Ananda, one of Shakyamuni Buddha's closest disciples, once asked him: "It seems to me that by having good friends and advancing together with them, one has already halfway attained the Buddha way. Is this way of thinking correct?"
Shakyamuni replied, "Ananda, this way of thinking is not correct. Having good friends and advancing together with them is not half the Buddhist way but all the Buddhist way."
This may seem surprising, as Buddhism is often viewed as a solitary discipline in which other people might be seen as more of a hindrance than a help. However, to polish and improve our lives ultimately means to develop the quality of our interpersonal relationships--a far more challenging task than any solitary discipline. Our practice of Buddhism only finds meaning within the context of these relationships.
From another perspective, given that Buddhist practice of polishing and aiming to improve our lives from within is a constant challenge and a difficult process, it is only natural that we need support from others also dedicated to walking a correct path in life, trying also to create value in their lives.
SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has written, "Having good friends is like being equipped with a powerful auxiliary engine. When we encounter a steep hill or an obstacle, we can encourage each other and find the strength to keep pressing forward." And as Nichiren (1222--1282) wrote: "Even a feeble person will not stumble if those supporting him are strong, but a person of considerable strength, when alone, may lose his footing on an uneven path..."
In Nichiren Buddhism, good friends are known as zenchishiki or good influences, while akuchishiki refers to bad influences. People affect each other in subtle and complex ways, and it is important to develop the ability to discern the nature of that influence. According to Buddhism, "bad" friends are those who encourage our weaknesses. In Nichiren's words: "Evil friends are those who, speaking sweetly, deceiving, flattering and making skillful use of words, win the hearts of the ignorant and destroy their goodness of mind."
Even when intentions are good, the degree of our positive influence on each other will vary. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, founder of the Soka Gakkai, used the following illustration. Say you have a friend who needs a certain amount of money. Giving your friend the money they need is an act of small good, while helping them find a job is an act of medium good. However, if your friend is really suffering because of a basic tendency toward laziness, then constantly helping him or her out may only perpetuate negative habits. In this case, true friendship is helping that person change the lazy nature that is the deep cause of their suffering.
A truly good friend is someone with the compassion and courage to tell us even those things we would prefer not to hear, which we must confront if we are to develop and grow in our lives.
Ultimately, however, whether people are good or evil influences in our lives is up to us. In Buddhist terms, the best kind of zenchishiki is one who leads us to strengthen our own faith and practice in order to thoroughly transform our karma. To quote Nichiren again, "the best way to attain Buddhahood is to encounter a zenchishiki, or good friend." Further, Nichiren comments that Devadatta, the cousin of Shakyamuni who tried to kill him and divide the Buddhist order, was "the foremost good friend to Thus Come One Shakyamuni. In this age as well, it is not one's allies, but one's powerful enemies who assist one's progress."
This expresses a key concept in Buddhism. Due to the immense transformative powers of Buddhist practice, even "bad" friends can have a good influence if we make our relationships with them into opportunities to examine, reform and strengthen our lives. The ideal is ultimately to develop the kind of all-encompassing compassion expressed by Nichiren when he wrote that his first desire was to lead to enlightenment the sovereign who had persecuted him, repeatedly exiling and even attempting to behead him.