The Buddhistic term “shanyou 善友, shanzhishi善知識originally meant “good friend” (Skt. kalyana-mitra), and later became “spiritual teacher”導師. The Concept of Kalyana-mitra has three aspects, including 1) the teacher or mentor of the Buddha-dharma and 2) the fellow practitioner or collaborater, finally, 3) the supporter or assistant. In the history of Buddhism, the concept of spiritual friend is quite common from the early Sutras and the Abhidharma to Mahayana texts.
In this paper, I would like to clarify the concept of “spiritual friends” as found in the Saddharmapundarika-sutra, particularly in Chapter XII Devadatta (提婆達多品第十二, Stupasamdarsana 〈11〉 devadatta) and Chapter XXVII Ancient Accounts of King Subhavyuha (妙荘厳王本事品第二十七, Subhavyuharajapurvayoga 〈25〉). There are two stories about spiritual friends: One is the famous episode in which ill-reputed Devadatta received his prediction of becoming a Buddha in the future (Ch. XII); the other is about a good family with two sons who converted their father to Buddhism (Ch. XXVII).
An examination of these stories shows that the spiritual friend in the Saddharmapundarika-sutra is first and foremost Cakyamuni Buddha, the “Great Friend”, and secondly the person who propagates this Sutra. They are true successors of the Dharma in the Sutra.