Noble Friends and Noble Conversations

I go visit my friend in Texas once a year. Quite often, on the first day, we get into political conversations, which are both fun and distressing. I take her, her husband and her daughter’s family out to dinner. When the conversation devolves to politics, I say, “The rule at my house is that we don’t talk politics after the sun sets. So please change the subject.” Usually, everybody agrees and even seems slightly relieved to be reined in from the usual course of complaining conversation, which yields no results.

In the Katthavattu sutta, Topics of Conversation, AN 10.70, the Buddha gives a list of topics to avoid. The first three are “kings, robbers, and ministers of state.” I translate that as presidents and politics and possibly Wall Street, too.

Other evenings, after dinner, her hard-of-hearing husband turns on the TV. Loud. I long ago gave up the TV as an ignoble friend because TV does not practice Wise Speech.

The Topics of Conversation sutta continues its list of bestial subjects and includes armies, alarms, & battles; … vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead. This sounds pretty much like the nightly news. Car ads. Movie stars, singers, and sports heroes. Who died today.

The second day of my visit, my friend takes me shopping. Since her daughter works for an outfitter and has a 40% discount, I catch the greed-bug and buy a pile of clothes.

At home, I try to follow Shantideva’s advice: The aging body is like worn-out clothes, but my thrift store pants drive my friend crazy. They’re faded. They’re way out of style. She takes me shopping and encourages me to “Try this” or “Now try this on.” Shopping is one of the ways we relate to each other; we’ve gone shopping together for years.

The Buddha says, in the Topics of Conversation sutta, to avoid talk of

clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives…. Of course, I talk about my relatives! Of course, we talk about her relatives.

I go grocery shopping with her. She plans dinner, maybe some grilling with her son’s family. There we are, talking of “food & drink,” another subject not recommended by the Buddha.

I do love my friend. I love to visit her at her beautiful home. Yet I come away from four days in Texas feeling slightly ill-at-ease with myself. I haven’t behaved as honorably as I would like. I’m disappointed with myself. I feel off-kilter.

It feels so good to be home, back among my noble friends, my spiritual friends. Next year, my next visit to Texas, maybe I can be a better noble friend.

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