The Buddha Laid Down a Code for the Laity

I.B. Horner

From “The Buddhist” October, 1947.

It has sometimes been said that in the surviving Pali records upon which we now base out knowledge of Early Buddhism, there is no Dhamma or very little Dhamma for the laity. To this statement there is however one admitted and notable exception, namely the Sigalovada Sutta of the Djgha Nikaya spoken to and for the laity. This consideration, among others, including the view that no world teacher would nave addressed himself solely to monks and nuns, led Mrs. Rhys Davids strongly to surmise that at some time there must have been a Dhamma for Gotama’s lay followers, but that this in the constant editing and re-editing that the sayings underwent in monastic hands, became crowded out of them, as of no interest to the monk-editors – always excepting the Sigalovada Suttanta.

There are however many other talks recorded to have been held between Gotama or his chief disciples and individual householders, besides addresses given by Gotama or his disciples to lay people: and it is some of these that I want to notice here.


During a talk, for example, with the ill and old housefather Nakulapita, Gotama admitted that the old man’s body was weak, but comforted him by saying that it would be sheer foolishness for any one who carries about a body to claim a moment’s health (S. iii. I ff.) For as we are told in another context (M. i. 511) body is a disease, pustulence, dart, misery trouble from grasping after which there comes into being, by the causal process this entire mass of ill Gotama then advised Nakulapita to train himself by saying: “Although my body is sick my mind shall not be sick”, a dictum which Sariputta a little later explained to the old housefather to mean that it is only the uninstructed average person who holds that body is the self or of self as having body or of body, as being in the self or of self as being in the body or who holds that ‘I am body” and “Body is mine”. Both bodies and minds of those who think like they are sick; those are not sick in mind although they may be in body do not think in this way so when the body, being unstable and changeful, changes and alters, those who are not sick in mind do not grieve and despair. This important part of teaching recurs throughout in the Nikayas.

It is of interest that Gotama applauds Nakulapita’s devotion to Nakulamata, his wife, and tells him that it has been a great gain to him that he has such a wile, so lull of compassion tor him, desiring his welfare, as his teacher and instructor (A. iii. 295). Thus Gotama salutes the happiness and confidence in one another of a man and his wife.

His talk to girls about to be named and the advice he gives them on the management of their homes (A. iii. 37-38; iv. 265) shows Gotama to have had an intimate knowledge of home life and to have desired its smooth running.

“This is how you should train yourselves, girls to whatever husband our parents give us wishing our weal, our happiness, compassionate for him we shall rise up early, be the last to retire, be willing workers, and order all things sweetly and be gentle-voiced.

And in this way also, girls: We will revere all whom our husband reveres, whether mother or father, recluse or Brahman, and on their arrival offer them a seat and water to drink

And in this way also, girls: We will be deft and nimble at our husband’s home crafts, be they of wool or cotton, making it out business to understand the work, so as to do it and get it done

And in this way also, girls: Whatever our husband s household consists of – servants, messengers, workmen, we will know the work of each one by what has been done their remissness by what has not been done; we will know the strength and weakness of the sick, we will portion out food to each according to his share.

And in this way also, girls the treasure, corn, silver and gold that our husband brings home, we will keep safe watch and ward over it. Train your selves thus girls.

Women led busy lives in the home and could gain much domestic power. Dominion was said to be their ideal or fulfillment. Also a woman’s goal is a man, adornment is her ambition, and a son is her resolve, to be without a rival is her want. (A iii. 363) – for there was, to some rather unknown extent now, the dread of a co-wife to be faced. This lights up another side of the domestic scene: Woeful is woman’s lot! hath he declared. Tamer and driver of the hearts of men; giving birth to bitter pain, some seeking death or e’er they suffer twice. (Thig. 216)


This was the tragic Kisagotama, to whom the Order of nun was open, as it was to others such as Isidasi, who seems to have been constitutionally unfit for marriage. (Thig. 407 -413) and Uppalanna, another who had been a co-wife. She rejoices that she has destroyed the asavas, fluxions or cankers: and Kisagotami declares that she has made the Аryan Eightfold Path that goes to the Deathless, has realized Nibbana, laid down the burden (of the self) and has done what was to be done. Thus life in the Order was no doubt that had a definite vocation for it.

But if the had not, it was no part of Gotama’s mission to break or to belittle household life to those apart “Concord is his pleasure, his pleasure, the motive of his speech. (D.i.4 )

And so he tries to keep parents and children together, by emphasizing the compassion of parents for their children who, in gratitude, will show honour to the mother and father who have brought them up: “Those families where mother and father are honoured at the home are like unto Brahm”, they are ranked with the tethers of old, worth of offerings are such families. “Brahma” is a term for mother and father. “Teacher of old” is a term for mother and father. “Worthy of offerings” is a term tor mother and tether. And why because mother and father do much for their children, they bring them up, nourish them and introduce the world to them. (A.i.132 et A.ii.32)


Gotama was thus far from insensitive to the great ponds of family existing between husband and wife, and between parents and children. Other passages contain exhortations about choosing one’s friends, for the “in the world” people were not to be friendless.

Surely we praise accomplished friends;
Choose thou the best or equal friends.
Shun thou the evil friend who sees
No goal, convinced in crooked ways.

But if “friends who seek naught and scarce today (Sn. 75) then ‘fare lonely as rhinoceros” (Sn. 36 et seq). It therefore seems that Gotama, of whom it was said at beginning of his ministry when he was attracting а number of “converts”. He is making us childless, he making us widows, he is breaking up families, in fact he spent a good part of this ministry showing that these charges not true, and they were never made again.

A man or woman who lives the household life wisely and well can grow, if he respects Dhamma and the Order in the Aryan growth; the man in ten ways of growing (A. v. 137): in riches and grains, in sons and wives, and in four footed animals; and in a further five in which a woman lay disciple can also grow (A. Hi. 80): in faith, in moral habit, in what has been heard (that is, of the teaching, nothing then being written so as to be read), in generosity and in wisdom. If they accomplish this, then they take hold of the best, they take hold of the essence which, in the case of the woman, is further specified as the “Essence of Self”.

The faith in which growth should be made refers to the three kinds of unwavering confidence the Aryan lay disciple should possess

(1) that the Awakened One is indeed Lord, perfected one, fully awakened, endowed with knowledge and right conduct, well-tamer, knower of the worlds, incomparable charioteer of men to be tamed teacher of devas and men, awakened one Lord.

(2) that Damma is well taught by the Lord; it is tor the present, timeless, it is “a come and see thing”, leading onwards, to be understood tor themselves by the wise.

(3) that the Lord’s Order of disciples fares along well and uprightly, in the proper manner; it is worthy of honour and reverence and is an unsurpassed held for merit.

These three kinds of confidence and the possession of the moral habits are said to constitute the tour ways of abiding in ease that belong to the mind and are here and now, and whose purpose it is to cleanse and purify a mind that is neither cleansed nor purified. If a white-clothed houseman can obtain these four ways of abiding at ease without difficulty and at will, then by himself he may predict of himself. “Destroyed for me is Niraya Hell, also rebirth as an animal, destroyed is the realm of the departed (the petas) destroyed is the Abyss, the Bad Bourn, the Downfall; a stream-attainer am I, assured, bound for awakening”. Another passage says that in consequence of having these three confidences, and also Ariyan moral habit, knowledge and freedom, several householders and lay disciples have gone to fulfillment in the Tathagata and have seen and realized the Deathless.

In a conversation with Mahanama (A.iv.220) Gotama says that a lay-disciple is one of moral habit who abstains from breaking the five moral precepts, and that such a lay-disciple can be one who proceeds for his own welfare but not for that of another person; or he can be one who proceeds both for his own welfare and for that of another. In this latter case, the lay disciple is himself possessed of faith, moral habit and generosity, and he causes another to be possessed of these characteristics; he himself wishes to see the monks, to hear true Dhamma, he learns what he has heard, reflects on its meaning, and knowing Dhamma he fares along in accordance with Dhamma. And he tries to make others do the same.


Gotama makes it clear to the householder Potaliya (M. i. 360 – 367) that onslaught on creatures, stealing, lying, malicious speech, coveting, angry blame, wrathful rage and pride are all fetters and hindrances, from which the Ariyan should restrain himself by thinking that if he indulged in them the Self would upbraid the self, intelligent men would censure him, and a Bad Bourne would be expected for him after he has died.

Who fitly acts and toils and strives, shall riches find; by truth shall fame acquire.
By giving friends shall bind.
And lovers of the home
Who hold in faith these four: Truth, Dhamma, firmness, gift.
Hence gone shall grieve no more.
(Sn 1S5. 186)

Moreover it is a source of suffering it a man of means enjoys its sweets alone (Sn. 96) tor this would not be generous in him. It is a fact that there is quite a remarkable amount of Dhamma for the laity In the Suttampata. There is, tor example, the verses giving the reasons why layman sutlers (Sn. 92 et seq.): it he has bad friends, is indolent, and does not support his parents when they are old. If he is proud of his birth and riches but ashamed of his relations, if he squanders his savings on women, drink and gambling, or if he runs after other men’s wives. Again, another long set of verses on the Outcaste (Sn. 116 – 142) is spoken tor the laity, some of the verses being on the same lines as those dealing with the sufferings a layman entails by his bad conduct; and others denouncing the incurring of debts and refusal to pay them, bearing false witness, the doing of evil deeds covertly in the hope that no one will find out about them, the acceptance of hospitality without making any return tor it, and the smug exalting of oneself and disparaging of others, and so on.

Again, the Suttampata verses 393 – 404 were spoken to five hundred lay-disciples. After having spoken of some of the duties incumbent on a monk, these verses then proceed:

The rule for householders now will I tell,
What action best becomes such listeners;
For busied much, none can attune himself
Wholly unto the thing required of monks.

Householders, as has been noticed above, are not. There follow verses urging restraint from killing, stealing, deterred from amassing wealth, but, as in the “ten ways of unchastity, lying and drinking, from eating food at the wrong time.

These are the eight observances that lay people should observe two days each month. And this set of verses ends by saying:

The householder who live thus earnestly
Goes to the devas call self-luminous

There is also no doubt that those householders who fare bу Dharma who fare evenly may arise after dying, if they so desire, among any one of twenty-five classes of devas named in Gotama’s conversation with Brahman (M.i. 289) He is here also recorded to tell these householders who fare bу Dhamma who fare evenly may, if he so desires, destroy asavas or cankers, and abide in the freedom of mind and the freedom of wisdom that are cankerless, having worn them here and now by his super-knowledge. This is, of course, Arahantship.

Deeds Roll On

We do not find recorded in the canon many conversations where Gotama seeks to divert a layman from his profession. There is famous ploughing talk with the farmer Bharadva (Sn. 77-80; S. i. 172 – 173) where Gotama tries to show mat his kind of ploughing is the better, and the talk with rite herdsman Dhaniya where again Gotama tries to show that his kind or herdsman ship is of the greater value (Sn 18 et seq.)

Yet again although Gotama does not attempt to outlaw war or soldiers he nevertheless wishes to protest that war merely leads to a vicious circle of hatred and settles nothing, the slayer getting a slayer in his turn, the conqueror one who conquer (S. m. 83. 85). For the deed rolls on. “No man by case he settles forcibly is rightly one on Dhamma standing (Dhp. 256)

Lo! See the folk at strife.
How violence breeds tear
I saw the feuds twixt men,
And in me entered tear…

Indeed such violence, slaughter and unrest are wrong but there is a slaughter and a conquest that are praised by the Ariyans.

Wrath must ye slay, if ye would happy live
Wrath must ye slay, if ye would weep no more
Victor of wrath with its poison root
Sweetest intoxicant – Dragon – queller:
This is the slaughter by the Ariyans praised.
That must ye slay if ye would weep no more

Similarly, there is a wrong kind of sacrifice where animals are slain, and a right kind which involves no butchery but which is a long-established charity or an oblation for welfare of the family. And a sacrifice such as this, so it is Gotama does praise (A. ii. 42 – 43). Since monks did not make animal sacrifices, nearly, if not all, the recorded talks or, this subject are addressed to Brahmans or to householders including kings.

In Gotama’s view, as it emerges from these conversations, animal sacrifice was wholly and totally wrong, and he denounced it thoroughly – or as thoroughly as anyone could who held the view that we are what we are as the result of deeds done in the past: we are responsible for deeds, deeds are our matrix, our kin, and to us the deed comes home again.

None is by birth a Brahmana, none by birth no Brahmana, by deeds is one

A Brahmana, by deeds no Brahmana.
By deeds one is a farmer and by deeds
An artisan, by deeds a trader too;
By deeds one is a servant and a thief,
By deeds l soldier and a celebrant,
And even so a Rajah is by deeds.

But, of course, if anyone be he monk or layman, wants to go forward and travel on the upward – mounting way, he must remember that it is not only deeds done in the past that make you what you are now, but also it is deeds done now by body, speech and thought that make you what you will be in future. A certain amount of Dharma for the laity and there is more than has been adduced here and has been found in the canon it is there for the laity to learn and ponder if they want to come to growth, expansion and maturity.