Many years ago, when I first started exploring Buddhism, someone gave me a cassette of a dharma talk in which a teacher was talking about true friends versus true enemies. She said, basically, that if you want to lead an honest life, then your true enemy is the person who tells you what you want to hear. Like so many moments on this path, it was a case of hearing something so obvious that it blew my mind.
That teacher was paraphrasing the Sigalaka Sutta, “Advice to Laypeople,” which singles out four types of foes who look like friends: takers, talkers (as in, they’re “all talk”), flatterers, and the “fellow-spendthrift” (who is happy to hang out with you, but only when you’re feeling a little reckless). Not a bad list.
“Flattery,” in the sutra, has the connotation of trying to get something from you, a kind of con job. But flattery can be much more subtle than that; it can even be well-intentioned. If you’ve ever been showered with praise by someone, you know how complicated this can be. That person may really mean it—if so, that’s wonderful, in a way. Or they may not mean it but still genuinely care about your feelings. It doesn’t have to be a trick.
It can feel energizing, even electrifying, to hear someone say you did an amazing job, or you have an amazing quality, or your opinion is important. But as you take in that praise, you have two possible responses: to believe it or not. If you don’t believe it, or if you feel the praise is going too far, then that’s just awkward. You smile and say “thank you,” but you know something is off. If you do believe it, of course, then it’s probably because on some level, you want to. And when you we really want one thing, it’s often because you’re afraid of the alternative. So you become stuck in the story of your preference rather than the truth of the situation, which—even if you really are great—is probably more nuanced than “great.”
I struggle with this, from both sides. As a friend, sometimes it just feels kinder to say, “Yeah, you’re right about that,” even if you don’t feel that way. It can feel risky to be completely honest. It’s also hard as the receiver. When I receive praise, I want to believe it. Of course I do. Chances are, this is a teaching that most of us, most of the time, are getting wrong.
It also goes far beyond friendship. I first heard this teaching in the early nineties, in a time before social media, before news networks that were explicitly aligned with this or that political ideology. Now I hear it very differently. When I look at Facebook, where almost all of my friends share worldviews similar to my own, I enter a bubble of likemindedness. In that bubble, there’s constant criticism of ideas we don’t like, but almost no analysis of the ones we do. And when I turn on the news, I can choose a channel that will do the same. Meanwhile, down the street, someone else can visit those same sites and have exactly the same self-reinforcing experience—but with exactly the opposite information.
We’ve created a world in which flattery is the default. From the first moment we turn on the TV or check our phones, we are told, by a multitude of voices, that we are right. Media companies and algorithms have taken on the role of a foe dressed as a friend.
What do we do with this? We can be aware, of course. We can choose to be more critical, more cautious, to pause before accepting whatever affirmation is coming our way. We can also resolve not to be this kind of friend, either on a personal level or in how we’re participating in that larger, siloed discourse. We can speak more honestly. We can ask questions. We can be silent.
We can also return to this same teaching for some clarity about the nature of friendship. Later in the sutra, we learn about the four good types of friends: the helper, the one who is the same whether happy or unhappy, the one who is honest about what’s good for you, and the one who is sympathetic. This is such plain language, such common-sense wisdom. Can we just resolve to be helpful, to be constant, to be honest, to be understanding?
What kind of friend are you? Can you hear the things you don’t want to hear? Can you say the things that are hard to say? Be a good friend. This is Buddhism—this path can be just that simple, just that honest—but we don’t need Buddhism to reach it. This kind of teaching stands on its own, without a larger philosophical framework. It’s so obvious that if you hear it at the right moment, it might just blow your mind.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.