Social heirarchy

The Buddha talks about social status in several suttas. At the beginning of MN 96, a Brahmin outlines who is allowed to serve whom, according to the caste system in place at the time. The Buddha replies (in part):

I do not say, brahmin, that one is better because one is from an aristocratic family, nor do I say that one is worse because one is from an aristocratic family. I do not say that one is better because one is of great beauty, nor do I say that one is worse because of great beauty. I do not say that one is better because one is of great wealth, nor do I say that one is worse because one is of great wealth. For one from an aristocratic family may destroy life, take what is not given, engage in sexual misconduct, speak falsely, speak divisively, speak harshly, gossip, be covetous, have a mind of ill will, and hold wrong view. Therefore I do not say that one is better because one is from an aristocratic family. But also one from an aristocratic family may abstain from destroying life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, from divisive speech, from harsh speech, and from idle chatter, and he may be uncovetous, have a benevolent mind, and hold right view. Therefore I do not say that one is worse because one is from an aristocratic family. (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The Buddha lists a few things that might cause us to feel superior to others: coming from a high-born or well-known family, being more attractive than one’s peers, and being wealthy. There are other reasons we might claim superiority, of course, from the terribly superficial to more substantial identifiers. But the Buddha cuts through any notion that being born into a particular family or with certain attributes secures our place in society. Here and in other suttas, the Buddha asserts that one is high-born if one behaves impeccably, that is, keeps the precepts – not taking life, taking only what is offered, not engaging in sexual misconduct, speaking truthfully, harmoniously, gently, and meaningfully – as well as not envying others, keeping a benevolent attitude and maintaining right view (dukkha, its arising, its ending, and the path to the end of dukkha). Our real status is determined by our ongoing behavior; we can raise or lower ourselves through our actions at any time. This is true whether or not anyone is watching.

Many of us have a habit of imagining ourselves either better than or worse than others. Sometimes we judge others and ourselves without realizing we’re doing it. Our “comparing” responses are unhelpful and can drain our energy. What matters is how we treat each other and ourselves; respect and kindness are the marks of a superior person.


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Making a living

The Buddha addressed the issue of how householders acquire and manage their money in several different suttas. Like most things, we can relate to our income and expenditures in healthy or unhealthy ways. In general, we try to avoid obsession and practice generosity.

The householder who seeks wealth righteously, without violence, and makes himself happy and pleased, and shares it and does meritorious deeds, and uses that wealth without being tied to it, infatuated with it, and blindly absorbed in it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape — he may be praised on four grounds. …

Just as from a cow comes milk, from milk curd, and from curd butter, from butter ghee, and from ghee comes cream-of-ghee, which is reckoned the foremost of all these, so among all householders, the foremost, the best, the preeminent, the supreme, and the finest is the one who seeks wealth righteously, without violence: and having done so, makes himself happy and pleased; and shares the wealth and does meritorious deeds; and uses that wealth without being tied to it, infatuated with it, and blindly absorbed in it, seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape. (from AN 10:91, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

This sutta offers a compressed form of the principle of right livelihood. “Seeking wealth righteously, without violence” refers to earning a living while maintaining the five precepts (without lying or deception or harming). This is the first ground on which a householder may be praised.

By earning a living in a way that is ethical, the householder makes herself “happy and pleased”. This is easy enough to understand on the surface; being solvent removes many obstacles and worries in life. In other suttas (AN5:41 and 42, e.g.) more detail is given: this happiness comes about¬† from providing for the welfare of one’s family, friends, and other associates.

Sharing one’s wealth and doing meritorious deeds is the third cause for praise. This general category may entail supporting members of one’s extended family, or the local church or other charity, or any person or group that models and advocates living in accordance with wholesome principles. This bears reflection. Do we share our funds with people simply because they asked first? Or do we use the opportunity to consider what we value most and how we can support those principles?

Lastly, are we tied to our wealth, infatuated with it, and blindly absorbed in it? Do we allow our income (or lack of it) to define us? Is this how we measure our value or success? The Buddha suggests we avoid this relationship to money. He recommends “seeing the danger in it and understanding the escape.” How can we escape evaluating ourselves and others by income level? We can see the danger in that attitude and remember that it’s our words and actions that create our inheritance. While being self-supporting is a good thing, the most important thing is to behave in a way consistent with our wholesome aspirations.

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Our most valuable relationships

We come now to the last of the six relationships described in the Sigalovada sutta, our moral leaders and teachers, those who inspire us.

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, and 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, enjoin him in the good, be compassionate toward him, teach him what he has not learned, clarify what he has learned, and point out to him the way to heaven. In this way the zenith is covered, making it secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Some of us are lucky enough to have good relationships with ordained monks and nuns whom we view as teachers and reliable friends. But the world is not so neatly divided as it was in the Buddha’s time between laypeople and “ascetics and brahmins”. Our first task may be to identify the relationships we have with people who could fit into this category. We might feel like students to these friends or there could be a reciprocal student-teacher relationship. Which of our connections do we use as a moral guide or inspiration? To whom do we go when we’re confused about what is right or best to do?

We can identify our guides by their behavior and their lives. They are the opposite of selfish, they serve others and hold a compassionate view of the wider world. They are not self-promoting and may have dedicated themselves to a wholesome cause, without vilifying those who disagree with them. Many people find their “ascetics and brahmins” in religious community, either in the leadership or among their peers. What do we care about (e.g., animals, the planet, children, immigrants)? If we seek out others who share our concern, we’re likely to find admirable friends there. These are overlapping categories; there are inspiring and reliable guides all around us if we take the trouble to recognize them.

Once we know who our “ascetics and brahmins” are, how do we cultivate these relationships? We show them “kindness in bodily deed, speech, and thought” (as above), we share what we have with them, invite them to our homes and into our lives. And if we are in the guiding role to others, we reciprocate by supporting their wholesome choices and by modeling with our own actions an integrated life on the path. In either position, we give regular attention and respect in any appropriate way.

By placing these valued relationships at or near the center of our lives, we do ourselves a great service. We orient our days around what is most important, the path to our maximum potential as humans.

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Employers and employees

Having covered the four cardinal directions (N, S, E, and W), we come now to the nadir, or lower direction. In this case the Buddha describes a wholesome relationship between people who are not equally powerful in a particular situation. Very few of us have servants, but most of us interact with others from both sides of this relationship. We may be full-time wage-earners, part time household help, Uber drivers, or other casual workers. At the same time, we can be the “employer” either in the formal sense or as a consumer of services.

There are five ways in which a master should minister to his servants and workers 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 workers, 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 secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

In every worker-employer or worker-consumer relationship, there are guidelines. For employers, the duties are to pay a fair wage, to not make unreasonable demands, and generally to consider the welfare of the employees in all decision-making. Any extra benefits that come to the enterprise should be shared in some way. And employees should show up on time, not take advantage, either by pilfering or doing shoddy work, and avoid denigrating the employer. One hopes there is an open relationship and that all parties feel they are being fairly treated. If not, then communication is best handled directly between the disagreeing parties.

Expectations may not be so clear in other situations.  Services of all kinds are continually evolving, self-service has become more common in many industries, and some percentage of interactions that used to be in-person are now handled electronically. The same guidelines of transparency and fairness apply, though they may be harder to measure when business is not done face-to-face. The system of customers rating services (e.g. airbnb, restaurants, driver services) provides helpful feedback in most cases, but is also vulnerable to our tendency to exaggerate when the humans involved are not in our presence. How different is our electronic communication to our in-person communication?

We can always look for a measure of reciprocity in our dealings. What are reasonable expectations? Can we put ourselves in another’s shoes and imagine what their expectations are? Can we bring an attitude of fairness, kindness, and generosity to our most mundane interactions?

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Friends and companions

The fourth direction on the compass in DN31 (here translated by Bhikku Bodhi) is the north and is described as relationships with friends and companions. These can be the most consequential relationships we have, and if we’re lucky the category includes our life partners.

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 secure and free from peril.

This section of the sutta is structured in an interesting way, instructing us in how to treat our friends and also how our friends should respond. Of course, we are on both ends of this relationship.

How many of our friends do we bring all of the following to? — Gifts, kind words, looking out for their welfare, treating them as we would ourselves, and keeping our word. Probably the foundational quality is to keep one’s word, which is how we become trustworthy. If we are careful with our words we don’t promise what we can’t deliver, and this level of integrity can support all of our relationships, from the closest to the most distant. Speaking kindly and looking out for another’s welfare comes naturally for those we have identified as true friends.

The second list of qualities seems to apply to special, possibly dire, situations: looking after friends and their interests when they are inattentive, being receptive when they are afraid, stepping up when they are in trouble, and being concerned for their families.

Often when our family of origin does not entirely satisfy our need for security, acceptance, encouragement, and love, we seek to build a “family of choice” with friends, sometimes alongside our birth family, and sometimes replacing it. These can be our most nourishing relationships.

True friends are rare and valuable, and we would do well to give them our keen attention, tell them that we appreciate them, allow ourselves to be influenced by them, and show our appreciation with words and deeds. As the Buddha said, noble (wholesome) companions are the whole of the holy (developing, awakening) life.

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Life partners

We come now to the third of the six directions to be protected: our spouses and partners.

There are five ways in which a husband should minister to his wife as the western direction: by honoring 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 organizing 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 secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

So much has changed since the fifth century BC. Divorce was unknown, women didn’t work outside the home or farm and were swallowed up (for better or worse) by their husbands’ families, and homosexuality was not spoken of. The rules of caste and familial relations were clear and had little flexibility, so while there may have been less uncertainty, there was at least as much unhappiness in family life as there is today.

Although our cultural milieu seems very different from that world, the Buddha’s suggestions are still useful. When we commit to a life partnership, mutuality is the core value. If we commit and our partner doesn’t (or vice versa), it will certainly end in tears. The one factor in the sutta section above that applies to both husbands and wives is to be faithful. This is a significant point; it’s not impossible, but is very difficult to rebuild trust after it has been broken.

If it were not so unthinkable that a wife would dishonor or disparage her husband in the fifth century BC, the instruction to avoid dishonoring or disparaging would probably be repeated for both partners. A fundamental part of the marriage (or partnership) agreement is to not speak ill of each other. This is not so much a matter of dishonesty as a commitment to working out problems within the partnership, without asking friends and others to take sides.

As a stark example, I was very much struck by what happened more than fifteen years ago. In one year, three female friends announced that they were leaving their marriages. None of them had previously aired their discontent, right up until they had decided to leave. All three had good (and different) reasons, but I was most impressed by the respect they showed for the partners they were dissatisfied with, not disparaging them, even while quite unhappy, until the decision was made to end their marriages.

The ideal marriage described in the sutta lists a sharing of responsibilities and authority that is admirable. If we are in a partnership, this is something that we work out as we go, adjusting as the situation changes. Among the competing desires and “rights”, the important goal is to commit to an arrangement that works best for the partnership.

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Our teachers

Continuing our exploration of the Sigalovada Sutta, we come to the “southern direction”, which is next after east if we move in a clockwise direction. After our parents, usually the next significant relationships are with our teachers. Throughout our lives, we encounter people who impart knowledge to us, sometimes in surprising ways. How do we relate to those who are our teachers? If we are teachers, how to we relate to our students?

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 thorough 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 secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

When I think of what I owe to those who have taught me valuable lessons throughout my life, I’m filled with humility and gratitude.

I can’t remember most of my earliest teachers, but there are a few that stand out from the lower grades at school and more from later years. Nonetheless, they were all important influences. Teachers and mentors in my long training in Buddhist practice are remembered with gratitude daily. Even those who taught me by negative example (what not to do) have been part of my learning. We can take a moment to reflect on who our most important teachers have been and what we might owe them.

The sutta quoted above describes an ideal teacher-student relationship; it doesn’t end with providing and receiving information. There’s a special reciprocity, attentive listening, persistence, and caring for the whole person in both directions, even after the formal relationship has ended.

Most professional teachers today are well aware of their responsibilities, and some students are as well. We can attend to these duties as adults, too. If our baseline is to approach others with respect, as if they might teach us something, we honor them and are likely to keep learning throughout our lives.

This is a conscious choice we can make, to step back from the perpetual stimulation that surrounds us and step towards what we see as substantial and worthwhile, even if it requires patience. We can recognize that what we seek out, who we spend time with, and how we behave does matter. In fact, nothing matters more.

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