Reinterpreting the Sigālovāda’s prohibition on theatre

I was delighted to see Justin Whitaker responding to my post on the Sigālovāda Sutta – both in a comment and in a separate post of his own. Justin and I first found each other long ago over our shared interest in Pali Buddhist ethics, and he was one of my more frequent interlocutors in the early days of Love of All Wisdom, so it’s great to see him back around. I recall Justin citing the Sigālovāda favourably several times in earlier conversations, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my broadside against it is what brought him out of the woodwork!

Justin’s post says, “For Lele, the text is problematic precisely because it does not push the reader to monasticism and a singular focus on ending suffering.” I think this is a bit misleading as a description of my position. After all, as I think Justin knows, I’m against a singular focus on ending suffering. I don’t necessarily see monasticism as the ideal human life; I’ve now taken two major steps that might make me ineligible for monkhood, and I don’t regret either of them.

So the problem I see with the Sigālovāda is not that it doesn’t push the reader to monasticism. Rather, it’s that for people who aren’t monks, the advice it offers is terrible! It portrays a sad and dreary life that offers precious few advantages over monkhood. I think monkhood is a valuable and wonderful life choice; I admire a life aimed entirely at the cultivation of virtue, and the perspective that those who pursue it can bring to those who don’t. But If we’re not going to be monks, I submit, then we should be out going to the theatre, singing, dancing – and waking up well after sunrise as a consequence of having done these things the night before. If we don’t trust worldly pleasures, we should be monks; but if we do trust those pleasures, then by all means we should embrace them.

Justin adds in his comment,

For a person like Sigala, and surely many of us today, progress could be best accomplished by reducing (or foregoing) certain of life’s little pleasures. Perhaps no longer “frequenting theatrical performances” could mean going a bit less often, using the new free time to study or practice or help friends. Seeing the benefit of those over the theatre, perhaps Sigala would give it up altogether in much the same way some of us today give up certain social media platforms or their television sets.

I could read this interpretation of Justin’s in two ways. One, we gradually come to see that worldly pleasures are less valuable than activities that cultivate virtue, such as studying, practising, helping friends. We start to engage in worldly pleasures less, as a sort of training wheels to not engaging in them at all. The latter is the real goal – at which point, again, we might as well be monks! If we really want to give up those things that are not studying, practising and helping, then we’ll want to take up the vocation that allows us to engage in these latter activities full-time.

Alternately, the interpretation could be saying that the real point of the Sigālovāda’s discouragements is just to encourage us to moderate our involvement in worldly pleasures, taming our desires for them and doing them a little bit less in favour of other pursuits of self-cultivation. On this second approach, our moderation might lead us to give a few of those pleasures up altogether, but it wouldn’t necessarily lead us there, and it’s totally fine if it doesn’t.

I could see taking an approach like this second one as a reinterpretation of the Sigālovāda to make it fit with our other commitments – as we might reinterpret karma without the supernatural. But it is a reinterpretation, for it’s not what the Sigālovāda actually says. The sutta says that the noble disciple just does not pursue “frequenting theatrical shows”, period – along with drinking or “sauntering in streets at unseemly hours” (both pastimes I rather enjoy). Moderation isn’t the issue; you’re not supposed to do these things at all. So the text in its own terms seems to require the first interpretation – in which case, again, you might as well be a monk.

Now I don’t mean to disparage that reinterpretation. For I think we Buddhists need reinterpretations of problematic passages in our scriptures. When we see passages that encourage the subordination of women or queer people, or that say the sun and the moon revolve around Mount Meru, we should not take them literally, but we also don’t want to simply throw them out. Thus I noted that the vinaya passages subordinating women and prohibiting queer people were there to maintain the social reputation of the saṅgha, and that in the modern era that goal would be better served through equality and inclusion.

My point, though, is that the Sigālovāda is one of those problematic pieces that requires reinterpretation. (From our perspective, we should consider it entirely neyyattha, not nītattha!) It’s worth trying to revise its message in a modern way, just as we would with passages about the cosmology about Mount Meru. The issue is that as it stands, without reinterpretation, the sutta is bad advice to follow. And so we shouldn’t make it the centrepiece of Buddhist lay ethics.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

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