Thicker than Blood is a book about friendship. What is the role of friendship on the Buddhist path?
A lot of people think that Buddhism is essentially about meditation. People will say ‘I haven’t had time to do my practice’ and by this they mean meditation, so people’s idea of spiritual life becomes all about meditation. But that isn’t Buddhism at all. You could say that these people are ‘meditationists’ rather than Buddhists because the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path, not the Noble Onefold Path.
I think that Buddhism understood correctly is as much about friendship as it is about meditation – in other words it is as much about my interaction with you as it is about my experience of myself. If anything you could argue that it’s more about my interaction with you because my experience of myself is only valuable inasmuch as it changes my interaction with the world.
Friendship is essential to Buddhism because friendship is essential to human life in general, and the Buddhist path is a maturing of human life, a flourishing of human life, it’s not something otherworldly. We need our friends to point out our blind spots, because all human beings have blind spots and they’re really difficult to see because they’re blind spots! Meditation can reveal these to you to a certain extent, but without friendship we develop in a rather wonky way. Friendship enables you to fully integrate your meditation practice into your everyday life.
You talk about the importance of having an ideal of friendship. What does an ideal friendship look like?
I think it’s important to make the distinction between having an ideal of friendship and having an ideology of friendship. Ideologies are just ideas, and if we get stuck on ideas, we become more interested in the idea of friendship than our friends themselves! In contrast, an ideal friendship always begins with simply taking interest in people. It’s just ordinary human friendship – getting along with someone, wanting to see them, hanging out… no big deal.
Then after a while, spiritual friendship will progress beyond the stage of ordinary social interaction. Ordinary social interaction is all good and fine and positive – without it human beings become quite unhealthy I think – but real friendship is about taking risks and going beyond the level of superficial communication. It’s so easy to get into habits of friendship, to have some things that you talk about and other things you don’t. My spiritual friends are people who will challenge me; people who will be completely honest with me.
What I’d really like to stress, though, is that friendship, like happiness, develops while you’re doing something else – when you’re doing things together. In this context I would say that my ideal of friendship is the ideal of practising the dharma together with friends. My ideal for myself is to practise the dharma and communicate it to others, but I can’t do that on my own. Together with my friends, we can achieve so much more.
So I think what I’m trying to get at is that friendship is a by-product of spiritual life rather than something you aim at in or of itself. If you’re really committed to the dharma, before you know it, friendships will develop around you, without you having to cultivate them in a very conscious way.
The main examples of your own friendships that you give in your book are of friendships with people who are also members of the Triratna community. Should we primarily make friends with people who share our goals and values, or is it equally important to spend time with those who challenge our views?
People tend to think that because I live in a Triratna community, I’m surrounded by support. There is some truth in that, but I’m definitely not surrounded by people who agree with me – I’m not surrounded by people who share all my interests and my views. What I am surrounded by are people who practise the dharma, and the dharma is a deep underlying resonance, which goes far deeper than anything I have in common with my friends.
So I can see that from the outside the Triratna community could look like a group of people just making friends with people who are like themselves. It could seem rather inward-looking. But it’s not like that on the inside. The sangha isn’t a group (or at least it shouldn’t be). The sangha is a network of friendships. One of the great dangers of the sangha is to settle down into a rather comfortable social group which sticks to particular social rules and only attracts particular people who fit into the group culture. But we need to resist this temptation.
You say that ‘sexual relationships are limiting’ and you imply that romantic love is inferior to friendship. Why do you consider this to be the case?
It’s not that there is anything wrong with sexual relationships per se. The problem is that we so often allow our romantic relationships to consume us. We need a range of relationships in our life, and spiritual friendship is something very different to romantic or family relationships. There is commitment, but there are no ties of blood, attachment or dependence. Friendship is something that is (and has to be) completely free.
In the last few years we have seen the development of ‘facebook friends’ and even virtual friends. Do you think that social networking sites and online communication in general is conducive to real friendship? Is friendship really possible without meeting a person in the same time and space?
I think that the more we live through technology, the more we become alienated from each other. Of course technology has its place, it can help, but if we relate to someone entirely through technology I’m not sure that can be called friendship. Technology has this amazing ability to distract us from what is truly important – it can eat up our time. I really don’t need to know that my friend’s just gone out and bought a man-bag, for example, and my friends don’t need to know that I’m having tofu stroganoff – this kind of exchange of information isn’t friendship, it’s a complete waste of time.
I think the other issue about technology in the context of relationships is that it is now harder than ever to practise restraint. We are bombarded with all this sensual information and I’m not very good at practising restraint from it and I’ve been practising the dharma for years. Where are teenagers going to learn restraint from?
Take the example of pornography. In my day you had to take a bus to go to the corner shop in the next village and even there you would probably bump into someone you knew and it would all just be unbelievably embarrassing. Today, in the privacy of your own bedroom, pornography is there at the click of the button. Generally, nowadays, there is so little between you and what you want. So before you know it, I have 900 friends on facebook, I can live out my sexual fantasies at the touch of a button and I’m an extremely isolated human being.
So how would you introduce Thicker than Blood to those who haven’t read the book?
With Thicker than Blood I really wanted to emphasize the importance of friendship on the Buddhist path. And I wanted the style of the book to mirror the content of the book so that reading the book would be like a friend talking to you. I wanted the book to be meaningful and insightful, of course, but also humorous. So in order to illustrate the points I make about Buddhist practice, I weave my own life story into the book. I think that one of the dangers of writing a ‘spiritual’ book is that you feel obliged to be earnest all the time, but friendship isn’t a serious, technical thing, it’s a very human matter.