Harmony (4/6)

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.

Social responsibilites

Two other conditions of harmony in the Buddha’s thought is how we fulfill our social roles and what we expect of others concerning their social roles. Where fulfillment and expectation are in accord, harmony results. Reading further in the Sigalovada Sutta, we find that each of the six quarters actually corresponds to two reciprocal roles, each of which carries five responsibilities, except for six responsibilities in the last case.

“In five ways … a child should minister to his parents as the East:

 (i) Having supported me I shall support them,
(ii) I shall do their duties,
(iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
(iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
(v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.

“In five ways … the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:

(i) they restrain them from evil,
(ii) they encourage them to do good,
(iii) they train them for a profession,
(iv) they arrange a suitable marriage,
(v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

“In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … a pupil should minister to a teacher as the South:

        (i) by rising from the seat in salutation,
(ii) by attending on him,
(iii) by eagerness to learn,
(iv) by personal service,
(v) by respectful attention while receiving instructions.

“In five ways … do teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion:

        (i) they train them in the best discipline,
(ii) they see that they grasp their lessons well,
(iii) they instruct them in the arts and sciences,
(iv) they introduce them to their friends and associates,
(v) they provide for their safety in every quarter.

“The teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion towards them in these five ways. Thus is the South covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a wife as the West be ministered to by a husband:

(i) by being courteous to her,
(ii) by not despising her,
(iii) by being faithful to her,
(iv) by handing over authority to her,
(v) by providing her with adornments.

“The wife thus ministered to as the West by her husband shows her compassion to her husband in five ways:

(i) she performs her duties well,
(ii) she is hospitable to relations and attendants,
(iii) she is faithful,
(iv) she protects what he brings,
(v) she is skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

“In these five ways does the wife show her compassion to her husband who ministers to her as the West. Thus is the West covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a clansman minister to his friends and associates as the North:

(i) by liberality,
(ii) by courteous speech,
(iii) by being helpful,
(iv) by being impartial,
(v) by sincerity.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they protect him when he is heedless,
(ii) they protect his property when he is heedless,
(iii) they become a refuge when he is in danger,
(iv) they do not forsake him in his troubles,
(v) they show consideration for his family.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the North covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees as the Nadir:

(i) by assigning them work according to their ability,
(ii) by supplying them with food and with wages,
(iii) by tending them in sickness,
(iv) by sharing with them any delicacies,
(v) by granting them leave at times.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir by their master show their compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they rise before him,
(ii) they go to sleep after him,
(iii) they take only what is given,
(iv) they perform their duties well,
(v) they uphold his good name and fame.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the Nadir covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a householder minister to ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith:

(i) by lovable deeds,
(ii) by lovable words,
(iii) by lovable thoughts,
(iv) by keeping open house to them,
(v) by supplying their material needs.

“The ascetics and brahmans thus ministered to as the Zenith by a householder show their compassion towards him in six ways:

(i) they restrain him from evil,
(ii) they persuade him to do good,
(iii) they love him with a kind heart,
(iv) they make him hear what he has not heard,
(v) they clarify what he has already heard,
(vi) they point out the path to a heavenly state.

“In these six ways do ascetics and brahmans show their compassion towards a householder who ministers to them as the Zenith. Thus is the Zenith covered by him and made safe and secure.” (DN 31)

I quote this at length because of the importance of this teaching. It provides what we could consider a fourth system of ethics alongside generosity, precepts and purity. Although elements of all three of these are found in this itemization of responsibilities, this is, like precepts, a kind of duty ethics, a code of obligations. However, like the Confucian code, its focus is on the harmonizing or ordering of human affairs. This code is often referred to as a lay Vinaya, corresponding to the monastic code of conduct.

We can note a few qualities of this itemization. First, it is balanced, allocating equal responsibilities to each side of each reciprocal relation. In this way, it is not exploitive as long as all adhere to their own responsibilities. I think the point is that if the reciprocal relation is out of balance, as when slaves or wives are simply treated as property, harmony suffers. Second, this itemization focuses on responsibilities, not on rights. A common modern tendency is to see the social landscape in terms of my rights but their responsibilities. Finally, although the specifics might require some adaptation to modern cultural circumstances, this  allocation of responsibilities speaks remarkably well, and very critically, to our modern circumstances.

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