It may seem odd that one of the core values of Secular Buddhism is social connection or what I like to refer to as “Right Association”. Aren’t we Buddhists all supposed to be sitting alone in caves or lined up like shrubs in some monastery? Doesn’t the “Right Speech” step of the Eight Fold Path say to “abstain from idle chatter”?
More accurately Right Speech says, “to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth”. Conversation that brings us closer to one another is not idle chatter that lacks purpose. Quite the contrary.
Before I explain why social connection is a core value of Secular Buddhism, let me say that the moralistic steps in the Eight Fold Path which include Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, are not intended to make one “good” in the social sense, to please any kind of God or to accumulate positive Karma and thus contribute to a desirable rebirth. They are intended to keep your mind clear of the thoughts and emotions that result from their opposites. What one wants, as the late Theravadan monk Ajahn Chah put it, is a mind like a clear forest pool. Then one can see clearly into its nature and with it, into the nature of reality in general.
Right Association is not officially a part of the Eight Fold Path and I did not coin the term. As far as I know it was coined by Huston Smith in Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, co-authored with Philip Novak. In the book it is suggested that Right Association was so consistently emphasized by The Buddha in his teachings that it represents the equivalent of a preliminary ninth step on the path.
In common sense terms, you want to hang out with people you can relate to and who will support you in your life journey. Association with those who share your interests and values, who offer words of encouragement and even praise of your efforts is helpful, as any grandmother will tell you. The Buddha knew this well and it is the very reason he created a community of monks and nuns, so that they could support each other.
“If you find no one to support you on the spiritual path, walk alone.
If you see a wise person who steers you away from the wrong path, follow him.
The company of the wise is joyful, like reunion with one’s family.
Therefore, live among the wise, who are understanding, patient, responsible and noble.
Keep their company like the moon moving among the stars.”
— Dhammapada (Words Of The Buddha)
There are many places in the teachings where friendship is specifically pointed out as important, if not crucial, to practice. For example, throughout the instructions on the Four Foundations Of Mindfulness, one is encouraged to associate with “a good friend”.
And that brings us to the reason for its renewed emphasis in Secular Buddhist practice: if you attend any of the majority of traditional Buddhist weekly events in your area, you will find opportunities for social connections noticeably lacking. You are expected to arrive quietly, remove your shoes, bow, enter and wait silently. A bell rings. There is 20 to 45 minutes of teaching or meditation. Another bell. Another period. Another bell. Everyone gets up, bows, silently puts on their shoes and leaves quietly. Who were those people?
You can go to some of these weekly gatherings for months if not years and never have an opportunity to connect with anyone, yet these are just the kind of people The Buddha wanted his followers to connect with. Clearly, what has evolved is not what The Buddha had in mind but this is what regular Buddhist gatherings have largely come to in the West. To address this, Secular Buddhism includes periods of unstructured social time at all events. Proximity and frequency will do the rest.
To put the importance of friendship in The Buddha’s eyes in perspective, let me close with a quote from the Pali Canon, the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible. This is from a section similar to the Bible’s Book Of Matthew with its stories of Jesus and his disciples. For the last 25 years of his life, The Buddha had a right hand man named Ananda:
“One day Ananda, who had been thinking deeply about things for a while, turned to the Buddha and exclaimed: ‘Lord, I’ve been thinking — spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!’ The Buddha replied: ‘Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!’”