On Spiritual Friendship

I recently came across a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi about his understanding of the message of Pope Francis.  In particular, he focuses on what he calls a shift in Church doctrine, under Francis, from an emphasis on truth, to an emphasis on compassion and simple friendship:

On April 11, 2015, Francis released his Misericordiae Vultus to inaugurate a Holy Year of Mercy, and the document is an explicit redefinition of the relation between truth and compassion, insisting upon the superiority of compassion over truth.1 We may replace the word “compassion” with the word“empathy,” and also with the word “solidarity.

In Christian parlance, without faith, hope is impossible. And faith seems to be over, since communism, democracy, and progressive dialectics crumbled at the end of the last century. Only capitalism survives. But faith in capitalism has collapsed as well, during the years of financial arrogance and precarious work.  So faith is over.

I’m not a believer; I trust in no god and no ideology, so I don’t think that the end of faith is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think that when we are freed from faith we can grasp the real tendency of the time, and we can seize the most interesting opportunities that the tendency brings about.

But in order to seize the possible and to actualize it, we need friendship, solidarity, happiness, and pleasure in the relations among bodies. This is what we lack today. Not hope, not faith, but friendship is lacking. This is why mankind is teetering on the abyss of war and suicide.

Consequently, we must abandon hope: the world machine is ungovernable, and human will is impotent. Only friendship is left. This is how I understand Francis’s words.

As I do not expect redemption in my afterlife, I think that despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time. But I also think that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, as despair is the mood of the intellectual mind, while joy is the mood of the embodied mind. Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.

What a rich essay, and I think quite relevant for our practice.  When Buddhism first came to America, it was usually associated with charismatic Asian (and then American) teachers, and young American students were only too eager to put these teachers onto a pedestal and see in them some expression of the Absolute.  We wanted a spiritual Mommy or Daddy, someone in whom we could have absolute faith, absolute trust.  And of course, it’s good to have teachers, it’s good to have someone we trust.  But we found, all too often, that these charismatic teachers had feet of clay, and that they were sometimes downright sociopathic.

In a sense, this was the fall of Truth for us in the American Buddhist sangha.  While in society at large, we lost faith in political and economic systems – communism, or democracy, or socialism, capitalism – in the sangha, we lost faith in the ideal of the Perfect Teacher, which was maybe just another example of our basic tendency to want something that just works, without our having to work with it, something that we can just trust in absolutely and give ourselves over to.

But, that’s not how it works, apparently.  And I think in American Buddhism this has been a good thing.  Certainly in our Suzuki-Roshi lineage, we have, to a great extent, dropped our fantasy of a perfect teacher and have placed more trust in our spiritual friendships.  In spiritual friendships, we come together to practice, as best as we understand it, and to talk to each other as honestly and truthfully as we can about what’s going on for us.  There are still vertical relationships, but we hold them rather lightly now.  We know that our teachers are just normal people, not really different from us.

We want to connect, we want to have real conversation that goes beyond sports or politics.  We want to talk about what’s important to us, and that’s what we are doing here, and I think that’s what Berardi is talking about.

Berardi’s last paragraph is so rich, let’s spend some time closely reading it:  “Despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time”.  This certainly resonates for me – when we look around and read the news, we see so much occasion for despair.  Climate change alone is enough to induce despair.  But when you think about it, this despair arises primarily from the intellect; it’s based on ideas, not usually on a direct physical experience.  So as Berardi says, despair is the mood of the intellectual mind.

That would be sort of sad if this was the whole story, but it’s not.  Berardi goes on to say, “Joy is the mood of the embodied mind.”  This is a remarkable statement, and it’s one I’ve heard, in different forms, from teachers over the years.  Even when we are twirling around in our minds, ruminating, worrying, our bodies are at ease and bliss.  In our Soto Zen practice, we realize this through the practice of zazen.  As Dogen Zenji wrote in the Fukanzazengi – “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”

In other words, zazen is not an intellectual activity.  It is an activity of the body-mind, or as Berardi would call it, the embodied mind.

Berardi says, in a beautiful non-dual expression, that despair and joy are not irreconcilable, and that we reconcile them through our friendships, for “Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy.”  I think we know this generally, but in our Zen practice, this is referring to our sangha relations.  Practicing with sangha is the total expression of our way.  Ours is a communal way, the way of the sangha jewel.

In his fascicle, “The point of zazen”, Dogen writes, “What has been passed on, person-to-person, is the essential teaching of zazen alone.”  We can take this meaning in two different ways.  First, this statement emphasizes the interpersonal aspect of our practice.  We are not solitary Buddhas.  We come together as good friends to share our practice, share our lives, and to teach each other.  Dogen always emphasized the relational aspect of practice, and our wonderful Zen stories from the koans are nearly always about relationships, between teachers and students, between students.  Regardless of the content of these koans, they are, at a fundamental level, showing how the dharma is transmitted through our spiritual friendships.  We learn about zazen from our relationships, warm hand to warm hand, not from a book.

Another way to understand this statement from Dogen is that the feeling we get from our friends, when we share real connection, real conversation, when we practice together, that experience of spiritual friendship is in itself the essential teaching of zazen alone.  In other words, it’s not that zazen is some body of knowledge that we pass on to each other, like how a master baker passes on her knowledge of baking to an apprentice.  That’s not what zazen is.  It’s not a field of study.  Instead, the essential teaching of zazen is precisely that which is passed on in our person-to-person relations.  The dharma arises precisely in our friendships.

And as Berardi says, this is through these relations that we realize our embodied joy.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky


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