“Once the Buddha’s disciple Ananda asked him about friendship. Ananda knew that having good and encouraging friends was very important for the path. He even wondered whether having good friends is half the path.

“ 'No, Ananda,' the Buddha told him, 'having good friends isn’t half of the Holy Life. Having good friends is the whole of the Holy Life.'

“The Meghiya Sutta is my favorite Pali text about friendship. It tells the story of the eager young monk Meghiya, who wanted to practice meditation alone in an especially peaceful and beautiful mango grove. But Meghiya’s meditation was anything but peaceful and beautiful. To his shock, he found his mind a snarl of malicious, lustful, and confused thoughts — probably because his practice was too self-involved. When Meghiya rushed back to report his confusing experience, Buddha was not surprised. He took the opportunity to give Meghiya what he must have hoped was a relevant teaching.

“ 'Five things induce release of heart and lasting peace,' the Buddha told him. 'First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence.'

“Then, for Meghiya’s further benefit, and to cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: 'When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then there is virtuous conduct,' and so on. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything else naturally flows from it.

“I appreciate the truth and beauty of this teaching more and more as the years go by. To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years is a special joy. So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendships even more important.

“When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice are a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible — just as the Buddha says — for spiritual qualities conducive awakening not to ripen. For those on the bodhisattva path, loving and appreciating your friends, even when they are difficult, as they sometimes are, is the path’s fullness and completion. Friendship ripens and deepens our capacity for compassion.”