The Sigālovāda Sutta might be my least favourite sutta in the Pali Canon.
There is relatively little that the Pali texts say on “ethics” in a modern Western sense of interpersonal action-guiding; much of the specific instructions on action are found in vinaya, legal texts for the conduct of monks. The Sigālovāda is relatively unusual in providing guidance for action to lay householders. For that reason, a number of secondary writers on Buddhist ethics regard it as as a valuable guide for Buddhist ethical conduct.
I do not.
I recognize that the Sigālovāda is in the scriptures and therefore should not just be wished away: for those of us who have faith in a tradition, it is important to wrestle with what we find most unappealing, because that can be what we learn the most from. Yet that faith should not be blind; we should not simply swallow the tradition’s words whole irrespective of what we have learned in other areas of life. To act in that latter way is to be a fundamentalist, in a way that I think does justice to both the self-identified and the pejorative senses of that word. I think it is important to keep some distance from the scriptures that portray an unscientific worldview (this is where Bultmann is helpful), and likewise from those that recommend inferior treatment for women or for queer or trans people. In my view, the Sigālovāda is in a similar category of works not to be taken as direct advice without heavy reinterpretation.
I say this because the Sigālovāda’s recommended lifestyle seems to me like a vicious mean. The Sigālovāda’s householder is not a monk, and therefore deprives himself of the deep and intense opportunities for self-cultivation that are available to a monk. That much seems reasonable: most of us see value in pursuits of life that are not monastic, and so there’s appeal in pursuing a kammatic Buddhism that recognizes the non-monastic life as valuable.
The problem with the Sigālovāda is that it strips that life, the household life, of a great deal of its value! I look at the life described there and I think: what does this life have to recommend itself over being a monk? Some of the sutta’s prohibitions are understandable: on gambling, for example. And while I don’t follow its prohibition on alcohol, that prohibition is found in plenty of other places. But the Sigālovāda also tells one not to sleep even until sunrise, let alone afterwards. And most alarmingly, it also includes a prohibition on “frequenting theatrical shows”.
There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in frequenting theatrical shows. He is ever thinking: where is there dancing? where is there singing? where is there music? where is there recitation? where is there playing with cymbals? where is there pot-blowing?
The reasoning here is understandable: if you take pleasure in singing and dancing and music, you will want to do more of it, and that will preoccupy your thoughts in a way that can lead to craving. That is perhaps in the nature of any pleasure: whatever enjoyable thing one does, the pleasure typically leads one to want more of it. So, given that suffering comes from craving, there is some reason to treat pleasures and enjoyments as suspect.
I understand and even sympathize with that chain of reasoning. But, if one is going to follow it through to its conclusion, it seems to me that one needs to renounce and become a monk. If one really is going to avoid worldly pleasures – not even drinking and gambling, but simple music and theatre – on the grounds that they lead to more craving, then what benefits in the household life are even left? (The Sigālovāda itself does not cast particular suspicion on the satisfactions of having children, but there are other places in the Canon that do: most notably, when the Buddha had a son, he named him Rāhula, “fetter”.) It seems to me that one should fish or cut bait, so to speak. If one is really ready to treat all pleasures as suspect, one should become a monk; if one is not willing to go all that way, one needs a life that makes room for pleasures like dancing and theatre.
H.L. Seneviratne, in his excellent The Work of Kings, notes how monks in colonial Sri Lanka elevated the Sigālovāda Sutta to a higher status in the canon than it had previously had. They performed a similar elevation on the Five Precepts, one that is visible in our modern tendency to include the Five Precepts in most introductions to Buddhism even though they are encountered less frequently in the suttas than the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. These elevations occurred for a very specific reason: these monks were Victorian men who had absorbed the ideals of their Victorian English colonial occupiers. And the austere moral discipline of the Sigālovāda, with its sustained attacks on “idleness”, fit the work-obsessed Victorian worldview like a glove. One could even argue that the Sigālovāda’s attacks on the theatre allowed the monks to one-up Victorian prudery, taking it one step further than the English Victorians themselves would go. The brilliance of the Sigālovāda in this context was that it did not go the next step beyond that, and advocate traditional Buddhist monasticism! That would not do, for monks, in addition to reeking of popery, are not productive, not industrious. As Thomas Tweed noted (and as I discuss at more length in my Disengaged Buddhism article), the Victorians considered the world’s Buddhist places to be “asleep”, lacking “energy”, for their citizens did not allowing the emerging global capitalism to make sufficient use of their labour power. By Victorian standards, the Sigālovāda’s mean was the virtuous one: between the indolence of the idle gambler on one hand, and the indolence of the unproductive monk on the other.
Fortunately, however, we are now over a century away from the Victorian era. We are able to ask: what was all that hard work for? We can note with Hägglund that selling our labour power is in the realm of necessity rather than the realm of freedom; industriousness is a means, not an end. So what are the ends? The removal of suffering is a worthy end in and of itself, and if it is the only end that we seek, then the right option is monasticism. But if we do seek other ends – as I think is a good idea – then those other ends should include aesthetic pleasures like those of music and theatre.