Friends, enemies, and strangers

Aug 2, 2019

We could divide all beings on this planet into three categories: friends, enemies and strangers; there’s no fourth category. A friend is the object of my attachment; an enemy is the object of my aversion; and a stranger is the object of my indifference.

And how do we feel about these three? We love and have compassion our friends, don’t love our enemies, and couldn’t care less about the strangers. This is the way the world is, even the animals, and we rarely question the logic of it.

There’s a powerful meditation Tibetan Buddhists do called Equanimity, the goal of which is the heartfelt recognition that friends, enemies and strangers – in other words, all living beings – are the same as each other from one point of view: they all equally wish to be happy and don’t want to suffer.

When we analyze our usual view, it’s clear that the basis of loving someone – that is, delighting in their happiness, wanting them to be happy – is mainly attachment. When you do what I want, when you fulfill my needs, of course I want you to be happy! And it goes without saying that when you don’t fulfill my attachment’s needs, when you leave me for someone else, let’s say, of course I don’t want you to be happy! As for strangers, which is the vast majority of beings on this planet, we simply couldn’t care less about them; they hardly even register in our minds. Why? Because they neither harm nor help us.

Seeing the truth of this, it’s clear that the basis of loving or not loving someone is utterly self-centred. Eventually, from the Buddhist perspective, we can learn to love all beings equally – and this equanimity becomes the foundation. In other words, the logical reason to want someone to be happy is because they want to be happy, not because they make me happy.

This is huge! It’s basically love with no strings attached. The mother, for example, who selflessly wants her child to be happy – “Whatever makes you happy!” – we know how marvellous it is to be on the receiving end of such love.

Right now we do, of course, have love for others, but it’s usually only for the objects of our attachment – and when it comes to compassion it’s either for the objects of our attachment or for innocent victims.

We have huge compassion for our cat, for example, but cannot stand the rat. But they are identical to each other in equally wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. We can’t argue with the logic of this, but we are compelled to find all sorts of reasons for why the rat is harmful so we can justify harming it.

In fact, we can see that the usual view of compassion for the victim – the cat – goes hand in hand with anger towards the harmer – the rat. This is totally normal behaviour, so it seems almost outrageous to attempt to have compassion for all beings and try not to harm any of them.

But this is the starting point for the Buddha: to live life with the sincere wish to not harm any living being. And given that “everything exists on the tip of the wish,” as one Tibetan saying goes, it becomes like a beacon that guides us through life. It sounds sweet, but its implications are profound.

More blog posts

The buddhas and bodhisattvas come where they’re needed

A question came up recently: Since Lama Zopa passed away and there have been prayers for his swift return, is that to be taken in a literal sense? Will he only reincarnate if there's prayer? It’s a really good question, and the answer is completely logical and simple...

Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung's model of the mind, or Freud's. And you don't get attachment from your...

Neuroses are not at the core of our being and therefore can be removed

Let’s talk about the fundamental point that underpins all of Buddha’s teachings from A to Z – all of Buddha's teachings from A to zed, as we say in England and Australia. According to the Buddhist analysis, the neurotic states of mind, the unhappy states of mind, the...

Share this article