance with the Patimokkha [moral precepts], consummate in [her] behavior and sphere of activity, and will train [her]self, having undertaken the training rules, seeing danger in the slightest faults.


“When a [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, it is to be expected that [s]he will get to hear at will, easily and without difficulty, talk that is truly sobering and conducive to the opening of awareness, i.e., talk on modesty, on contentment, on seclusion, on non-entanglement, on arousing persistence, on virtue, on concentration, on discernment, on release, and on the knowledge and vision of release.


“When a [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, it is to be expected that [s]he will keep [her] persistence aroused for abandoning unskillful qualities, and for taking on skillful qualities — steadfast, solid in [her] effort, not shirking [her] duties with regard to skillful qualities.


“When a [practitioner] has admirable people as friends, companions, and colleagues, it is to be expected that [s]he will be discerning, endowed with discernment of arising and passing away — noble, penetrating, leading to the right ending of stress.”[iv] 

If we have a Dharma friend with whom we can enjoy “talk that is truly sobering and conducive” to practice, we are lucky indeed – especially if such talk is based in humility and not self-righteousness, in compassion and not negative judgements of self or others.

To help us contemplate the value of friends with whom we share the aspiration to practice, let’s imagine for a moment the opposite of a good Dharma friend. This might be someone who can’t stop from indulging in harmful addictions in our presence; who lies, cheats, or steals without remorse; who disparages people who are trying to live ethically or compassionately; who constantly criticizes others while building up their own ego; who tells stories about others in an effort to arouse hard feelings against them; who will not make changes in their life, instead blaming others for their unhappiness; who focuses on talk of gain, wealth, pleasure, and distraction, or who brags and centers the conversation on themselves.

I suspect most of us can recognize some of our own behaviors in this caricature of a friend who the Buddha would not be likely to describe as “admirable.” None of us are perfect, and hopefully when we encounter negative behavior in ourselves or others, we feel compassion and not judgment. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to be a good Dharma friend. We just do our best, walking the path of practice side by side with our friends. If this practice were easy, we would be surrounded by Buddhas. It’s discussing the challenges we face in trying to transcend suffering and manifest compassion that might keep us up until the wee hours of the night, talking with our Dharma friend.


That’s all for today. I will be back very soon with Part 2, where I’ll talk about other important features of a good Dharma friendship: Mutual Goodwill, Sharing and Keeping Confidences, Not Abandoning When Misfortune Strikes, and Learning from Each Other. Then I’ll offer some thoughts on how to find, form, and maintain Dharma friendships.

Read/listen to Part 2



[i] “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html .

[ii] “Association with the Wise”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 5 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_26.html .

[iii] https://www.lionsroar.com/the-practice-of-sangha/

[iv] “Meghiya Sutta: About Meghiya” (Ud 4.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 September 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.4.01.than.html .


Photo Credit

Image by Lars Nissen from Pixabay


260 - Ten Fields of Zen, Field One - Bodhicitta: Way-Seeking Mind
262 - The Value, Care, and Feeding of Dharma Friendships – Part 2