Are we taking up the suttas’ view of household life?

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.

Justin says:

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.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Are we taking up the suttas’ view of household life?”

  1. I might or might not be the first person to have this insight, but I think one of the reasons why India has always had a strong sadhu community is because of the caste system. A person born in a shudra clan is less likely, though not impossible by Krishna’s grace, to marry whoever one wants. This despair drives many into the sadhu fold. An objection to this would be the great monastic communities in other Asian (and Western) countries that do not have a caste system. However, Tibet and Thailand have different histories than India and so just focusing on India, I think if the caste system were eliminated, there would be less incentive for people to join the community. In Tibet, becoming a monk is less due to disillusionment with society and more to do with upholding dharma. I’m aware people like Jetsun Mila exist obviously so there will be exceptions to this. Also, the BAPS sadhus who grew up in the west presumably had at least a decent pick in terms of wives, but BAPS generally has different requirements, so the vast majority of Hindu sadhus would still be those who never got married in the first place. These are not infallible observations but something worth thinking about. I have also noticed that, while I have met Caucasian Hindu and Buddhist monks over the past fifteen years, I have yet to meet a Jain monk of Desi descent who grew up in the West, which is another anomaly worth looking into……

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