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Sublimation: from friendship to friendliness

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

It is common in the discourses to come across seemingly ordinary qualities (recollection, energy, effort, tranquility, to mention but a few) that are presented as crucial to the progress towards nothing less than awakening (hence, they are sometimes called ‘factors of awakening’). This treatment might suggest that the Buddha’s training aims at developing and refine some sort of basic natural endowment that everybody already has. While it might be reassuring to think so, this is not quite what the Buddha teaches.

Take recollectedness (sati, most commonly rendered as ‘mindfulness’). One can cultivate recollectedness towards any sort of contents in ordinary daily life. If one takes seriously the etymology of ‘meditation’ (from the Latin meditatio) as meaning ‘remembering and recollecting,’ one might even think that this is a quality shared by a wide range of traditions around the world.

But looking at the discourses (MN 10, for instance), it becomes apparent that the way in which recollection works is quite counterintuitive with respect to ordinary attitudes, and at odds with most of what other traditions would suggest. When one is asked to ‘dwell observing the body as [just] body’ (kāye kāyānupassī viharati), what is asked is in fact to regard this body (which usually I perceive as mine) as not-mine (cf. MN 62), as not something personal, not something to take up and appropriate as my own possession. This is the opposite of what the ordinary untrained person would do. In fact, an ordinary untrained person cannot practice this sort of recollection until they reach some degree of right view.

Something analogous happens with friendship. Ordinarily, everybody would have some intuitive understanding of what friendship is and why it is beneficial. Using one’s attitudes towards one’s best friends can also be a skillful strategy to train the ability of facing one’s own vulnerability in healthier ways, by relying on intuitions and gestures that one might already be able to practice towards others, and turning them towards oneself. That’s great.

However, ordinary friendship tends to be an exclusivist bond. Social status, common interests, shared ideals, passions, and all the other possible grounds of friendship tend to create a strong link between some people, while necessarily putting others outside of that special relation. This might entail more or less adversarial attitudes towards the non-friends, but the structure is always the same: no unity can be created without determining and differentiating it with respect to something else, that is therefore excluded from that unity. As Aristotle noticed, profound friendship can be cultivated only towards a relatively few people, just because of the amount of time, commitment, and energy that it requires.

In the discourses, friendliness (mettā, the abstract quality derived from being a friend, mitta) is cultivated in close relationship with recollection (as in Sn 1.8). It is also made explicit that proper friendliness can be developed only on a basis of right view, namely, only after one has seen the absurdity of appropriation and made an attempt (at least) at doing something to relinquish it for good. Like the recollection of the body, also friendliness, when it becomes part of the Buddha’s path of training, undergoes a profound transformation that makes it unlike ordinary friendship.

The sort of friendliness to be cultivated is boundless (appamāṇa), in the sense that it encompasses all living beings, regardless of their conditions, nature, merits, deeds, or any other characteristics. Instead of being based on a shared (and exclusive) ground, friendliness has no ground, it is selfless both in its origin and in its target. Friendliness is empty; this makes it boundless. In this sense, friendliness is also impersonal, because it does not care much for the unique and peculiar story that lurks behind each and every being, but rather sees the common uncertain and vulnerable ground upon which all beings equally rest. It is at that universal vulnerability that friendliness looks and speaks, more than to its different and divergent declensions. Intimacy and boundlessness are inversely proportional.

A couple of important consequences follow from this reflection. The first is that the training recommended by the Buddha does not simply develop ordinary qualities that are already somehow latently present in untrained beings. More properly, the training undermines the ordinary way in which those qualities usually manifest, until the reach a completely different form, or move in an opposite direction (‘against the grain’). One might call it ‘purification,’ but perhaps it is more akin to a chemical sublimation. Be that as it may, this is an important reminder for the fact that ‘mundane’ practice and qualities do not naturally evolve, develop or lead to the ‘supramundane’ path pointed out by the discourses. There is a jump, a gap between the two, which has to be filled not by blind faith, but by right view.

The second consequence is that real friendliness transcends the need for a community of friends in the ordinary sense. Surely enough, joining with others who share similar ideals and practice can be very supportive and handy, as demonstrated in almost all cultures, including by the Buddhist monastic (and lay) institutions and guilds. But the need to partake in such communities is still based on ordinary friendship, which is helpful and perhaps necessary to some extent, but also remains different in kind from friendliness.

When developed, friendliness is free from the need of associating only with those with whom one shares interests and ideals, somehow excluding or putting others at a (more or less great) distance. By contrast, friendliness acknowledges that all living beings are originally already members of the same boundless community and the real task is to alleviate aversion and fear there, if possible (knowing that while everybody in principle can do that, not everybody in fact will). Instead of seeking similars, one appreciates the inequality of life-forms and conditions, asking: ‘how can we lessen aversion, how can we increase safety, how can we become happier here?’ This is less reassuring and more demanding than relying on peers that will mirror and accommodate one’s inclinations. But that is precisely the reason why friendliness is not ‘natural’ (in the sense of being an ordinary default attitude), it needs training, and this training leads to behave in the world in a very different way. Luckily, this also comes with a certain degree of relief. Instead of running and struggling to seek the perfect community in which one might eventually find the ideal fit, one can rather appreciate how (above a certain minimal threshold), one is already always part of a community. The task is not to find another community, but to learn how to stay there no matter what happens, pervading the whole world, in all direction, with the same gaze free from aversion, full of goodwill.

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