The Buddha spoke about friendship more than any other human relationship and he identified several types of friends and the levels or intensities of friendship associated with them. Most commonly he spoke of ordinary friends, what we would call acquaintances, chums or mates (mitta, sakha and sambhatta), people we like, we get on well with, socialize with but with whom our connection is not deep. The basis of much ordinary friendships is reciprocity, shared interests and benefits. Then there are loving friends, called by the Buddha heart friends or bosom friends (mitta sahada), or sometimes true friends (sahaya or samdittha), those of whom we can say we really love. We describe such a friend as being our “soul mate” and others might comment that we “get along together famously”. Typically, we have only two or three such friends, they are usually the same gender as ourselves, and our connection with them not uncommonly last a lifetime. Such friends may not see each other for years, then meet again and resume their relationship as if they only saw each other last week. Anurudha told the Buddha that the loving companionship between he and his friends meant that they were “different in body but one in mind” (kaya ekam ca pana manna cittam, M.III,156). In an interesting parallel to this Aristotle defined loving friendship as “two souls in one body.”
In the famous Sigalovada Sutta the Buddha enumerated what he considered the virtues of a loving friend. These include giving more of anything you ask them for, reassuring you when you are frightened, being constant through thick and thin, rejoicing in your successes, looking after you when you are off your guard, discouraging you from doing wrong and encouraging you to do good, confiding in you and keeping the confidences you share. A loving friend might, should the need arise, even risk his or her life for you (D.III,187). The Jatakas says of a loving friend; “A ordinary friend will go seven steps for you, a loving friend (sahaya) will go twelve. If he does so for a fortnight or a month he is family, more than that and he is your second self.” What is here translated as ‘second self’ is attasamo which literally means ‘the same as oneself’, Ja.I,365). These virtues imply kindness, unstinting generosity, loyalty, sympathetic joy and absolute openness and trust. One will, the Buddha said; “cherish and nurture such a friend as a mother does the child of her own breast” (D.III,188).
When two people’s loving friendship includes a significant spiritual element they become what the Buddha called kalyana mitta and their relationship is called kalyana mittata. A kalyana mitta is the ideal friend and kalyana mittata is the supreme human relationship. Kalyana literally means ‘beautiful’ or ‘lovely’ although the Buddha was not referring to physical attractiveness but inner beauty, the beauty of integrity, kind-heartedness, virtue and love of the Dhamma. “If someone is jealous, selfish or dishonest, they are unattractive despite any eloquence or good features they might have. But the person who is purged of such things and free from them, it is they who are really beautiful” (Dhp.262-3). I will translate kalyana mitta as spiritual friend.
The Buddha described a spiritual friend as being “loving, pleasant, a good mentor, experienced, committed, able to explain things well, with profound understanding, and being concerned with your welfare” (A.IV,32). And he spoke of spiritual friendship like this. “What is spiritual friendship? Concerning this, whether living in a village or town one consorts with, comes together with, associates and discusses with people, whether young or old, who are full of faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom. One emulates the faith of the faithful, the virtue of the virtuous, the generosity of the generous and the wisdom of the wise. This is called spiritual friendship” (A.IV,282). While the Buddha emphasized that the Dhamma has to be “attained by the wise each for himself or herself”, he also stressed that this cannot be done in isolation from others. Being self-confidently independent is important, but it needs to be balanced with the emotional sustenance that friendship offers. “Ananda said to the Lord; ‘Spiritual friendship, intimacy and companionship are half of the holy life.’ The Lord replied; ‘Not so Ananda! Not so! Spiritual friendship, intimacy and companionship are all of the holy life. When one has a spiritual friend, a spiritual intimate, a spiritual companion it can be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold path.’ ” (S.V,2).