I return now to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker about the Sigālovāda Sutta, the Pali text so often viewed as a guide to the household life. Justin helpfully begins his latest post with a list of the previous correspondence we have exchanged on the topic so far, so I won’t repeat the list here. (The opening list unfortunately doesn’t include hyperlinks to the earlier posts, but those links can be found at the bottom of the latest post.)

From my previous post on the more general philosophical issues, I think we can now return to the sutta itself. Justin is correct that I read the Sigālovāda Sutta as “an overly strict and dour text that sucks the joy out of householder life”. He claims that this is a misreading. Is it? Let us take a look at the feature of the Sigālovāda that most leads me to such a reading: what I characterize as its prohibition on attending theatrical shows. I will examine that prohibition in detail this time, and next time talk about we do with it as Buddhist theologians – a topic that I find more interesting. (Since Justin and I have been pursuing this debate at a slow pace, I will post the next one on my usual schedule in two weeks, and I recommend he wait for it before posting a reply.)

I will start with a point about reinterpretation, which will be relevant again next time. I think it is important to head off a confusion here between exegetical and constructive analysis. The focus of my next post will be constructive – about how we as Buddhists should apply these passages now – but this one is just exegetical, about the meaning of the text itself. Justin says “Later, Lele agrees that I’ve pushed the point that he is reinterpreting the sutta, referring to this post. I’m not quite sure what Justin means by this sentence; it sounds like he means that I agreed that I was “reinterpreting the sutta”. That is not true, and if you read the post) you will see that I did not say that. I said that “my own take on Buddhism is a reinterpretation, a departure from the classical Pali suttas”. That is to say, my constructive take on Buddhism in general is a reinterpretation, in that there are points where I openly admit disagreeing with what many of the classical sutta themselves say. (I’ll say more about this point’s implications next time.) I think Justin disagrees with classical Buddhism, and reinterprets it in this constructive sense, at least as much as I do; the question may be how much we’re ready to admit it.

What I have not been doing is reinterpreting the Sigālovāda Sutta itself, and I never claimed to be. At least, not beyond a very basic (and in this case trivial) sense that every interpretation is a reinterpretation by virtue of putting things in words that hadn’t been used before. I am presenting what the sutta actually does say, in a way aiming to be as faithful as I can be to the original text and its authors; I reinterpret the tradition by leaving the sutta out of the tradition as I take it. It is Justin who I think is reinterpreting the sutta, as I said before. I hope it was clear that my previous title, “Reinterpreting the Sigālovāda’s prohibition on theatre“, was referring to what I thought Justin was doing – because, as I said there, that is a departure from what the sutta actually says.

Here’s what I mean by “what the sutta actually says”:

inasmuch as the noble disciple is not led by desire, anger, ignorance, and fear, he commits no evil…. What are the six channels for dissipating wealth which he does not pursue? Indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness; sauntering in streets at unseemly hours; frequenting theatrical shows…
There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in frequenting theatrical shows. He is ever thinking:
(i) where is there dancing?
(ii) where is there singing?
(iii) where is there music?
(iv) where is there recitation?
(v) where is there playing with cymbals?
(vi) where is there pot-blowing?…
In four ways, young householder, should one who brings ruin be understood as a foe in the guise of a friend:
(i) he is a companion in indulging in intoxicants that cause infatuation and heedlessness,
(ii) he is a companion in sauntering in streets at unseemly hours,
(iii) he is a companion in frequenting theatrical shows,
(iv) he is a companion in indulging in gambling which causes heedlessness.

I’m quoting Narada Thera’s online translation; if Justin thinks there’s anything wrong with that translation I’m happy to use another or refer back to the Pali. These passages are why I think the text prohibits theatre. Justin refers to this as my “reading quite literally”.

I’m not clear what the alternative to “reading quite literally” is supposed to be in this context. Are we to take these passages as a metaphor or similar figure of speech? Are we to understand that when the sutta says that the noble disciple does not frequent theatrical shows, that frequenting theatrical shows has six evil consequences, and that to be a companion at theatrical shows is to bring ruin as a foe in the guise of a friend, it means something else? (Justin, you do agree that it says all of these things, right? That these phrases are there in the text of the sutta?) If so, what exactly would these passages mean instead, and why would we think that that the sutta means that other thing instead of taking the simpler interpretation that the sutta actually means what it says?

The greatest non sequitur in Justin’s post is to say my interpretation is somehow “not traditional” because “theater exists and has existed in relatively conservative Theravāda countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand…” Uh, sure. Theatre existed in the time the sutta was composed as well: that’s how the sutta can tell you not to go there! If theatre hadn’t existed, there would be no need for a prohibition on it. (Thus the sutta includes no prohibition on spending one’s days at home playing video games: since there were no such games when it was composed, there was nothing to prohibit.) Some other things that also exist and have existed in some or all of those “relatively conservative Theravāda countries”: the capitalist pursuit of excesses of wealth, the murder of non-Buddhist minorities, exploitative prostitution. If I were to say that Buddhist suttas frown upon these things, would that make my interpretation untraditional?

I hope you see my point: what happens to exist in Theravāda countries, now or in the past, has nothing at all to do with the meaning of the ancient suttas. It doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with their interpretation by later tradition. People frequently ignored the suttas’ advice at the time of their composition, they frequently ignored it in Buddhist countries in the intervening centuries, and they frequently ignore it now. That’s a pretty basic observation of the field of religious studies, in a way hardly limited to Buddhism.

Justin would have more of a leg to stand on here in calling my interpretation “untraditional” if he could point to premodern historical commentaries that interpreted the sutta as saying it was fine to go to the theatre. If he knows of any, I’d be interested to read them. (He says “I have seen no evidence that monastics and laity throughout history have read the sutta in terms of any kind of ‘prohibition of theater.'” Does he have evidence that they haven’t? Without such evidence, I don’t think it’s responsible to just make up an interpretation that’s convenient to us and privilege that over what the sutta actually says. That is what I would call a misreading.) Modern commentaries are relevant too, but they do less to establish what is a “traditional” interpretation: people who write modern commentaries are part of the tradition, sure, but so is Justin and so am I.

So, I feel very comfortable in saying, exegetically, that the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibits laypeople from attending the theatre. Obviously this is not a legal prohibition, since the sutta was never intended to have the force of anything like law – unlike vinaya rules for monks, say, which are enforceable. But there is a prohibition in an ethical sense: if you know what’s good for you, you won’t go to theatrical shows or hang out with friends who recommend you do. On the grounds that that is indeed what the sutta actually says, I’m happy, too, to take the hypothesis that that is a traditional interpretation of the sutta, unless and until I see evidence that it isn’t – and so far I’ve seen none.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.