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“It can be one of the hardest things in life to lose your best friend.”

This is one of ten quotes that are in the web page that’s currently in first place for Google searches for “Buddha quotes on friendship.” All ten of the quotes on the page are fake.

This one — “It can be one of the hardest things in life to lose your best friend” — is very, very far from the content, tone, and style of the early Buddhist scriptures.

It’s such a generic, bland, and obvious statement that I suspect there’s no hope of tracking down an original source. It may have derived from the works of Publilius (or Publius) Syrus, who was an enslaved Syrian who had been brought to Roman Italy. He was later freed by his “owner” and became a well-known mime, playwright, and writer of sententiae, or moral saying.

You’re familiar of course with the saying, “The ends justify the means.” That’s one of Syrus’s.

With the recent death of the Rolling Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, I’d also like to note that “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is from Syrus: “Saxum volutum non obducitur musco.” This gave the title to the song “Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters, which gave us the name of the band, The Rolling Stones.

One of his sayings was “The loss of a friend is the greatest of losses,” or “Amicum perdere est damnorum maximum” in Latin (Maxim 37).

It’s not clear whether he meant loss, as in the break-up of a friendship, or loss, as in death. I rather suspect it was the former, otherwise I assume he would have said “the death of a friend.” But then perhaps people in ancient Rome were as prone to using euphemisms for death as we are today.

The Buddha’s views on ending friendships depended on the quality of the friendship, but he probably wouldn’t have considered the ending of a friendship (by death, or change in relationship) to have been the greatest loss.

When a friendship was with someone who was unwise or foolish (bāla) the Buddha strongly advised terminating the relationship: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool” (Dhammapada 61).

He did emphasize the importance of friendship in a positive sense (i.e. cultivating and sustaining friendships with good people rather than merely ending friendships with fools). He famously said that “Good friends, companions, and associates are the whole of the spiritual life.” And he said, “You should train like this: ‘I will have good friends, companions, and associates.’”

One time the Buddha came across three monks, Anuruddha, Nandiya, and Kimbila, who were “living in harmony, appreciating each other, without quarreling, blending like milk and water, and regarding each other with kindly eyes.” He asked Anuruddha (who was presumably the most senior of the three) how they managed this feat, and Anuruddha replied:

“In this case, sir, I think, ‘I’m fortunate, so very fortunate, to live together with spiritual companions such as these.’ I consistently treat these venerables with kindness by way of body, speech, and mind, both in public and in private.  I think,  ‘Why don’t I set aside my own ideas and just go along with these venerables’ ideas?’ And that’s what I do. Though we’re different in body, sir, we’re one in mind, it seems to me.”

These three monks obviously had a close friendship. It’s quite possible that they only lived together for a short time — during a rainy season — and wandered separately at other times. Or maybe they wandered together. Or perhaps they had an agreement that, where possible, they would spend the rainy season together at Nādika, in the Middle Country.

But in all likelihood, devoted monks such as these would not have prioritized spending time with each other over traveling the country teaching. It’s probable that they would have been quite happy to have their little group gather and then be equally happy to disperse again.

The Buddha encouraged his practitioners to be unsentimental about the end of friendships. For example when one of his chief disciples, Sāriputta, died, the Buddha’s attendant (and cousin) Ānanda was distraught. “My body feels like it’s drugged. I’m disorientated, and the teachings don’t spring to mind,” he said.

The Buddha pointed out that when Sāriputta died he hadn’t taken the teachings with him, and pointed out:

Ānanda, did I not prepare for this when I explained that we must be parted and separated from all we hold dear and beloved? How could it possibly be so that what is born, created, conditioned, and liable to fall apart should not fall apart? That is not possible.

That’s a very unsentimental approach to the end of a friendship.

The Buddha did say to an assembly of monks, after the death of Sāriputta and another chief disciple, Moggallāna, that without those two the assembly felt empty. But he seems to have meant that in the practical sense that the leadership qualities of those two monks were now missing. Because he went on to be as unsentimental as it’s possible to be:

It’s an incredible and amazing quality of the Realized One that when such a pair of disciples becomes fully extinguished he does not sorrow or lament. How could it possibly be so that what is born, created, conditioned, and liable to fall apart should not fall apart?  That is not possible.

Suppose there was a large tree standing with heartwood, and the largest branches fell off.  In the same way, in the great Saṅgha [spiritual community] that stands with heartwood, Sāriputta and Moggallāna have become fully extinguished.

How could it possibly be so that what is born, created, conditioned, and liable to fall apart should not fall apart? That is not possible.

So mendicants, live as your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.

The sum total of what the Buddha says here, of what he previously said to Ānanda, and of his teachings on friendship is that we should benefit from friendships while we can, but that we shouldn’t depend upon them and should rely only on the teachings. Firendships come and go, and while we’re in any friendship we should already be preparing ourselves mentally for its inevitable end.

To put it another way, the teachings are so much more important than friendships that the death even of a close friend should be seen as a teaching: all created things end. It’s certainly a hard thing to lose a friend, but it’s less hard when we’ve repeatedly reflected that the loss was an inevitable one.

 

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