Sigalovada Sutta: Responsibilities of a Spouse

Venue: Residence of Ooi Teow Chuan

Special occasion: Offering pindapata on the occasion of the wedding of Ooi Teow Chuan’s daughter
As Buddhists, we are aware that the Buddha gave a lot of discourses meant to guide us towards liberation from samsara—guidance to go beyond the round of life and death.

Liberation from samsara is freedom from attachments. Marriage is quite the opposite as it is about attachment. However, the Buddha always customises his teachings to the needs of his audience. To a person whom the Buddha knows is ready for renunciation, he will talk about meditation. To others, he would assess their inclinations and temperaments and tailor his talks to benefit the persons concerned.

In the scriptures, there are many discourses given to lay people and Sigalovada Sutta is one such discourse. The Buddha gave this discourse when he saw a person by the name of Sigala worshipping the four directions. When questioned by the Buddha as to why he did so, Sigala could not give a satisfactory answer. The Buddha then explained that praying to each direction has a different meaning. When one worships the west, one is worshipping the duties of husband and wife. So for the western direction, the Buddha expounded the duties of husband and wife.

The importance of harmony in a marriage
Before I go on with this sutta, let me make some observations about the state of marriage in today’s world. In the past, people used to go steady for a period of time and if they found they have an affinity towards each other, then only do they get engaged and subsequently, get married. Marriage is a complex situation. When disharmony arises within the marriage, it affects not only the couple but also the offspring. Disharmony between husband and wife will affect the children as they need an environment that’s conducive to their well-being in order to grow up into balanced adults. Otherwise, when they themselves get married, they too will cause disharmony in their own marriages. Nowadays, with greater awareness of family planning methods, people have a choice to defer parenthood while the couple put their relationship to the test. Divorce is a grave issue when there are children involved.

The role of a wife is more demanding than that of a husband. She has to take care of the household, her husband and the children. In later life she also has to take care of the grandchildren because of her love for the children and grandchildren. It is also attachment to (and responsibility for) children that causes one to chase after wealth—in order to give one’s children and family a good life.

Now let’s get back to Sigalovada Sutta. In it, the Buddha spoke of the five responsibilities of husbands and wives.

Responsibilities of a husband

    • Cherish and honour his wife

He should treat his wife as an equal— a partner and friend, not as an inferior.

A case in point is that of someone I met more than twenty years ago in Mahasi Meditation Centre, Yangon, Burma. He was a medium who used samadhi to gain concentration in order to communicate with devas to help people with their problems. During consultations, he would go into samadhi and the deva would give him the solutions to his clients’ problems through clear video-like images.

They were a childless couple. His wife was his partner in his work, acting as a receptionist. One day the deva gave him a message—his wife would die in an accident. He tried all ways within his power to avert the tragedy, but to no avail and his wife died as predicted. He was devastated and from then on lost his ability to go into samadhi and to carry on with his work. He was then in his late 40’s.

As a last resort to deal with his tragedy, he practised vipassana meditation under my teacher Sayadaw U Pandita. The Buddha declared that by following the instructions according to Satipatthana Sutta, sorrow and lamentation could be overcome. Under the guidance of his teacher, he succeeded in doing so by observing his sorrow rather than allowing it to overwhelm him. He also told me that after his vipassana meditation retreat, he regained his samadhi and received even clearer images from the deva.

The moral of this account is that a husband should cherish and honour his wife as the samadhi medium did. However, one should learn to do so with as little attachment as is possible, or else one would have to suffer severely as shown above. If the medium had practised vipassana before the tragedy, he wouldn’t have to undergo so much anguish after it. Luckily vipassana meditation helped him to overcome his sorrow, or he might well have committed suicide.

    • Mutual respect

He should accept his wife as an individual, as a person in her own right and not despise her. Thus, he has to maintain a give-and-take relationship.

    • Be faithful

Monogamy is the rule in most societies. Practising polygamy will affect the finances of the family as the husband’s income has to be split. It will also give rise to negative attitudes in the matrimonial relationship due to suspicions and jealousy.

    • Give her authority to run the household

Although both may be working, it is usually the wife who manages the household. Thus he should give his wife the authority over household matters. In Myanmar and nearer home in Kelantan, the wife is given control over the finances as well.

    • Support her wish to beautify herself

It is in a woman’s nature to want to look good so he should provide her with the means to beautify herself. Thus for example, he should allocate some money to her to buy adornments for herself.

Responsibilities of a wife

    • Good housekeeping

She has to see that household tasks are properly managed.

    • Maintain good interpersonal relationships in the family

Not only does she have to ensure that household chores are well managed; she also has to maintain harmonious relationships with the people in the house. Therefore, as a newcomer into her husband’s family, she needs to be humble in order to carve a niche for herself in the hearts of the other members of the family. Only then can she maintain a harmonious relationship with the family. She also has to establish good rapport with the household helpers. In this way she can maintain harmony in the home.

    • Be faithful

Just as a husband should be faithful to his wife, so too must the wife be to her husband. Both have to be more wary in situations involving the opposite sex so that misunderstandings do not arise.

    • Wise management of home finances

She has to manage the home finances well and spend wisely.

    • Skilful and diligent

She needs to be diligent and skilful in discharging her duties in the home

Nowadays people run management courses to help people organise their work. The Buddha already gave such advice 2500 years ago. So do heed the Buddha’s advice.

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