Today's sutta throws a different spotlight on the path than we are accustomed to hear in standard Buddhist rhetoric. While we are often told that the practice of the Buddhist path depends entirely on personal effort, this sutta emphasizes the importance of spiritual friendship. The Buddha declares that spiritual friendship is not merely “half the spiritual life” but the whole of it, for the endeavor to attain spiritual perfection is not a purely solitary enterprise but occurs in dependence on close personal ties. Spiritual friendship gives the practice of the Dhamma an inescapably human dimension and welds the body of Buddhist practitioners into a community united both vertically by the relationship of teacher to students and horizontally by friendships among peers treading a shared path.
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans where there was a town of the Sakyans named Nāgaraka. Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side, and said to him:
“Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
“Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.
“And how, Ānanda, does a bhikkhu who has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path? Here, Ānanda, a bhikkhu develops right view, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. He develops right intention … right speech … right action … right livelihood … right effort … right mindfulness … right concentration, which is based upon seclusion, dispassion, and cessation, maturing in release. It is in this way, Ānanda, that a bhikkhu who has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, develops and cultivates the Noble Eightfold Path.
“By the following method too, Ānanda, it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship: by relying upon me as a good friend, Ānanda, beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to aging are freed from aging; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. By this method, Ānanda, it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”
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