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How to Live a Good Human Life: The Buddha’s Advice to Sigala


(The Bamboo Grove. Picture credit: Patricia Sauthoff)

“Do I have to give up chocolate?” In any serious discussion of the Buddha’s Pali Suttas among people who are not Buddhists, there will always be one person who will get annoyed, even outraged, by the idea that the elimination of craving might be the first crucial step in the removal of the conditions for suffering: Must I do without all my pleasures, like chocolate — or movies — or sexual relationships? At first it can seem that the Buddha is confronting us with the necessity of getting rid of all the things that make us happy, and that instead of giving us a way out of suffering he would be causing much more of it. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction.

The Buddha never asks a layperson, new to Buddhism, to give up their attachments — because how would they understand the reasons for doing so if the attachments seem good to them right now? To request them to do so would only make them angry and make them more stubborn in their attachment. Most of the Pali Suttas are discourses with disciples, who have already been converted: to them, the Buddha can dig deep into craving and attachment. Even when he is talking with Brahmin ascetics he can refer more freely to the discipline of renunciation, which they are used to. When he is talking with a layperson, however, he doesn’t go directly to dependent origination, not-self, or the aggregates, because it wouldn’t be constructive or compassionate to do so. How then would he speak to the concerns of someone like me, a person interested in living well but unable yet to fathom the deep meaning of suffering itself, let alone the extinction of it?

In the Digha Nikaya, the collection of longer discourses, we meet a young scion of the royal family:

This is what I heard. On one occasion, the Buddha was living near the town of Rajagaha at a spot in the Bamboo Grove called the Squirrel’s Feeding Place.
At that time a young householder named Sigalaka arose early and set out from Rajagaha with freshly washed clothes and hair. With palms together held up in reverence, he was paying respect towards the six directions: that is east, south, west, north, lower and upper. Meanwhile the Buddha dressed himself in the early morning, took his bowl and robe and went in to Rajagaha on alms round. On the way, he saw Sigalaka worshipping the six directions. Seeing this, the Buddha said to him: “Young man, why have you risen in the early morning and set out from Rajagaha to worship in such a way?”
“Dear sir, my father on his deathbed urged me, ‘My son, you must worship the directions’. So, dear sir, realizing, honoring, respecting, and holding sacred my father’s request, I have risen in the early morning and set out from Rajagaha to worship in this way.”
“But, young man, that is not how the six directions should be worshipped according to the discipline of the noble ones.”

Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31, tr. Kelly/Sawyer/Yareham, 2005)

In a body of work that eschews literary devices and formal elegance, the “meanwhile” is noteworthy: at the same time as Sigalaka is doing x, the Buddha is doing y. Usually the Suttas begin with the Buddha, but this one pointedly begins with his interlocutor, who is from the beginning placed in the foreground — as if to indicate from the start that the Buddha will enter into his life but not take it over. This Sigalaka is clearly a dutiful son who takes his deceased father’s wishes seriously. I imagine this scene taking place just before dawn, before most people are up. Sigalaka has already prepared himself for his devotions “with freshly washed clothes and hair.” The Buddha watches, notices the young man’s punctilious energy and reverence, gently questions him, and offers instruction. He does not tell him he is wrong, or try to convert him by teaching philosophical profundities; indeed, no attempt is made to change his view of things. After reviewing the usual basic moral precepts, the Buddha gives him a way to deepen the “worship of the six directions.” Now this is not a new approach: even in the Upanishads the six directions are interpreted allegorically, because “worship” of them cannot just consist of the meaningless positioning of the body towards an abstraction like “north” or “south.” The understanding has to be engaged, and the “effectiveness” of the ritual is not in some magic transformation whereby a few movements of the limbs creates prosperity, but in a careful awareness of the meaning in things that brings about better focus and perceptiveness in everyday life.

“Six directions” — the usual four, plus vertically above and beneath — evokes a cosmic whole. In a different religion they might be six gods, six elemental powers, six dimensions of the life-force — but here the Buddha demystifies them into the six fundamental relationships. In what follows, the Buddha sounds surprisingly like a Confucian philosopher.

“And how, young man, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six directions should be known: mother and father as the east, teachers as the south, spouse and family as the west, friends and colleagues as the north, workers and servants as the lower direction, and ascetics and Brahmans as the upper direction.
“In five ways should a mother and father as the eastern direction be respected by a child: ‘I will support them who supported me; I will do my duty to them; I will maintain the family lineage and tradition; I will be worthy of my inheritance; and I will make donations on behalf of dead ancestors.’
“And, the mother and father so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, training you in a profession, supporting the choice of a suitable spouse, and in due time, handing over the inheritance.
“In this way, the eastern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
“In five ways should teachers as the southern direction be respected by a student: by rising for them, regularly attending lessons, eagerly desiring to learn, duly serving them, and receiving instruction.
“And, teachers so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by training in self-discipline, ensuring the teachings are well-grasped, instructing in every branch of knowledge, introducing their friends and colleagues, and providing safeguards in every direction.

“In this way, the southern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
“In five ways should a wife as the western direction be respected by a husband: by honoring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and by giving [adornments].
“And, the wife so respected reciprocates with compassion in five ways: by being well-organized, being kindly disposed to the in-laws and household workers, being faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skillful and diligent in all duties.
In this way, the western direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
“In five ways should friends and colleagues as the northern direction be respected: by generosity, kind words, acting for their welfare, impartiality, and honesty.
“And, friends and colleagues so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, not abandoning you in misfortunes, and honoring all your descendants.
“In this way, the northern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
“In five ways should workers and servants as the lower direction be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.
“And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation.
“In this way, the lower direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.
“In five ways should ascetics and Brahmans as the upper direction be respected: by kindly actions, speech, and thoughts, having an open door, and providing material needs.
“And, ascetics and Brahmans so respected reciprocate with compassion in six ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you to good actions, thinking compassionately, telling you what you ought to know, clarifying what you already know, and showing you
the path to heaven.
“In this way, the upper direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.”

Parents, children, teachers, students, husband, wife, friends, colleagues, employees, subordinates, spiritual mentors: we all have them. Each relationship has its unique problems and provocations, and at any given moment there is work to be done in each “direction.” And the six directions make a whole: if even one of them is missing or messy, our contentment will be marred.

No other ancient text offers instruction on relationships as concise, complete, moderate, and feasible as this. We make allowances, as the Buddha would have, for changes in time and place: for example, “husband” and “wife” might be altered to a different form of conjugal relationship; “giving adornments” can be interpreted to include any act of generosity that makes the other person feel like a woman, a man, or just human. Throughout these, the mutuality is remarkable. In the Hindu tradition, for example, there is a lot about what wife owes to husband, but barely anything on what husband owes to wife; or what responsibilities people in charge have towards employees (we might translate this to our responsibility to people who make our clothes or grow our food); or what spiritual teachers owe to their students. Even in the Confucian tradition, there is something excessive and one-sided about the duties of child to parent. In how many ancient traditions will we find a husband giving honor, respect, and authority to his wife? — or laborers and servants being treated with care and considerateness? Each “direction” is a balanced set — not as formal obligations or “laws,” but as foundational considerations or “dhammas.” If the dharma is missing, the relationship will not work; this is not about obeying laws, but about being realistic.

Pervasive in these instructions is the call for kindness, that neglected virtue. “Kindly actions” and “kindly words” are easy enough to practice, and are the key to harmonious and pleasant daily relationships. The “six directions” concern social harmony as well as individual peace of mind; the latter is, for most of us, dependent on the former. But it goes beyond kindliness: in each case, our people are asked to respond “with compassion” towards us. It is as if we are all being asked to look beneath the surface of our social interactions and see the struggling human being, the one who is having a hard time — and this means all of us. Even workers and servants are asked to treat their masters with compassion. Without this exhortation to compassion, the Buddha’s instructions to Sigalaka offer nothing more than an efficacious, respectful way to “manage” our relationships — but the need for compassion broadens the teaching to embrace the unmanageable, and the barely manageable, heart. Compassion requires understanding and empathy, a risky giving over of ourselves to the other person.

The compassion of friends includes “being a refuge when you are afraid” — another extraordinary recommendation, both for ancient and for modern times, since people are generally reluctant to confess fears to one another. These fears may be specific — of enemies, of the law, of creditors — but they can also be deeply existential: fear of living, fear of hardship, fear of mortality, fear of the loss of meaning. In all of these respects friends have been known to give comfort. It’s striking that the Buddha places this responsibility firmly in the bosom of friends — not of parents, teachers, or spouse — perhaps because our friendships are uncomplicated by other tasks, such as running a household together. The “six directions” have to encompass all the ways in which we genuinely need, and need to open up to, one another.

All six directions have to be understood and practiced, both ways: this, says the Buddha, is what it means to worship the six directions. Each direction is difficult enough to “do” and provides abundant work for a lifetime, but what is even more astonishing is that a human being has somehow to juggle all six, in such a way that each direction is fulfilled and no one direction swallows the whole — which can easily happen, for example, when attention to a troubled family member becomes all-consuming. We need to fulfill all six directions to be happy; the neglect of just one will result in a niggling of the mind and perturbation of the heart. The Buddha refrains from adding more to Sigalaka’s plate because it is already quite full. He could have said that the worship of the six directions is a way of developing character and disciplining the mind, to make it ready for a “higher” practice — but he doesn’t. The cultivation of the six directions, with attention and with compassion, might be sufficient for a human life, and more than most people are willing to do. As with Confucius, we can learn from what the Buddha doesn’t say.

What a thing is relationship, and how easily we fall into that habit of a particular relationship, things are taken for granted, the situation accepted and no variation tolerated; no movement towards uncertainty, even for a second, entertained. Everything is so well regulated, so made secure, so tied down, that there is no chance for any freshness, for a clear reviving breath of the spring. This and more is called relationship. If we closely observe, relationship is much more subtle, more swift than lightning, more vast than the earth, for relationship is life. Life is conflict. We want to make relationship crude, hard, and manageable. So it loses its fragrance, its beauty. All this arises because one does not love, and that of course is the greatest thing of all, for in it there has to be the complete abandonment of oneself.

(J.Krishnamurti, from J.Krishnamurti: A Biography, Pupul Jayakar, 2000, chapter 23))