by Ghanashyam Dasa
Friendships are generally based on a common interest or aim. What is my aim in life? This is the all-important question that will determine the quality of our friendships. The higher the interest or aim, the stronger the bond. At least, this is my personal experience.
In high school, the common interest I shared with a group of friends was to have a good laugh at the expense of another friend. Unlike most teenagers, I couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday mornings. Sunday nights I would sit in my room in full concentration, thinking of a plot and devising a plan to "set up" a "good friend" for a devastating embarrassment. Not very deep, but back then I somehow lived for those moments. My mother was so proud to occasionally see me in my room preparing for the next day at school. I sat there at my desk, pen and paper in hand, thoughtfully gazing out the window, excitedly writing down any breakthrough ideas. My mother would sometimes bring me a hot chocolate. When the plan was executed, success would be determined by the look of shock of the surrounding people, and the laughs that were produced from my friends who weren't targeted.
Here's a sample: I was keen to observe that during gym class, one friend of ours would leave his locker unlocked. He was quite different from the rest of our crew, in that his personal life-style of choice could be understood by the term Death-Rock. He had long hair, played electric guitar, decorated his body with silver spikes, and wore all black at all times. His least favorite class was gym. He hated sports, but more importantly, everyday for one hour, he hated having to change from death-mode to little blue shorts, a white T-shirt, and clean white tennis shoes.
One day he returned to his locker after gym class to change his clothes quickly. But to his surprise, his death-metal wardrobe was nowhere to be found. It was replaced by a pink swimsuit and a mexican sombrero. His high black combat boots were replaced with yellow beach sandals. He became angered, but soon composed himself, all along hoping, and perhaps praying, that it would be just a few moments before his things were returned. But it wasn't so. We would sometimes take things too far. And because our "set ups" were a group activity, we could always protect ourselves with our famous line: "Sorry Steve, but it wasn't me." "I'm not sure who did it." This was our saving grace.Needless to say, most of those friendships didn't continue after high school. Our common interest was shallow, and therefore our bonds were weak.
Fortunately, in college my activities became a little more normal. But still, I could see that, though the form had changed, my aim was the same: It was egoistic and self-centered. Upon a little inward reflection, it seemed that in all my relationships, the motivating factor was my own self-interest. I began to wonder if it was even possible for it to be otherwise. Later, I understood that for the time being, it might not be possible to immediately change this. But there is one secret that I have learned, and am now trying to practice.
There is one self-interest that doesn't harm friendships but strengthens them. What could that be? It is when the common interest of our friendships is self-purity. What could be more healthy for a friendship? When friends are united in trying to uproot their own unhealthy tendencies, truly deep relationships can be born and maintained. Before we can genuinely love one another, we have to be able to love. We each have many things within us that block and prevent us from loving one another. But if friends become determined in this higher aim of self-purity, then even the setbacks and failures can act as opportunities to practice the virtues of humility, love, and forgiveness. When this is our aim, and our attitude is right, nothing can be an impediment. Everything teaches us, helps us.
Of course, to find such a place or community may not be so easy. But such places do exist and I've been fortunate enough to discover one. I am presently living in an asrama on the Lower East Side with a group of people dedicated to such an ideal. Even here, my pranks continue, but they are secondary to a deeper aim. That deeper aim includes acts of devotion and service to one another. There's one monk here who, on occasion, very happily makes a delicious pancake breakfast for the pleasure of all the others.
Recently, I was inspired by his enthusiasm to serve everyone, and so I decided to help. As I mixed bananas and blueberries into the batter, I was suddenly struck with a breakthrough idea that must have come from the Supreme Lord Himself. I thought, "I can make one special pancake with a long hot chili pepper in the middle." "And if I mix it with the others, it will be very exciting to find out which monk will become the lucky reciepient of this flavorful delight." As I waited in silent anticipation after serving out the first batch, a jolt of fear entered my heart. "Oh no!" I thought, "What if an older, more serious monk gets the hot pepper?" "Maybe this wasn't God's idea." It would surely be harder for a more senior monk to appreciate my strange sense of humor. Now in total anxiety, I served out the second batch. I was trying to think of what to do or say if the wrong monk got the hot pepper. But I was drawing a blank. Finally, I heard a murmur from a monk in the far corner of the room. "Why are these pancakes spicy?" he said. Everyone just ignored him, as it apparently made no sense to anyone else. Internally I was laughing, externally I was passing the maple syrup. He took another bite. A few seconds later he loudly shouted, "These pancakes are hot!" I knew that with his second bite he really got a good chunk. It happened to be the youngest monk in the room. I therefore knew, beyond all doubt, that it was in fact the will of the Lord. I felt great relief and the young monk vowed to get revenge.
I still play around like this sometimes, but unlike the past, these friendships mean everything to me. They are fun, yet profound. And they are always meaningful and fulfilling. Of course, there are struggles. We have many short-comings. But they are overlooked and overcome for the sake of these higher aims: compassion, self-purity, and service to one another. Even just striving together for such aims brings greater understanding and joy into the heart. Our bonds are strengthening, and as those virtues of purity actually begin to reawaken, the bonds of friendship can become unbreakable. When self-interest starts to slacken, we finally begin to understand what it means to love.