Buddhist Philosophy

~ July 9, 2020 ~

Being Loyal to One’s Relatives and Close Friends

Buddhist Philosophy • Article

Societal Human Values Series #8

by Hilary Herdman

Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), reigned 629-650 CE. Among his many achievements, he promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). As the Dalai Lama’s translator Thupten Jingpa writes, “Most of these sixteen values have to do with promoting greater societal well-being and living one’s life with dignity, honesty, and respect for others.” 

Phakchok Rinpoche frequently emphasizes the importance of living respectfully in society. He encourages students to memorize and internalize these points of conduct as a core foundation for our practice of the Dharma. If we don’t keep this moral code, then whatever higher practices we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit. 

This is the eighth in a series of explanations of these sixteen principles.

Principle #8 Being loyal to one’s relatives and close friends ( nye du mdza’ bshes la gzhung ring ba)

Loyalty: What Does it Mean? Where Do We Start?

In this time of a global pandemic, what does it mean to be loyal? The English word loyal has its roots in Old French and earlier Latin, at which time it meant legal. A person could be true to the law, or honest. People swore oaths of loyalty to lords and kings—a custom that continues today when someone takes an oath of office or pledges loyalty to a country or a branch of government service.

But if we are loyal to select people, are we excluding others? Philosophers have argued about the virtue ethics of the particularist nature of “loyalty” for centuries. Yet many agree that because human beings are social animals, we generally form nurturing and caring bonds first with our families, friends, and neighbors. As John Kleinig explains, we tend to develop loyalty in “friendships, familial relationships, and some of the social institutions that foster, sustain, and secure the social life in which we engage as part of our flourishing.1Kleinig, John, “Loyalty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

We instinctively want to protect and take care of our close network. We thank others for their support and repay their kindness.

Based upon that wish, we can serve those we love by being reliable and steadfast in our support. As with principles discussed earlier in this series on human values, we start with a close circle and gradually and steadily extend our sphere of activity and influence as we gain strength in our practice.

Loyalty Does Not Mean Losing Critical Thinking

Feelings of loyalty to some people do not imply that we abandon others or that we turn a blind eye to needs or to indications of distress that we witness around us.  Loyalty does not mean that we agree 100% with the views or beliefs of another person. When we are loyal, we should not follow blindly nor engage in unethical behavior.  We can disagree profoundly but still practice loyalty by showing kindness and compassion.

But—and this is crucial—it does mean that we still show up to help others regardless of our disagreements or different lifestyle choices. In times like this, our hearts might open even more and we might feel a loyalty to all beings who are anxious and suffering.

Explaining Loyalty to Children

Most children develop a natural sense of loyalty to their close friends. But sometimes dilemmas result. What if a friend behaves wrongly or does something to harm himself or herself or others? Often children (and many adults) avoid confrontation and remain quiet out of loyalty to their friend.

Thus, it can be helpful to remind children that the best type of loyalty to a friend can be intervening to stop wrong behavior. We can explain that any person can make a wrong decision or choice, and that in those situations, speaking up is a way to be a good friend. Encourage children to express their misgivings or disagreement in a caring and friendly manner, and assure them that strong friendships can withstand small tests of loyalty.

Witnessing Loyalty at Work: A Pandemic Inspires

In today’s pandemic situation, we find wonderful examples of this core human value.  All over the globe, people are practicing loyalty in creative ways. People continue to show up for each other and be loyal to their families, friends, communities, workplaces, and nations. Grandparents read stories or teach kids to cook via FaceTime or other social media platforms.

People have marshaled resources and technology to provide shopping and delivery services for isolated elders in their communities. Others are reaching out to long-ignored family members or friends to check in and share love and memories. When we practice loyalty in these ways, we can reduce the feelings of loneliness that are on the rise due to the current situation.

Noticing and thinking about these examples can encourage us to reflect on our own loyalties. The crisis offers an opportunity to reset relationships. It can serve as a reminder to check in on family members, near and far. Perhaps we could make a special effort to video-call an elderly relative, offer to deliver groceries or medicine to a friend who is particularly stressed, or share tips on how to manage the low-level (or higher) anxiety that everyone is experiencing.

As quarantine restrictions lift in your area, visit favorite small businesses to show some support. Most people are feeling financial pain, but even if you don’t make a purchase, extend some friendly words and thank the workers for their presence.

Loyalty and Ethical Living

Image courtesy of Rigpawiki.org

The renowned Tibetan scholar and adept Mipam Rinpoche (Mipam Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso, 1846–1912) wrote a treatise on worldly and spiritual ethics titled The Jewel that Gathers Forth Divinities and Glory (lugs kyi bstan bcos lha dang dpal ’du ba’i nor bu).        

This text was aimed at both laypeople and monastic renunciates. In the introduction, Mipham made the point that worldly ethics are essential if one wishes to be a sincere practitioner of the Dharma. He wrote,


Having basic human ethics is the root of Dharma.
If one does not have even worldly level morality,
It is absolutely impossible to even uphold
The way of Dharma.
2http://aribhod.org/translation-publishing/mipham-jamyang-namgyal-gyatso/

Throughout the treatise, Mipham reminded readers that integrity and ethical behavior bring results in both current and future lives. He urges us to consider how others have helped us in the past:


Think to yourself,
“This one has benefited me In this and that way.”
Recognize that others have been kind to you and repay their kindness.
This is the doorway into the conduct of integrity.


Expanding Loyalty in the Conventional Modern World: Mindful Consumption

These days, the word loyalty often appears in the marketing sectors and in business planning proposals. We might speak of “brand loyalty” or participate in loyalty programs offered by our favorite coffee shops, retailers, airlines, digital service providers, and so on. Businesses spend millions of dollars developing reward programs and structuring methods to encourage customer loyalty.3O’Brien, Louise, and Jones, Charles, “Do Rewards Really Create Loyalty?”, Harvard Business Review, 1995 We can learn how to investigate our suppliers to try to be loyal to those organizations whose values we share.

Entrepreneurs and marketing executives compete for customer loyalty when they formulate messages to promote their brand values. They hope that we will identify with their positions (for example, free trade, organic, natural, ethically sourced) and turn to their brand out of loyalty to a shared ethos. When we wish to live ethically in the world, we can take the time to examine our own business interactions. As we purchase food, clothing, and other necessities, are we being loyal to companies or individuals who operate according to ethical codes we respect?

Practical Exercises To Build Loyalty

As you go about your daily life, think about people who have been helpful or good to you in the past. As you think of them, first mentally thank them and wish them happiness and well-being. Then take some concrete action to connect with them. This can be as simple as a text message or a quick call. Is there some small way you can thank them? Perhaps deliver groceries or medicine to an elderly relative or offer to take a pet for a walk. Ask people what they would most appreciate right now.

  1. We’re trying to build a habit, so start with something manageable. If a friend or coworker has helped you in the past, send a thank-you text or share a funny video. Mail a handwritten note and or draw a picture and send a photo of it if you can’t give it to the person directly. Remind people of what they have done for you and how much you appreciate that now.
  2. Extend a warm smile and sincere thank you to people in service industries. This small gesture can make a difference in a person’s day. Take an extra moment to express your appreciation for their loyal service.
  3. Make a special effort to check in on someone you haven’t seen or heard from in a long time. Share a funny story, a photo of a flower, or a brief clip of bird-song—anything to bring some beauty and joy into the other person’s life right now.

Share With Us

How do you demonstrate loyalty to family and friends? And how do you talk to your kids about loyalty? Share an experience or story with us in the comments section below!

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