What A Zen Master Would Say About Making Friends

A Zen master would tell you a few things about making friends. He or she wouldn’t just serve up wisdom about how to make friends and be successful in relationships, though. Let’s explore the world of Zen koan.

In the tradition of Zen, a Zen master will often offer a koan, that is a mental puzzle which is meant to prove the world is full of paradoxical truth to a seeker. It is meant to befuddle the mind, to confuse it, in order to break through previously assumed ‘truths’ about the world, which don’t always serve the person who holds a belief to be sacred. Much like navigating the world of relationships, the attempt to make friends and keep them can be a puzzling endeavor.

A true master of Zen believes that if you tease the truth of the endeavor of making friends out of the confusion caused by trying to get closer to people, yourself, then you are much more likely to be able to put that wisdom into practice and make friends.

A Zen of Making friends: Cutting into the Truth

For example, a koan zen acts like a knife to cut away at layers of perception that are antiquated, if not harmful.  In order to arrive at an answer to a zen koan, you have to allow enough space into your consciousness to choose new thoughts and new behaviors. Let’s say you tend to be quiet and introverted, and because of this personality trait, you find that even though you’d like to make more friends, you have a hard time meeting people. The Zen master would say something to you like this – a Zen koan taken from The Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner,

“There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him. One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded, an old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.”

At first blush, a student would wonder what this zen koan had to do with making friends. After all, its just about a crusty old monk who doesn’t like to be bothered. A changed view, however, would cause a seeker of wisdom to unravel how he was behaving like the monk – relying on the common decency of man, while not really connecting to the warmth and love that is offered to him freely – one of the true treasures of being alive and engaging in relationship. Someone with an open mind would then reflect on ways they’ve perhaps turned the offer of friendship and closeness away when it was offered. This could be one reason why no friends can be found.

Zen koan: Being Alone Without Being Lonely

Another zen koan might be offered such as this one: How can one be alone, but not lonely? In the Zen Buddhist tradition, solitude and loneliness are two very different things. Often we feel alone, when we haven’t made friends with the most important person in the world – ourselves.

zen master
How can one be alone, but not lonely?

In a Zen practitioners’ view many emotions arise when we spend time in solitude. Despite our efforts to deal with these emotions, we often unconsciously arrange our lives in a way to avoid loneliness, but what we are really doing is avoiding creating a deeper relationship with ourselves.

This is why we can feel lonely even at a bar, a party, or in a huge crowd. Physical isolation is not the only cause of loneliness, but the isolation of the self, and the spirit. By spending quality time cultivating love of Self, we will never be lonely, no matter if we are in a forest cave a million miles from civilization, or cheering among friends at a stadium sports game. As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said, “One can be lonely and not be tossed away by it.”

Make friends with The Don’t-Know-Mind

Finally, a Zen master would offer this advice to the person seeking closer relationships while making friends: keep a “Don’t-Know-Mind.”

Korean Zen master Seung Sahn often instructed his students to keep a Don’t-Know Mind so that they wouldn’t cling to their fixed ideas about the world and all the people in it – the people that might serve as friends. He said: “If you keep a Don’t-Know Mind, then your mind is clear like space and clear like a mirror.”

Sahn was trying to teach the value of withholding judgment, one of the killers of close relationship. The analogy of seeing a rope and mistaking it for a snake is often used in Zen. When we see the rope, and mistakenly assume it could bite us, we should ask, “Am I sure?” This allows us to separate a seeming threat, such as an argument or the thought that someone would not like us for who we are, and take it into the Don’t-Know-Mind where other possibilities could exist.

So, if you met someone when you were getting coffee, and you automatically assumed that they wouldn’t be interested in talking to you, instead you would assume the Don’t-Know-Mind, which would mean that possibly – just maybe – they would absolutely adore you once you offered your friendship. From there, your thoughts and actions would change so that you could make a small gesture of connection, and just see what transpired. This is how you should make friends. Form the reformed Don’t-Know-Mind, you remove the critical self that keeps you from making more friends, and deepening existing relationships.

As Zen master Lama Surya Das would say

“This is how we love, Buddha-style: impartial to all, free from excessive attachment or false hope and expectation; accepting, tolerant, and forgiving.

Buddhist nonattachment doesn’t imply complacence or indifference, or not having committed relationships or being passionately engaged with society, but rather has to do with our effort to defy change and resist the fact of impermanence and our mortality. By holding on to that which in any case is forever slipping through our fingers, we just get rope burn.”

If you liked this guide on how to make friends according to koan zen, share it with your friends and see what they have to say! Feel free to sound off in the comments below about anything you didn’t like or that resonated particularly with you.

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