Justin Whitaker has made a second defence of the Sigālovāda Sutta, and it’s time for another response on my end. As a recap, we are debating the value of the Sigālovāda as a guide to lay Buddhist ethics: I do not find it a good guide, he does, and we’ve had a round of back-and-forth over this
I think Justin’s latest comment on the topic is very perceptive, and it pushes the points at which my own take on Buddhism is a reinterpretation, a departure from the classical Pali suttas – for the advice offered by the Sigālovāda is in keeping with the tenor of advice offered in many other such suttas. I’d like to follow up in a couple of ways, among them to ask about how much Justin’s own view might be such as well.
Perhaps now, in your life, drinking and staying out late are trustworthy bringers of joy. The Sigālovāda sutta doesn’t seem to be unique among Buddhist teachings in suggesting this won’t last, or that other pursuits would be better uses of your time, should you wish to be a noble disciple.
With something like alcohol, I’d agree that moderation isn’t the goal. But, as many Buddhists have interpreted it (and I’d agree), moderation is an excellent step for many people (a step in the direction of elimination).
Jumping to becoming a monastic would be too drastic a step for the vast majority of us (and many who jump into too quickly disrobe). So I would never advise someone who has lost trust in worldly pleasures to jump into that. There is so much more nuance in individual lives – perhaps, for instance, they are deeply depressed and that is why they do not get pleasure from worldly things. This would be no reason to become a monk.
I agree with Justin that the Sigālovāda is not at all unique in criticizing worldly pleasures like staying out late and going to the theatre. It is a general theme throughout the suttas that all the joys of worldly life are fleeting and therefore unsatisfactory; for that reason, the suttas claim, the life of a monk is better, and something we should all aspire to. Household life of the sort described in the Sigālovāda Sutta is a consolation prize, for the majority of people who aren’t good enough to be monks; most likely they don’t have the discipline, but it could also be (as Justin says) that they have so many mental problems that a turn to monasticism would be merely as an escape and therefore actually harmful. But either way, being a monk is always the ideal goal, for anyone who has got things together enough to do so.
I’m not sure we disagree on that interpretation of the suttas. But here’s the thing. I think that the suttas’ view, as just described, is not a good way to think about lay life – and I have a suspicion that Justin might think so too.
Over a decade ago, before I started calling myself a Buddhist, I talked on LoAW about my decision to get married, and how I disagreed with the suttas that that path of marriage was a lesser path for weaker people. Years later I came to call myself Buddhist, for reasons I’ve discussed before, but in a way that did not dissuade me from my earlier beliefs – key among those beliefs being a belief that worldly goods are goods in themselves. The goods of aesthetic pleasure, justice, familial love all have a value in themselves, distinct from their ability to contribute to suttas’ goal of reducing suffering – a value that is not erased by their impermanence.
I am at odds with many suttas, not merely the Sigālovāda, when I say this. I recognize that. It’s a reason I have drawn some inspiration from kammatic Buddhism, like that of the Mahāvaṃsa, in which the devaluation of worldly pleasures fades into the background. But I think it’s important to do, because classical Buddhism does value seeing correctly, and I do not think we see correctly if we treat worldly goods as worthless.
I do deeply admire monks and see something in them that is worthy of emulation, even for those of us who have rejected their path. I think the path of the monk is a good one to take for those who already place such a high value on self-cultivation that it transcends other values. And for the rest of us, the intense discipline that is monkhood is a reminder that we can always be pushing harder and further to better ourselves. In my post defending worldly life I followed Amber Carpenter in describing my position as Nietzschean – and in the third book of the Genealogy, Nietzsche himself discusses his admiration for asceticism as self-mastery. For these reasons I think it is worth our having śraddhā toward monks, and expressing that śraddhā with donations where possible. But I don’t think that any of that necessarily implies that the household life is a lesser path than the higher monastic goal, or that the goods of worldly life are superseded by a monastic pursuit of the reduction of suffering.
And I suspect Justin may, at heart, take a similar view to mine. For I notice that he has taken one step further into worldly life than I have, and had children. When the Buddha himself found out he had a son, he proclaimed “a fetter is arisen”, and named the boy Rāhula, “fetter”. To have children, the Buddha made clear, was something holding him back, a hurdle in the way of his path to liberation. By the standards of the suttas, Justin has intentionally fettered himself.
So here’s my challenge to Justin: did you yourself take up your household life, with spouse and children, merely because you weren’t ready in this life for the drastic step of monkhood? Do you view your family life as a lesser path, one in which you follow a moderation toward worldly goods because you sadly could not bring yourself all the way to their elimination?
I suspect that the answer is no. I’m prepared to be wrong about that: if the answer turned out to be yes, I’d be impressed, and would love to hear a spirited defence of such a view, as I think it runs deeply against our typical Western conceptions of familyhood as constitutively good. Disagreement over the Sigālovāda proper would fade into the background of that deeper question. But if the answer is indeed no, then I think we are back on the grounds of my original critique of the Sigālovāda: the aesthetic pleasure of a theatrical show, like familial love, is something good in itself. And we should not take the suttas’ advice to reduce, let alone eliminate, the presence of either one.
Charles Nuckles said:
I’m sorry that I’m late to this debate. I apologize if you have already addressed this. I would offer the Vilmalakirti Suttra as a strong position on why aspiring to be a Bodhisattva ranks
above being a monk.
Amod Lele said:
Sorry for the delay, Charles. I should get more familiar with the Vimalakīrti than I am, but here I’ll note that Justin and I are working within a Theravāda framework – the Pali texts – where the goal is one’s own liberation. Mahāyāna sūtras are starting from different presuppositions, in which the household life may be embraced as an expedient means to save other beings.
Justin Whitaker said:
Hi Amod, et al!
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate and happy holidays. I’m sneaking away from the joyful voices of 3 generations of Whitakers to enjoy the worldly activity of pondering the Dharma via the words of a wise friend many miles away (thank you, internet and wifi and all of the other things that make such worldly joys possible).
I’m working on a longer response, hopefully to be published before the new year. But a couple initial thoughts as I untangle the mind-webs:
A theme here is the monastic/lay divide. Amod, you seem to treat this more as a strict binary than I do. Yes, certainly monastic life is generally “better.” I agree. But within lay life there is a wide spectrum of good lives and better lives and so-so lives that we can fruitfully explore. The same goes with monastic life. In fact, as Charles notes in his comment, there may be paths better than monastic life in some texts. And, as we find when living in monasteries, there is a whole spectrum of monastic lives/duties/callings. There are monastics who are quite difficult and unkind people with little skill in meditation or understandings of the teachings. There are monastics who get addicted to alcohol and sex with students and cause great harm, harm made more destructive to themselves and the world precisely because they are monastics.
So, even given the abstract “ideal” of monastic life being better – in reality we must recognize spectrums of moral placement and progress and goodness.
“The goods of aesthetic pleasure, justice, familial love all have a value in themselves, distinct from their ability to contribute to suttas’ goal of reducing suffering – a value that is not erased by their impermanence.”
This is an interesting claim in itself and one that finds support among Western philosophers. But I don’t think it hangs well within a Buddhist moral or philosophical framework, and you seem aware and okay with this. However, there are texts that will promote these things in particular times and places – not as having “value in themselves” though in any rigorous philosophical way.
For me, the family life has value as part of the path. The family path is indeed in general below that of the monastic; but the virtues found in monasticism can be found and practiced in family life. Indeed, reiterating what I’ve said above, I would argue that a person who does well as a parent and citizen can accrue greater virtue and merit than a monastic who is ill-fitted for their duties, unhappy, and/or unkind.
So I agree when you say, “But I don’t think that any of that necessarily implies that the household life is a lesser path than the higher monastic goal, or that the goods of worldly life are superseded by a monastic pursuit of the reduction of suffering.”
But I think it’s because I’m approaching things a bit differently than you are; I don’t see quite the binary between these two in practice (in theory or as ideals, yes, the two are often clearly differentiated, but in the wider Buddhist dispensation, the picture is more complicated).
To your questions: did I feel unready for monastic life in this lifetime? I think an honest answer is yes. I pondered monastic life in my 20s and as a grad student sometimes lived something approaching the ideal of solitary study and practice of the Dharma. But I did also find myself drawn into friendships, occasional alcohol, and romance. And there was joy in those. And I met and got to know a number of monastics from different traditions and while there was certainly joy and serenity in them, there were also many stories of struggle, hardship, abuse, and failure.
Do I see my family life as a lesser path? No. Not for me. I was and am fairly good at being a partner and now a father. I’ve managed to land a very fortunate householder job, working for a Buddhist publication. Insofar as I modestly help spread the Dharma, I’m doing what in the Buddha’s time was pretty exclusively a job (and great source of merit) for monastics.
Hence my appreciation of the Sigālovāda sutta (https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/sitting-with-sigala-a-modern-laypersonrsquos-buddhist-ethics/). As I noted, when we ponder the spirit of the teaching, we find that it is one of living the best life, in terms of the wide Buddhist path, as one can. Sigāla is instructed to live a lay life by the Buddha. The Buddha doesn’t tell him, “If you want to honor your father, you should join my sangha as a monastic because that alone is the best path.” No. He gives direction to the young man fitting to him. Such is the skillful means of the Buddha and of great teachers ever since.
A question for you, then, is “in teaching Sigāla to be a good householder, did the Buddha betray the Buddha’s own teachings?”
For me the answer is no. For, while in theory the monastic life is best, in practice the wiser teaching is what is appropriate to the listener given his/her context.
Since most of the Buddha’s teachings are to monastics, it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of teachings extoling the monastic life. And I’ll reiterate that in the abstract sense, monasticism remains a better ideal. But throughout the suttas and the later Buddhist tradition, there have been countless teachings to laypeople about how simply to be better laypeople. And sometimes being better means giving up certain worldly joys, e.g. staying out late drinking to create time and space for other (worldly?) joys, e.g. playing with one’s child or discussing the Dharma with a friend on the internet. And, given the importance of context, you might note that in 5th century BCE India, alcohol was probably relatively unsafe (there have been mass-poisonings and deaths due to corrupted alcohol in India in even recent years), and staying out late, too, could lead to being robbed and killed. So, you might say, the Buddha wouldn’t have such a problem with them today – in moderation.
My sense though, is that as we age these things become more and more difficult. My older, wiser non-Buddhist friends drink far less and retire for sleep far earlier over time. Similarly, my impression of older people who still drink a lot and stay up late is that they are not living their best life. As such, the total elimination of these things might happen naturally even without guidance such as the Buddha’s.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Justin. I have thoughts but if you’re working on a more detailed response then perhaps I will wait for that.
Justin Whitaker said:
I think what I wrote above is the most direct response – while what I ended up publishing at Buddhistdoor was more tangential and in the sphere of the broader conversation going back to our earlier posts on the Sigālovāda sutta and then my review of Douglass Smith’s book on the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta, another text with ethical advice to laypeople.
Amod Lele said:
Sounds good. I started on a new post series so I will run that for the next little while, and then turn back to your comments. Thanks!
I wonder how the Sigālovāda Sutta is read in Japan, given the blurring between monastic and lay life there.
For example, Richard M. Jaffe on “Clerical Marriage in Japan”: “Since at least the time of Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of the True Pure Land denomination (Jodo Shinshu), clerical followers of Shinran have openly married and, frequently, passed on their temples from father to son. … Clerical marriage became open and temple families general among all denominations of Japanese Buddhism following the state’s decriminalization of clerical marriage in 1872. Although bitterly resisted for decades by the leaders of many non-Shin denominations, proponents of the practice advocated allowing clerical marriage and temple families as the best way to create a vigorous Buddhism capable of competing with the family-centered Protestantism, with its married ministers, that was making headway in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Despite opposition from many Buddhist leaders, clerical marriage proved popular, spreading to the majority of clerics in most denominations of monastic Buddhism by the late 1930s.”
For many, monkhood in post-Meiji Japan seems not to be separated from household life except during a training period, and family life not to be a lesser path.
Amod Lele said:
Good question and good point! No idea how Japanese people view the sūtra, or whether it’s at all prominent there. But yeah, they do seem to embrace a nonduality between monastic and household life.