The Sigalovada Sutta is long, but there is nothing difficult or complicated about it. In it, the Buddha comes upon a young Brahmin householder, Sigala, taking his ritual bath and conducting his morning prayers, possibly at one of the warm springs that are still popular tourist destinations in the modern city of Rajgir. After the bath, Sigala saluted the six cardinal points (East, West, North, South, Zenith and Nadir) with his hands joined in the gesture signaling reverent worship. When the Buddha asks him why he is doing that, Sigala tells him it is because his father, before he died, enjoined the ritual performance on his son. The Buddha then takes the opportunity to teach Sigala what it really means to be reverent, and how the cardinal points might be worshipped by one who lives nobly, in accordance with the Dhamma.
The sutta has been called the layperson’s vinaya, a word that refers to the set of rules governing the behavior of Buddhist monks and nuns. But that implies a particularly Buddhist focus that misses the point of the teaching, I think. In fact, the instruction that the Buddha gives to Sigala in this discourse is the most concentrated collection of generally good advice that I know of. Anyone, professing any faith at all or following any ritual tradition, who undertakes to live according to the advice given in the Sigalovada Sutta will certainly, barring accident or just bad luck, live happily, have good friends, and attain a measure of worldly success.
There are a few points in the discourse that I think justify a close look:
- The structure of the discourse is interesting. While the starting point is the Buddha’s statement that Sigala is doing it wrong, and that there is a way to pay homage to the six directions that is in accord with the Aryan Dhamma (arya is the Pali word translated in the English renditions as “noble”), it’s not until the last part of the long discourse that the Buddha finally gets back around to those directions and the meaning they have according to the Dhamma. The first three-quarters of the discourse focuses on general principles of good behavior. The implication here, I think, is that unless one starts with good behavior—that is, refraining from the four evil actions, resisting the four motivations that lead one to behave badly, and avoiding the six courses of behavior that dissipate health, wealth and happiness—then it really doesn’t matter how one worships the cardinal directions; there’s no ritual magic in worshipping the directions that can save one who’s hell bent on destruction.
- Although it’s a small point in the context of a long discourse, I think it’s important that the Buddha’s starting point is with four of the five precepts that every Buddhist lay person accepts as guides to a well-lived life—not taking life, not taking what’s not given, not speaking falsely, and not misbehaving sexually. The fifth precept, to avoid intoxicants that make one careless and stupid, is given ample coverage in the rest of the discourse.
- The discourse is intensely pragmatic. Nothing is to be taken on faith; the Buddha gives perfectly good and believable reasons for the ethical principles and behaviors that he recommends to Sigala. The results of behaving badly do not come as punishments, and the results of behaving well do not come as rewards; it is all a matter of natural consequences.
- The focus on companionship and the detailed analysis of the difference between good companions and bad ones is moving and convincing; it is also a frequent theme in the teachings. In the Upaddha Sutta, Ananda and the Buddha are sitting together at the end of the day, and Ananda says, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” “Don’t say that, Ananda,” replies the Buddha. “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” In the Sigalovada Sutta, he extends that to lay people as well as monks.
- When the discourse finally gets back around to the worship of the six cardinal directions, the Buddha presents a symbolic interpretation of those directions, in terms of the relationships that are significant in a householder’s life, that is actually a model for the structure of a civil society. All relationships are reciprocal, purposeful, and humane. The relationships themselves cover the most important aspects of our lives, as those were understood in the Buddha’s Dhamma—one’s relationship with one’s parents and children, with one’s teachers and students, with one’s friends and companions, with one’s colleagues—employees and supervisors, with one’s husband or wife, and with one’s spiritual counselors. Again, nothing important is left out (or couldn’t be fit in with some minimal interpretation), and everything is kept practical: relationships are defined and ways of maintaining those relationships are commended, not based on theory, dogma, or categorical imperatives, but simply on common experience.
It is illuminating, I think, to compare the advice given in the Sigalovada Sutta to other bodies of advice recorded in other traditional texts—the ritual imperatives in the Analects of Confucius, the tribal prescriptions and prohibitions in the Torah, the revelations of the Old Testament prophets and of Mohammed, the rules governing hierarchies of power in the law books of Manu, Solon, and many others. The Buddha’s advice is different, not only in its pragmatism and freedom from dogma, but also in the kind of results it seeks to achieve—happiness, material success, conviviality, contentment, the attainment of wisdom—and the scope of those results, the fact that they are to be experienced right here and right now.
As you’re reading this, try to imagine the terms that the Buddha might use if he were giving this advice today—to a young man, for example, recently graduated from Ohio State (where, perhaps, he’d had a reputation for heavy partying), with a wife and a couple of young children, a house in the suburbs, and a position in sales with Procter & Gamble.