There are four kinds of friends,

This you must know;

One is like a flower, another like a scale.

One like a mountain and one like the earth.

— The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha

Everyone needs friends. As we recognize this need, it is important to recognize as well that not all friends are the same. Some friends help us grow while others hinder us and even seek to harm us. How are we to know the difference between good friends and harmful friends? The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha has some advice on this point. The sutra distinguishes four kinds of friends.

Friends Who Treat Us As If We Were Flowers

In good times they place us on their heads.

If we wither, they throw us away.

If we are doing well, they treat us well.

If we become poor, they abandon us.

— The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha

The sutra explains that people who are themselves like flowers will treat us like flowers, too. When we are blooming with wealth and good health and happiness, they will use us to decorate their lives. As soon as the bloom is gone, however, they will discard us like a wilted flower from a vase in their room. The metaphor of the flower is used to describe how transient and unreliable relations of that sort can be. Friends like that can appear very charming and attractive, but since they only want to associate with us for samsaric reasons, we should be wary and not allow ourselves to become overly attached to them.

All of us have had experiences with people like that. Having had those experiences, we should consider the harm and pain they caused us. Having considered that, we should determine that we ourselves will not be false in our own friendships.

Furthermore, when we read the sutra’s description of friends who are like flowers, it is important that we not become judgmental. The sutra offers the metaphor of the flower only to protect us from harm, not to give us an excuse to do harm to others. All of us should be cautious about the people we choose to call our friends, but none of us should ever be judgmental or cruel. It is important to remember that some people who appear like flowers are that way only because they are socially awkward or because they are trying perhaps a little too hard to be our friend. And even if we do perceive that someone is only using friends to decorate their own lives, we should not abandon them to prevent them from doing the same to us! It would be better if we took some time to share the Dharma with them and help them to raise their vision so that they might see the much more beautiful and truthful flower of the bodhi mind.

Friends Who Are Like Weighing Scales

When we are heavy, they bow their heads.

When we are light, they raise their heads.

When we have possessions, they respect us.

When we have nothing, they become haughty and proud.

— The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha

Some friends are just like scales; if you are heavier than them, they will bow their heads to you. If you are lighter, they will raise themselves above you. Friends like this are constantly making judgments about us. They tend to understand life in terms of higher and lower. People of this sort generally base their judgments of others on their perceptions of social status and not on the deeper emotions that are the real sources of true friendship.

This very human tendency is quite common. The ancient caste system of India is based on a psychology that places some people above others. Racism springs from these same roots, as do most of the competitive and violent urges of human beings.

Sometimes friends who are like scales have opposite emotions to the ones described above; when we become heavy with success they become envious and angry and when we become lightened by loss, they become friendly again. This type of friend is also looking at life through eyes focused mainly on samsaric status. This kind of person, however, seeks to lower others rather than raise himself.

If a friend begins to harbor feelings of envy toward us, what should we do? How should we deal with him? This is a difficult question to answer because there are many kinds of people and many kinds of envy. The difficulty of this problem is compounded by the fact that envy too often leads to anger or hatred. When friends who have secretly become angry with us conceal their anger under a mask of continuing friendship, this general problem has reached its most serious point.

The basic way to deal with angry or envious friends is to practice patience and compassion and do not argue with them. Often this will cure the problem. If it does not, all we can do as Buddhists is continue to practice patience and compassion. It is not right to abandon our friends, but sometimes it is a good idea to put a little distance between yourself and your friend if you see that emotions between you are getting out of control. For the most part, it is intimacy between people that generates the strongest and most uncontrollable emotions. If we have tried the above methods but we are still harmed by a friend, then as Buddhists we still have only one recourse—to continue practicing patience and compassion.

All of us have need of the Dharma just because this world is not perfect. Friends fight, family members betray each other and even love can turn to hate. The best way to prevent these kinds of negative conditions from developing between people is to often discuss the Dharma with each other. The Buddha’s teachings contain everything we need to understand life; they are complete teachings and when friends often discuss the Dharma they protect themselves from being preyed upon by demonic emotions or controlled by unconscious levels of their personalities.

Friends Who Are Like Mountains

Birds and beasts flock there as if to a golden mountain; their fur and feathers reflect its light. Greatness gives greatness to others and shares their joys and blessings.

— The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha

Some friends are like great mountains. They are capable of supporting forests and animals on their slopes. They are tolerant of everything that passes over them and will allow anyone to live near them. They do not object to bad weather, and even after years of violent storms they remain largely unchanged. All of us should seek to be like this and if we are fortunate enough to find friends like this, we should treat them with the utmost respect and consideration. Patience, tolerance, compassion and the ability to be a good friend are the traits of a Buddha and when they appear in people, they should be revered just as if they were aspects of the Buddha, for that is what they are.

Friends Who Are Like the Earth

Great good fortune and great wealth cause all to offer their respects. If the wealthy one is generous and helpful, they all will be grateful as well.

— The Bei Sutra Discoursed by the Buddha

Some friends are like the earth. They are patient and expansive. They can hold anything. They are a source of life and a foundation for all things to grow upon. In the verse above “great good fortune and great wealth” should be understood as describing someone who is talented and virtuous. When such a person is generous with his abilities, he will be like the earth in that many people will be able to learn from him and many people will be nourished by him. If such a person also happens to be wealthy, then he will be even more able to help others.

It is important that all of us strive to be like the mountains and earth in our friendships and it is important that all of us fully appreciate these qualities in others whenever we discover them.

When you have found a true friend, you have found the best thing in life and life will no longer seem so evil.

— Ekottarika Agama