Introduction to the Societal Human Values Series

Among his many achievements, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), who reigned 629-650 C.E., promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (Tib.: mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Thubten Jinpa 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 has frequently emphasized the importance of living respectfully in society. Therefore he encourages his students to memorize and internalize these sixteen points of conduct to establish a core foundation for our practice of Dharma. If we don’t hold this moral code well, any higher practices that we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit.

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

14. Not Being Influenced by Evil Companions (ngan pa’i gros la mi nyan zhing rang tshugs ‘dzin pa)

As social beings, we humans learn from those around us. And because we don’t have fixed, unchanging solidity as beings, we make choices. We can choose to follow our innate goodness. If we associate with loving, kind, and open-hearted people, we will naturally develop those qualities. When we acknowledge our basic goodness, we lean toward virtue and surround ourselves with others who share that view.

Conversely, if we choose to follow those who engage in negative habits, we often adopt the same behavior. And peer pressure can weigh heavily on us. For example, when we try to quit smoking it is much easier to choose not to smoke when we aren’t hanging out with other smokers. And that holds true for other habits, from addictions to anti-social behavior. As a king, Songsten Gampo warned his subjects of the dangers of bad friends. just as a parent often tells kids to stay away from troublemakers.

Avoiding Negative Company

According to Buddhist teachings, we tend to copy the physical and verbal actions of those around us. And we often adopt their values and mental attitudes; we think like our friends and companions. Moreover, even if we began with good character and intentions, we tend to lose our way if we associate with people of poor character. As one classic sutra explains,

Thus, if one befriends people who are fond of tainted activities, others will come to think of oneself as tainted as well. That is to say, one ought not keep negative company. Negative company leads to bondage in cyclic existence and birth in the realms of hell beings, starving spirits, and animals. Virtuous company, on the other hand, leads to supreme liberation.

When we retain our independence (the literal translation of the verb in the king’s axiom), we don’t feel the need to fit in and to go along with a crowd who may be engaging in unwholesome activities. And then we don’t slip into bad behavior out of habit.


Consider this advice carefully. Can you think of one (or perhaps several) situation(s) where you made a decision you now regret because you were influenced by others? Often when we are young and trying hard to make friends, or to be cool, we might act in ways that we regret deeply just a few years later. But if that happens, we have already shown some independence by recognizing our mistakes. We can choose to not follow the crowd, or to walk away from those who cause harm. However, when we make that choice, we can move on kindly and without hurting others to the extent that is possible. Sometimes we may need to firmly distance ourselves but often we can let ties dissolve more naturally.

When we are young and trying hard to make friends, we might act in ways that we regret deeply just a few years later.

Cultivating Virtuous Companions for Spiritual Growth

Sometimes we might have developed a romantic idea that early Buddhists were all lone yogis who followed a solitary path. But the Buddha valued healthy friendships. Most of us need companionship and support, especially as we decide to make changes in our lives. The Buddha taught often on the importance of relying on good, morally upright friends. In a discourse said to have been delivered in conversation with his personal attendant right before he passed away, he described such spiritual friendship:

Therefore, Ānanda, you should understand this in the following way alone. A virtuous spiritual friend, a virtuous companion, a virtuous support is the whole, the unadulterated, the complete, the pure, the totally purified holy life, but a non-virtuous spiritual friend, a non-virtuous companion, a non-virtuous support is not. Ānanda, you should train thinking in this way.

The Buddha taught often on the importance of relying on good, morally upright friends.

The Buddha’s parting advice then was to make strong bonds and rely on trustworthy people in order to make progress on the spiritual path. But we can also follow the same advice in our mundane lives. If we cultivate friendships and business relationships with honorable people we can confidently act in an ethical way. Phakchok Rinpoche often reminds students about keeping good company when he refers to a traditional metaphor,

It is said that if you place a normal piece of wood in a sandalwood forest, in time that normal piece of wood will begin to take on the sweet smell of sandalwood. In the same way, even if we are a normal person, if we associate with noble companions, we will naturally begin to give rise to the qualities of virtue and wisdom.

When we surround ourselves with those who embody great qualities, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow in healthy conditions. Although each of us is by nature pure and perfect, we don’t often recognize that. But if we rely on virtuous companions and share time with those who have more experience, we don’t need to work so hard! Instead of swimming again the tide, we can allow our noble friends to help carry us along. In these days of super-influencers, let’s all try to choose our influencers wisely!


Have you made conscious decisions to change your friends and associates in order to drop bad habits? What brought you to that decision? And how have you worked to cultivate new, more wholesome friendships?