Principles of Lay Buddhism

Lay Buddhists

by R. Bogoda


Buddhism should not be thought to be a teaching for monks only, as it is sometimes wrongly conceived. In a large number of his discourses, the Buddha has given practical guidance for the lay life and sound advice to cope with life's difficulties. Many of our problems and difficulties for which some people blame circumstances and chance, are, if correctly viewed, the result of ignorance or negligence. They could be well avoided or overcome by knowledge and diligence yet of course, worldly happiness and security are never perfect; they are always a matter of degree, for in the fleeting there is nothing truly firm.

The central problem of a lay Buddhist is how to combine personal progress in worldly matters with moral principles. He strives to achieve this by building his life on the foundation of the Fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path, and to shape his activities in accordance with it. The first step of this Path is Right Understanding; by developing a life style in accordance with it, the other factors of the Path result from it, namely: Right Thoughts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The eight steps of the Path fall into the three divisions of Wisdom (the first two), Morality (the second three), and Mental Culture (the last three). The order of development is, however, Morality (sila), Mental Culture (samadhi), and Wisdom (pañña). The Path outlines the practice of Buddhism, leading to its ultimate goal — Nibbana.

As a householder, the Buddhist is particularly concerned with Morality. Right Understanding, however, is the prerequisite. Right Effort is the training of the will, and Right Mindfulness, the all-round helper. Progress to a lay Buddhist means the development of the whole man in society. It is, therefore, an advance on many fronts — the economic, the moral, and the spiritual, the first not as an end in itself but as a means to an end: the full flowing of the human being in the onward-carrying stream of Buddhist ideas and ideals.

A Practical Guide

Right Understanding is the beginning and the end of Buddhism, without which one's vision is dimmed and the way is lost, all effort misguided and misdirected. Right Understanding, in the context of the layman's Dhamma, provides a sound philosophy of life.

Right Understanding, the first step of the Path, is seeing life as it really is: the objective understanding of the nature of things as it truly is (yatha bhuta ñana dassana). All things that have arisen, including the so-called being, are nothing but incessant change (anicca), therefore unsatisfactory (dukkha) and productive of suffering. It follows then that what is both impermanent and pain-laden cannot conceal within it anything that is solid, substantial, or unchanging — an eternal soul or an immanent abiding principle (anatta).

Right Understanding implies further a knowledge of the working of kamma — the moral law of cause and effect. We reap what we sow, in proportion to the sowing. Good begets good and evil, evil. Kamma operates objectively, and the results show themselves here or in the hereafter. That is to say, consequences follow causes whether one believes in kamma or not, even as a fall from a height will result in injury or even death, irrespective of one's personal belief or disbelief in the force of gravity.

Kamma is intentional or volitional action; vipaka is the fruit or result, and every action affects character for good or bad. We know that actions consciously performed again and again tend to become unconscious or automatic habits. They, in turn, whether good or bad, become second nature. They more or less shape or mold the character of a person. Likewise, the unconscious or latent tendencies in us, including inborn human instincts, are merely the results of actions done repeatedly in innumerable past lives extending far beyond childhood and the formative years of the present life. Kamma includes both past and present action. It is neither fate nor predestination.

A Buddhist views life in terms of cause and effect, his own birth included. Existence (life) was not thrust on him by an unseen Deity to whose will he must blindly bend nor by parents, for the mere fusing of two cells from mother and father does not by itself produce life. It was of his own causing of his own choice: the kammic energy generated from the past birth produced life — made real the potential, in the appropriate sperm and ovum of his human parents at the moment of conception, endowing the new life with initial consciousness (patisandhi viññana), using the mechanism of heredity, duly modified, if necessary.

The arising of a being here then means the passing away of another elsewhere. This changing personality that constitutes "me" — the physical and mental make-up that is "I" — the very environment into which I was born, in which I acted and reacted is more of my own doing, of my own choice, of my own kamma, of one's past actions and thoughts. It is just, it is fair, it is right; what is, is the sum of what was; effects exactly balance causes. One gets precisely what one deserves, even as the sum of two plus two is four, never more nor less.

Enough of the past that is dead. What remains is the ever-present now, not even the future that's still unborn. The past is dead, yet influences the present, but does not determine it. The past and the present, in turn, influence the future that is yet to be. Only the present is real. The responsibility of using the present for good or bad lies with each individual. And the future, still unborn, is one's to shape. The so-called being which, in fact, is merely a conflux of mind and matter, is, therefore, born of, supported by, and heir to, his kamma.

One is driven to produce kamma by tanha or desire which itself is threefold. Where there is tanha, there is ignorance (avijja) — blindness to the real nature of life; and where there is ignorance, there is tanha or craving. They coexist, just as the heat and light of a flame are inseparable. And the beginning of ignorance (avijja) cannot be known.

Because of this lack of understanding of things as they truly are, we, often unmindful of the rights of others, desire for, grasp at, cling to, the wrong sorts of things: the pleasures that money can buy, power over others, fame and name, wishing to go on living forever. We hope that pleasures will be permanent, satisfying and solid, but find them to be passing, unsatisfying, and empty — as hollow as a bamboo when split. The result is frustration and disappointment, dis-ease and an irritating sense of inadequacy and insufficiency. If we don't get all our wishes, we react with hate or take shelter in a world of delusive unreality or phantasy.

To remedy this, we must correct our understanding and thinking, and see in our own experiences, so near to us, things as they truly are, and first reduce, and finally remove all shades of craving or desire that are the causes of this restlessness and discontent. This is not easy, but when one does so by treading the noble Eightfold path, one reaches a state of perfection and calm (Nibbana) thereby bringing to an end the pain-laden cycle of birth and death.

As long as there is desire, birth leads to death, and death to birth, even as an exit is also an entrance. Each subsequent individual born is not the same as the preceding one, nor is it entirely different (naca so naca añño) but only a continuity; that is to say, each succeeding birth depends upon, or emerges from, the preceding one. And both, birth and death, are but the two sides of the same coin, life. The opposite of life is not death, as some fondly believe, but rest — the rest and peace of Nibbana, in contrast to the restlessness and turmoil that is life.

Kamma, as we have seen, is volitional action. It implies making choices or decisions between, broadly speaking, skillful (kusala) and unskillful (akusala) actions. The former are rooted in generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom leading to happiness and progress, and therefore, to be cultivated again and again in one's life. The good actions are Generosity, Morality, Meditation, Reverence, Service, Transference of merit, Rejoicing in other's good actions, Hearing the Doctrine, Expounding the Doctrine, and Straightening one's views. The unskilled actions are rooted in greed, hate and delusion, leading to pain, grief and decline, and therefore, to be avoided. There are ten such actions: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, harsh speech, gossip, covetousness, ill-will and false views. This division of actions is a natural outcome of the Universal Law of Kamma; Kamma is one of the fixed orders of existence.

Life is like a ladder. The human being occupies the middle steps. Above are the celestial worlds of bliss; below, the woeful states of sorrow. With every choice, one moves upward or downward, ascends or descends, for each one is evolved according to one's own actions. Beings are not only owners of kamma but also their heirs. Actions fashion not only one's fortune, how one shall be born, dividing beings into inferior or superior, in health, wealth, wisdom, and the like, but also shapes one's future, where one shall be born, whether in the human, heavenly or animal world. In short, one can progress or regress from the human state.

A proper understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of kamma and rebirth can, therefore, improve and elevate the character of a person. Buddhism teaches, above all, moral responsibility — to be mindful of one's actions, because of the inevitability of action being followed by reaction. One therefore strives one's best to avoid evil and to do good for one's own welfare as well as for the benefit of others. This conduct leads to peace within and without. It promotes soberness of mind and habit together with self-respect and self-reliance. Finally, this teaching fosters in us a feeling of all-embracing kindness and tolerance toward all living beings and keeps us away from cruelty, hate, and conflict.

Man, as a whole, has not made a steady progress toward moral and spiritual perfection. But the individual can pursue the ideal of a perfect man — the Arahant — free from greed, hate, and delusion by treading the Noble Eightfold Path comprising Sublime Conduct, Mental Culture and Intuitive Insight (or wisdom). It is the perfection of human living by perfecting one's understanding and purifying one's mind. It is to know the Truth, do the Truth and become the Truth. Such a one has gone beyond the force of all rebirth-producing kamma, skillful and unskillful. He has attained the highest — Nibbana.

As the Blessed One teaches with incomparable beauty:

Sabba papassa akaranam,

kusalassa upasampada


etam Buddhanusasanam

To avoid evil, To do good,

To purify the mind,

This is the advice of all the Buddhas.

This, in brief and simple outline, is the Teaching of the Buddha as it affects the householder's life. It is at once an ideal and a method. As an ideal, it aims at the evolution of a perfect Man — synonymous with the attainment of Nibbana — in this very life itself, by one's own efforts. As a method, it teaches us that the ideal can become real only by the systematic practice and development of the Noble Eightfold Path, at the two levels — that of the monk and that of the layman. Each develops according to his ability and each according to his needs whereby man, using the instrument of mind, by his own endeavor comes to know himself, train himself, and free himself from the thralldom of base desire, the blindness of hate, and the mist of a delusive self, to win the highest of all freedoms — freedom from error and ignorance.

In this Noble Teaching, there is no intellectual error, based as it is on reason and, in keeping with the finding of science, no moral blindness; for its ethics are truly lofty, with a rational basis: namely, evolution in terms of kamma.

That Buddhism is eminently practicable is clearly shown by the example of the great Indian Emperor Asoka, when Buddhism became the shaping ideal of the State, and Buddhist ideas and ideals were used to build a just and righteous society, thus ushering in a period of great prosperity: material, moral, and spiritual. It is the only true solution to the manifold problems in the modern world. To this we must now turn.

Social and Economic Aspects

Buddha was a rebel. He rebelled against the way of thought, and the way of life, of his age.

To the philosophical concept of life as dynamic change (anicca) of no being but becoming (bhava), no thinker but thought, no doer but deed — he added its social equivalent: the doctrine of social fluidity and equality based on nobility of conduct. As the Buddha stated:

Not by birth is one an outcaste

Not by birth is one a Brahman.

By deeds is one an outcaste,

By deeds is one a Brahman.

and again,

A birth no Brahman, nor non-Brahman makes;

'Tis life and doing that mold the Brahman true.

Their lives mold farmers, tradesmen,merchants, serfs;

Their lives mold robbers, soldiers, chaplains, kings.

What matters then is not the womb from which one came nor the societal class into which one was born but the moral quality of one's actions. As a tree is judged by its fruit, so shall a man be judged by his deeds.

In this way, the doors of the Deathless and of the unconditioned freedom beyond, and of social freedom here on earth, were thrown open to all, regardless of caste, color, or class. In his teaching all men unite, lose identity, even as do the waters of the rivers that flow into the sea. No caste, class, or race privileges existed among his lay followers or in the Order of the Sangha that he founded — a fitting complement to the doctrine of anatta.

For the Buddha, all men are one in that they belong to one species. Social classes and castes are nothing but functional or occupational groupings, neither fixed nor inevitable. They are divisions of society, man-made, subject to change and resulting from social and historical factors. A social doctrine based on the alleged superiority of any caste, class, or race, and advocating to keep it dominant by the use of force, must necessarily lead to the perpetuation of social tensions and conflict, and will never bring about harmony and the fraternity of men.

The Buddha's doctrine of equality does not, however, imply that all men are alike physically or mentally. That would be identity. It does mean that each one should be treated equally with human dignity, and given an equal chance to develop the faculties latent in each, as all are capable of moral and spiritual progress, and of human perfection, in view of the common capacity and capability of humanity. Thus the Buddha's teaching of a classless society requires the progressive refinement of man's nature, as shown by his actions, and the development of his character.

The Buddha was not only the first thinker in known history to teach the doctrine of human equality, but also the first humanist who attempted to abolish slavery, in which term is also included the traffic in, and the sale of, females for commercial purposes. In fact, this is a prohibited trade for his followers.

The character of a society depends on the beliefs and practices of its people as well as on its economy. An economic system based on Buddhist ethics and principles, therefore, seems the only alternative. The true nature of man is that he is not only a thinking and feeling creature but also a striving creature, with higher aspirations and ideals. If he is aggressive and assertive, he is also cooperative and creative. He is forever making not only things, but himself. And the making of oneself by perfecting the art of living is the noblest of all creative aspirations, yielding the highest happiness and satisfaction in life.

Progress in the material side of life alone is not enough for human happiness, as illustrated by today's "affluent societies." The pursuit of material pleasures in the hope that by multiplying them they will thereby become permanent is a profitless chase, akin to chasing one's shadow: the faster one runs, the faster it eludes. True happiness, contentment, and harmony come from an emancipated mind. Any economic system is therefore, unsatisfactory, if based on a wrong set of values and attitudes, and will fail in the fulfillment of its promises.

The only effective remedy for the economic and social ills of the modern world is a more rational and and balanced economic structure based on Buddhist ideas and ideals. In a Buddhist economic system1 the people deliberately use the state power to maximize welfare, both economic and social, from a given national income. The methods employed are threefold: economic planning, a suitable fiscal policy, and a comprehensive network of social services assuring to every member of the community, as a right, and as a badge of citizenship and fellowship, the essentials of civilized living, such as minimum standards of economic security, health care, housing, and education, without which a citizen cannot realize his humanity in full.

In such a system production, distribution, and values take a different meaning in a new context. Economic activity will be pursued not as an end in itself but a means to an end — the all-round development of man himself. There should be a revision of values. A person's worth, for instance, ought not be measured in terms of what he has but on what he is. In short, man or the majority of men in society should be helped to see life in perspective. Knowledge and discipline may transform a society into a workshop or a military camp, but it is the cultivation of a proper sense of values that will make it truly civilized. Perhaps this may be the clue to the paradox of the Western civilization that knows how to go through space and sail across the seas, but not how to live on earth in peace. It is true that such a change of heart and system may, in the present context of the world, take a long time to realize. But what else is the alternative? It is futile to think that reform by revolution will remedy the ills of the world.

In the opening stanza of the Dhammapada the Buddha declared the supremacy of mind over matter: "Mind precedes things, dominates them, creates them" (Mano pubbangamadhamma mano settha mano maya).

However, this must not be interpreted to mean that Buddhism is against social and economic reform. It is far from it. Buddhism stands for a society of equals, in which justice and ethical principles shall supplant privilege and chaos. But reform must take place by peaceful persuasion and education without resorting to violence; worthy aims must be realized by worthy means even as democracy must be maintained by the methods of democracy.

Buddhism concedes that the economic environment influences character, but denies that it determines it. A person can use his free will, within limits, and act according to his conscience irrespective of the social structure to which he belongs. It all depends on mind and its development.

Society does not stand still. Like any other conditioned phenomenon, it changes constantly and Buddhism teaches us that we cannot change society as something different from its members. Social progress is their progress, social regress their regress. If the individual perfects his life, thinks and acts clearly, lives in accordance with the Dhamma and the moral law of kamma, to that extent will there be social order and discipline. Initial improvements from within will result in corresponding changes without. Social order and discipline follow, not preceded, the state of mind of the individuals comprising that society. Society reflects the character of its people; the better the people, the better the society. Every society is a projection or extension of the collective personality of its members.

But humanity in the mass can be influenced for good by the example of a few really noble and selfless men with vision and wisdom, with ideas and ideals to live for and to die for. They provide the guiding star round which others, too timid to lead but strong enough to follow, cluster around and become willing followers. It is these few who set the standards for the many at the bottom, and their impact and influence on the way of life and thought of the human race can be tremendous. The message they bring carries with it the indelible stamp of truth and is, therefore, never obsolete.

Most outstanding among the great teachers is the Buddha Gotama. It is through his Teachings that all the Buddhist nations, including Sri Lanka, were molded and into the fabric of national life were woven the strands of his Teaching.

It is then the duty of every genuine Buddhist to help to make known, far and wide, the Teaching of the Buddha in all its many aspects, and thereby make possible tomorrow the seemingly impossible of today — a new and just socio-economic order based on Buddhist ethics, principles, and practices. Such a society will be both democratic and socialistic, with liberty, equality, fraternity, and economic security for all, not as ends in themselves but as means to an end — the full development of man into a well-rounded, happy human being in the setting of the Teaching of Gotama the Buddha, Guide Incomparable to a troubled world.

Buddhism and Daily Life

A follower of the Buddha learns to view life realistically, which enables him to adjust to everything that comes his way. Buddhism tells him the meaning and purpose of existence and his place in the scheme of things. It suggests the lines of conduct, supported by cogent reasons, by which he should live his daily life. It clarifies what his attitude should be to specific matters like self, job, sex, and society. Thus it assists him in the business of living, for to lead a full life four fundamental adjustments have to be made. He must be happily adjusted to himself and the world, his occupation, his family, and his fellow beings.

(a) Himself and The World

A Buddhist tries to see things as they really are. He remembers the instability of everything and understands the inherent danger in expecting to find permanence in existence. In this way, he strives to insulate himself from potential disappointments. So, a discerning lay Buddhist is not unduly elated or upset by the eight worldly conditions of gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. He does not expect too much from others, nor from life, and recognizes that it is only human to have one's share of life's ups and downs.

He looks at life's events in terms of cause and effect, however unpleasant or painful they may be. An understanding layman accepts dukkha as the results of his own kamma — probably a past unskillful (akusala) action ripening in the present.

He sees the connection between craving and suffering and therefore tries to reduce both the intensity and variety. As the Dhammapada states:

From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear,

For him who is wholly free from craving, there is no grief — whence fear?

— Dhp 215

Therefore, he is mindful of a scale of values — knowing clearly what is really important to him as a Buddhist layman, what is desirable but not so important, and what is trivial. He tries to eliminate the non-essential and learns to be content with the essential. Such a person soon discovers that to need less is to live better and happier. It is a mark of maturity. It is progress on the path to inner freedom.

One should wisely seek and carefully choose in one's actions and strive to maintain a Buddhist standard of conduct, whatever disappointments life may bring. And when disappointments come, one tries to look at them with some degree of detachment, standing, as it were, apart from them. In this way, a person gains a feeling of inner security and frees himself from fears, anxieties, and many other heavy burdens. This attitude to life and the world brings courage and confidence.

How does a lay Buddhist view himself? In the Buddha Dhamma, the human being is an impersonal combination of ever-changing mind and matter. In the flux is found no unchanging soul or eternal principle. The self or soul is then a piece of fiction invented by the human mind. To believe in such an absurdity is to create another source of unhappiness.

One should therefore see oneself as one truly is — a conflux of mind and matter energized by tanha or craving, containing immense possibilities for both good and evil, neither overestimating nor underestimating one's capacities and capabilities. One must also take care to recognize one's limitations and not pretend that they do not exist. It is simply a matter of accepting what one is, and deciding to make the most of oneself. With this determination, one's position in this world will be decided by one's efforts. And everyone has a place, however humble it may be, and a contribution to make as well.

Seeing that no two are alike, physically or psychologically, in the light of kamma, a wise person should, therefore, avoid comparing himself with others. Such profitless comparison can only lead to unnecessary sorrow and suffering. If he thinks that he is better than others, he may become proud and conceited and develop a superiority feeling — of an inflated "I." If the person thinks he is worse than others, he is liable to develop an inferiority feeling — of a deflated "I," and to withdraw from the realities and responsibilities of life. If he considers that he is equal to others, there is likelihood of stagnation and disinclination to further effort and progress.

So, instead of keeping pace with, or outdoing others, socially, financially, and in other ways, the understanding layman proceeds to do something more useful. He decides to take stock of himself, to know himself, his true nature in all aspects, as a first step to improving it: the secular (such as his physical, mental, emotional qualities), the moral, and the spiritual, through careful self-examination and observation, by past performance, and by the candid comments of sincere friends. Seeing himself as a whole, he plans for life as a whole in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path. Such a plan when drawn up will include all important events of a normal layman's life including occupation, marriage, and old age. Lay happiness and security lies then in finding out exactly what one can do and in actually doing it.

A plan like this brings order into an otherwise aimless and meaningless life, prevents drift and indicates the right direction and drive. A thoughtful lay Buddhist will not simply do what others do. He can resist the pull of the crowd when necessary. He is ever mindful both of ends pursued and the means employed. He does not merely go through life aimlessly; he goes, knowing clearly where he wants to go, with a purpose and a plan based on reality.

To be born as a human being is hard, but made easier in a Buddha Era — that is, an age when his teachings are still remembered and practiced. The more reason then why a lay Buddhist should consciously direct his life for purposeful living with a right end, by right endeavor, to a right plan; this is the quintessence of Buddha's teachings.

(b) Earning a Living

Men work to satisfy the primary or basic urges of hunger, thirst, and sex, as well a host of secondary wants and desires created by a commercial civilization such as ours.

The Buddha's teaching is a teaching of diligence and right effort or exertion. The opposite of diligence is negligence — aimless drift, sloth, and laziness which are hindrances to both material and moral progress. It is the active man who lives purposefully, who blesses the world with wealth and wisdom. So work is essential for happy living. Life without work would be an eternal holiday, which is the hell of boredom.

A large part of our waking life is spent earning a living. So it is easy to appreciate why we should be at least moderately happy in our job. But choosing a suitable career, like choosing a marriage partner, is one of the most important yet one of the most difficult tasks in life.

The economic aspect of a community profoundly affects its other aspects. The Buddha says that society, as with all conditioned phenomena, has no finality of form and therefore changes with the passage of time. The mainsprings of social change are ideology and economics — for men are driven to action by beliefs and desires. Some systems emphasize the latter; the Buddha the former for an economic structure can only influence but never determine man's thought.

Man must live and the means of his livelihood are matters of his greatest concern. A hungry man is an angry man. And a man poisoned by discontent is hardly in a fit frame of mind to develop his moral and spiritual life. The spirit may be willing but the flesh may prove to be weak. Unemployment and economic insecurity lead to tension, irritability, and loss of self-respect without which a healthy mental life is impossible. And one of the essential needs of a man is to feel he is wanted in the world.

Of human rights the right of work should, therefore, be assured to all, as a pre-requisite for the good life. It is the duty of the state to uphold justice, and provide for the material and spiritual welfare of its subjects.

While Buddhism recognizes that bread is essential for existence, it also stresses that man does not live by bread alone. This is not all. How he earns and why he does it are equally relevant. He should not gain a living by methods detrimental to the welfare of living beings — anakula ca kammanta, "a peaceful occupation," as the Discourse on Blessings (Maha-mangala Sutta) has it. So the Buddha forbade five kinds of trade to a lay Buddhist, and refraining from them constitutes Right Livelihood, the seventh step of the Path. They are: trading in arms, human beings, flesh (including the breeding of animals for slaughter), intoxicants and harmful drugs, and poisons. These trades add to the already existing suffering in the world.

Economic activity should also be regarded as a means to an end — the end being the full development of man himself. Work should serve men, not enslave him. He should not be so preoccupied with the business (or, busy-ness, to be more accurate) of earning a living that he has no time to live. While income and wealth through righteous means will bring satisfaction and lay happiness, the mere accumulation of riches for their own sake will only lead to unbridled acquisitiveness and self-indulgence resulting later in physical and mental suffering. The enjoyment of wealth implies not merely its use for one's own happiness but also the giving for the welfare of others as well.

The Buddha further says that the progress, prosperity, and happiness of a lay person depends on hard and steady effort — rather discouraging, no doubt, to many people who want something for nothing. Efficiency in work, be it high or humble, makes a useful contribution to the production of socially desirable goods and services. It gives one's work meaning and interest, besides enabling one to support oneself and one's family in comfort. Conservation and improvement of one's resources and talents, acquired or inherited, with balanced living, living within one's income, ensuring freedom from debt is a sure indicator of right seeing or understanding. Lastly, a blameless moral and spiritual life should be the aim of right livelihood.

Life is one and indivisible, and the working life a part of the whole. The man who is unhappy at work is unhappy at home, too. Unhappiness spreads. Likewise, business life is part of life. The Dhamma of the Blessed One should therefore pervade and permeate one's entire life for only wealth rooted in righteous endeavor can yield true happiness.

(c) Bringing up a Family

In the Maha Mangala Sutta the Buddha teaches us that:

Mother and father well supporting,

Wife and children duly cherishing,

Types of work unconflicting,

This, the Highest Blessing.

— Sn 2.4

The essentials of happy family life are then a partnership of two parents with common aims, attitudes, and ideals who love, respect, and trust each other; who love and understand their children, on whom they, in turn, can depend for the same treatment and sound guidance grounded on true values, living by Right Livelihood, and supporting aged parents. In Buddhism, however, marriage is not a compulsory institution for all lay followers. It is optional. This brings us to the important question of sex.

The sex instinct is a powerful impersonal impulse or force in us all to ensure the preservation of the race. Nature, to make sure of its objective, made the reproductive act of sexual union highly pleasurable so that it is inevitably sought by the individual for its own sake. There is no special mating season for humans, and males and females may find that they are physically attracted at any time.

Sex is an essential part of life. In some form or other it affects us every day, and often ends in choosing a partner for life. It can make or mar a householder's life.

What is the Buddhist attitude to sex? For a lay person, there is nothing sinful or shameful in sex, nor does it carry lifelong burdens of guilt. Sexual desires, in its personal aspect, is just like another form of craving and, as craving, leads to suffering. Sexual desire, too, must be controlled and finally totally eradicated. This happiness2 arises only at the third stage of Sainthood, that of Anagami. When a lay Buddhist becomes an Anagami, he leads a celibate life.

But sexual behavior, in its social context, demands mindfulness of the fact that at least one other person's happiness is at stake and, possibly, that of another — a potential child. And children born of premarital relations, when deprived and unwanted, often develop into juvenile delinquents. Besides, pre-marital sex may carry with it the risks of venereal infection. A compassionate Buddhist, mindful of his own and others' welfare, acts wisely and responsibly in sexual matters. Misconduct for a layman means sexual union with the wives of others or those under protection of father, mother, sister, brother, or guardian, including one's employees.

Adolescence is a period of stress and strain. It is at this time that the sex instinct becomes active, and sensible parents should guide and help their children to adjust to the changes. This sexual energy could be diverted not merely to outdoor games and sports, but also to creative activities like hand work, gardening, and other constructive activities.

It is not easy for an unmarried adult to practice sexual self-restraint till such time as he is able to marry. No doubt he lives in a sex-drenched commercial civilization where sex is seen, heard, sensed, and thought of most the time. But the ideal of sex only within marriage is something worth aiming at. The Buddhist's ultimate objective is, after all, to be a Perfect Man — not a perfect beast. And a start has to be made some day, somewhere — and now is the best time for it.

At all times in a man's life, it is mind that dominates man's actions. It is mind that makes one what one is. There is no doubt about this. Truly, it is an encouraging fact — one tends to become what one wants to be. And, if one wishes to be chaste, one can be. One's life will then move irresistibly in the direction of its fulfillment.

Much can be done by sublimating the instinct by diverting the energy in the sex impulse into other activities. Developing an occupational interest or hobbies or sports can divert the mind and provide suitable outlets. Moderation in eating is helpful. But what is most important is the guarding of thoughts regarding all sexual matters. One must also avoid situations and stimuli likely to excite sexual desires.3 When sensual desires do arise, the following methods may be tried:

Mindfully note the presence of such thoughts without delay; when they tend to arise, merely notice them without allowing yourself to be carried away by these thoughts.

Simply neglect such thoughts, turning your mind either to beneficial thoughts or to an activity that absorbs you.

Reflect on the possible end results.

Steps should also be taken to foster and maintain all that is wholesome, as for instance, wise friendship, and keeping oneself usefully occupied at all times. If one has succeeded in meditative practice, the happiness derived from it will be a powerful counter-force against sexual desires.

This mindfulness is the only way to achieve self-mastery. It is a hard fight requiring patient and persistent practice; nevertheless, it is a fight worth waging and a goal worth winning.

(d) Social Relationships

A lay Buddhist lives in society. He must adjust himself to other people to get on smoothly with them. Human relationships — the education of the emotions — are the fourth R in education and play an important part in everyday life. So instead of keeping pace with, or outdoing others socially, financially, and in other ways, the understanding layman proceeds to do something more useful. Happiness and security then lie in finding out exactly what one can do, and doing it well.

The lay person who practices morality (sila) by reason of his virtue, gives peace of mind to those around him. He controls his deeds and words by following the third, fourth, and fifth steps of the noble Eightfold Path, namely Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood or by observing the Five Precepts (Pañca Sila).

Such regulated behavior flows from proper understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of kamma, that a man is what he is because of action and the result of action. If one is genuinely trying to tread the path, one's daily life should reflect it. So, the Buddhist avoids killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, drugs, intoxicants, and harmful lying, tale-bearing, harsh words, and idle talk.

The Buddha's attitude toward stupefying drugs and intoxicants is clear and simple: complete abstinence from both. And why? The immediate aim of a Buddhist layman is happiness and security, here and now — in the present existence, while his distant objective is the lasting peace and security of Nibbana and, therewith, freedom from repeated births and deaths, with their attendant frustrations, disappointments, and the pain of temporal life. Now, the one and only tool he has at his disposal to achieve both of these goals is the weapon of the mind, which, under the wise guidance of the Master's teaching, he gradually learns to use with skill, without ill to himself or others. And one of the best ways of impairing the efficiency of this precious mental instrument — to make it dull and blunt, is to partake of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Even when taken in moderation they have a pernicious influence on the mind and on the body, as well as on the character and the moral qualities. Under their baneful effects, mind becomes confused, and the drinker finds it difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, the true and false. Such a person, then, wrongs himself, wrongs those who live with him, and wrongs society at large. On the other hand, he who faithfully follows the Buddha's advice and abstains completely from the use of all intoxicants and harmful drugs, is always sober in mind, and is therefore able to exercise physical, mental, and moral control. Such a one has always a clear mind and can easily understand what is going on within, and also without, one's mind.

But what of a Buddhist who, as a rule, refrains from alcoholic drinks and drugs, but occasionally finds himself placed in a delicate situation such as when offered an intoxicating drink at a party given by his superior or at an important occasion? Should he accept or refuse? At least two possible courses are open to him: he could politely decline excusing himself on medical grounds (which are justifiable), and ask instead for a non-alcoholic drink, mindfully noting what is taking place, and impress on his mind that even a single deviation from the ideal of total abstinence is to open the way, even temporarily, to heedlessness, recklessness, and mental confusion. Alcohol does impair the ability to think clearly, to decide wisely, and to perform any work of an exacting nature. If a Buddhist layman, while aiming at absolute perfection occasionally lapses, and is content with approximations, he is free to do so — but at his own grave peril.

Positively, the Buddhist layman is kind and compassionate to all, honest and upright, pure and chaste, sober and heedful in mind. He speaks only that which is true, in accordance with facts, sweet, peaceable, and helpful. Morality is a fence that protects us from the poisons of the outer world. It is, therefore, a pre-requisite for higher spiritual aspirations and through it character shines. The development of personality on such lines results in charm, tact, and tolerance — essential qualities to adjust oneself to society, and to get on well with other people.

In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha explained to young Sigala the reciprocal relationship that should exist among the members of society. They are worth mentioning in brief; parents have to look after their children, and guide and educate them; children have to respect their parents, perform their duties and maintain family traditions; teachers must train and instruct pupils in the proper way; and pupils in turn must be diligent and dutiful; a husband should be kind, loyal, and respectful of his wife, supply her needs and give her due place in the home, and she in return should be faithful, understanding, efficient, industrious, and economical in the performance of her duties; friends should be generous, sincere, kindly, and helpful to one another, and a sheltering tree in time of need; employers must be considerate to their employees, give adequate wages, ensure satisfactory conditions of work and service and they, in return must work honestly, efficiently and be loyal to their masters; the laity should support and sustain the monks and other holy men who, in turn, should discourage them to do evil, encourage them to do good, expound the teaching and show the way to happiness.

Buddhist morality is grounded on both thought and feeling. A Buddhist monk does social service when he himself, while not engaging in the worldly life, so teaches the Dhamma that he makes the lay followers better Buddhists, and thereby induces them to take to social work, which is an ideal practical form of the Four Sublime States, Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity, besides their practice of these at the meditational levels. They should be the four cornerstones of genuine lay Buddhist life. The Four Sublime States form the foundation of individual and social peace, and combine in them the realism of human nature and the idealism of youth to work for the social betterment, out of natural sympathy and concern for fellow-beings.

But social work to be of real value should spring from genuine love, sympathy, and understanding for fellow-men, guided by knowledge and training. It is the living expression of Buddhist brotherhood.

The cultivation of the neglect of these duties is a matter for each one of us, but their promotion will undoubtedly foster healthier inter-personal relationships, decrease social tension and irritability, and appreciably increase social good, stability, and harmony.

Mental Health

Life is full of stress and strain, but we have to live in conditions as they are and make the best of them. Successful adjustment to life in the light of Buddha's teachings will, however, ensure the all-round progress of the lay Buddhist, maximizing happiness and minimizing pain.

The Buddha names four kinds of lay happiness: the happiness of possession as health, wealth, longevity, wife, and children; the enjoyment of such possessions; freedom from debt; and a blameless moral and spiritual life. Yet even the happiest person cannot say when and in what form misfortune may strike him. Against suffering, the externals of life will be of little or no avail. Real happiness and security are then to be sought in one's own mind, to be built up by constant effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

So the wise layman while being in this world, will try to be less and less of it. He will train his mind to look at life mindfully with detachment, and soon discover that modern civilization is, by and large, a commercial one, for the benefit of a powerful minority at the expense of the unthinking majority, based on the intensification and multiplication of artificial wants, often by arousing and stimulating the undesirable and lower elements of human nature, and that the increasing satisfaction of these wants leads not to peace and stillness of mind, but only to chronic discontent, restlessness, dissatisfaction, and conflict.

He therefore decides to practice voluntary simplicity and finds a new freedom; the less he wants, the happier and freer he is.

Thinking man realizes that there are but four essential needs for the body — pure food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Corresponding to these, there are four for the mind — right knowledge, virtue, constant guarding of the sense doors, and meditation.

Bhavana, or meditation, is the systematic training and culture of the mind with Nibbana as its goal. The emotions are controlled, the will is disciplined, and the instinctive energies are diverted from their natural ends — led along the Four Great Efforts (the sixth step of the path) — to the sublimated ideal of a perfect Man (the Arahant) or Nibbana. If there is an urgent felt need, the ideal has the power of drawing out all one's instinctive impulses so that they are sublimated and harmonized, giving satisfaction to the individual, and therefore benefiting the community as well.

Closely connected with our instincts are the emotions. By emotion is meant a feeling which moves us strongly. We get stirred up, as it were. Examples of emotion are fear, anger, and strong sexual passion. When emotion floods the mind, reason retreats or disappears, and we often do things for which we repent later. So some emotional control is necessary, for, without it, character cannot be developed, and moral and spiritual progress is impossible.

Fear is a common emotion that darkens our lives. It is anticipation of deprivations. One tries to live in two periods of time at once — the present and the future. To know how fear arises enables us to take the right steps for its removal. It results from wrong seeing, not understanding things as they really are. Uncertainty and change are the keynotes of life. To each one of us there is only one thing that is truly "ours," is "us": our character, as shown by our actions. As for the rest, nothing belongs to us. We can visualize everything else being taken away, save this. But this, one's character, nobody and nothing else can deprive one of. Why then go to pieces when all other things that are liable to break, do break? Why fret about the fragility of the frail? Besides, are we so careful of not taking other people's things, as we are of preserving ours? Our past actions of depriving others may only end in others now depriving us. It is only fair and just.

This attitude of detachment to life's storms is the only sound philosophy that can bring one a true security and a true serenity.

Or again, there is no such thing as justifiable anger in Buddhism, for if one is in the right, one should not be angry, and if one is in the wrong, one cannot afford to be angry. Therefore, under any circumstances one should not become angry.

A good way to secure emotional control is to practice noticing mindfully and promptly an incipient hindrance (or any other mental state of mind); then, of its own, it tends to fade away. If done as often as possible, it will be very effective. The five hindrances are undue attachment to sensual desire; ill-will; laziness and inertia; agitation and worry; and doubt. The last here refers to indecision or un-steadiness in the particular thing that is being done. One must know exactly one's own mind — not be a Hamlet, unable to decide, because one is always mistrusting one's own judgment.

Daily practice is the way to progress. Even a little practice every day, brings a person a little nearer to his object, day by day.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. See E.F.S. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, (Blond & Briggs, London, 1973), p. 48ff., "Buddhist Economics"; H.N.S. Karunatilaka, This Confused Society (Buddhist Information Centre, Colombo, 1976); Dr. Padmasiri de Silva, Buddhist Economics (Bodhi Leaves No. B. 69).

2. Complete freedom from the sexual urge.

3. To the latter belong films, pictures, and literature which are chiefly intended to provide sexual titillation.

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