Virtuous friends

In this next section of Admonitions to Beginners, the Venerable Ya-un reminds us of the influence our environment can have. We tend to go in the direction of our thoughts, so there’s a good argument for being careful in who we associate with and what situations we put ourselves in.  

Associate with virtuous friends and avoid evil people.   

When a bird wants to rest, it chooses a good grove of trees. Like this, a person who wants to learn the way has to choose his teachers and friends. If a bird chooses a good grove, it rests peacefully. If teachers and friends are well chosen, great learning will be attained. Therefore, show devotion to good friends as you would to your mother and father, and keep wicked acquaintances far away from you.  

Just as a crane does not associate with crows, how could a majestic phoenix associate with cowbirds? Among a forest of pine trees, even an arrowroot vine can rise a hundred meters into the sky, but in a field of weeds, even a pine tree can’t rise more than three feet. Keep far away from low-minded and malevolent people, and always stay close to those outstanding beings who have attained the great meaning.  

Whether staying in one place
or traveling around,  

always associate with virtuous people,   

and remove all weeds and dust
from body and mind.

When all weeds and dust are removed,  

the way forward will suddenly
be bright and clear, 

                                             without taking even one step forward,  

                                                You penetrate the meaning of the Patriarchs.  


9 thoughts on “Virtuous friends”

  1. Hi,

    This passage speaks in a very positive, heartfelt way to me:

    “Whether staying in one place or traveling around,
    always associate with virtuous people,
    and remove all weeds and dust
    from body and mind.
    When all weeds and dust are removed,
    the way forward will suddenly
    be bright and clear…”

    Associate with virtuous people — remove the other stuff, the dust and weeds, then suddenly your way will be bright and clear! What a wonderful thought.

  2. Excellent posting. One which gives us much to consider.

    Admittedly, the admonition is valid and certainly has much merit. But (in my humble opinion) we also need to remember that _everything_ we encounter in our lives _is_ our path. Even the negatives can be of great value to us. I love this quote from Pema Chödrön: “There is a richness to all the smelly stuff that we so dislike and so little desire.”

    Let’s not completely try to avoid all the negatives along the way. They provide us with an opportunity to awaken our compassion.

    “We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”


  3. Thank you for another installment of Ven Ya-Un. This one resonated with me.

    Someday, when I have more time, I will invent a time machine. I’ll use it not only to travel around and chat with people I’ve always wanted to speak with and see places and times gone by – I’d also use it to set up salons where great teachers could come and discuss things. For this instance, I’d have Ven. Ya-un, Seong Cheol Kun Sunim, and Shantideva all collected from their respective times and places and transport them to my living room where I’d serve them tea and cookies and listen as they discuss this very matter.

    Seong-Cheol Kun Sunim: who wrote “Every place is the Pure Land” and on Vesak 1986 wrote ‘ To all you noble Buddhas currently living in prison, happy birthday. To all you austere Buddhas selling your smiles in taverns, happy birthday…..When I open my eyes, you are Buddha, and when I close my eyes you are Buddha. Everyplace in the universes is filled with Buddha! Although we all have different guises and appearances, we’re all manifestations of this One Buddha. Everything is equal and everything is magnificent! So let us transcend our torments in this world of Buddha and be happy. How marvelous that every single place is a site for liberation from suffering and ignorance!’

    Shantideva: who considered ‘wicked people’ who injured and slandered him as wish-fulfilling gems of the highest order.

    It would be a lively discussion!

    Seriously though – I think I am ill-equipped to discern between virtuous and evil people… and with all due respect to Ven Ya-Un, my own teacher always told us that we need to treat everyone as a potential Buddha – shunning no one – since we – in our own ego driven dramas probably would not recognize a Buddha if we fell over one.


  4. While I understand that Venerable Ya-un’s admonitions are directed to “beginners,” it might be that they represent only one “view” of how to live in this world.

    In the Kwan Um School of Zen, we sometimes talk about the following story involving Man gong and Kyong Ho:

    Zen Master Man Gong was Seung Sahn Soen Sa’s Dharma grandfather. As a thirteen year old child, he was studying sutras in the Dong-Hak Temple in Korea. The day before vacation was to start, everyone was gathered to listen to lectures.

    The teacher of scriptures said, “All of you must study hard, learn Buddhism, and so become as big trees, with which great temples are built, and as large bowls, able to hold many things. The verse says:

    Water becomes square or round according to the the shape of the container in which it is placed. Likewise, people become good or bad according to the company they keep.

    “Always keep your minds set on holiness and remain in good company. In this way, you will become great trees and containers of Wisdom. This I most sincerely wish.”

    Everyone was inspired by this lecture. At this point, the teacher of scriptures turned to the visiting Zen Master Kyong Ho, and said, “Please speak, Master Kyong Ho; everyone would like to hear your words of wisdom.”

    The Master was quite a sight. He always was unshaven and wore robes that were tattered and worn. Although he at first refused, after being asked again and again, he reluctantly consented to speak.

    “A11 of you are monks. You are to be great teachers, freed from the ego; you must live only to serve all people. Desiring to become as a big tree or a great container of Wisdom prevents you from being a true teacher. Big trees have a big use; small trees have a small use. Good and bad bowls both have uses. Nothing is to be discarded. Keep both good and bad friends; this is your responsibility. You must not reject any element; this is Buddhism. My only wish is for you to free yourself from conceptions.”

    Having completed his talk, the Master walked out the door, leaving the audience astonished. The child Man Gong ran after him, and called out, “Please take me with you; I wish to become your student.”

    The Master shouted at him to go away, but the child would not. So he asked, “If I take you with me. what will you do?”

    “I will learn. You will teach me.”

    “But you are only a child. How can you understand?”

    ”People are young and old, but in truth, is there youth or old age?”

    ”You are a very bad boy. You have killed and eaten even the Buddha. Come along.”

  5. I am not well versed in many different teachings. So, this is from my simple understanding:

    To me it is not a matter of rejecting bad or evil, as everything is a manifestation of Buddha, or one mind. But many do not know of this buddha nature and are lost in a mind of greed, anger, hatred, desires, or… This does not mean one should “reject” them and I don’t believe this is what is being said. I think it is speaking to how one should also keep good company to help nurture the soul and keep learning from this as well. I am not saying that one does not learn a great deal from all kinds of lessons and experiences, but if there were not great teachers and words of wisdom to help lead or point the way towards our inner buddha nature, and we were just steeped in negative energy, then it would be much harder to see this light that is within and all around. And, to me, the people one invites into one’s house and home help cultivate and nourish this.

    I would not invite someone who is lost and is a child molester into my house to spend time with my son, despite seeing their true nature, because they are lost and do not know this true nature and therefore would harm me and my family. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t give compassion and love to them, I just wouldn’t hang around with them. Just like, if someone is lost in a mind of greed and only knows about stealing, I would not invite them into my house and show them where we keep our money for food, clothing, living, etc., as it would be too much for them, and they would steal, as that is what they know. So why would I bring something like this into my life? Just like when one is suffering from illness and is trying to get better, does one go into a dark, dirty place full of sickness and disease, or do they seek comfort and love to help them heal? (and I am talking about someone wanting to heal themselves and to change)

    I am not an enlightened being. All I know is what makes my heart sing and what darkens me, and I prefer to find that which lightens me.

    I am just a flower that has been growing slowly with dull colors in the dark.
    I keep growing and reaching for the light,
    and when there is a bright ray shining around me, I open myself up to this light gaining more color and strength until one day I have seen enough bright rays that have strengthened me enough to see that this light is within me, and I am able to blossom.

    In my humble opinion, this is what these teachings are about.

    Thanks Chong Go _/\_

  6. Hello wonderful kalyanarmitras!

    As far as I can see, the Buddha was clear. In the Dhammapada (verse 207) he said: “A man who keeps company with a fool, will suffer for it a long time.” And it’s something he repeated again and again, both in its negative aspect (avoid fools) and its positive (cultivate good friendships).

    In fact, as we know, he put Noble Friendships at the heart of the path: “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”

    This is perfect, solid, advice for living in the world. Sure, we all have Buddha-nature and I practice to see that in everyone, but still, in the world of relative truth, associating with fools leads to suffering. Rachael gives a wonderful example of this, of how one does not invite darkness and danger into one’s life, and also it’s a question of creating habits.

    If I prefer the company of drinkers and gamblers and sex-addicts for example, it is natural I will end up drinking and gambling and hurting people, I’ll establish those habits and suffer from them for ages to come. But if I prefer the comany of practitioners, I’ll develop better habits.

    This isn’t to say that drinkers and gamblers and so on aren’t also endowed with Buddha-nature! They are. But the Buddha was clear about how we actually live in this world – and it’s a common sense view that the Venerable Ya-un is repeating here. It’s not about making false distictions or rejecting people – it’s about skillful ways to living a noble life.

    What do I tell my children? How do I instruct them to live? I tell them to stay close to good friends and wise teachers and avoid those whose behaviour would hurt them or instill harmful habits. The Buddha is, as the Sutras say, like a father to all people, and here he is giving good fatherly advice. Advice which will lead to happiness for all his children:

    “Not consorting with fools,
    consorting with the wise,
    paying homage to those worthy of homage:
    This is the highest protection.”

    – Maha-mangala Sutta

    Marcus _/\_

  7. What troubles me is when sometimes people very close, such as family, are at times fools that should be avoided…

    If a certain family member had of had his way, Fina would have spent half our trip in Canada gambling and drinking scotch with him!

  8. This topic deserves more attention, because I think everyone is correct. Briefly, I think the difference may be where we “choose” to put ourselves, versus how we treat the things that come into our lives.
    There’s also a huge difference in listeners: someone who’s really grounded versus someone who is still running around without a clue.

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