In the popular imagination the Buddhist monastic is solitary. Hours spent studying, chanting, and meditating leave scant time for that most trying yet rewarding of human pursuits: friendship. Or so the notion goes. 

In our far-ranging conversation, the nuns Venerable Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka roundly dispel this prevailing conception. Restoring spiritual friendship (in Pali, kalyanamittata) to its rightful place as a central feature of both lay and monastic practice, they encourage aspirants to seek out deep relationships as a crucial site of transformation. 

Ven. Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who was fully ordained as a bhikshuni (in Pali, bhikkhuni) in 1986. She has since written numerous books and founded Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community in Washington State. Ayya Tathaaloka, also American-born, received full ordination as a Theravada bhikkhuni in 1997. She too founded a monastic community, Dhammadharini, which has an affiliated hermitage in Northern California called Aranya Bodhi. Both women have played instrumental roles in the revival of full ordination for women in their respective traditions. 

Sarah Conover 

What did the Buddha say about spiritual friendship?

Ven. Thubten Chodron: Knowing that we need support for our practice, the Buddha organized the sangha as a group of spiritual friends. It’s very difficult to sustain the discipline necessary for both keeping up the precepts and regular meditation. In ordinary life we usually think of friends as people with whom we have fun, but friendship in Buddhism, especially in monastic life, is different because it is free of attachment. Its aim is to foster an attitude of long-term well-being between those involved.  

People often quote the Buddha as saying, “Friendship is not half of the holy life, but all of it” (Samyutta Nikaya, 45.2). When looked at in context, however, the Buddha’s statement refers to him, the Enlightened One, as the true spiritual friend because he guides us on the path to liberation.

Ayya Tathaaloka: This is the way the Buddha conceives of himself in relation to everyone else: that is, as the kalyanamitta, as the spiritual friend most excellent. In the early Pali texts, the Buddha repeatedly addresses each person he speaks to as a “friend.” There are a few exceptions, but really, he addresses everyone in a very honorable way, from the highest station in life to the lowest, whether monastic or lay, as a friend. 

The Buddha had a tremendous spiritual friendship with the being who became his wife in his final life, and who later became one of the bhikkhuni arhats, Yasodhara Rahulamata. There is also a recurring thread of the Seven Sisters—seven of the Buddha’s foremost women disciples whose life stories of spiritual companionship span eons.

How did you two meet and become spiritual friends? When did you recognize the other person as someone who’d be important to you?

AT: It was at Shasta Abbey in 1996. That is my first memory. Ven. Chodron so encouraged me at that time! I was straight out of South Korea and had just lost my community and my venerable bhikkhuni mentor. I had been on track for full ordination in South Korea, but got expatriated for accidentally breaking visa law, and so returned to the United States. I didn’t know if I could survive this upheaval until I came to the Western Buddhist Monastic Conference and found spiritual friends who were making their way. 

I remember meeting Ven. Chodron in the entrance to the hall where the Abbey’s monastic community gathered for their chanting. The great snow mountain, Mt. Shasta, stood just outside the window. I remember bowing with her and knocking heads! She told me that knocking heads when bowing was part of the Tibetan tradition. Yes, I was bumped right on the head with spiritual friendship.

I had been in one of the great Buddhist monastic seminaries in South Korea, and Ven. Chodron told me there should be things like that in the United States. She asked if I intended to be part of developing such seminaries. There I was, a novice who had just been thrown out of her country of training—who knew if I’d even get to ordain? All of a sudden she’s asking if I plan to start a seminary!

By then, I had been living on my own in the West for sometime, so I completely understood what Ayya was going through. It’s not only the experience of being in the West while your community and teacher are in Asia, but of adjusting to the way people in the West view Buddhist monastics. I knew that monastics needed to support each other and be there for each other.

How do you foster spiritual friendship in the monastic sangha?

TC: Community life does not just entail living with other people, but being a community. Living in the same place is very different from being a community. When you are in a community, your awareness goes out to the other people you live with—you see who needs encouragement, who needs guidance, and who needs a laugh. 

When you’re just living among other people, your experience is much more about me and my practice, and so a certain kind of self-centeredness is present. I’m here because it’s good for my practice. And as soon as it’s not good for my practice, I leave. Why do we think a situation isn’t good for our practice? Often it’s because our buttons are getting pushed. Our ego can’t get its way, so we’re unhappy. 

When you live in a community, you get to know people very well. You get to know each other’s moods and habitual behaviors. This requires you to open your heart and expand your understanding and acceptance. You need to become much more open-minded, more caring.

And how do you facilitate this?

TC: You have to model it.

AT: You have to live it.

TC: In Asia, communities are already established, so when a few new people join they pick up on what to do. They feel it. It transforms them. Everyone has the same precepts, cultivates the same views, and pursues the same goals. We’re not just doing our own trip. In some ways I think this is hard for Westerners, because we’re so individualistic.

AT: We may actually think we are doing our own trip!

How do you facilitate kalyanamittata in lay practitioners?

TC: Discussion groups in which people openly share their reflections on a particular dharma topic are very good for creating community. For example, we’ll select a certain idea, like: “What is the meaning of prayer in Buddhism?” We’ll meditate together on three or four questions related to that topic, so that people can reflect on them in private. Then we’ll share our reflections on these questions. Each person has to speak, and there’s no dialogue until everybody has shared his or her reflections.

This is a good way to teach people how to talk about dharma in a personal way. Otherwise people go to a dharma center, meditate or listen to a dharma talk together, maybe have some refreshments afterwards, and then go home. When they chat, it’s about the movies they saw; it’s not about dharma topics or how their practice is going. These discussion groups create wonderful spiritual friendships because they enable people to talk about what the dharma means in their lives.

How do you prevent lay folks from co-opting the dharma, turning it into something that’s about I, me, and mine?

AT: When you have a deep, deep friendship with someone, you don’t only care, “Is this good for me?” You care for them naturally. I believe it’s completely natural to have such love, compassion, and kindness. It’s right there from the get-go in our relationship, for instance, with our parents. It’s almost always there. And if it’s not there, we feel like there is something wrong.

This feeling transcends lay and monastic communities. It is vital to developing the deep heart of lovingkindness in the context of dedication to dharma. So I am trying to tap into what we have naturally in us that can emerge and guide us.

Non-spiritual friendships can often be on tenuous footing. It seems like everyone is testing: “Can I trust you?” Well, what are we trusting? What is the deep foundation for friendship?

AT: It’s such an important insight that you are mentioning: that is, this seeing and knowing of the tenuous conditions that we so often try to secure. This is the source of stress, of dukkha.

When you see that and then ask, “What else? What else?” that’s where the big opening can come. You start to see what remains when this vast spaciousness opens up. It doesn’t have any flying knives in it; it doesn’t have any poisons in it. Such fears spring from shifting conditions, those fabrications that you’ve been trying to grasp and hold together. The remaining emptiness—so replete and lovely—is safe. It is the ground of spiritual friendship.

What about vulnerability—that feeling of stress that comes from the duality of Me vs. Other?

TC: That’s ego stuff. In the description you gave of testing the waters, asking, “Who can I trust, how far can I trust?” there is definitely a sense of “I” that needs to be protected. We have a notion of who we are and how we should be treated, so we wonder, “Are they going to treat me the way I think I should be treated?”

And will I be seen the way I want to be seen?

TC: Yes! It doesn’t have so much to do with them but with ourselves, because we feel so strongly that there’s a me that has to be defended. As soon as we feel that, vulnerability comes. We seek praise and approval and avoid blame and criticism. Those are two of Buddhism’s eight worldly concerns. But I can’t control what people think of me!

AT: For most people, the avoidance of vulnerability is an attempt to ensure safety, yet it ends up putting them at greater risk. Even if they think they’re entirely secure, something happens to remind them that they’re living in danger no matter what.

Monastic life is based on vulnerability. Our food—and every other material necessity—depends upon the kindness of others. Facing vulnerability in such a direct way, we begin to enter it and know it. The dynamics around it start to transform. It begins to feel safe.

How would you tie that back into friendship? That you’re all looking in the same direction?

TC: Yes. We’re practicing the dharma together, supporting each other in the process, and rejoicing in each other’s successes. In dharma friendship, we leave behind competition and jealousy.

You’re not curating your best self for someone else.

TC: Exactly. We all want to cultivate the same internal qualities. We don’t need to compete, because that competition brings qualities that are the exact opposite of those we want to develop. It takes a lot of courage because although we want to cultivate those wholesome qualities, there is a lot of resistance in us. We have to confront that part of ourselves that wants security, wants to look good in front of other people, and wants to be the best.

Do you consciously avoid idle social chatter? Do you always try to keep your talk to the dharma?

TC: I try not to engage in chitchat, but I also realize that there are certain situations that require it. It is the way that we first connect with people. But my time is my most precious possession, so I am very careful how I use it.

AT: Health has been a great teacher in this regard, because my energy is limited. I can hear the clock ticking. I’ve stopped wanting to talk about unimportant things because it just fritters away my precious life energy, and I know what I’d like to use that for.

On the other hand, we’re human beings. And there’s a level where this dharma is just human dharma—it doesn’t have any special language. It’s just about our hearts—whether they’re suffering or not, and how they can bind or how they can open. There’s this very basic, fundamental level of human dharma that doesn’t need any official language. If we can connect there, then good. If not, then I trust we will in time.

For more on the concept of spiritual friendship, watch Kate Johnson’s Tricycle Retreat “Admirable Friendship,” with new installments added every Monday this month, available to watch at any time. 

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