Spiritual Friendship Is the Path

Each one of us, says David Viafora, can be a kalyana mitra, or “spiritual friend.” Here’s how.

By David Viafora

“Borderline personality disorder,” 2018. Drawing by Moonassi.

One day, Ananda and the Buddha were sitting alone on a hill together, overlooking the plains of the Ganges. Having served as the Buddha’s attendant for many years, Ananda often shared his reflections and insights with him. This afternoon, Ananda spoke. “Dear Respected Teacher,” Ananda said. “It seems to me that half of the spiritual life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” I imagine that Ananda said this with some level of confidence for praising the merits of spiritual friendship. But the Buddha quickly corrected him: “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda!” Ouch! Probably Ananda wasn’t expecting such a stern rebuke. But the Buddha was offering a powerful teaching. He continued, “This is the entire spiritual life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a monk 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.”

A kalyana mitra is not just any pal you hang out with. A virtuous friend is someone who uplifts your path to a higher level of ethical and spiritual well-being.

Some of early Buddhism’s most powerful teachings resulted from when someone, often Ananda, stuck their neck out only to be corrected or admonished by the Buddha. In this case, the Buddha skillfully removed Ananda’s idea that the sangha and the dharma are separate. One is not half of the other; the sangha is not merely helpful in realizing the path. The sangha is the path. Spiritual friendship is the path.

The practice of sangha-building may be considered one long story of spiritual friendship. Strong communities depend on the personal relationships between its members, like a quilt that is woven together of various threads and seams. By strengthening each individual friendship, we strengthen the entire fabric. For anyone who wants to build a happy and thriving sangha, the key is growing beloved friendships.

Kalyana Mitra

In Sanskirt, kalyana mitra means “spiritual friend.” Kalyana may be translated as “good, true, virtuous, upright, or beneficial,” and mitra is the root word for maitri, which means kindness. A kalyana mitra is not just any pal you hang out with to hit the clubs or go bar-hopping. A kalyana mitra is someone who helps you realize your deeper aspirations, one who uplifts your path to a higher level of ethical and spiritual well-being. In comparison, the word “friendship” stems from the Old English freon, meaning “to love,” and freo, meaning “free.” So at its roots, friendship means to “love freely.” Thus both words point a selfless kindness toward others.

Many people, presented with so many teachings praising the practice of meditation and solitude, think Buddhism is a practice for loners. But the Buddha’s encouragements to practice in solitude were balanced with an ardent emphasis on cultivating worthy friendships. Throughout his teaching career, the Buddha spoke again and again about the pivotal importance of kalyana mitras in order to succeed in one’s practice, stating that there is no other factor so conducive to the arising of the noble eightfold path as good friendship. “Just as the dawn is the forerunner of the sunrise, so good friendship is the forerunner for the arising of the noble eightfold path,” the Buddha stated. The “Discourse on Happiness,” which extols thirty-two blessings of a happy life, begins with “To avoid foolish persons and to live in the company of wise people…, this is the greatest happiness.”

There is no factor in our environment so influential to our lives as our closest friends. The Buddha’s emphasis on the profound impact of friendship is similarly captured by Joseph Rubano’s poem, “Friend by Friend”:

Who is my mother,
Who my father,
When I am being created friend by friend?
I don’t remember who I was without you.

Whether during times of crisis or peace, whether on momentous occasions or very subtly, wherever we live, those around us are impacting our life and consciousness at every moment.

The Sangha Solar System

While living at Deer Park Monastery in California, I once overheard a retreatant asking Thay Phap Dung, the abbot and one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most senior dharma teachers, how to build a sangha in his hometown. Phap Dung replied,

The most important thing is the core friendships you create together. That’s everything. You practice every day by yourself, and you share the fruits of your daily practice with the closest members, those who are the core of your group—you know who they are. You offer your freshness, joy, and deep listening to them, and help those friendships to bloom. You can’t fake that kind of thing; people will know whether you have it or not. So build that core community, and when people come to your sangha, those friendships will radiate out. People will see it, and they’ll gravitate to that energy.

Phap Dung likened the sangha to a solar system, in which the core friendships are the bright sun at the center. Those core friendships radiate out warmth, light, and gravitational pull for everyone else to orbit around. Some people will be drawn right into the sun’s center, beaming bright with kindness and affection. Some will orbit very closely, like Mercury and Venus, while others will come less regularly, like Saturn or Neptune. Still others, like Pluto or Halley’s Comet, may visit your sangha only once in a long while. But they all will feel the magnetic draw and nourishment of the sun’s strength, warmth, and light.

When I visit sanghas, I pay close attention to the quality of their friendships. Do people look at each other with eyes of affection and ease? Do they look at each other at all? Do they spend time hanging out after gathering times or at other times of the week? How do they speak about others when they are together, or more importantly, when they are not together? These are just a few signs of how people express their depth of connection and harmony. What do you observe in your own community? Are you manifesting the depth of companionship together that you yearn for?

Many sanghas strive to serve as many people as possible. Our society consistently promotes messages that bigger is better, more is superior, and that size validates our self-worth. This habit energy of super-sizing can dilute and distract from the sangha’s deeper purpose and power. A sangha’s true power lies in its depth of spiritual friendship and harmony, rather than its number of followers. Friendships that embody safety, intimacy, and compassion are what people everywhere in our ailing world are so hungry for—they are what we need to heal. There is nothing wrong with growing one’s community and sharing the blessings of meditation practice more widely. But are the roots of connection dug deep into your sangha’s soil, and the trunk of your togetherness strong enough, to withstand the storms? Deep roots of friendship will nourish the sangha no matter how tall and wide your community grows into the future.

The Art of Friendship

I have witnessed young adult sanghas display some of the most creative and sophisticated means of friendship-building. I have spent time, for example, with Wake Up London, a young adult sangha that masterfully combines practice with the art of play, joy, and service. After their Saturday meditation practice downtown, they often go out for pizza or hang out in St. James Park with tea and snacks among the trees. Once or twice a year, they organize a music concert where all are invited, as well as encouraged, to share music, poems, skits, or any creative offering. During the pandemic, a large group of friends went camping on the coast for several days, keeping the flames of joy and companionship burning bright even during the dark times. Many of them have chosen to share flats together, living in mini-sangha houses, sharing all domains of daily life. They spend time together not merely to get ahead in their practice but because they like it!

Kareem and Jasmine, a couple who have been practicing in this community for several years, recently said to me with a bright smile, “Our sangha friends have become our best friends now!” They frequently host sangha weekends at their house outside the city, with time for meditation practice as well as hiking in the woods. They invest themselves in each other, and it yields high returns for their community’s happiness.

The tight-knit circles of companionship in Wake Up London have brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy of socially engaged practice into the streets of London. They have organized numerous sitting and walking meditation events in public spaces, as well as offered their compassionate and collective presence to peaceful protests for environmental and humanitarian causes such as Extinction Rebellion. One of Wake Up London’s founders, Joe Holtaway, shared, “I believe that our Plum Village–inspired activism has bonded us in action.”

Having profound exchanges through meditation and dharma sharing circles is important, yet that’s only one dimension of building friendship. To see the full sphere of someone’s world requires different types of conversations, socially engaged projects, and some good old hangout time. Especially after steeping in meditation together, the atmosphere is ripe for meaningful connection and joyful service.

The Four Kinds of Good Friends

The pandemic has provided many of us with ample time, hunger, and encouragement to assess the quality of our closest friendships. Times of isolation, loneliness, and craving for connection are opportunities to reflect on one’s capacity to be a friend to others. The safest way to make good friends is to strengthen one’s own gifts of friendship. It can be so easy for me to blame or feel dependent upon other’s willingness to reach out. But if I really want to grow the friendship, then it’s crucial for me to examine what I’m offering. I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh share with us countless times—but especially when a conflict arose in the sangha—“Brotherhood and sisterhood always begin with oneself.” (These days, we like to say, “Siblinghood always begins with oneself,” to include those of diverse gender identities.) Shel Silverstein also beautifully captures this truth with childlike wisdom:

How many slices in a bread?
Depends on how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live ‘em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give ‘em.

How can one cultivate such a spirit of friendship? In his teachings to a young layman in the Sigalaka Sutra, the Buddha named specific traits of a worthy friend, traits one can cultivate as a practice. As you’re reading about these four types of companions, each with four esteemed qualities, consider which friends in your community embody these virtues. Also recognize which qualities you see in yourself and which ones you feel called to further develop.
First is what the Buddha calls the “helpful friend.” This friend “protects you when you are careless,” “looks after your property when you are forgetful,” is a “refuge when you are frightened,” and “when some need arises, she gives you twice the wealth required.” This is quite a friend! Have you ever given someone twice what they asked for, or didn’t even ask for? This generous companion helps those around her feel safe and protected, crucial states of well-being for one’s healing and transformation.

Trying to expand can distract from the sangha’s deeper purpose. A sangha’s true power lies in its depth of spiritual friendship and harmony, rather than its number of followers.

Second is the “friend who shares one’s happiness and suffering.” This kind of friend “reveals their secrets to you” but “guards your secrets.” They would “not abandon you when you are in trouble”; rather, “they would even sacrifice their life for your sake.” This friend seems right out of a dramatic action movie, where the heroism of trust and friendship prevail. These faithful companions are much needed in our tumultuous and traumatized world.
Third is the “friend who points out what is good.” This is a wise friend who “discourages you from doing evil or harmful things”; instead, he “enjoins you in doing good things.” He “informs you what you have not heard” and “points out the path of love and compassion.” These friends may first appear as saints, helping us to walk the higher path of compassion and service. But in fact, they are real people like you and me who are helping bring the dharma to life. They may be your mentor, teacher, or any friend whose ethical integrity illumines your path and understanding of virtuous actions.

Last is the “sympathetic friend.” This beloved friend “does not rejoice in your misfortune” but rather “rejoices in your good fortune.” She “stops those who speak poorly of you” and “commends those who speak praise of you.” This friend embodies trust and empathy whether you are physically present or not, truly a precious ally when living in community where relationship challenges and conflict often occur. Many times, I have witnessed community members speaking poorly about others in their absence, unskillfully trying to relieve themselves of their anger, resentment, or jealousy. This habit is one of the most pervasive sources of corrosion in a spiritual community. Thus, having a trustworthy friend who does not speak poorly of others, even among others’ criticism, is as valuable to a sangha as gold nuggets in your hand.

Friends who embody all sixteen of these qualities are like rare gems found on distant mountaintops. If you come across one, hold onto them! Even if you have just one friend who embodies one of these qualities, this is also a great blessing. Of the four types of good friends outlined above, which one do you feel most attracted to befriending? And which of these types of friends do you aspire to embody yourself?

Second Body Practice

A few decades ago at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh invented a sangha-building practice called the “second body” system. Whether you live in a monastery, reside in a lay community, or practice regularly in a local sangha, the second body practice is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to strengthen relationships in your community and help everyone to feel more connected to the sangha itself.

Many years ago, when I was a novice at Plum Village, I became ill and needed to stay in my room for several days, apart from the rest of the sangha. I was feeling lonely and cut off from the community, so it was a total surprise and joy for me when my second body delivered hot oatmeal and fruit to my room. I slept right through breakfast and woke up to find the caring gift on my nightstand. Every meal thereafter, three times a day like clockwork, my second body came with a bowl of hot soup, or steamed vegetables and rice, and most importantly, his caring presence! He often stayed to eat with me, enjoying the simple meal in silence as if I was sitting together with the whole sangha. We stared out of the glass doors to the lush forest outside, content with each other’s presence without words. Since I was alone all day, his presence helped me feel seen, cared about, and loved. Even though he was the only one coming to visit, he was like an ambassador of the whole sangha, helping me feel a sense of belonging.

Throughout the pandemic, when so many people have felt isolated, and starved for human connection, the second body practice has helped connect every member of our sangha to the whole. In this practice, everyone looks after themselves first; we care for and attend to ourselves as our own first body. Then, those who wish to participate are assigned someone else as their second body—an intentional, caring friendship for a period of time. Each participant has both someone whom they are caring for and someone who is caring for them. Thus, the entire sangha is tied together in a circular chain of intentional friendships.

We approach this practice with lightness. We’re not trying to be someone’s therapist or guru. We are simply keeping friendships alive and growing the circle of our community. One of the intentions of this practice is to pull us out of our habitual forces of self-interest, busyness, and isolation from others, and gently pull us into a spirit of more openness and connection. Focusing on one’s second body each week extends people’s attention outward; it encourages everyone to expand beyond their typical and most frequent connections. This practice is powerful for the whole community, as you don’t need to improve your relationships with everyone in order for friendships to bloom across the sangha. When you care for one person, you care for the whole.

At MorningSun Community in New Hampshire, we started our second body practice last summer, during the pandemic. It was amazing to see people given permission and encouragement to have fun with people with whom they normally didn’t spend time one-on-one. For example, Joaquin accompanied Mary Beth on a ten-mile bike adventure around Lake Warren during her typical weekday ride. Candace, who was a second body toward me, invited me to plant tomato and sweet potato seedlings on Saturday afternoons. I treated Fern, my second body, to some dark chocolate and tea during my lunch break. This stimulated some great conversation, as Fern shared about her family’s newfound interest of playing Dungeons and Dragons together. Without our second body practice, I would have never learned (or dreamed) that Fern, our senior dharma teacher and a former nun, enjoys Dungeons and Dragons so much!

Several months later, we were all assigned a different second body. I asked Aurora, my new second body, to go for a walk and have some tea together. She wrote back, “No thanks, but how about you go for a run with me?” I groaned, realizing that I was paired up with an ultramarathon runner! It had been a while since I’d been running regularly, but that all changed with my new second body. She was doing a multi-marathon training that month, so I started running alongside her for as long as I could a few times per week. But instead of a chore, running with Aurora for even a fraction of her epic adventures became quite fun. After several weeks, I was able to run with her for two and a half hours one day—I would have never gotten that strong so quickly without my second body. But more importantly, our friendship became stronger than ever.

You don’t need to improve your relationships with everyone in order for friendships to bloom across the sangha. When you care for one person, you care for the whole.

Our MorningSun sangha found that it’s helpful to have a minimum amount of time each week or month that everyone agrees to spend with their second body. We decided that spending about thirty minutes each week, or one hour every two weeks, is reasonable. Sometimes the second body relationships connect very easily, and other times they don’t really click. Relationships are always shifting and changing, and one never knows how spending time with a random person in the sangha will be. But that’s part of the fun and edge for growth. It is also helpful to have a clear end date, so that people can find closure. Knowing the ending date also keeps the reality of relationship impermanence alive, so that the time doesn’t go by without meaningful experience together.

It is up to each second body pairing how they wish to connect. Aside from the half-hour weekly commitment, people may like to offer other forms of friendship, such as bringing fresh flowers to brighten their day, a card full of genuine appreciations, or simply getting together to meditate. Most important is to be creative and make this practice your own. Similarly, every sangha can choose how to uniquely implement it based on its needs. It’s a bold experiment in building friendships in the heart of your community. No one will do it perfectly, and people are bound to make mistakes. But see what you may learn about others, offer the fruits of your daily practice to one another, and watch the sangha bloom with cross-pollination in front of your eyes.

If it was easy to succeed on the path without the guidance, compassion, and joy of good friends, then kalyana mitras wouldn’t be so precious. Walking the path alone can be a confusing, lonely, and difficult journey. Voyaging with poor friends is like sailing across the ocean with your anchor dragging on the floor—no matter which direction you try to go, you are always pulled downward.

Good friendships are like rays of a spring dawn pouring beams of warmth and light onto the frozen forest floor. Every part of the forest is brought to life by its brightness and vitality. The practice of kalyana mitra is learning to breathe new life into every relationship, beginning with ourselves and then expanding to our closest relationships and beyond. Each one of us has a kalyana mitra inside, ready to step forward. We can start by cultivating just one quality of good friendship, with one person in front of us, in one moment. We can even start right now.

David Viafora

David Viafora, a former monk in the Plum Village tradition, was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings as a poor college student, when someone gave him free tickets to a public lecture. He spent a year visiting and studying sanghas around the world — the result is his forthcoming book, Conscious Communities: The Transformative Power of Sangha, available in 2023. He now lives at MorningSun Community in New Hampshire.