Buddhist Family Values

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

The following essay is a chapter of a book on the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon and/or the Agamas that I have been writing since college. This particular part was written in 1995. I am restricting myself to the Pali Canon and the Agamas in an effort to present only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. While this essay and the others which constitute this work in progress are informed by Mahayana and Theravada teachings, my main purpose was just to present what I perceive to be the most straightforward meaning of the canon. In the future, I hope to cover the Mahayana canon in the same way. Ultimately, I hope to take all this material and show how it does or does not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

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The Way of Life For Lay People

Buddhism might appear to be a way of life whose stringent demands can only be met by the full time monk or nun. However, the Buddha also had many disciples who did not leave the life of the house holder, and the Buddha did not neglect them in his teaching. The Buddha's advice to the young house holder Sigalaka is perhaps the best and most complete example of how the Buddha envisioned the ideal life for those who had not forsaken the home life. The sutra begins with the Buddha on his morning rounds seeking alms in the city of Rajagriha. During his rounds he comes upon the young man Sigalaka paying homage to the gods of the four cardinal directions, as well as to the zenith and the nadir. The Buddha asks Sigalaka why he is doing this, and Sigalaka tells him that he pays homage to the directions every morning in order to honor the dying words of his father, who wished that his son carry on the family tradition of performing this pious act of worship. Hearing this, the Buddha informs Sigalaka that there is a nobler way to pay homage to the six directions. The Buddha then goes on to describe, at Sigalaka's request, the way that an Ariyan or noble disciple pays homage to the directions:

"Young householder, it is by abandoning the four defilements of action, by not doing evil from the four causes, by not following the six ways of wasting one's substance - through avoiding these fourteen evil ways - that the Ariyan disciple covers the six directions, and by such practice becomes a conqueror of both worlds, so that all will go well with him in this world and the next, and at the breaking-up of the body after death he will go to a good destiny, a heavenly world." (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 461-462)

It seems evident from this, that the purpose of paying homage to the six directions is to propitiate the spirits which encompass the world, and so prevent evil and perhaps attract good fortune. The Buddha, however, realizes that it is not the spirits which determine one's fate but the actual conduct and attitude of the individual who must learn to take responsibility for his or her own life. By living a decent life, one is able to steer clear of the disasters and tragedies which overcome the irresponsible and the careless. One is also able to maintain one's integrity and by living with a clear conscience is able to die without regrets. In this way, one creates a heavenly destiny for oneself. Now let us proceed to the specific things which should be avoided by one who wishes to live a peaceful life.

"What are the four defilements of action that are abandoned? Taking life is one, taking what is not given is one, sexual misconduct is one, lying speech is one. These are the four defilements of action that he abandons."

Thus the Lord spoke.
And the Well-Farer having spoken, the Teacher added:

"Taking life and stealing, lying,
Adultery, the wise reprove." (Ibid, p. 462)

These four defilements of action are, of course, the bedrock of any system of morality. It could even be argued that any additional prohibitions are either nuances or simply superstition. It is also worth noting that these are the bases of the four offences for which a monk can be cast out of the Sangha: Killing, stealing, sexual intercourse, and lying about one's spiritual attainments. These four transgressions were inherently a repudiation of the lifestyle of peace and renunciation which being a monk or a nun in the Sangha was all about; therefore, those who commited them could not remain in the monastic Sangha. Laypeople who killed, stole, lied, or committed various forms of sexual misconduct were not cast out of the Sangha (since only the monks and nuns belonged to a formal organization in the first place), but naturally those who did so showed that they still had much to learn and had not yet fully entered the stream of the Buddha's teaching.

"What are the four causes of evil from which he refrains? Evil action springs from attachment, it springs from ill-will, it springs from folly, it springs from fear. If the Ariyan disciple does not act out of attachment, ill-will, folly or fear, he will not do evil from any of the four causes."

Thus the Lord spoke.
And the Well-Farer having spoken, the Teacher added:

"Desire and hatred, fear and folly:
He who breaks the law through these,
Loses all his fair repute
Like the moon at waning-time.

"Desire and hatred, fear and folly,
He who never yields to these
Grows in goodness and repute
Like the moon at waxing-time." (Ibid, p. 462)

Not satisfied with merely pointing out those actions which conflict with the good life, the Buddha goes on to point out those attitudes which lead to the four defilements of action. A person who is free of these attitudes is a person who will not even be tempted to commit the four defilements of action. It should also be pointed out that these are also the Three Poisons spoken of in the Fire Sermon with the addition of fear. These four causes of evil are themselves the very things which Buddhism sets out to extinguish. To banish them from the heart is itself Nirvana.

"And which are the six ways of wasting one's substance that he does not follow? Addiction to strong drink and sloth-producing drugs is one way of wasting one's substance, haunting the streets at unfitting times is one, attending fairs is one, being addicted to gambling is one, keeping bad company is one, habitual idleness is one." (Ibid, p. 462)

The six ways of wasting one's substance describe what is known in the West as a life of dissipation. It is interesting to see that such a life and it's consequences are not markedly different from what one would describe today as a life of dissipation.

"There are these six dangers attached to addiction to strong drink andsloth-producing drugs: present waste of money, increased quarrelling, liability to sickness, loss of good name, indecent exposure of one's person, and weakening of the intellect." (Ibid, p. 462)

Here, of course, we are talking about substance abuse. Today, we would add the additional dangers of legal entanglements and involvement with criminal elements in the case of controlled substances to the six dangers listed above. The use of intoxicants also lead to situations where it is more difficult to be aware of or control the four causes of evil and one is therefore more liable to commit the four defilemnts of action. For this reason, the precept against the use of intoxicants is one of the Five Major Precepts for lay people and one of the Ten Major Precepts for the monks and nuns.

"There are these six dangers attached to haunting the streets at unfitting times: one is defenceless and without protection, and so are one's wife and children, and so is one's property; one is suspected of crimes, and false reports are pinned on one, and one encounters all sorts of unpleasantness.

"There are these six dangers attached to frequenting fairs: [One is always thinking:] 'Where is there dancing? Where is there singing? Where are they playing music? Where are they reciting? Where is there hand clapping? Where are the drums?'

"There are these six dangers attached to gambling: the winner makes enemies, the loser bewails his loss, one wastes one's present wealth, one's word is not trusted in the assembly, one is despised by one's friends and companions, one is not in demand for marriage, because a gambler cannot afford to maintain a wife.

"There are these six dangers attached to keeping bad company: any gambler, any glutton, any drunkard, any cheat, any trickster, any bully is his friend, his companion." (Ibid, p. 463)

These next four ways of dissipation might best be described today simply as hanging out at all hours bar hopping, night clubbing or gambling one's wealth away with shady company. In the teaching of the Buddha, one who leads a house holder's life is certainly free to spend some time in recreation. However, recreation should not take the form of wasteful and self-destructive activites in the company of those who are similarly wasting their lives. Once again, the Buddha is pointing out that one should not live in a reckless and irresponsible manner.

"There are these six dangers attached to idleness: Thinking: `It's too cold', one does not work; thinking: `It's too hot', one does not work; thinking: `It's too early' one does not work; thinking: `It's too late', one does not work; thinking: `I'm too hungry', one does not work; thinking:`I'm too full', one does not work.'" Thus the Lord spoke. (Ibid, p. 463)

From these comments, I would imagine that the Buddha would most likely frown upon those who have no ambition other than to live off their parents or the public dole. Contributing to society through a useful occupation and earning one's own way in life is very much a part of the Buddhist approach to life. This does not mean, however, that the Buddha was against the state (or the local ruler) helping those in genuine need, for he recommends elsewhere that the wealth spent on sacrifices for the welfare of the king and the country would be put to better use by helping the poor. One wonders what he would say about the excorbitant military budgets of our day. There were also several occupations that the Buddha taught would not count as Right Livelihood. Dealing in arms, intoxicants, animal flesh or slaves were among those occupations that the Buddha discounted as Right Livelihood. In our day, this would probably mean that any occupation which is involved in environmental destruction or the exploitation of others would also be discounted. It should be understood, then, that the Buddha is not recommending that for the sake of avoiding idleness one should just indiscriminately become part of a system that may very well violate the Dharma itself. Still, with imagination and motivation, one can always find some way to contribute to society in a productive way and earn a living for oneself and one's family (if one is married).

Now it might seem strange that the Buddha should recommend against idleness when the monastic Sangha itself did not work and lived off the donations of its lay supporters. The contradiction vanishes, however, when one realizes that the monks and nuns who followed the Buddha spent their days strenuously striving for enlightenment through meditation and contemplation of the Buddha's teachings. The Buddha's advanced disciples were also teachers and moral examples for the lay community as well as for the novices and younger disciples. The monks and nuns, then, were responsible for keeping the Buddha Dharma alive and available for all. In return, the laymen and women provided for them and looked to them for advice and guidance in escaping or at least mitigating the world's suffering.

Next, as before, the Buddha drives the point home in verse. In doing so he shows how all the six ways of dissipation combine to create an unwholesome lifestyle that inevitably leads to a life of suffering. On the other hand, when one takes responsibility for one's life, a joyful sense of well-being will follow.

And the Well-Farer having spoken, the Teacher added:

"Some are drinking-mates, and some
Profess their friendship to your face,
But those who are your friends in need,
They alone are friends indeed.

Sleeping late, adultery,
Picking quarrels, doing harm,
Evil friends and stinginess
These six things destroy a man.

He who goes with wicked friends
And spends his time in wicked deeds,
In this world and the next as well
That man will come to suffer woe.

Dicing, wenching, drinking too,
Dancing, singing, daylight sleep,
Untimely prowling, evil friends
And stinginess destroy a man.

He plays with dice and drinks strong drink
And goes with other's well-loved wives.
He takes the lower, baser course,
And fades away like a waning moon.

The drunkard, broke and destitute,
Ever thirsting as he drinks,
Like stone in water sinks in debt,
Soon bereft of all his kin.

He who spends his days in sleep,
And makes the night his waking-time,
Ever drunk and lecherous,
Cannot keep a decent home.

'Too cold! Too hot! Too late!' they cry,
Thus pushing all their work aside,
Till every chance they might have had
Of doing good has slipped away.

But he who reckons cold and heat
As less than straws, and like a man
Undertakes the task in hand,
His joy will never grow the less. (Ibid, pp. 463-464)

The Buddha then goes on to describe for Sigalaka the kind of people he should be wary of and the kinds of people that he can trust. The first set one should, of course, disassociate oneself from while the second set should be cultivated. This section is so universal and so grounded in common sense that no comment is really needed.

"Householder's son, there are four types who can be seen as foes in friendly guise: the man who is all take is one, the great talker is one, the flatterer is one, and the fellow-spendthrift is one.

"The man who is all take can be seen to be a false friend for four reasons: he takes everything, he wants a lot for very little, what he must do he does out of fear, and he seeks his own ends.

"The great talker can be seen to be a false friend for four reasons: he talks of favours in the past, and in the future, he mouths empty phrases of goodwill, and when something needs to be done in the present, he pleads inability owing to some disaster.

"The flatterer can be seen to be a false friend for four reasons: he assents to bad actions, he dissents from good actions, he praises you to your face, and he disparages you behind your back.

"The fellow-spendthrift can be seen to be a false friend for four reasons: he is a companion when you indulge in strong drink, when you haunt the streets at unfitting times, when you frequent fairs, and when you indulge in gambling." Thus the Lord spoke.

And the Well-Farer having spoken, the Teacher added:

"The friend who seeks what he can get,
The friend who talks but empty words,
The friend who merely flatters you,
The friend who is a fellow-wastrel:
These four are really foes, not friends.
The wise man, recognising this,
Should hold himself aloof from them
As from some path of panic fear.

"Householder's son, there are these four types who can be seen to be loyal friends: the friend who is a helper is one, the friend who is the same in happy and unhappy times is one, the friend who points out what is good for you is one, and the friend who is sympathetic is one.

"The helpful friend can be seen to be a loyal friend in four ways: he looks after you when you are inattentive, he looks after your posessions when you are inattentive, he is a refuge when you are afraid, and when some business is to be done he lets you have twice what you ask for.

"The friend who is the same in happy and unhappy times can be seen to be a loyal friend in four ways: he tells you his secrets, he guards your secrets, he does not let you down in misfortune, he would even sacrifice his life for you.

"The friend who points out what is good for you can be seen to be a loyal friend in four ways: he keeps you from wrongdoing, he supports you in doing good, he informs you of what you did not know, and he points out the path to heaven.

"The sympathetic friend can be seen to be a loyal friend in four ways: he does not rejoice at your misfortune, he rejoices at your good fortune, he stops others who speak against you, and he commends others who speak in praise of you." Thus the Lord spoke.

And the Well-Farer having spoken thus, the Teacher added:

"The friend who is a helper and
The friend in times both good and bad,
The friend who shows the way that's right,
The friend who's full of sympathy:
These four kinds of friends the wise
Should know at their true worth, and he
Should cherish them with care, just like
A mother with her dearest child." (Ibid, pp. 465-466)

In addition to advising Sigalaka on how to choose one's company, the Buddha also gives him advise on how to best manage his personal finances. This advise is interesting in that it does not suggest that money in and of itself is bad or that one should live a Spartan lifestyle as one might expect. Instead he advises a proper respect for money and suggests a imple way of managing it in order to best promote the security and happiness of one's family and society. As always, the Buddha's teachings are down to earth and very practical.

The wise man trained and disciplined
Shines out like a beacon-fire.
He gathers wealth just as the bee
Gathers honey, and it grows
Like an ant-hill higher yet.
With wealth so gained the layman can
Devote it to his people's good.

He should divide his wealth in four
(This will most advantage bring).
One part he may enjoy at will,
Two parts he should put to work,
The fourth part he should set aside
As reserve in times of need. (Ibid, p. 466)

The next section is perhaps the most interesting in that it spells out a fairly complete system of reciprocal responsibilities between the different components of society, beginning but not ending with the family. Gratitude, respect and responsibility are the keynotes of this system.

"And how, householder's son, does the Ariyan disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as the six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers, the west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and Brahmins." (Ibid, p. 466)

Once again, the Buddha returns to the idea that homage to the spirits or guardians of the world should be replaced by a more mindful and positive attitude in one's actual relationships with others. Ceremonial observance can not stand in for fulfilling one's actual responsibilities towards others. One might ask what the correspondence between each direction and the different relations listed actually are. Is it simply arbitrary, or is there something else involved? It seems to me that the associations are based on traditional qualities associated with each direction. So, parents are associated with the east which is where the sun rises, thus signifying one's birth. One's wife and children are in the west, because that is where the sun sets and life ends, so that is the direction associated with one's declining years when one must look to one's children for support and with the hope that they will carry on the family legacy after one's death. The nurturing and sometimes punishing heat of the sun is often associated with the south, so that is the direction of one's teachers. The north is cooler and the source of the rivers which make life possible (at least as far as the Indians are concerned), so one associates one's friends and companions with the north. Servants, workers and helpers are those over whom one is in charge and who one is supported by, so they are associated with the nadir. Finally, the Brahmins (priests) and ascetics are those to whom one looks up to for guidance, so they are associated with the zenith. In a sense, then, it could be said that fulfilling one's obligations to all of these groups actually is a way of paying homage to the directions.

"There are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. [He should think thus:] `Having been supported by them, I will support them. I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parent's deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.' And there are five ways in which the parents, so ministered by their son as the eastern direction, will reciprocate: they will restrain him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him some skill, find him a suitable wife and, in due time, hand over his inheritance to him. In this way the eastern direction is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." (Ibid, p. 467)

Of course, in the Buddha's day, marriages were arranged and the son would almost always take up the profession of his father, and if he was the eldest son he would inherit the family wealth as well. In addition, each child would be expected to protect the families good name. In today's world this is usually not the case. However, it seems that even today it would be beneficial if children remembered that they are responsible for more than just themselves. In a sense, each child should remember that they too are responsible for the family reputation, and should therefore live with pride and dignity. As for parents, they may no longer be involved in picking their children's marriage partner or be in a position to hand on the family business, but they can still do everything they can to insure that their children receive a proper education and are instilled with the kind of values and good judgement which will enable them to make the right decisions regarding family and career when they are old enough.

"There are five ways in which pupils should minister to their teachers as the southern direction: by rising to greet them, by waiting on them, by being attentive, by serving them, by mastering the skills they teach. And there are five ways in which their teachers, thus ministered to by their pupils as the southern direction, will reciprocate: they will give through instruction, make sure they have grasped what they should have duly grasped, give them a thorough grounding in all skills, recommend them to their friends and colleagues, and provide them with security in all directions. In this way the southern direction is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." (Ibid, p. 467)

Education in the time of the Buddha was far different than the public and even private educational system of our day. However, the idea of the educational process as that of respect and attentivess on the part of the student and responsibility and caring on the part of the teacher is still an essential one. It is unfortunate that despair and callousness are more indicative of modern education instead of the Buddha's description of mutual responsibility.

"There are five ways in which a husband should minister to his wife as the western direction: by honouring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, by providing her with adornments. And there are five ways in which a wife, thus ministered to by her husband as the western direction, will reciprocate: by properly organising her work, by being kind to the servants, by not being unfaithful, by protecting stores, and by being skillful and diligent in all she has to do. In this way the western direction is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." (Ibid, p. 467)

This of course, describes the shared responsabilities between a working husband and a house wife. In our day, both spouses may be working and it would be unusual for most people to have servants. Still, the idea that married life demands shared labor, mutual resepect and faithfulness is not too far off the mark. This also applies to other forms of domestic partnerships as well. One thing that should be added, however, is the idea that marriage requires commitment and hard work. In the Buddha's day, marriage was arranged and had nothing to do with romance or love. It was a business transaction more often than not. No one was ever under the delusion that marriage was about living happily ever after. In our day, however, love-matches are the rule and not the exception and couples expect the emotional high to carry them through all difficulties. Then, as soon as the realities of married life set in, modern couples often decide that they made a mistake and give up rather than try to put in the effort to work things out, even if children are involved. If the Buddha were giving his advice today, I am sure he would point out that marriage is a vocation and not a fairy tale. True commited love is something that is cultivated through mutual caring and commitment, it is not a given that one can take for granted. In Buddhism, blind passion always leads to suffering, but mindfulness, right effort and the cultivation of loving-kindness are the elements of true happiness and peace. This is as true in marriage as it is in anything else in life.

"There are five ways in which a man should minister to his friends and companions as the northern direction: by gifts, by kindly words, by looking after their welfare, by treating them like himself, and by keeping his word. And there are five ways in which friends and companions, thus ministered to by a man as the northern direction, will reciprocate: by looking after him when he is inattentive, by looking after his property when he is inattentive, by being a refuge when he is afraid, by not deserting him when he is in trouble, and by showing concern for his children. In this way the northern direction is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." (Ibid, pp. 467-468)

This really needs no comment. It is interesting to note, however, that the Buddha extends true friendship to caring for each other's children and protecting each other's property.

"There are five ways in which a master should minister to his servants and work people as the nadir: by arranging their work according to their strength, by supplying them with food and wages, by looking after them when they are ill, by sharing special delicacies with them, and by letting them off work at the right time. And there are five ways in which servants and workpeople, thus ministered to by their master as the nadir, will reciprocate: they will get up before him, go to bed after him, take only what they are given, do their work properly, and be bearers of his praise and good repute. In this way the nadir is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." (Ibid, p. 468)

This seems to refer to servants and workers who live in the same house as the house holder to whom this teaching is addressed. This is rarely the situation today, however, the management style that the Buddha describes is still a sound one: Look after your employees and they will look after you. The Buddha's advice to employees is similarly simple as well as sound: Take pride in your work. None of this, of course, deals with the problems of unions, stockholders, corporate policies and the other complications of capitalism. That is a subject best appoached elsewhere, since the Buddha is only concerned with the values governing the life of the individual at this point.

"There are five ways in which a man should minister to ascetics and Brahmins as the zenith: by kindness in bodily deed, speech and thought, by keeping open house for them, by supplying their bodily needs. And the ascetics and Brahmins, thus ministered to by him as the zenith, will reciprocate in six ways: they will restrain him from evil, encourage him to do good, be benevolently compassionate towards him, teach him what he has not heard, and point out to him the way to heaven. In this way the zenith is covered, making it at peace and free from fear." Thus the Lord spoke. (Ibid, p. 468)

Here we come to the ideal relationship between the lay person and the clergy. It is interesting that the Buddha should speak in this way about the Brahmins and ascetics with whom he so virulently disagreed. It seems, however, that he did recognize their role in providing moral discipline and the promise of heavenly rewards to the common people who were not yet ready for the demands of the Buddha's distinctive teachings and training. In fact, the Buddha always seemed to assume that one had already learned the basic teachings regarding karma and the realms of transmigration from the Brahmins when he taught others. On those occasions when he met individuals who either did not know or did not believe in the truth of cause and effect and the various realms of transmigration, he would give a remedial discourse on these subjects in order to prepare them for his deeper teachings. The Buddha, then, may have gone beyond the Brahmins, but he did not deny their value on the rudmentary level of basic moral training and cosmology.

And the Well-Farer having spoken, the Teacher added:

"Mother, father are the east,
Teachers are the southward point,
Wife and children are the west,
Friends and colleagues are the north.
Servants and workers are below,
Ascetics, Brahmins are above.
These directions all should be
Honoured by clansman true.
He who's wise and disciplined,
Kindly and intelligent,
Humble, free from pride,
Such a one may honour gain.
Early rising, scorning sloth,
Unshaken by adversity,
Of faultless conduct, ready wit,
Such a one may honour gain.
Making friends, and keeping them,
Welcoming, no stingy host,
A guide, philosopher and friend,
Such a one may honour gain.
Giving gifts and kindly speech,
A life well-spent for others' good,
Even-handed in all things,
Impartial as each case demands:
These things make the world go round
Like the chariot's axle-pin.
If such things did not exist,
No mother from her son would get
Any honour and respect,
Nor father either as their due.
But since these qualities are held
By the wise in high esteem,
They are given prominence
And are rightly praised by all." (Ibid, pp. 468-469)

Again, the Buddha brings it all together in verse in a beautiful description of the ideal house holder who brings honor to the family name and creates a life of peace and happiness for him/herself and everyone else. These, together with the Four Infinite Virtues (a.k.a. divine abodes) of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity dealt with elsewhere could be called the family values of Buddhism.


Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1995, 2002.

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