Comments on Salient Points in the Singala Sutta
U Ko Lay
There are some people who wrongly believe that the Buddha's Teaching being directed to attainment of high spiritual goals is too lofty and sublime for the ordinary men and women of the workaday world to follow. They believe that it can be practised only by recluses who have given up everything, the homes, pleasures of the world and sensual delights, to devote themselves to the practice of pure life.
It is true that whatever the Buddha has said, in instructions, injunctions or discourses to devas and men, has only one taste, one flavour, that of emancipation. But the Buddha's Teaching was meant not just for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who practised the Dhamma full time, leading a life of retirement in remote places, cutting themselves off from society. In his Teachings, the Buddha did not forget the needs and difficulties of the everyday world. The tremendous accumulation of his paramis (efforts for self-perfection) was not to be utilised for the benefit of the ascetics and recluses only. It was meant for all mankind as well as devas without distinction. To promote their welfare and happiness and to help them attain liberation from the round of rebirths is the sole purpose of the appearance of a Buddha in the world.
The Buddha's repeated injunction to his followers was very simple and straightforward:
He explained this simple injunction in diverse ways, adapting his thoughts and words to the needs and stages of development of his audience. To the group of Five Bhikkhus, the wise sages who had attended upon him while he was searching after the Truth and who were already established in good moral conduct with prolonged training in mental concentration, he delivered his sermon announcing that he had discovered the Deathless, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Path of Eight Constituents.
To beings of superior and penetrating intellect such as the devas of the Tavatimsa realm or the Venerable Sariputta, one of his two Chief Disciples, the Buddha expounded the Abhidhamma, the Higher Teaching, which deals with ultimate realities, the analysis of mind and matter into their absolute components and which explains the system of causal relationships.
The exhortations given by the Buddha for the guidance and development of samanera Rahula are examples of the Buddha's perfect wisdom and skill to fit the Dhamma to the needs and intellectual capacity of his listeners.
The first exhortation given to Rahula, the Buddha's own son, at the age of seven when he became a samanera, a novice, in the Ambalatthika Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya, dealt with truthfulness and mindfulness which form indeed the foundations for building character and for developing the faculties of the mind. The Buddha made use of simple similes in the discourse to impress his teaching on the young mind of Rahula.
The second exhortation given to Rahula, in the Maha Rahulovada Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya, given to Rahula when he was eighteen years old, contained chiefly instructions on meditation starting with mindfulness on respiration and leading on to Insight Meditation. Rahula was taught also the insubstantiality of the five groups of grasping and the importance of maintaining equanimity on all occasions.
The third discourse, the Cula Rahulovada Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya, given to Rahula when he was in his twenty-first year after completing a full year as a bhikkhu dealt with the three characteristics of all conditioned existence (impermanency, unsatisfactoriness, insubstantiality). Contemplating on these three characteristics, Rahula finally attained Arahattaphala, the highest goal of a recluse's life.
In Singala Sutta, although his effort was directed towards the same ultimate goal, his approach and method were different to suit the occasion. Young Singala was the only son of a wealthy family of Rajagaha. His parents were devout followers of the Buddha and were well established in the Path. But young Singala remained indifferent to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha. Inspite of his parents' repeated advice, he would not approach the Buddha and listen to his discourses, nor would he visit any of the leading disciples of the Buddha. He was interested in material progress and prosperity; he did not see any benefit in dealing with the Buddha or his disciples. He believed that he would have to make offerings to them and thus suffer material loss for himself by coming into contact with them.
As the father was about to die, he left the advice "Dear son, worship the directions", after first getting the promise from his son to fulfil his dying wish. The father gave this advice in the hope that one day the Buddha or his disciples would see him worshipping the directions, and would give him a suitable discourse that would benefit him.
The discourses given by the Buddha always dealt with topics that fell within the frame Work of the Noble Path of Eight Constituents divided into three groups: (a) The Sila group made up of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, (b) The Samadhi group made up of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, and (c) The Panna group made up of Right Understanding and Right Thought. On meeting with Singala, the Buddha with his Sabbanuta Nana realized of course that the young man was ill-prepared to receive his Teaching on the Noble Path as a whole or as highly advanced expositions on it. He would have to start with the initial, preparatory group of Sila which deals with the practice of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.
In Singala Sutta, the Buddha adapted his Teaching in such a way that the young householder at once saw in the discourse lessons of direct practical application capable of immediate and fruitful use. The Buddha laid stress on social obligations, family responsibilities and adequate discharge of duties to society founded on individual good conduct and moral purity. He described the obligations and responsibilities in the relationship between parents and children, between teacher and pupil, between husband and wife, between friends, relatives and neighbours, between employers and employees. He explained also how the laity should look after the essential needs of the bhikkhus of the Order with loving-kind ness and respect, and how the bhikkhus in turn should satisfy the religious needs of those who are less advanced intellectually and spiritually, by imparting knowledge of the Dhamma to them and helping them along the right path, thus leading them away from evil.
The way of life as envisaged and outlined in the Sutta for young Singala is as applicable and beneficial today as it was in Buddha's time. The advice given in the Sutta covers every aspect of human relationship based on loving-kindness, sympathetic understanding and charity so completely that the Commentator termed it as Gihi Vinaya, the Code of Discipline for laymen. Whoever follows and practises it as laid down in the Sutta will bring goodwill, peace and harmony not only to his family but also to the society in which he lives.