Guide to Family and Social Relationships – Buddha

A young man named Sigala used to worship the six cardinal points of the heavens – east, south, west, north, nadir and zenith – in obeying and observing the last advice given him by his dying father. The Buddha told the young man that in the ‘noble discipline’ (ariyassa vinaye) of his teaching, the six directions were different. According to his ‘noble discipline’ the six directions were: east: parents; south; teachers; west: wife and children; north: friends, relatives and neighbours; nadir: servants, workers and employees; zenith: religious men.

‘One should worship these six directions’ said the Buddha. Here the word ‘worship’ (namasseyya) is very significant, for one worships something sacred, something worthy of honour and respect. These six family and social groups mentioned above are treated in Buddhism as sacred, worthy of respect and worship. But how is one to ‘worship’ them? The Buddha says that one could ‘worship’ them only by performing one’s duties towards them. These duties are explained in his discourse to Sigala.

First : Parents are sacred to their children. The Buddha says: ‘Parents are called Brahman'(Brahmati matapitaro). The term Brahman(Almighty God) denotes the highest and most sacred conception in Indian thought, and in it the Buddha includes parents. So in good Buddhist families at the present time children literally ‘worship’ their parents every day, morning and evening. They have to perform certain duties towards their parents according to the ‘noble discipline’: they should look after their parents in their old age; should do whatever they have to do on their behalf; should maintain the honour of the family and continue the family tradition; should protect the wealth earned by their parents; and perform their funeral rites after their death. Parents, in their turn, have certain responsibilities towards their children: they should keep their children away from evil courses : should engage them in good and profitable activities; should give them a good education ; should marry them into good families ; and should hand over the property to them in due course.

Second: The relation between teacher and pupil : a pupil should respect and be obedient to his teacher : should attend to his needs if any ; should study earnestly. And the teacher, in his turn, should train and shape his pupil properly ; should teach him well ; should introduce him to his friends ; and should try to procure him security or employment when his education is over.

Third : The relation between husband and wife : love between husband and wife is considered almost religious or sacred. It is called sadara-Brahmacariya ‘sacred family life’. Here, too, the significance of the term Brahman should be noted : the highest respect is given to this relationship. Wives and husbands should be faithful, respectful and devoted to each other, and they have certain duties towards each other : the husband should always honour his wife and never be wanting in respect to her ; he should love her and be faithful to her ; should secure her position and comfort ; and should please her by presenting her with clothing and jewellery. (The fact that the Buddha did not forget to mention even such a thing as the gifts a husband should make to his wife shows how understanding and sympathetic were his humane feelings towards ordinary human emotions.) The wife, in her turn, should supervise and look after household affairs ; should entertain guests, visitors, friends, relatives and employees ; should love and be faithful to her husband ; should protect his earnings ; should be clever and energetic in all activities.

Fourth : The relation between friends, relatives and neighbours : they should be hospitable and charitable to one another ; should speak pleasantly and agreeably ; should work for each other’s welfare ; should be on equal terms with one another ; should not quarrel among themselves ; should help each other in need ; and should not forsake each other in need ; and should not forsake each other in difficulty.

Fifth : The relation between master and servant : the master or the employer has several obligations towards his servant or his employee : work should be assigned according to ability and capacity ; adequate wages should be paid ; medical needs should be provided ; occasional donations or bonuses should be granted. The servant or employee, in his turn, should be diligent and not lazy ; honest and obedient and not cheat his master ; he should be earnest in his work.

Sixth : The relation between the religious (lit. recluses and brahmanas) and the laity : lay people should look after the material needs of the religious with love and respect ; the religious with a loving heart should impart knowledge and learning to the laity, and lead them along the good path away from evil.

We see then that the lay life, with its family and social relations, is included in the ‘noble discipline’, and is within the framework of the Buddhist way of life, as the Buddha envisaged it. So in the Samyutta-nikaya, one of the oldest Pali texts, Sakka, the king of the gods (devas), declares that he worships not only the monks who live a virtuous holy life, but also ‘lay disciples (upasaka) who perform meritorious deeds, who are virtuous, and maintain their families righteously‘.

What the Buddha Taught
Walpola Rahula