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The Buddhist Code of Discipline for Householders: An Online Discussion with Buddhist Scholars

Photo by Dipen Barua
Photo by Dipen Barua

Our householder lives have been disrupted severely since the outbreak of COVID-19. In an attempt to highlight the practical aspects of the formation of household life, three Buddhist scholars, Professor Venerable Gyanaratna Mahathera (chairman of the Department of Pali of the University of Chittagong, Bangladesh), Ven. Dr. Amrita Nanda (lecturer at the Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong), and Ven. Dr. Sharanapal Mahathera (chaplain at the University of Toronto) on 27 May participated in an online discussion about the Sigalovada Sutta (The Discourse to Sigala).

I was privileged to host this discussion on Buddhist TV Online, an organ of the Buddhist Co-operative Credit Union in Bangladesh, as the first in a series of online talks on Buddhist texts with scholars, writers, monks, and householders. The theme of the discussion was “insight”—knowing the unknown, understanding truth, and analyzing subtle reality. Finally, it means developing knowledge about oneself.

The Sigalovada Sutta is in the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) of the Pali Canon. It is regarded as a Buddhist code of discipline for householders. When living a worldly life, orthodox Buddhist scholars believe that it is possible to build a better home as well as spiritual life by following the advice of this sutta.

According to the sutta, while the Buddha was staying at Rajagriha, an ancient city in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, he saw the householder Sigala saluting the six directions: East, South, West, North, down toward the Earth and upward to the sky. When asked by the Buddha why he did so, Sigala replied that he had been told by his father on his deathbed to do so, and he thought that it was right to uphold his father’s wishes. The Buddha then taught Sigala how a noble one should greet the six directions.

The Buddha first described 14 unwholesome things that should be avoided by a householder. Among them, are six kinds of bad habits that cause the squandering of wealth: indulging in drugs, wandering the streets at inappropriate times, frequenting dancing venues, compulsive gambling, associating with sinners, and laziness.  

As a result of indulging in drugs, wealth is destroyed, quarrels increase, diseases arise, notoriety spreads, anger grows in the minds of people, and the knowledge of doing good things decreases. As a result of traveling on the road at an inopportune time, one cannot keep secrets about family issues due to one’s own negligence. Such secrets are revealed to other people. Once becomes always afraid because the secret is not private, and many more forms of misery follow.

Photo by Dipen Barua
Photo by Dipen Barua

Those attached to going to dances and gatherings are always anxious about entertainment and frivolous distractions. When gamblers win, emnity inevitably arises, and when they lose, direct consequences such as remorse, loss of wealth, family abandonment, and social rejection follow. People harm themselves by associating with sinners, who are cunning, intoxicated, destitute, deceitful, and rogueish. The lazy do not work on time and seek to justify their sloth, leaving their duties incomplete.

The sutta then turns to righteous householders, noting that they refrain from killing animals, stealing, lying, and spreading gossip. They renounce sinful deeds by mastering their envy, fear, and attachment. Instead, they are good friends: the one who benefits others is a friend, the one who shares joy and sorrow is a friend, the one who behaves with goodness or gives good advice is a friend.

Then the Buddha directly approaches the subject of the six directions of household duties: parents are symbolically the East, teachers are the South, wife and son are the West, friends or relatives at the North, servants are down below and religious teachers or monastics are up above.

Parents, the Buddha said, deserve the care of their children. Hence, the filial duties of children are to support their mother and father, maintain the dignity of the family, follow parental advice, have children to inherit property, and do virtuous deeds that can be dedicated to the parents for their pleasant afterlife. In turn, parents should be compassionate to sons and daughters, assist them when they make mistakes, encourage them when they do good deeds, provide them with the right education, help them marry, and give them family property to inherit at an appropriate age.

Photo by Dipen Barua
Photo by Dipen Barua

The duties of the student towards the teacher are to sit politely in front of the teacher, arise modestly, to care for the teacher, obey the teacher’s requests, listen carefully to the teacher’s advice, and study rigorously. The teachers must also treat each student with compassion, teach courtesy, be a good mentor, impart all appropriate knowledge, recommend the right kinds of friends to the student, and protect the student from all dangers.

The husband’s duty to his wife is to protect her, perform his duties in her honor, refrain from behaving with contempt against her, love her without being attached to another’s wife, give her authority over the household, and provide her with plentiful gifts. The duties of the wife towards the husband are to perform duties for the husband, take good care of the family, be attached to her husband without desiring other men, be careful so as not to waste her husband’s wealth, and fulfil her duties to a high standard.

In regards to duties towards friends and relatives, it is important to provide help in times of danger, speak kindly to them, keep them on the path of doing good deeds, show deep sympathy towards them, and treat them with simplicity and generosity. In return, they also should show kindness in the following ways: when a friend goes astray, friends and relatives try to protect him, provide advice on protecting wealth, and give him shelter. They do not leave a friend in times of danger, and respect everyone else in his family.

The duties of the householder towards the servant are as follows: the employer has to assign work according to the servant’s ability, pay a fair wage, give sick leave, and give them the best food during the holidays. In return, the servant must also be loyal to the landlord by waking up first and sleeping after the householder. Theft is to be avoided, work is to be done attentively, and the employer should be shown respect.

The duty to religious teachers or monastics is of paramount importance. They have to be treated with devotion, given food and clothing with open hearts, and revered and respected. We are expected to listen to their religious discourses. In return, religious teachers or monastics have to perform their duty towards the householder: it is householders that need spiritual support, so monks will advise them to engage in good works, reflect on virtue, correct errors, and follow the way to a good rebirth.

Based on the above teachings, the panel discussed the domestic and social duties of an average person, gender equality, the contribution of men and women to society, how to lead a meaningful religious life, and make good friends. More broadly, globalization and its impact on family ties and the current economic system were discussed. It is worth noting that the Sigalovada Sutta suggests dividing the acquired wealth into four parts: one to enjoy personally, two to invest, and one to save for the future.

I found the discussion was full of inspiration for lay Buddhists. I believe that if a householder practices the code of disciple as presented in the Sigalovada Sutta, he will lead a very meaningdul life attuned to the Dharma. That is what Ven. Bodhiratna Bhikkhu observed about this conversation as a whole: “Very timely issues are being discussed,” he had said. “Hopefully those who are listening will understand at least a little bit about the Buddhist practice of household life.”

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