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.
Justin Whitaker said:
Wonderful! Thanks so much for this, Amod.
Let me see if I can make a couple of responses and perhaps ask a question or two as we discuss and await your next post.
First, it continues to seem to me that my approach to the Buddha’s words through the suttas is as pragmatic guidance. They are meant to lead listeners in the direction of awakening and away from greater greed, hatred, and delusion.
For me the text you quote means, in part, “if you frequent the theatre, thoughts of theatre will dominate your life.” This seems to be uncontroversial and true. My constructive analysis would be that theatre, and similar things, can take over our lives at the expense of more beneficial activities, like reading great texts, conversing with wise friends, practicing generosity, etc. The good disciple (and, hey reader, you want to be a good disciple, right!?) thus does not frequent theatre.
Your constructive analysis seemed to be that the text prohibits theatre. Or have I misunderstood you or your distinction between exegesis and constructive analysis?
I appreciate your clarification on what you mean by prohibition. My reading of the term is generally legalistic/via authority. C.f. https://www.etymonline.com/word/prohibition
There are definitely prohibitions in the Buddhist texts, such as on monks handling money. And I think we agree that there is no such prohibition here for theatre.
This was my reasoning in the “non sequitur” that “theater exists and has existed in relatively conservative Theravāda countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand…”
You see, if there were a prohibition on theatre in the Sigālovāda just as there is on monks handling money, then it should follow logically that we see similar adherence to said prohibition. After all, we are not the first people to read this sutta. But you do seem to be the first person who sees any kind of “prohibition” in the text, interestingly.
But again, now that you’ve clarified that you mean an “ethical prohibition” we might be more on the same page (although I admit that phrase could use clarification too, insofar as it is not commonly used -afaik- to differentiate various types of prohibitions in Buddhist texts).
Rather than calling it an “ethical prohibition” I wonder what you think of just calling it an ideal – or an ethical goal?
These seem like softer interpretations (more in line with my pragmatic approach). And, again, I would suggest these might be more traditional interpretations when we look at Theravādin societies. I think we absolutely must look at context and interpretations before we try to give our own exegesis – otherwise we risk imposing our own ideas onto the text.
For example, the very famous Khaggavisāṇa sutta literally tells the reader (or hearer) to wander alone. Without context or traditional interpretations, we might suppose from this that the text creates a prohibition (to borrow your term) on hanging out with anyone at all. Would you read this as yet another text that you disagree with because it tells people to wander alone?
I’d like to hear more about your differentiation between exegesis and constructive analysis, as I had read your earlier posts as containing both. For example, I would have thought your use of the word “prohibition” was itself a matter of your constructive analysis of the text.
I’m still not convinced that “exegetically . . . the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibits laypeople from attending the theatre.” And I think you’re going well beyond the text in saying this. Or, if the text does say this, you’re literally the first person in history to realize this – as countless millions of monastics, many thousands of laypeople, and at least a dozen academics (I joke) have read the text and not come to this conclusion. Wouldn’t a fairer exegesis of the text is that there are negative consequences to frequenting theatre and the five other activities the Buddha mentions? To me, that fits better with other advice the Buddha gives laypeople at the time, as well as parallel advice he gives monks, as well as much of the traditional interpretation.
I haven’t been following the Amod–Justin exchange very closely, but after reading Amod’s post and Justin’s comment above, I find Justin’s position (that theatre is not prohibited) more convincing.
The sutta seems to me to be advising against what the modern American author Judith Wright has called “soft addictions”, which Wright told WebMD “are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping—the things we overdo but we don’t realize it”. There is a huge list of these things in Wright’s book The Soft Addiction Solution (Penguin Books, 2003/2006), including a variety of types of entertainment. Most of them can be part of one’s life in an unproblematic way; it’s the “addiction” that is the problem when one realizes that there is more to life than indulging in one’s addictions.
Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rāhula, in his book The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity (Wisdom Publications, 2008, p. 44) cites the Sigālovāda Sutta and other texts and summarizes: “While the Buddha never asked his lay followers to abstain from entertainment, he did instruct them to know the limits of enjoyment. Exceeding these limits poses a threat to the progress already achieved. The Buddha cited dancing, singing, music, storytelling, and musical performances as addictive types of entertainment for transitory satisfaction. […] While the Buddha’s lay followers are entitled to find joy in entertainment, they are advised not to exceed the limits and obstruct their progress.”
Rāhula’s book is a wise book—I like how he emphasizes that sensory pleasures or kamaguna “are inherent in worldly life, and people are entitled to enjoy them”—so I am persuaded by his interpretation that “the Buddha’s lay followers are entitled to find joy in entertainment” and are not prohibited by the Sigālovāda Sutta from ever being entertained in theatres or elsewhere.
Amod Lele said:
When the text says “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…” how is that not the Buddha asking his lay followers to abstain from frequenting the entertainment that is the theatre? I don’t find Rāhula’s analysis persuasive at all – again, exegetically. Insofar as he’s trying to draw his own constructive conclusions that’s a fine approach to take, but I don’t think it is a persuasive interpretation of what’s in the text.
In your post, you said that “the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibits laypeople from attending the theatre”, and but you didn’t pay attention to the “frequenting” part and the “six evil consequences in frequenting”, which are that the frequenter becomes mentally obsessed with the shows. That’s what Judith Wright calls a “soft addiction”.
I don’t understand why you think “the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibits laypeople from attending the theatre”, as if this sutta is the Taliban Handbook or something! I don’t buy it. I think you’re ignoring the obsessive-compulsiveness implied by “frequenting” and its mental correlates. There is a difference between “frequenting theatrical shows” and merely “attending theatrical shows”. If one is obsessed with and addicted to something, one is likely to “dissipate one’s wealth” on it. If one is not obsessed or addicted, dissipating one’s wealth wouldn’t be a concern. Therefore, the sutta must be describing addiction. It seems to me that the sutta got this one right.
I can sympathize with your overall dislike of the text since I agree that it’s not a fun text to read, and I would recommend to anyone reading The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity instead. I wonder if your general dislike of the text, which I find reasonable, leads you to want to portray it as saying something that it doesn’t say, or to want to interpret it very uncharitably.
Amod Lele said:
You got me checking the Pali, which is important here. I’ve read enough stilted translations to think of “frequenting” as just meaning “going to”, even if it’s just occasional or every so often, which is why I didn’t pay the word any attention. You’re right to call attention to the word, though: if the Pali word for “frequenting” really had the English meaning of “attending frequently“, then you’d have a point here.
But it doesn’t. The word is abhicaraṇa, which as far as I can tell, simply means “going toward”. (The abhi- prefix doesn’t have a connotation of repetition or frequency, just of “toward, near”.) The Pali-English Dictionary, referring to this specific passage, renders the larger compound (samajjābhicaraṇa) just as “visiting fairs”. Insofar as the English “frequenting” has the connotation of “going frequently”, that is the interpolation of Narada Thera in his translation.
There is something like addiction at work in the text, yes: one who goes to shows will want to do it more and dissipate his wealth. But the text believes that that will happen if you go at all, not just if you go frequently.
Thanks! It’s interesting how much turns on one word. It’s not surprising that people would dispute the meaning of this word; similarly, in addiction recovery people argue about whether it is necessary to abstain completely or just reduce the negative impacts (harm reduction). Abstinence typically aligns with a conservative position and harm reduction with a liberal position. You seem to be advocating a conservative exegesis of the word and (perhaps, we’ll see) a liberal reconstruction of it. But a liberal exegesis is also possible just by translating the word a certain way. So the answer to the question “Does the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibit attending the theatre?” depends on which translation of the sutta one is reading!
Amod Lele said:
On exegetical and constructive analysis, mostly let’s wait till the next round, as I say more there. But let me say here that no, “the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibits theatre” is not in any way whatsoever a constructive analysis; it is entirely exegetical, as is this week’s entire post. I’m trying to explain what the text actually says. I wish it didn’t say that. I’m a little baffled as to why you would think it was constructive. Did you think I myself thought attending the theatre was a bad thing for people to do? I’m not sure how you would get that from anything I wrote.
Now, what I will grant is that the word “prohibit” is not itself in the text. And I would be okay with dropping that word from the discussion here, because it isn’t my point. The last paragraph of the post should clarify what I meant by “prohibit”: as I said there, I don’t mean a legal prohibition like the vinaya rules, which include the rule on monks handling money. (Incidentally, it’s pretty easy to find modern people claiming that most monks in modern Thailand do handle money. So does that no longer count as a prohibition either?) What I mean is that the text, as written, tells its readers they should not attend the theatre. Do you disagree that it does that? I do think the text goes beyond simply saying “there are negative consequences”: the first paragraph quoted says the noble disciple does not pursue attending theatrical shows. “There are negative consequences” suggests it could mean “well, there are some bad things that could happen, but the good part could be worth it”. I can’t see a way to claim that that’s what the text is saying.
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