Philia ~ GS43, 31st August 2021 (Transcription)

I’ve been thinking about friendship and philia. Philia is one of the Greek words for love, but in this case love between friends. There are other words for other kinds of love in Greek, so we have eros, which is love between lovers, storge, which is the kind of love that parents have for their children, then agape, which is the ideal love, like the love of God, so the love of Amida for the bombu person is agape, it is unconditional. Then in the other extreme, there is ludos. Ludos is playful love, the sort of good feeling you have when you play a game together or when you have fun at a party, even with people that you hardly know.

They are all forms of love, but today I want to concentrate on philia. Philia is true friendship. The original idea is probably the bond that grew up between soldiers who have been through danger together, who have protected or saved each other’s lives. This origin helps to highlight an issue that I’d like to try and clarify a little bit. There is a sense here that a friend is somebody who is on one’s own side.

Now, I remember that, when my mother was dying, she was looked after by a group of us and one significant member of that group was German. I’ll call her Heidi. Now, at a formative period in my mother’s younger life, she had fought against the Germans and I remember my mother speaking to me at this time, when she was very sick, saying how she valued Heidi’s attentions and how the fact that this was happening now helped to heal something in her soul, even as her body was nearing its end. So, there is something in friendship that’s about taking sides, though there can also be something about transcending such differences. Can you have a friend who is on the other side?

It is said that when things get difficult, that’s when you find out who your true friends are. Many people may appear to be friends, but really, they are just associates in a cause or in a common circumstance. In Britain, for instance, recently many friendships were tested by the Brexit issue. Could you have a friend who took the other side? You might have you got to the point where you might say “Well, so and so and I are friends, but there are some subjects that can’t be mentioned”, or it might be that friendships end over such a difference of opinion or commitment. 

The question then arises: was the friendship real? Was it real philia? Or was it just a comfortable association that ceased because something uncomfortable happened?

Nowadays we live in a rather utilitarian, not to say selfish age, and the question “What’s in it for me?” is often uppermost, but such an attitude is inimical to real friendship. Friendship is built out of the bond of reciprocal loyalty and it should be strong enough to withstand at least some changes of this kind. Shakespeare famously wrote: “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds,” but the full application of that principle is pretty challenging! If you find your friend votes for a party that you are campaigning against, do you remain friends? Are principles more important that people? These are the questions that create all the drama of human life and can cause a great deal of turmoil, a great deal of emotion.

In Buddhism, we talk about the teacher as a skilful friend, as kalyana-mitra. Kalyana-mitra is skilful in accepting the other just as they are, yet also having their best spiritual interests in view.  So, for instance, not rejecting the person who is a liar, but always acting in ways that may help the person to become more honest. This is one kind of philia.

In the sangha we associate with others initially on the bases of a shared interest that becomes a shared faith. Yet, amongst those one may gradually become attached to a much smaller number who become true friends.

One might say of one’s friend: “I believe in you.” This might be in spite of the friend’s bad habits, pernicious views or lapses of various kinds. So, friendship has something to do with seeing the potential in the other, even when that potential is not realised or manifested.

On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly true that friendships grow through shared experiences, working together and mutually supported causes. And there has to be mutuality of some form.

So, there is some sort of gradation between personal loyalty and common interest. Where the relationship is purely one of common interest, it will evaporate when that interest changes. When it is entirely personal, well, it might endure many changes of circumstance and orientation, but probably there always is some limit.

Well, I have not here attempted to solve all these issues, but I hope to have highlighted them a bit and perhaps to add a little weight on the side of personal bonds, personal connection, real friendship as against the claims of our consumer society where one counts it a success to have a certain quantity of so-called “friends” on Facebook, or alternatively, one navigates one’s life in relation to factions and fashions. Philia surpasses fashions. It endures storms. It makes claims upon the heart.


Thank you very much
Namo Amida Bu


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