Buddhism is sometimes presented as a religion interested in personal salvation only, without any considerations for the welfare of the society in general. This opinion was promoted, among others, by German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber. Thus, in his book “The Religion of India” he writes in relation to Buddhist ideal of liberation:
Salvation is an absolutely personal performance of the self-reliant individual. No one and particularly no social community can help him. The specific asocial character of genuine mysticism is here carried to its maximum.1
Obviously, this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, since there are number of texts in the Pali Canon which clearly negate this clam. One, but very important among them is Sigālovāda Sutta, an important text on lay ethics and social responsibility. There the Buddha expounds the whole code of domestic and social duties of a layman according to the Buddhist point of view. Due to the universal value and application of this sutta, it was one of the earliest translations of some sutta into English.2
In general, the logic of the Buddha’s social ethics as embodied in the Sutta is what is later called “the golden rule”: one should do to others what one wishes others to do to oneself, one should treat others as one treats oneself. This view was also promoted in Veludvareyya Sutta (SN 55:7). Sigālovāda Sutta was also described by Ven. Buddhaghosa as the Vinaya or code of discipline of lay people:
Nothing in the duties of a householder is left unmentioned. This sutta is called the Vinaya of the householder. Hence in one who practices what he has been taught in it, growth is to be looked for, not decay.3
Similar moral instructions can be found scattered in other parts of the Sutta Piṭaka, in the Buddha’s discourses, but also in the Jātakas. There, the ethical standards were given as recommendations, not as disciplinary rules enforced with authority, as is the case with the Vinaya of the monks.
Sigālovāda Sutta starts and closes with six directions:
- East = parents
- South = teachers
- West = wife and children
- North = friends and colleagues
- Nadir = workers and servants
- Zenit = ascetics and brahmins
Thus, the whole code of personal and social responsibilities is covered. Personal are the first three and social the last three: friends, workers and ascetics. But since the family is the smallest unit of the society, harmony in the family greatly contribute to the social harmony too.
It is interesting to note that in the introduction to his translation of the SIgālovāda Sutta, T. W. Rhys Davids notes that Atharva Veda (III, 26, 27) identifies each direction with a god: Agni, Indra, Varuṇa, Soma, Viṣṇu and Bṛhaspati, as their guardians. And here in the sutta we see the same strategy the Buddha applied so many times elswhere, asigning ethical value to the most of the mythological or traditional concepts of his time.
At the beginning of the text, the Buddha comes across Sigāla, worshipping the six directions according to his father’s wish at the death bed. The Buddha counsels him that there is a better way to serve the directions: by proper actions towards six types of persons. But before describing these appropriate actions, he first teaches Sigāla the proper way for a lay person to conduct himself in general. He should: keep the precepts; not act from partiality, enmity, stupidity or fear; and avoid the six channels of dissipating wealth.
The Buddha then outlines how the six ‘directions’ are to be ‘protected’, so as to produce harmonious social relationships.
Parents and Children
The first relationship dealt with is the child–parent one, with the parent seen as in the direction of the rising sun. Such respect and support for parents is also emphasized in the Maṇgala Sutta:
Aid for mother and father,
And support for wife and children,
Work that is free from upset:
This is a supreme blessing.
The Sutta affirms the principle that parents only win the honor and respect of children by their kindly help to them. While the law of karma ensures that children get the parents they deserve (and parents get the children they deserve), it is said that the way that a child can repay the debt of gratitude owed to his or her parents for caring for him or her in pregnancy and childhood is by getting them to develop or deepen a commitment to Buddhism and a virtuous life. Also, for example, in Sri Lanka, it is held that ‘the mother is the Buddha at home’, in the sense that she is owed great respect for what she has done for her children.
In East Asia, such practice of Buddhists was possibly influenced by the Confucian ethics, which sees filial piety as the foundation of ethics, and the family head as in a strong position of authority over its members. It is noticeable that one Chinese translation of the Sigālovāda Sutta gives one of the child’s duties as ‘not to disobey the commandments of the parents’.
Husband and wife form the basic social unit. One is not subordinate to the other. In the ideal case, their relationship is a union brought about by love, understanding and mutual trust. According to the Sutta, they are interdependent, which is a quite different standard compared to the patriarchal family concept that dominated ancient Indian society. Each has his or her own rights and duties through which their lives become meaningful. Thus they are in a better position to face all the difficulties of life with more understanding.
Both parties have a balanced range of mutual obligations. A wife as the western direction is respected by a husband: honoring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and giving gifts. On the other hand, the wife so respected gives back with compassion in five ways, being: well-organized, kindly disposed to the in-laws and household workers, faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skillful and diligent in all duties.
In Uggaha Sutta (AN 5:33) the Buddha, when asked to advise a man’s daughters on how to conduct themselves in marriage, says that a woman should train herself as follows. (1) Regarding her husband ‘she gets up before him, retires after him, willingly does what he asks, is lovely in her ways and gentle in speech’, not being one to anger him; (2) honors all whom her husband respects, whether relative, monk or brahmin; (3) she is skillful in crafts, such as weaving; (4) watches over servants and workers with care and kindness; and finally (5) looks after the wealth her husband brings home.
As referred to in early Buddhist texts, marriages were generally, but not always, arranged, and the parents are seen as arranging a marriage out of love for their daughter.
While Buddhism has no objection in principle to divorce, it is not a frequent event in Theravada Buddhist countries, mainly because of social pressures against it. Traditionally, Buddhism held celibate monasticism in the highest regard, but it has also seen family life as suitable for those who cannot commit themselves to celibacy, and as an opportunity for many worthwhile qualities to be nurtured.
Buddhism greatly values social harmony and cohesion, as it is seen by the value it attributes to the five ‘foundations of social unity’ (Pali saṅgaha-vatthu), as found in the Sigālovāda Sutta:
1. giving (dāna)
2. kindly speech (piya-vācā)
3. helpful action (attha-cariyā)
4. impartial treatment and equal participation (samānattatā) and
5. honesty (avisaṃvādanatā).
Also the good for oneself and for others is seen as closely inter-twined:
How, monks, guarding oneself, does one guard others? By practice, by development, by continuous exercise… And how, monks, guarding others, does one guard oneself? By tolerance, by nonviolence, by having a mind full of lovingkindness, by care.4
Foundations of the social ethics
After careful reading of Sigālovāda Sutta, it can be concluded that it promotes the following foundations of the Buddhist social ethics:
1. The avoidance of the four vices of conduct (corresponding to the first four of the Five Precepts).
2. Doing no evil out of the four prejudices that are caused by greed, hatred, delusion, and fear.
3. Not following the six ways of squandering wealth, viz., addiction to intoxicants, roaming the streets at unseemly hours, frequenting shows, indulgence in gambling, association with bad companions, and the habit of idleness.
4. Knowledge of how to distinguish among the four false friends, viz., the out-and-out robber, the man who pays lip service, the flatterer, and the leader to destruction, and the four true friends, viz., the helper, the man who is the same in weal and woe, the good counselor, and the sympathizer.
5. The amassing of wealth and the fourfold division of money into one part for living and doing duties toward others, two parts for business, and one part for time of need.
6. The covering of the six quarters of human relationships and their attendant mutual responsibilities, viz., child–parent, pupil–teacher, husband–wife, friend–friend, servants and workmen–master or employer, monk–layman.
7. The four bases of social harmony, viz., giving, kindly words, life of service, and impartial treatment and participation.
What is worthy of special notice in the Sutta is frequent mention the Buddha made of friendship and association. In the Sigālovāda sutta alone friendship and association can be found at least five times: association with bad companions as a way of squandering wealth, how to distinguish between false and true friends, the friend–friend relationship, the ways the monks and priests show their love for lay people, and the four bases of social harmony. The theme of association with good friends and of a good social environment generally occupies a very important place in Buddhist ethics, both at the mundane social level and at the level of spiritual endeavor for individual perfection (kalyāna mitta).
Thus, friendship is the model for social harmony in the mundane sphere and the model for spiritual encouragement of the laity by the monks in the spiritual sphere. In Buddhist ethics everyone is a friend, meaning that everyone should be treated as a friend.
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2016): The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom Publications.
Bhikkhu Payutto (2007): Vision of the Dhamma.
Harvey, Peter (2000): An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press.
Ling, Trevor (2013): The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism, 2nd ed., Pariyatti Press.
Nārada Thera (2006): Everyman’s Ethics: Four Discourse of the Buddha, Kandy, BPS.
Weber, Max (1958): The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (transl. H. Gerth), The Free Press.