The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment are often mistakenly interpreted to mean that one should not associate with others, renouncing love and friendship. However, renunciation in the Buddhist model does not entail shunning social relationships, but rather guarding against the passions that characterize so many bonds, whether jealousy, lust, anger, or others. Indeed, while the Buddha warned against the dangers of over-involvement and possessiveness in interpersonal relationships, he did not recommend the life of a hermit to all he taught. In fact, the Buddha speaks on the positive qualities of friendship on numerous occasions.
In the Kalyanamitta Sutta, he says “my Teaching is well proclaimed and it is the intimate friendship with good friends and good associates, not the intimate friendship with evil friends and evil associates” (SN 3.18).
Here the Buddha makes the distinction between true and false friends. True friends are trustworthy and thus worthy of friendship, but those who harbor ulterior motives while claiming that they are one’s friends are not to be thought of as friends at all.
In the Hiri Sutta, the Buddha comments on the qualities of false friends and true friends, saying that “he on whom one can rely, like a child sleeping on its mother’s breast, is truly a friend who cannot be parted from one by others” (Snp 2.3).
In fact, in the Upaddha Sutta the Buddha even goes as far as to say that friendship is the whole of the holy life, that a life free from suffering involves good friends: “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path” (SN 45.2). Also in the Upaddha Sutta, he says “And through this line of reasoning one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life: It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. It is through this line of reasoning that one may know how admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life” (SN 45.2).
The Buddha not only gives advice about associating with good friends, but also on drawing inspiration from them, as is told in the Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: “There are these four qualities, TigerPaw, that lead to a lay person’s happiness and well-being in this life. Which four? Being consummate in initiative, being consummate in vigilance, admirable friendship, and maintaining one’s livelihood in tune” (AN 8.54).
1. initiative / persistent effort (utthana-sampada)
2. vigilance / watchfulness (arakkha-sampada)
3. admirable friendship (kalyanamittata)
4. balanced livelihood (sama-jivikata).
Later in the same teaching, he remarks “And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.” (AN 8.54).
He even addresses many bhikkhus (male monastics), bhikkhunis (female monastics), upasakas (male lay-people), and upasikas (female lay-people) as “friend” when talking with them.
In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha again defines true and false friends. A friend is not someone who takes advantages of the friendship through access to the other’s material possessions, insincerity, flattery, or by causing any type of harm. A good friend, he says, is helpful, unconditional and unwavering in their friendship, good company, and sympathetic.
“These four, young householder, should be understood as warm-hearted friends: (1) he who is a helpmate, (2) he who is the same in happiness and sorrow, (3) he who gives good counsel, (4) he who sympathises.” (DN 31)
“The friend who is a helpmate, the friend in happiness and woe, the friend who gives good counsel, the friend who sympathises too — these four as friends the wise behold and cherish them devotedly as does a mother her own child.” (DN 31)
In the Itivuttaka, one of the sub-sections of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the Buddha says “A monk who is a friend with admirable people abandons what is unskillful and develops what is skillful” (Iti 1.17).
In the Sambodhi Sutta, the Buddha says “If wanderers who are members of other sects should ask you, ‘What, friend, are the prerequisites for the development of the wings to self-awakening?’ you should answer, ‘There is the case where a monk has admirable friends, admirable companions, admirable comrades. This is the first prerequisite for the development of the wings to self-awakening” (AN 9.1)