The goods of lay life

I return today to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker on the Sigālovāda Sutta, taking off from his response to my previous post. The question at issue between us, I think, is what constitutes a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder, a non-monk. We can get more specific by asking: should the layperson’s life be one that aspires to emulate the monk’s? I don’t think that it should, and I continue to suspect that Justin doesn’t either.

For me there is a deeper question that underlies any answer to the questions in the previous paragraph. That is: are there any goods that it is worthy for human beings to pursue irrespective of their contributions to the allevation of suffering (and/or the pursuit of truth, correct seeing)? In more classical terms, are there proper purisatthas (puruṣārthas) other than dukkhanirodha and yathābhūtadassana? It is pretty clear to me that the Pali suttas, in general, take the answer to that question to be no. And it is that No answer that underlies both the suttas’ advocacy of monasticism as the highest goal, and their viewing of the good household life as the one described in the Sigālovāda: an imperfect approximation of monasticism. For, the suttas say, it is monasticism that truly allows one to shed the attachments and pleasures that trap one in suffering. Monasticism does not guarantee this goal by any means – as Justin notes, there are plenty of bad monks – but it advances the goal much better than the household life does.

I disagree with the suttas on this approach; I would answer that deeper question Yes. I believe that both familial love and aesthetic pleasure have value in themselves, irrespective of whether they help us reduce suffering. Justin describes a joy that he felt in the “friendships, occasional alcohol, and romance” he had as a youth. I recognize this joy and see it as something that is worthwhile and worth celebrating, not something to be shed. I do admire monks for their single-minded focus on the cultivation of a virtuous mind, and I do think we laypeople have a lot to learn from monks – but not by trying to make our lifestyles closer to theirs, not unless we are going to take the plunge and join them.

Justin says that “the family life has value as part of the path”. I would push on this point: the path to what? And how does family life contribute to it? It seems to me that what Justin is saying here is not the traditional view of the Pali suttas. In the suttas, the magga is a path to the end of suffering, and family life, if anything, interferes with that path. The Sāmaññaphala Sutta tells us: “Household life (gharāvaso) is hindered, a path of dust. Pabbajjā (going forth into ordination) is air. Not easily does one who inhabits a household enter an extremely full, extremely pure, brightly perfect holy life (brahmacariya).” (DN I.62-3) Most people will stay back in that dusty household life – because we’re not good enough and strong enough for the pure and bright life of the renouncer. It seems to me that that is what underlies the Buddha’s advice that Sigāla stay back in the household life.

By contrast, Justin says he does not see his family life as a lesser path. Neither do I. But why not? Justin says “I was and am fairly good at being a partner and now a father.” I have every reason to believe him on this. I would like to think that I am also good at being the former. But neither of these achievements takes away from the Sāmaññaphala’s claim that this path is lesser. As far as that sutta is concerned, the time and mental effort involved in being a partner and father distracts from the really important pursuit of shedding the āsavas and kilesas, the mental hindrances that keep us out of nirvana. If one must take up such a path, then by all means do it well, take care of the partners and children one is trusted to care for. But to engage in such a path is still to be limited in one’s pursuit of true liberation – a limit, again, that the Buddha noted when he named his son Rāhula, “fetter”. The son was a fetter, a tie to the dust of worldly life, an impediment to liberation.

Unlike the Buddha, I do not believe that one should think of children as impediments, and I imagine Justin doesn’t either. But that is a point of our disagreement with him. The classical texts do have their reasons for seeing children that way. Strictly speaking, having children may well increase suffering – whether in a classical sense in which there are now more beings on the wheel of rebirth, or in the modern studies that repeatedly and replicably show people get less happy when they are raising kids. But it seems to me that, properly understood, the value of having children is not because they reduce suffering – if that is the goal, they will disappoint – but rather in another goal entirely, a broader sense of fulfillment that comes from familial love.

Justin refers to “the wide Buddhist path”. I do not think that the path spelled out in the suttas is indeed wide, if “wide” means that it has two lanes, a household and a monastic, that are equally valid to travel on. In the suttas the path is not wide but long: one lives this life virtuously as one can as a weak householder, in the hopes that in the next life one will be strong enough to be a monk.

When I claim familial love and aesthetic pleasure as goods in themselves, Justin is right to question whether this claim “hangs well within a Buddhist moral or philosophical framework”. My view is a departure from the view of the suttas – just like the rejection of rebirth, which I think this departure is closely connected to. Justin is himself (rightly) ready to explicitly abandon significant elements of the suttas’ teaching, notably on gender. When Justin says his family life is not a lesser path, I think that too is a departure from the suttas. But I do think that a framework which acknowledges family life and aesthetic pleasure as intrinsic goods can still remain Buddhist in the most significant senses despite its departure from the suttas (and I think that matters). It is just that, once we depart from the suttas in acknowledging the intrinsic value of familial love, I think we should do the same in acknowledging the intrinsic value of aesthetic pleasure. And that is why I do not find the Sigālovāda Sutta a good guide.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

6 Replies to “The goods of lay life”

  1. The one good thing about lay life that nobody will dispute is that you don’t have to worry about “falling down” spiritually in the same way as a monastic. I remember like it was yesterday when “Paramahansa” Nithyananda was touting himself as god incarnate only to be exposed as a fraud only a few years into his gig.

    • I’d say that’s less of a risk for monastics in general and more for people in positions of fame and power – especially if they tout themselves as gods incarnate! Buddhist monks, at least, are explicitly supposed to avoid talking about their levels of attainment.

      • They are supposed to in the abstract but in actuality that’s rarely the case, at least for the more well-known gurus: Trungpa, Sakyong Mipham, pretty much anybody who represents the Kagyupa sect has an ego the size of the Burj Khalifa. The only sect that I have yet to see any egotism from (Vajrayana Buddhist that is) is the Dzogchen school and maybe the Sakya school.

  2. Pingback: The goods of lay life | Love of All Wisdom

  3. Between your question, “the path to what?” and Bill’s concern.with egotistm lies the process of family life, transcending generations. The monastic life is not different: we speak of spiritual parents and children; what matters is participating in something that transcends individuality.

    Asking what can carry or propagate dharma in that register is much like Foucault analyzing discourse, or Umberto Eco on influence among writers: coming in under the radar of structural analysis, so that all the older social thought and hermeneutics missed it. Like all the classical dialectic missing what Socrates was saying about participating in the world of ideas.

  4. To tell the truth, I think that it is quite a controversial point regarding determination of a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder and your discussion is really important. I absolutely agree with you that both familial love and aesthetic pleasure have value in themselves because they perform a really significant function. I think that it is important to realize their value and be able to feel it in order to know this life. Also, I completely share your position regarding monkhood because it is absolutely reasonable. It is true that monks deserve respect, causing admiration, but we don’t need to imitate them because we have different paths and different priorities. Of course, it is right that we have a lot to learn from monks and we should improve ourselves, taking our cue from them, but it should have a certain edge, if we are not going to be one of monks.

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