In Thicker than Blood you strongly encourage friendships within the sexes and not between them. Why is an ideal spiritual friendship a same-sex friendship?

This was the one really controversial part of the book. In fact I was giving a talk last night and somebody was so incensed about it that they refused to come and meet me! I think it’s unfashionable to encourage single-sex friendships now, even positively counter-cultural. However, in most cultures throughout history (and religious traditions in particular) same-sex friendships have been the norm. We tend to think that we encourage friendships between the sexes because our modern Western society is more liberated and more sophisticated, but in Thicker than Blood I wanted to question this assumption.

Of course there has been wonderful progress over the last century in the sense that women do genuinely have better opportunities than ever, and that’s an incontestably good thing. However, I do think that these achievements have come at a cost. Nowadays women and men are increasingly confused about gender. What does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century? What does it mean to be a man? Young men, for example, are supposed to be James Bond and they’re supposed to be touchy-feely, listening types as well. It’s an impossible combination! I think that we’re so worried about going back to the bad old days that we’re avoiding the shadow side of our development, the negatives of our achievement.

And I’m not saying that I know all the answers, but I do believe that single-sex friendships are part of the solution, both for men and for women. This is because I think that there are different issues for the genders around friendship – men and women have machinery that works in importantly different ways, and Buddhism is all about getting the best out of men and women.

So the ideal is that after spending time in single-sex environments, women have a more comfortable sense of being women and men have more of a comfortable sense of being men, and then when they meet together, whether in romantic relationships or in friendships, they meet more genuinely as equals, rather than simply under the ideology of equality. I think we’re only in the early stages of this because gender has become so politicized and emotionalized. There needs to be a new envisioning of gender, and we in the Triratna community should be well-placed to do this.

So I do believe that the single-sex element is a really important part of friendship, but this isn’t to say that I argue against spending any time with members of the opposite sex – I take that for granted. In some ways it’s impossible to argue for same-sex friendships. All I can say is that, from my experience, same-sex friendships have been a hugely positive and important part of my spiritual life and it’s something that I would encourage other people to experience as well.

‘Thicker Than Blood: Friendship on the Buddhist Path’ is available from the Windhorse online store, £8.50