The Great Value Of Spiritual Friendship

Radical transformation of society
requires personal and spiritual change
first or at least simultaneously.

Sulak Sivaraksa

A topic that Sulak [Sivaraksa] weaves into nearly every talk, essay, book, or discussion is spiritual friendship, which he regards as the most important principle in cultivating spiritual development. Because one is often blind to one’s own missteps on the path, or because the ego hijacks the loftiest of aspirations, one must rely on a spiritual friend, or kalyana-mitta, to point out deviations from the path, provide a reality check, and correct the course. Sulak asserts that spiritual friendship is critical irrespective of one’s religious tradition.

The Buddha spoke often about the value of wise mentors and admirable friends to help guide us along the spiritual path. Sulak likes to quote from the Upaddha Sutta, in which the Buddha is asked by his close disciple Ananda whether maintaining admirable friends and camaraderie is “half of the holy life.” The Buddha responds, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie [kalyana-mitta] is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.”

Sulak has adopted kalyana-mittata as a very direct and personal approach to effecting not only personal spiritual growth but also lasting social change. The key to spiritual friendship is the giving and receiving of constructive criticism. The kalyana-mitta relationship works in both directions, so that each one receives a critical perspective from the other, and both willingly consider any and all criticisms received. Sulak encourages everyone to seek our virtuous friends, including those outside one’s own spiritual tradition, who will provide honest feedback intended to promote each other’s personal transformation. Exchanging candid observations with friends is not a comfortable process, but it is one Sulak considers central to his role as an authentic friend. …

What are the benefits that Sulak believes kalyana-mitta offers? For one, a sane, lucid perspective that warns friends when they are being too speedy in body or mind, because such lack of mindfulness can lead to harming oneself or other. There is power in slowing down, and wisdom in becoming (to quote T.S.Eliot) a “still point in turning world.”

Close friends can remind each other to ground themselves and discover contentedness in the present moment, knowing that to cling to the past or fear the future inevitably leads to suffering. Authentic friends will also point out, gently or forcefully, when they see what Buddhism calls the “self-cherishing ego” fueling unwholesome actions on the part of their kalyana-mitta.

Perhaps because of the sharpness of his critical edge, Sulak has not attracted many of what might be called “normal” friends. Yet he comments that maintaining normal relationships “is about ego gratification because friends give you what you want, and when that stops, you don’t want to hang around them anymore. But it is more important to have kalyana-mitta, because these individuals will tell us what we don’t want to hear.” An external voice of conscience rarely soothes the ego, but it encourages us to persist in making diligent efforts towards our spiritual goals.

Roar: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism
Matteo Pistono 

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