Association with the Wise

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Maha-Mangala Sutta, the Great Discourse on Blessings, is one of the most
popular Buddhist suttas, included in all the standard repertories of Pali
devotional chants. The sutta begins when a deity of stunning beauty, having
descended to earth in the stillness of the night, approaches the Blessed One
in the Jeta Grove and asks about the way to the highest blessings. In the
very first stanza of his reply the Buddha states that the highest blessing
comes from avoiding fools and associating with the wise (asevana ca balanam,
panditanan ca sevana). Since the rest of the sutta goes on to sketch all the
different aspects of human felicity, both mundane and spiritual, the
assignment of association with the wise to the opening stanza serves to
emphasize a key point: that progress along the path of the Dhamma hinges on
making the right choices in our friendships.
Contrary to certain psychological theories, the human mind is not a
hermetically sealed chamber enclosing a personality unalterably shaped by
biology and infantile experience. Rather, throughout life it remains a
highly malleable entity continually remolding itself in response to its
social interactions. Far from coming to our personal relationships with a
fixed and immutable character, our regular and repeated social contacts
implicate us in a constant process of psychological osmosis that offers
precious opportunities for growth and transformation. Like living cells
engaged in a chemical dialogue with their colleagues, our minds transmit and
receive a steady barrage of messages and suggestions that may work profound
changes even at levels below the threshold of awareness.
Particularly critical to our spiritual progress is our selection of friends
and companions, who can have the most decisive impact upon our personal
destiny. It is because he perceived how susceptible our minds can be to the
influence of our companions that the Buddha repeatedly stressed the value of
good friendship (kalyanamittata) in the spiritual life. The Buddha states
that he sees no other thing that is so much responsible for the arising of
unwholesome qualities in a person as bad friendship, nothing so helpful for
the arising of wholesome qualities as good friendship (AN I.vii,10;
I.viii,1). Again, he says that he sees no other external factor that leads
to so much harm as bad friendship, and no other external factor that leads
to so much benefit as good friendship (AN I.x,13,14). It is through the
influence of a good friend that a disciple is led along the Noble Eightfold
Path to release from all suffering (SN 45:2).
Good friendship, in Buddhism, means considerably more than associating with
people that one finds amenable and who share one's interests. It means in
effect seeking out wise companions to whom one can look for guidance and
instruction. The task of the noble friend is not only to provide
companionship in the treading of the way. The truly wise and compassionate
friend is one who, with understanding and sympathy of heart, is ready to
criticize and admonish, to point out one's faults, to exhort and encourage,
perceiving that the final end of such friendship is growth in the Dhamma.
The Buddha succinctly expresses the proper response of a disciple to such a
good friend in a verse of the Dhammapada: "If one finds a person who points
out one's faults and who reproves one, one should follow such a wise and
sagacious counselor as one would a guide to hidden treasure" (Dhp. 76).
Association with the wise becomes so crucial to spiritual development
because the example and advice of a noble-minded counselor is often the
decisive factor that awakens and nurtures the unfolding of our own untapped
spiritual potential. The uncultivated mind harbors a vast diversity of
unrealized possibilities, ranging from the depths of selfishness, egotism
and aggressivity to the heights of wisdom, self-sacrifice and compassion.
The task confronting us, as followers of the Dhamma, is to keep the
unwholesome tendencies in check and to foster the growth of the wholesome
tendencies, the qualities that lead to awakening, to freedom and
purification. However, our internal tendencies do not mature and decline in
a vacuum. They are subject to the constant impact of the broader
environment, and among the most powerful of these influences is the company
we keep, the people we look upon as teachers, advisors and friends. Such
people silently speak to the hidden potentials of our own being, potentials
that will either unfold or wither under their influence.
In our pursuit of the Dhamma it therefore becomes essential for us to choose
as our guides and companions those who represent, at least in part, the
noble qualities we seek to internalize by the practice of the Dhamma. This
is especially necessary in the early stages of our spiritual development,
when our virtuous aspirations are still fresh and tender, vulnerable to
being undermined by inward irresolution or by discouragement from
acquaintances who do not share our ideals. In this early phase our mind
resembles a chameleon, which alters its color according to its background.
Just as this remarkable lizard turns green when in the grass and brown when
on the ground, so we become fools when we associate with fools and sages
when we associate with sages. Internal changes do not generally occur
suddenly; but slowly, by increments so slight that we ourselves may not be
aware of them, our characters undergo a metamorphosis that in the end may
prove to be dramatically significant.
If we associate closely with those who are addicted to the pursuit of sense
pleasures, power, riches and fame, we should not imagine that we will remain
immune from those addictions: in time our own minds will gradually incline
to these same ends. If we associate closely with those who, while not given
up to moral recklessness, live their lives comfortably adjusted to mundane
routines, we too will remain stuck in the ruts of the commonplace. If we
aspire for the highest -- for the peaks of transcendent wisdom and
liberation -- then we must enter into association with those who represent
the highest. Even if we are not so fortunate as to find companions who have
already scaled the heights, we can well count ourselves blessed if we cross
paths with a few spiritual friends who share our ideals and who make earnest
efforts to nurture the noble qualities of the Dhamma in their hearts.
When we raise the question how to recognize good friends, how to distinguish
good advisors from bad advisors, the Buddha offers us crystal-clear advice.
In the Shorter Discourse on a Full-Moon Night (MN 110) he explains the
difference between the companionship of the bad person and the companionship
of the good person. The bad person chooses as friends and companions those
who are without faith, whose conduct is marked by an absence of shame and
moral dread, who have no knowledge of spiritual teachings, who are lazy and
unmindful, and who are devoid of wisdom. As a consequence of choosing such
bad friends as his advisors, the bad person plans and acts for his own harm,
for the harm of others, and the harm of both, and he meets with sorrow and
In contrast, the Buddha continues, the good person chooses as friends and
companions those who have faith, who exhibit a sense of shame and moral
dread, who are learned in the Dhamma, energetic in cultivation of the mind,
mindful, and possessed of wisdom. Resorting to such good friends, looking to
them as mentors and guides, the good person pursues these same qualities as
his own ideals and absorbs them into his character. Thus, while drawing ever
closer to deliverance himself, he becomes in turn a beacon light for others.
Such a one is able to offer those who still wander in the dark an inspiring
model to emulate, and a wise friend to turn to for guidance and advice.



Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #26 (1st mailing, 1994)
Copyright © 1994 Buddhist Publication Society
For free distribution only
Revised: Fri 3 December 1999