Question: Which comes first — spiritual friends or spirituality? How should we ‘balance’ desire for spiritual friendship and spirituality itself?
Answer: Although the Buddha taught that spiritual friendship is very important, it should be regarded as the primary means for supporting spirituality itself. Without spirituality as essence, there is no spiritual friendship too. Thus, spirituality is more important than spiritual friends.
The Buddha did teach that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual path. However, this does not mean that spiritual friendship is more important than spirituality, but that it is important to have spiritual friendship that is one with our spirituality; not different or misaligned.
Does spiritual friendship or spirituality arise first? This seems like a chicken-or-egg-first question. And rightly so, as paradoxically, to have true spiritual friends who are supportive of spirituality, we should learn and practise spirituality (i.e. the Dharma) as truly as we can.
While spiritual friends can motivate our spirituality, our spirituality attracts spiritual friends too. When we befriend the Dharma with more pure learning and practice within a group, more good spiritual friends will karmically arise in good time, to befriend us further with the Dharma.
On the spiritual path, it is natural to pine for more spiritual friends. However, again, the primary goal is to become more spiritual, not just to have more friends. In fact, it is already very rare and precious, to be able to have a few good lifelong spiritual friends, who include teachers.
We have to be mindful not to mistake craving for more social friends to meet our social ‘needs’ as the pure desire for spiritual friends. Many worldly people can be good social friends, while relatively few can be good spiritual friends… who are able to guide us all the way to Buddhahood.