Harmony (3/6)

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Another condition for harmony in the Buddha’s thought is respect (gārava). The larger ascetic tradition to which the Buddha and Buddhism belonged in ancient India, quite readily rejected prevailing cultural norms, as often did the Buddha. The ascetic tradition was generally also characteristically raucous and disrespectful.iii  The Buddha was different: he placed great emphasis on the social lubricants of courtesy, etiquette and respect. The Saṅgha met with mutual respect, was expected to meet “in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes,” (MN 31) and to adjourn in harmony. A large part of the monastic code consists of rules of etiquette. The attention Buddhist monastics characteristically give to proper attire and grooming, in contrast to matted-hair ascetics, is a further example.

Respect has two aspects: a mental attitude and a physical or verbal expression. As an attitude it is most essentially to regard something or someone as mattering, to keep in mind the value of something or somebody. Literally the English word respect means “see again.” It is what we do when we refuse to dehumanize or demonize someone who annoys us. There is wisdom in respect. We don’t have to agree with someone, or find them agreeable, to respect them as a human, someone who is in the most essential respects just like us. It is easy to appreciate that respect can contribute to harmony. And, as a matter of fact, as we practice non-harming and develop qualities of kindness towards living beings, we find we naturally come to respect them increasingly. As we respect them more, it becomes harder for us to harm them, feel anger toward them or speak divisively about them. In fact, respect puts to rest the dehumanizing quality of anger discussed above.
The most basic physical expression of respect in India was, and still is, placing one’s palms together in añjali (in Pali or Sanskrit), much like the Christian prayer posture. The fact that añjali has been preserved in all the diverse Asian cultures into which Buddhism has been transmitted indicates the importance accorded respect. Just as practicing ethically toward living beings encourages respect for them, acknowledging people and even things in this way encourages respect for them. This coming together of attitude and expression is not unfamiliar to us in the West, though perhaps not so ubiquitous as in Indian or Buddhist culture: a handshake, a hug or a wave is an expression of attitude.

The famous Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31) tells of a young man, Sigala, the son of a householder, who rises early in the morning, leaves town with wet clothes and wet hair, and then bows to the East, the South, the West, the North, up and down. Then the Buddha comes along with a valuable lesson for young Sigala.

Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rājagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:

“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”

“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: ‘The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship’. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, revering and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”

“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”

“How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshiped in the discipline of the noble.”

“The following should be looked upon as the six quarters.

    The parents should be looked upon as the East,
teachers as the South,
wife and children as the West,
friends and associates as the North,
servants and employees as the Nadir,
ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.” (DN 31)

Now, although Sigala’s practice was motivated by respect for his father and involved a lot of bowing, the six quarters toward which Sigala was bowing had no particular significance for him. The Buddha’s reply is a primary example of the Buddha giving a non-Buddhist conceptual scheme a Buddhist interpretation, in this case turning of what to Sigala was an empty ritual into a valuable teaching about living harmoniously and responsibly in the world. The Buddha provided an interpretation of each of the six quarters as a distinct social relation that would, or at least should, matter to him. And the Buddha did not stop there, as we will see momentarily.

Respect is the primary of an escalating series of attitudes that honor others in one way or another which includes deference, reverence, homage, veneration and worship. We find veneration for the Buddha himself clearly expressed physically in the early sources through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha would enter the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. He also asked that monastics refuse to teach lay people who do not express a sufficient degree of deference.

It seems that these honoring attitudes have a harmonizing role in two ways: Externally we thereby make ourselves subject to the influence of another. We cannot learn from a teacher, for example, that we do not respect, and we learn all the more quickly from a teacher that we revere or venerate. Internally we thereby develop humility, with the higher attitudes even knocking the ego out of its accustomed position at center of the universe. (In fact this might be a basic function of the worship of God in many religions.) We will have more to say about reverence and veneration in the context of refuge later.

One Response to “Harmony (3/6)”

  1. Evan R. Murphy Says:

    “The ascetic tradition was generally also characteristically raucous and disrespectful. The Buddha was different: he placed great emphasis on the social lubricants of courtesy, etiquette and respect.”

    How poignant. Found the rest of the article quite interesting as well, thanks.


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