China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2010/Jul

Friendship the way to understanding

In the early 1990s a group of us from Hong Kong were visiting a number of parishes in mainland China. One elderly priest we visited offered to accompany us to the large Buddhist monastery nearby, where we were met quite cordially by the head bonze. We were invited for tea, visited the temple and even allowed to sound the large monastery bell.

We then strolled through the beautiful grounds. Our host was walking ahead with the bonze. Suddenly, I noticed that the priest affectionately put his arms around the Buddhist monk. He must have thought we might think this strange. He turned around and said, “We suffered together.” We later learned that for some 20 years the bonze and the priest had shared the same prison cell. United in suffering and common values, they had become lifelong friends!

This started me thinking about the meaning of friendship among peoples of different beliefs and cultures.

Friendship in the Old Testament

One of the most celebrated examples of friendship in the Old Testament is that of David and Jonathan.

We are told that Jonathan loved David and David loved Jonathan “as he loved his own life” (I Samuel 20:17). Friendship among family members is depicted in the story of Moses, his brother, Aaron and sister, Miriam.

In the story of Job, who was afflicted with all manner of troubles, we see how friends respond in times of affliction: “Now when Job’s friends heard of all these troubles… they met together to go and console and comfort him” (Job 2:11).

In his terrible sufferings, Job needed the support of his friends, and begged for it, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me” (Job 19:21). When a person feels abandoned even by God, only devoted friends can make life worth living.

The Book of Proverbs gives a word of caution to the innocent and inexperienced: “Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads or you may learn their ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24).

Friendship in the New Testament

In the New Testament we learn that Jesus had many friends. His apostles were his friends; Mary of Magdala was a special friend, as were Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany. We are told that when Jesus learned of the death of Lazarus, he wept.

Jesus’ concept of friendship comes through in his parables. The prodigal son’s elder brother berated his father who had not given him even a young goat “to make merry with my friends.” This implies that friends are people we celebrate with (Luke 15:29).

The woman who finds her lost coin immediately calls her friends saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin I had lost” (Luke 15:9).

People find joy in sharing good news with their friends. Some friends may not remain loyal for life, Jesus warns about this, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends” (Luke 20:16).

There are friends whose love is so deep that they will even lay down their lives for the other. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (John 15:13). Jesus put a very condition on friendship with him, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

A person who does what Jesus commands is not a servant, that person is a friend of Jesus, with whom Jesus shares his intimacy. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15).

Friendship in Chinese classics

In general the Chinese see friendship in terms of three foundations: friendship based on nature, friendship based on principle and friendship based on business.

Friendships based on nature are those especially within the family, between husband and wife and children, and with those who are taken within the family circle. These remain intact through right and wrong, through troubled times or times of fortune, through riches or poverty.

Friendships based on principle are those that thrive on agreement in thought, interests and common behaviour.

Friendships based on business are most fragile since the foundation is weak and the stakes are not without self-interest. Such friendships are often only for expediency and they seldom last.

Friendship within Chinese culture often takes on the quality of obligation: the obligation of working in favour of the other, to accommodate and understand the other’s problems, always to seek the other’s good and welfare, and to make sure that the relationship lasts.

Within the Confucian concept, friendship does not consist in superficial, understandings or simply in a reciprocal give and take. True friendship has nothing in common with pretence. Friends should be able to admit mistakes and point out mistakes to one another.

Friendship is founded on wisdom and has as its goal the cultivation of virtue, which cannot be attained alone; it can only be realised through knowledge and sociability.

A lasting friendship is based on sincerity and loyalty and found only among people of similar virtues. According to the poet, Meng Chiao, “The friendship of the virtuous and wise is as firm and lasting as granite and gold.”

All friendships are not necessarily good. In fact some are bad. Friendships are good if they are with good people, with people who are not self-seeking, who are wise and virtuous. They are bad if they are with flatterers, people who seek their own good, who compromise on principles, who are fast talkers and who do not respect the other.

Dell’ Amicizia

Dell’ Amicizia, [Jiaoyou lun], was a book written by Matteo Ricci in response to a question of Prince Qian Zhai Jian’an on the European concept of friendship as a vehicle of dialogue.

To answer the prince, Ricci gathered everything he could find on friendship written by Greek and Roman classical authors, philosophers, saints, like Augustine and Ambrose, and others. Dell’Amicizia, which contains a preamble and 100 sentences on friendship, captivated the hearts and minds of the Chinese literati all over the country.

The success of the book, Ricci’s first in Chinese, won him the friendship and admiration of the most powerful men in China.

Dell’ Amicizia’s 100 sentences are not arranged in any logical or chronological order. They are meant to be read individually and to be meditated upon one at a time.

In this little book, the essence of friendship consists in seeing a friend as another self. The relationship of friends is based on love, for without love, no friendship can survive. The end of friendship is to meet each other’s material and spiritual needs and help with the development of society.

The greatest benefit of friendship is mutual joy and the realisation of each other’s human potential. “A true friend is the wealth of the poor, the strength of the weak and the medicine of the sick.” The foundation of true friendship is virtue. By virtue is understood obedience to reason and the love of justice.

Characteristics of true friendship

Friendship has many attributes. Friends are sincere, transparent and open with each other. A friend speaks the truth. Nothing is more damaging to friendship than flattery. A friend is faithful in keeping promises, is constant in his relationship. Friendship is sharing and it is so precious that it must always be safeguarded.

Beyond friendship

Dell’ Amicizia was so popular that it became an instrument of communication between Europe and China. But Ricci was not only a man of letters, he was also a missionary. Seeing the indifference of the Chinese to Christianity, Ricci knew that for Christianity to win the esteem of the literati, western culture itself had to be esteemed.

Up to that point, Ricci had used mathematical science and its application with magnificent results, but he now understood that he had to introduce the Chinese to the depth of western culture and its philosophy. To do this, his choice fell on friendship, a theme of tremendous importance to the Chinese.

It was not enough for Ricci to behave and present himself as a friend of China come from afar, but through a common, theoretical reflection on the theme of friendship, he sought to convince the Confucians of the substantial conformity of the two cultures, thus reducing distrust and fear.

Ricci seems to have had three objectives in writing his little book: 1) Establishing himself as a man of letters and a philosopher, a master come from the west, equipped to teach with authority in China. 2) Seek respect for western civilisation in the areas of the humanities and morality. 3) Demonstrate that western and Chinese civilisations are compatible and in accord on fundamental themes, such as friendship.

At the moment of his death at the relatively early age of 57 in 1610, due to fatigue from an abundance of work related to friendship and in maintaining the demands the Confucian protocol in regard to hospitality, Matteo Ricci must be considered not only a prophet of friendship, but also a martyr to friendship.  He has been gone 400 years now and yet his message is still valid across cultures.