I was listening to the Mindfulness and Meditation Summit and one of the speakers proclaimed, “You can’t awaken in solitude!” and it struck me that this is perhaps why Spiritual Friends groups are so important. As I researched a little more, I found that many teachers have spoken and written about the value the Buddha placed on spiritual friends.
Bhikkhu Bhodi: People … often take the Dharma to be a purely individual path of spiritual development. They imagine that the only correct way to follow the Dharma is to lock oneself up …, turn off the lights, and devote all one’s efforts to practising meditation. However, … the Buddha … stressed the value of spiritual friendship as a support for the …path…. On one occasion … Ānanda … [one of the Buddha’s attendants] came to the Buddha and said that in his view half the spiritual life revolves around spiritual friendship. The Buddha immediately corrected him and said, “Do not say this, Ānanda! Do not say this, Ānanda! Spiritual friendship is not half the spiritual life. It’s the entire spiritual life!”
Meghiya was one of the Buddha’s attendants. One day after his alms round in the town, Meghiya wandered down by the river and found himself in a lovely mango grove. He had the idea, “This is such a pleasant and peaceful place! It is the perfect place to sit and meditate if the Buddha will agree.”
He returned to the Buddha and told him what he had seen. “Please give me permission to go to that mango grove and spend a day or two meditating,” he asked the Buddha. The Buddha replied, “We are alone here at the moment. First let us wait for more of our friends to join us, then you may go.” Then Meghiya said, “You are enlightened. You have reached your goal, but I need to make more effort with my meditation to reach my goal. Please let me go.” And Buddha replied, “When more monks have arrived, then you will be able to go and meditate. Stay with me for now.” Meghiya was not satisfied. For the third time, he asked permission to leave the Buddha. The Buddha thought about it carefully and said, “When you are so persistent about leaving and making effort in meditation, what can I say to you? Please do what you think is right.”
Meghiya was pleased to get his own way and went straight to the peaceful mango grove. He was looking forward to having some nice experiences in meditation. He sat down under a large mango tree and started to meditate. He planned to meditate for a long time until he became enlightened like the Buddha, but after a short time, he started having three kinds of unskillful thoughts: thoughts of sensuality, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of doing harm. All sorts of feelings that disturbed his meditation arose. He was very surprised! He stopped meditating and started thinking about what was happening. “I am trying so hard. I left my home to become a monk and here I am in solitude, meditating in this beautiful place, but my thoughts aren’t beautiful at all! How strange!”
At the end of the day, feeling disappointed, he returned to the Buddha and told him all that had happened. The Buddha listened patiently as Meghiya told him his troubles. Then the Buddha gave this teaching:
“You aren’t ready to become enlightened yet. You need to develop your heart and mind first. Here are five things that will help:
First, admirable friends—skillful and honorable
Second, virtuous conduct—stay on the path
Third, profitable talk—conversation that inspires and encourages practice
Fourth, zealous exertion—diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for good
Fifth, insight into impermanence—discernment of the arising and passing of suffering”
And the Buddha elaborated on these:
When a person has admirable friends, it is to be expected that he will be virtuous.
When a person has admirable friends, it is to be expected that he will engage in conversation that inspires and encourages practice.
When a person has admirable friends, it is to be expected that he will have diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for good.
When a person has admirable friends, it is to be expected that he will gain insight into impermanence.
“In other words,” as Norman Fischer puts it, “[spiritual] friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else flows naturally from it.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi: To unite with others in a common dedication to the spiritual path has a strengthening and uplifting effect upon our own practice. When we try to practice the path alone, we may feel as though we are walking through a desert. It can be very lonesome, the landscape around us is rough and barren, and we have no refreshment, no inspiration from others to replenish our energies. But when we unite with others in spiritual friendship based upon common aspirations, this reinforces our own energies. When we walk a common path and engage in common practices, we gain encouragement, strength, and inspiration to continue in our practice. This is like crossing the desert in a caravan: others help us carry the supplies, we can pause for conversation, we have a sense of sharing the trials along the way, and we rejoice together as we approach our destination. This is the essence of … spiritual friendship: a keen interest in helping our friends grow and develop in the practice of the Dharma, in maturing their potential for goodness, for understanding, for wholesomeness.
Thich Nhat Hanh says: Your body, your consciousness, and your environment are like a garden. There may be a few trees and bushes that are dying, and you may feel overwhelmed by anguish and suffering at the sight of that. You may be unaware that there are still many trees in your garden that are solid, vigorous, and beautiful. When members of your Sangha come into your garden, they can help you see that you still have a lot of beautiful trees and that you can enjoy the things that have not gone wrong within your landscape. When their energy of mindfulness is combined with yours, you will be able to touch beauty and happiness.
Ajahn Amaro: Through getting to know those who delight in the Buddha’s teaching we create a connection with them; we establish a support system. This is kalyanamitta, the network of spiritual friendship. This is what really enables us as a human society to hold together. Political agreements don’t work, laws don’t work; it is our ability to strengthen and affirm our qualities of inner beauty, of kindness and generosity, and to encourage those in others – that’s what enables human beings to live in a wholesome and profitable way. In spiritual friendship, we can actually be with each other. We open ourselves to the other person, ready to notice any grudges that we have, or the opinions and obsessions we have about them, as well as the attractions towards them. Then we can enter more into the place of listening, of forgiving, of letting go of the past and just being open to the present. And this is the most wonderful and beautiful gift we can give.
Tara Brach: Having spiritual friends is not a superficial comfort. It helps free us from a trance of separation so deep that we are often not aware of it. Conscious relationships shine a direct light on our layered feelings of unworthiness and loneliness, and on the truth of our belonging. We begin to respond more compassionately and actively to the suffering of the world. Our real community, we discover, includes all beings. As we relax and trust this belonging to the web of life, we recognize the one awareness that shines through each being. Our spiritual friends open the way to the inner refuge of unconditional loving presence.
Sharon Salzberg: Kalyana mitta (KM)—or spiritual friends—groups have taken off throughout the mindfulness world….they can gather locally to sit, discuss books, and share their own spiritual journeys.
Speaking for myself: Before I started attending this sangha, I practiced meditation in fits and starts. Once I came to the sangha and practiced with the sangha, I felt a connectedness, a shared sense of purpose; this inner fire within me really ignited, and I could feel my vibration lifting. Let me be clear, my meditation itself was pretty much the same as it had been—same distractions, same struggles, same hang ups; it was the experience of practicing alongside all of you, sharing this path with you, that made the difference. My practice started evolving. Then I joined the sangha book club, which has given me more time with a smaller group from the sangha and an opportunity for deeper sharing. When the sangha didn’t meet over the holidays, a few members met to listen to a podcast and practice together. My participation in the Monday sits and these smaller groups inspires and energizes me, and I am now much more consistent with my daily practice.
As I was working on this talk, I received an email with this inspirational message by Madisyn Taylor from Daily Om: Like birds flying in a “V,” when we feel the presence of others moving along side of us, there is little we cannot accomplish.
I’m excited to share that we are currently putting together our own spiritual friends group! This first group will be a pilot to see how it works for this sangha. Larger sanghas like Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society of Washington have years of experience with successful SF groups. We will use the guidelines they’ve established in the formation and facilitation of our group. Travis and I will be the facilitators. This is a peer led group so we are all coming together as equals to delve deeper into learning these teachings and to support and encourage each other’s daily practice. Some of the requirements are: regular attendance on Monday nights, commitment to attend all SF meetings in the series, maintaining a daily meditation practice, respecting confidentiality, and following mindful communication guidelines. If you’re interested, please let me know, and we will send you the specifics.
Thank you all very much for being here and creating this sangha! Namaste