Generosity, kind words, beneficial help,
& consistency in the face of events,
in line with what’s appropriate in each case.
These bonds of fellowship [function] in the world
like the linchpin in a moving cart.
– AN 4.32 (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

We are social beings. Our inner life is revealed, for better or worse, through all of our relationships. We’ll now have the opportunity to examine the nature and quality of our relationships in six different categories. The Buddha delivered a discourse specifically to help lay people make their relationships harmonious. It’s called the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), and all the thoughts that follow are based on a modern translation of it by JKelly/Sawyer/Yareham. You can see the full text here:

We’ll discuss only part of the discourse, one in which the Buddha instructs a layperson called Sigala in how to “honor the six directions”. In ancient India (and in some places even today), a daily devotional practice included honoring the six directions: east, south, west, north, below, and above. The Buddha used this pattern to invite reflection and wholesome action in six types of relationships: those between (1) parents and children, (2) teachers and pupils, (3) spouses or partners, (4) friends and colleagues, (5) employers and employees, and lastly, (6) holy people and seekers. In each case, particular duties are described for both parties in the relationship. In the course of a lifetime, it is possible you may fill all of the roles listed. In any role, if you adopt the Buddha’s guidance for how to behave, the maximum possible benefit will accrue to all concerned.

It is important that you bring an open mind and as much honesty as you can to this reflection. This is not a scorecard, but a bouquet of helpful suggestions. You’ll notice that other people often fall short of fulfilling their roles perfectly. You could take these failures as opportunities to practice forgiveness. Judging others will not help you become more free, it will hinder your progress. It is only your own actions that you can alter. Sometimes others will respond in kind if you behave in a more harmonious way. If you want to know how to make your life sweeter, more meaningful, and more helpful to those around you, read on.

Parents and children [East]

In five ways should a mother and father as the eastern direction be respected by a child: ‘I will support them who supported me; I will do my duty to them; I will maintain the family lineage and tradition; I will be worthy of my inheritance; and I will make donations on behalf of dead ancestors.’
And, the mother and father so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you towards good actions, training you in a profession, supporting the choice of a suitable spouse, and in due time, handing over the inheritance.
In this way, the eastern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

The five ways in which children ought to respect parents fall into two general categories. In the first, an adult child is implied. Supporting and doing one’s duty towards parents could include financially supporting one’s parents, either regularly or sporadically. But it could also mean providing emotional support – that regular phone call might be the bright spot in mom’s or dad’s week. Or it could mean encouraging one or both parents to make a necessary change, and then helping make the change successful. As you age, the relationship tends to reverse itself. As parents once cared for your safety, comfort and relative security, later you have an opportunity to help them in these ways. Your duty to parents does not include doing whatever they say, of course. It does normally include finding ways to let them know they are loved and respected.

Maintaining family lineage and tradition, being worthy of an inheritance, and making donations on behalf of dead ancestors can be done by children of any age. However, one must wonder what these instructions mean in a modern culture. If you’re lucky enough to come from a family in which honesty, respect and love are dominant, then this is your lineage and tradition. This is your real inheritance, in a truer sense than any financial inheritance. If you are not so fortunate, then it may be up to you to find in your growing up years those things that you want to have as your inheritance. Every family has some gifts that are passed down: stories, traditions, family heirlooms, songs. In my own family it has taken some time for me to see the kindness beneath some rough surfaces. The idea here is to make yourself worthy of receiving good things, material or not. Give your parents a reason to be proud of you.

The concept of honoring one’s ancestors is an ancient one. You are part of a big and varied tribe, if you look back a few generations. In this sense, you are never alone. If you insist on rejecting this legacy you may believe you are alone and disconnected from everyone. This is likely to lead to negative behaviors, speech and thoughts. The most important offering you can make to dead relatives is to be inspired by them and act in ways that you think would honor them.

Restraining children from wrongdoing and guiding them towards good actions are the most important duties of parents. How this is accomplished remains largely mysterious, but teaching by example is arguably the best tool. The more honesty and kindness one can bring to the home, the more likely it is that honesty and kindness will be produced in the home and spill out of it. If parents are sensitive to the pain and joy a child can generate, then the parents will watch carefully for actions that are damaging (to self or others) and actions that are beautiful. Parents are often in a situation where it’s not obvious what is best for the child. The principle of non-harming is always a good guideline.

Good and faithful parents will do everything possible to see that their children are able to support themselves in the world. What this means will vary with geography and local custom, but it probably includes a completed education (at some level) and encouragement towards a living that is sufficient to present needs. In today’s world, it’s particularly important for female children to have an education and a way to make a living, so they are not entirely dependent on a spouse or partner for their basic needs.

As children form partnerships, only occasionally do they seek parental approval, though I think it is often keenly desired. Encouraging the establishment of wholesome friendships is one way parents can support the hope of a happy match later in a child’s life. Sadly, it is often a parent’s lot to support a child through the end of a relationship – a heartbreak for all concerned. But if communications between parent and child are honest and supportive, things will move in a positive direction. Conversely, celebrating a child’s happy partnership is one of the chief joys of parenthood.

Inheritance is not much discussed in modern society. But it has an effect. I know of one family in which the patriarch held annual meetings of all his heirs, for the social interaction, and to make clear what everyone could expect, in the current year and upon his death. It struck me as an exceedingly kind and mature way to deal with the question of inheritance. Some people are so reluctant to believe they will ever die, that they never get around to making a will or making their wishes known. The result can be a real mess for those left behind. So, regardless of the size of your income or assets, do your relatives a favor and make a will. Another act of kindness toward your family is the creation of a medical directives document detailing your wishes in the event that you become incapacitated, including saying who you’d want to make decisions for you. These actions will help you focus your thoughts.

Teachers and pupils [South]

In five ways should teachers as the southern direction be respected by a student: by rising for them, regularly attending lessons, eagerly desiring to learn, duly serving them, and receiving instruction.
And, teachers so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by training in self-discipline, ensuring the teachings are well-grasped, instructing in every branch of knowledge, introducing their friends and colleagues, and providing safeguards in every direction.
In this way, the southern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

Usually, a teacher is the first formal (non-intimate) relationship in a child’s life. Unless you’ve been very unlucky, you can right now name at least a few teachers who have served you as positive role models, mentors, and maybe even heroes. As mentioned in the section of the discourse quoted above, respect and compassion are complementary parts of the relationship between student and teacher. Standing up when a teacher enters a room may be a forgotten practice in most places, but there are other ways in which students can signal respect. Showing up regularly and on time, listening to what is being taught, asking questions, and volunteering to help in any appropriate way demonstrate respect. Doing the work assigned demonstrates respect. Refraining from showing disrespect is critical. Even refraining from criticizing a teacher outside of his/her hearing is a good exercise in respect.

Most teachers are motivated, at least in part, by compassion. A good teacher will show you how to learn, as well as sharing what specific knowledge she might possess. A teacher who experiences the respect of students will go to great lengths to make sure the students succeed in their studies. A modern equivalent of “introducing their friends and colleagues” might be writing recommendations for further study or employment. A teacher and her network of friends and acquaintances can be a great support to graduating students: they can discuss career options and give advice about further education or employment opportunities.

“Providing safeguards in every direction” is a testament to the dangers of entering adulthood. Trouble can come from within ourselves or from others. A true teacher will try to help you avoid the pitfalls common to your current stage of development. This could refer to both academic issues and to more general dangers.

Spouses/partners [West]

In five ways should a wife as the western direction be respected by a husband: by honoring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and by giving gifts.
And, the wife so respected reciprocates with compassion in five ways: by being well-organized, being kindly disposed to the in-laws and household workers, being faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skilful and diligent in all duties.
In this way, the western direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

It’s interesting to note that in this section, the wife is listed first. The husband offers the wife respect and the wife, out of compassion, reciprocates. In the previous two sections, the senior “partner” is listed first, i.e. parents and teachers. This may be a tiny corrective to the undeniable fact that wives in ancient India had to depend on the kindness of husbands and the husbands’ extended families. Even though the situation may be quite different now, there are a few important lessons to take from this paragraph. Being faithful is the one element that is mentioned as essential in both directions of an upright relationship between partners. Where there is no faithfulness, no honesty and loyalty, little else can go right.

For our purposes, the whole list might apply to both committed partners: showing honor and respect, sharing authority (regardless of who is the primary provider), giving gifts, looking after common spaces and resources, and making life easy for the other person by trying to be well-organized and diligent. Different families have different customs about gift-giving, but I haven’t yet witnessed a relationship in which the absence of gifts is a positive sign. The practice of visible generosity is an important nourishment to intimate relationships. The relationship with one’s partner’s family could be a book in itself. Human psychology lays a trap here — sometimes a conflict in loyalty arises between one’s parents and one’s partner. But the discourse rightly points out that “being kindly disposed” towards relatives and non-relatives alike is the policy with the best outcomes for all. Assume the best about people for as long as you can. And when something unseemly in someone’s behavior comes to light, don’t forget that this doesn’t represent the whole of the person’s character. There is good and bad in all of us, and we’d do well to focus on the good and overlook the bad as often as possible.

Sometimes you might think that at home is where you can relax your efforts at kindness, honesty, or politeness. But this is inverted logic. Why would you show your worst side to the people who mean the most to you? At home is where we should practice the highest standard of love and care.

Friends and colleagues [North]

In five ways should friends and colleagues as the northern direction be respected: by generosity, kind words, acting for their welfare, impartiality, and honesty.
And, friends and colleagues so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: by protecting you when you are vulnerable, and likewise your wealth, being a refuge when you are afraid, not abandoning you in misfortunes, and honoring all your descendants.
In this way, the northern direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

We move now to more public relationships. Friends and colleagues, whether at school, work or in other activities, form a constantly changing set of contacts. Friends come and go, and become closer or more distant. People move away from each other, literally and socially. As one’s work situation changes, new people come into the picture.

Between friends and colleagues, good relationships are characterized by generosity, kind words, being aware of the other’s welfare, treating people evenhandedly (not showing undue favoritism), and a reliable honesty. Think for a moment. Would your friends and colleagues describe you in this way? What behaviors would you have to change to be perceived as honest, fair, kind and generous? Which of these characteristics is most in need of improvement? This might be a good time to go back and have a second look at the posts on wise speech. Speaking with care can prevent many unintentional hurts. Careful speech, if practiced diligently, will support increasing honesty, generosity and other desirable modes of behavior.

In return, friends and colleagues respond by protecting you when you are vulnerable, for example when you’ve suffered a major loss, or are temporarily incapacitated. A good friend will also help you avoid doing foolish things with your resources. She will provide comfort when you are afraid, whether your fear is reasonable or not. And she will stand by you when circumstances are difficult.

The idea of honoring one’s descendants may simply mean that the respect one has for a friend or colleague automatically extends to that person’s family. You might look after the children of a friend who is unwell or absent. Once respect and compassion are established in the relationship, they naturally extend outward.

Employers and employees [Nadir]

In five ways should workers and servants as the lower direction be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.
And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation.
In this way, the lower direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

This section provides remarkably apt advice, especially considering it was composed two and a half thousand years ago. One distinguishing feature of any good employer is that she adjusts the work to suit the workers as much as possible; provides challenge where that is helpful, moves people towards the areas in which they feel the most interest and confidence. It’s more art than science, and a good manager will work at it every day. We can’t assume that all employers give fair pay. There are many people today working for less than a living wage. Health benefits and time off for recreation have usually been expected from employers, but cannot be taken for granted in today’s economy. Reasonable time off from work is one more feature of a healthy workplace relationship. These are the indicators of a wholesome relationship between employers and workers. If you find yourself in a management position where you are unable to offer these signs of respect to workers, it is your duty to consider what may be done to improve the situation.

For the respected employee, there is a willingness to make the employer’s goals her own. Giving a full day’s work, providing value for money; these are things a worker may take pride in. Showing respect and pride in one’s work benefits both the employer and the employee.

Outside of your own workplace, there is a steady stream of encounters with service people. How kind are you to the check-out person in the grocery store? The plumber, handyman, or meter reader? The harassed clerk taking your credit card at the gas station? You can make a bright spot in a shopkeeper’s day, or create one more burden for her.

In some cultures, certain work is held up as of higher status than other work. But the status is not intrinsic to the job. An honest and cheerful bus driver or sanitation worker brings more light to the world than an unethical corporate executive. Don’t be fooled by equating money with success. Real success is measured by the harmony and joy you bring to whatever situation you encounter.

Holy people and seekers [Zenith]

In five ways should ascetics and Brahmins [wise elders] as the upper direction be respected: by kindly actions, speech, and thoughts, having an open door, and providing material needs.
And, ascetics and Brahmins so respected reciprocate with compassion in six ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you to good actions, thinking compassionately, telling you what you ought to know, clarifying what you already know, and showing you the path to heaven [happiness].
In this way, the upper direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

While this may seem an irrelevant category in the 21st century world, I would argue that the neglect of relationships with holy people has caused tremendous harm. In ancient India, where nearly everyone traveled on foot, and gossip was the main entertainment (no TV), face to face relationships were the norm. In village life, you could ask who the respected leaders were, and you’d get pretty much the same list from everyone. Today, what’s our situation? Who are our respected leaders, our guides and mentors? Sports figures? Insecure movie stars? Judging from public life, we seem to have lost our way. Superficiality and cynicism have become standard. Sometimes it seems we’ve even abandoned the idea that we need guides and mentors. Many people want to find their own ways without being told what to do, without consulting anyone at all. But there is a high price for such determined ignorance.

Consider for a moment: who are your role models? Who do you look up to? When you have a life crisis, to whom do you turn? Who are your wise elders? A relative, a member of the clergy, a friend or acquaintance, a teacher, a community leader? Write your list on a piece of paper. It’s all right to have people you don’t know personally on the list, e.g. Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa, but there needs to be at least one living person with whom you could have personal contact. If you can’t think of any specific person, then who do you know who might serve in that role for you? Doing this exercise is an important element of orienting your life towards wholesomeness. If you can’t muster the humility to have at least one guide, then you are likely to have difficulty feeling at ease in the world.

The very idea of honoring or revering living persons is essential. If you don’t practice respect for others, how can you honor your own best intentions? If no one in your life is worthy of honor, what sort of person can you aspire to become?

The group represented by the phrase “ascetics and Brahmins” are these wise elders. In ancient India, the ascetics were people who had left the home life behind to give all their energy to finding a way to end human suffering. The Brahmins were the village leaders, the educated ones, the teachers, the priests. So wisdom is recognized as coming from more than one quarter, from both the wandering philosophers and the scholars. At different life stages, different teachers or guides will be appropriate. The thing that should not change is the reverence shown to such people.

The way you would show respect to your guides or mentors is simply a focused form of the respect you show to everyone. Kindness in thought, speech and action towards the person might even be spontaneous if the respect is deep. If you know who your guides and mentors are, please let them know that you appreciate and depend on their examples.

“Having an open door and providing material needs” describes the custom of giving housing, food and medicine to holy people, since they have renounced worldly possessions. If you should come across such an ascetic, please be sure to offer food and shelter! But for most of your respected people, you will find other appropriate ways to demonstrate your respect and admiration.

If you are lucky enough to be in a close relationship with a guide, you may enjoy some significant benefits. A true guide will teach mainly by example. Her words and actions will have a reliable consistency to them. You won’t observe kindness towards some and cruelty towards others from her. Perhaps just by thinking, “What would my mentor do?” you will know which action to take in a given situation. A beneficial guide will bring out the best in you, steer you towards your own best instincts, and will discourage your small and selfish thoughts, i.e. “show you the path to heaven”. You will hear her words and think, “Yes, I knew that, I just needed to be reminded.”

Do not expect perfection – it’s a common trap. Pay attention when you meet a person from whom you can learn something important. You should sense a compassionate motivation in the mentor (watch for ego trips). A true guide deserves your complete attention when you’re in her presence. In your heart, you’ll know when she is true, and when it’s time to leave.

If you don’t know any such people, don’t you think it’s time to seek them out and set them in their proper place in your life?