Half of the Holy Life: Upaddha Sutta, SN 45.2

This web site draws its name from the Upaḍḍha Sutta, a conversation between the Buddha and Ānanda. (The word upaḍḍha itself means “half.”) Ānanda exclaims about the value of friendship, and the Buddha responds by describing two ways in which good friendship helps in the quest for liberation. Both rest on the idea that someone with admirable people for friends, companions, and comrades can be expected to develop and pursue the path to liberation—a general case and one referencing the Buddha’s role as noble friend. You can read the whole sutta on accesstoinsight.org.

small figures of buddhas and disciples on a red background

Inside of wooden cover of a Sinhalese palm leaf manuscript.

The narrative frame of this teaching in Upaḍḍha Sutta can be seen in a couple of different ways.  One take on it imagines a prior debate about the role of friendship in the holy life; as a result of the debate, Ānanda comes to the Buddha to resolve the issue.  I think of this as the “propositional” reading of his opening statement.  By this reading, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship = half of the holy life: true or false?

I much prefer to see Ānanda’s statement as referring to the situation in which it was made: Ānanda approached the Blessed One, and bowed down, and took a seat beside him, and as he was sitting there he commented on these familiar actions and on the present situation. This take imagines Ānanda’s statement as referring to the goodness of doing those things, the goodness of having the opportunity to do them. By this reading, the present situation = half of the holy life: ah!

That is, I’m reading the phrase “good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship” as standing in apposition to the real, though implicit, subject of the sentence: the situation of having come, having paid respects, and then sitting there in the Buddha’s presence, speaking what was on his mind. The phrase verbalizes that tacit subject. I know these actions form a typical and often-described sequence of events—but it is not wholly outside the framework of the suttas to comment on what is going on in the present moment!  I think of this as the “ambient” or “situational” reading of Ānanda’s statement.

Here’s the beginning of that sutta, in Pali and in English:

Evaṃ me sutaṃ, ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sakkesu viharati, nāgarakaṃ nāma sakyānaṃ nigamo. I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was living among the Sakyans. Now there is a Sakyan town named Sakkara.
Atha kho āyasmā ānando yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami. Upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ nisīdi. There Ven. Ānanda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side.
Ekamantaṃ nisinno kho āyasmā ānando bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: As he was sitting there, Ven. Ānanda said to the Blessed One,
upaḍḍhamidaṃ bhanate, brahmacariyassa “This is half of the holy life, lord:
yadidaṃ kalyāṇamittatā kalyāṇasahāyatā kalyāṇasampavaṅkatāti. namely, admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
Mā hevaṃ ānanda, mā hevaṃ ānanda, “Surely not, Ānanda; surely not, Ānanda.
sakalameva hidaṃ ānanda, brahmacariyaṃ yadidaṃ kalyāṇamittatā kalyāṇasahāyatā kalyāṇasampavaṅkatā. Surely, this is the whole of the holy life: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.
Kalyāṇamittassetaṃ ānanda, bhikkhuno pāṭikaṅkhaṃ kalyāṇasahāyassa kalyāṇasampavaṅkassa. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades,
ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bhāvessati ariyaṃ aṭṭhaṅgikaṃ maggaṃ bahulīkarissati he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.

This sutta does not explain why someone with admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades would be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path, but some other suttas elaborate this point.  Sambodhi Sutta, AN 9.1, explains that a person who has such friends can be expected to behave with virtue, following the training; will be able to hear at will, easily and without difficulty, talk that is sobering and conducive to the opening of awareness; will be persistent; and will discern arising and passing away. Megihiya Sutta, Ud 4.1 (paralleling AN 9.175 but in a different locale), presents these same four points, framed by a story of a solitary meditator experiencing unwholesome thoughts.

These suttas give some details about virtue, persistence, and discernment, but do not make explicit how admirable friendship supports those qualities.  One might make some guesses about connections: the inspiration of good example, shame at being seen doing something one isn’t proud of; possibly also the effects of meditative states that sometimes seem to radiate virally, telepathically, from mind to mind.

But the point about talk is explicit. Talk of a certain kind is available whenever it is needed or wanted. That talk is sobering: counteracting intoxications of the mind. And it is conducive to the opening of awareness: reminding and supporting awareness are functions of sati. So we mean the kind of friend whose talk can be described in these ways. The classic ten topics of wholesome conversation are also given: fewness of wishes, contentment, solitude, seclusion, application of energy, virtue, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and the knowledge and vision of liberation.

In the second “line of reasoning” in Upaḍḍha Sutta the Buddha states, “It is in dependence on me as an admirable friend that beings subject to birth have gained release from birth, that beings subject to aging have gained release from aging, that beings subject to death have gained release from death, that beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair have gained release from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair.” That is, the Buddha himself is an admirable friend—as seen in the supremely friendly act of teaching the path to release.

more small figures of Buddhas and people on a red background

Inside of wooden cover of a Sinhalese palm leaf manuscript.

You can read the whole sutta on accesstoinsight.org or learn more about this project here.

(translation of SN 45.2 above is Thanissaro’s)

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