If you handle the grass a fish has been laid on, your hands will smell like fish; and this is what it is like to associate with evil friends.

— Abhiniskramana Sutra

The Importance of Friendship

Friends are important. There is little in life that is more important than the people we choose to call our friends. These are the people who help us grow and that we are bound to help in return. Since friendship is based on a conscious choice, it is a relationship that is at once more difficult to establish than a family relationship and frequently much more valuable.

Confucius said:

When we live with a good person, before long we stop noticing how he changes us for the better. It is as if we moved into a room full of orchids; before long we stop noticing their fragrance.

When we live with a bad person, before long we stop noticing how he changes us for the worse. It is like entering a fish market; before long we stop noticing how badly it smells.

When we have good friends, we should always try to appreciate how much their company does for us and we should never allow ourselves to forget what we have gained from them. At the same time, no one should be naïve about making friends. This world is full of many kinds of people and many of those kinds are not good. If you have friends who are encouraging you to break the precepts of Buddhism, you would do well to look for new friends. We should do everything in our power to help others, but if their company is having a consistently bad effect on our behavior, we should realize that our relationship with them is not healthy and that it would probably be better to end it or at least diminish it greatly. Friends are very important to our growth and development and for this reason we should exercise good care in choosing them.

The Value of Good Friends

The Sigalovada Sutra says that good friends have four basic characteristics:

  1. If they see us doing wrong, they will speak up.

  2. They are kind to us.

  3. They take joy in helping others.

  4. They do not abandon us in time of need.

These four points are quite important; they reveal very basic attitudes that are crucial not just for friendship, but also for making progress in Buddhism. Let’s look at them a little more closely.

  1. If they see us doing wrong, they will speak up
    A friend who does this will keep us from much harm. Remember, it is always good to have a second or third opinion concerning our behavior. A friend like this, probably also will provide us with a good example in many situations; it is possible to learn a great deal about how to behave from our friends. A friend of this type is also certain to be a compassionate and thoughtful person; friends do not usually speak up unless they are thinking of our best interests. Good friends help us find our way out of delusion; they do not mislead us and they try to stop us when they see that we are being misled.

  2. They are kind to us
    Kindness is the basis of friendship. Why would anyone be friends with someone who was not kind to them? Friends who are kind will take joy in our achievements and delight in our progress. At the same time, they will become anxious if they see that we are doing something wrong. They will not talk badly of us behind our back and they will do whatever they can to enhance our reputation. If they hear someone else speaking badly of us, they will defend us and put a stop to their disrespectful speech.

  3. They take joy in helping others
    Friends like this will not hide when we need their help and they will not lead us into error. They will never make us feel afraid and when we speak with them we will always know that they are being honest. If our lives should improve in some way, they will not become jealous or seek to undermine us.

  4. They do not abandon us in time of need
    Friends like this will never reveal secrets we have told them or use what we have said to them to harm us behind our backs. They are constant in both time and space; we know that they will be our friends in the future and we know that they will behave as our friends even when we are not with them.

Whenever we find a friend who resembles the above description, we should treasure him and reciprocate his kindness every chance we have. Friends of this type will bring us much good. They will help us grow more quickly than anything else in the world. Needless to say, all Buddhists should strive to be this type of friend to others.

The Abhiniskramana Sutra says, “If we dip our hand in garu-wood incense, or in musk or fragrant betony, in a moment our hands will pick up those odors; spending time with good people is just like this.”

The Danger of Bad Friends

The Sigalovada Sutra says there are four basic types of people who are bad friends:

  1. Friends who are greedy or who use fear to deceive.

  2. Friends who use flattery to get what they want.

  3. Friends who use a guise of respectfulness to flatter us.

  4. Friends whose only purpose in friendship is to seek pleasure.

Let’s look more closely at these four types.

  1. Friends who are greedy or who use fear to deceive
    This is the kind of person who always wants more from you. If you give him one thing, soon he will want another. When he helps you just a little, he expects you to repay him with a lot. This type of person often uses fear to manipulate people; he will draw you to him by trying to control you through feelings of guilt or fear. The basis of all his motivation is his own benefit and little or nothing that he does with you or for you will spring from other sources.

  2. Friends who use flattery to get what they want
    No matter what you do, this kind of person will praise you, but the moment you lose power or influence in society, he will abandon you. This kind of person is motivated by greed; when he sees that you have something he wants or that he can use you, he will draw close to you, flatter you and ask for your help. He may seem like someone who is genuinely in need, but he is really only motivated by greed. The moment you need him, he will disappear.

  3. Friends who use a guise of respectfulness to flatter you
    Friends like this will not warn you when they see that you are behaving badly and they will not volunteer to help you when they see the opportunity to do so. When they see that they may have something to gain from you, they draw near. And when they see that there is nothing to gain, they move away.

  4. Friends whose only purpose in friendship is to seek after pleasure
    This type of person will spend time with you only when food or alcohol are being consumed or when there is some other low activity to be indulged in like gambling, using drugs, sexual misconduct or other frivolous stimulations of the senses.

Most people are mixtures of all of the good and bad tendencies we have described in this section. All of them are sentient beings and all of them are fully deserving of our compassion. Nevertheless, some people tend to be much worse than others. If you find yourself having frequent contact with a person who has many bad tendencies, you should protect yourself by keeping your distance if you feel that his tendencies are influencing you for the worse. The strongest single influence we have in life is the people we associate with often. All of us should do our best to be good friends to those who associate with us. At the same time, we should look to be sure that we are spending our time with people whose influence on us is wholesome and elevating. Life is too short to be wasted wandering among the many low emotions this world is capable of offering us all the time.

If you spend your time with bad friends, you will get nowhere in this life and you will fall with the company you have kept to the lower realms in your next life.

If you spend your time with good friends, your karma will mingle with their good karma and even if you appear to gain nothing in this life, you will have created the causal conditions for liberation from all suffering.

— Abhiniskramana Sutra