Inter-personal relationships in Buddhist perspective
As Aristotle has rightly stated that man is a social animal. Men wish
to live in society, enjoy companionship, and happy to be crowded by
Brahmajalasutta maintains that the initial feeling the first being to
reappear in the present age of world reformation fell was loneliness. He
wanted company. So, according to the Buddhist story also, the need of
company and consequential necessity of interpersonal relations is
ingrained in living beings.
The Buddha’s practised (and, of course, made the followers also
practise) seclusion only till they attained spiritual heights. After the
attainments, they return to society to be in service for the benefit of
The Buddha once said “I, Udayi, sometimes, stay crowded by monks and
nuns, lay disciples both men and women, by kings and chief ministers, by
leaders and disciples of other sects.” (Majjhima Nikaya 11.8).
According to Balakrishna Govinda Gokhale, the Buddha’s refusal of
Devadatta’s five proposals is evidence to the fact that he did not want
to make monks totally outside the social relationships.
Making those conditions compulsory would have meant a complete
termination of all inter-personal relations even among the members of
Positive inter-relationships are a definite index of institutional
health of any monastic community. The Buddha once said: “Home dwellers
and the homeless, both alike, dependent on each other, come to win the
true Dhamma, a state of security... win the bliss they seek”.
(Iti.p.111) According to the way the Buddha envisioned his community,
the laity who look after the temporal needs of the Sangha must show
gratitude in meeting with their spiritual needs.
Enlisting the duties of monks, the Buddha has recommended that monks
should not only teach lay men of Dhamma but also visit when they are
sick to counsel them; and even under normal circumstances encourage them
to practise good morals. Buddhist social view maintains the best of
individuals is one who lives for his own good and as well as for the
good of other people. (Attahitaya ca parahitaya ca patipanno - A 11.95).
Buddhism aims at promoting social values like love, compassion and
sympathetic joy in order to create conditions for positive and healthy
interpersonal relations. At political level, the Buddha instructed
Licchavi rulers to assemble frequently, conduct their activities in
unison and disperse in unity.
He instructed Sangha to stay united and never quarrel (samagga hotha
ma vivadatha). There are special ethical instructions given for monks,
under abhisamacarika sikkha training on social behaviour manners in
relation to their behaviour towards their teachers and co-practitioners.
All those regulations have a healthy system of interpersonal network as
For lay followers there are detailed discourse on how to perform
their duties and responsibilities to maintain positive social
relationships. Not meeting them is not only seen as signs of personal
and social degeneration but also condemned as the work of outcastes in
Parabhava and Vasala Suttas.
Why at all an individual has to maintain proper relationships with
others? What has to be foundation of such relationships? Or, is it not
possible for an individual simply look after his own benefit and ignore
others? What is wrong with selfishness as long as one can live safe and
In answering such possible challenges, which, as a matter of fact,
are sometimes raised by individualist sophists, we have to admit that
there exists such selfish tendency among human beings to make them think
in such social ways.
Even the Buddha was aware of such tendencies. Buddhism, therefore,
combines interests of individuals with social interests and shows they
are interrelated. When it comes to safety and happiness we have to
remember that no man is an islander and his happiness cannot be achieved
individually and selfishly.
Emotional, intellectual and socio-economic needs of individuals
always find their meaning and function in a social context. Unless we
assure them of these benefits we will never achieve them because none of
these is possible beyond and above a social content.
Anti social or a social person will never achieve the bliss of love
and peace and always remain emotionally unsatisfied and imbalanced. For
instance if we do not guarantee the right to life for others we will
never achieve the same for us too.
Self-worth of an individual is totally measured in social terms. And,
on the other hand, realising self-worth will be necessary for all
positive social relationships.
Buddhism therefore trains its adherents to learn how to love oneself
before showing love to others. This is done reflecting and identifying
self-goals and then forming a feeling of a fraternity with others
generalising the same understanding.
One wants to be happy, safe and live long. This has to be recognised
first. One is advised, then, to meditate repeatedly thinking “May I be
happy and free from suffering... I wish to live my life free from
hostility and trouble and live happily.”
Thereafter, one can meditate thinking “May those who desire my
welfare, those who are indifferent towards me and those who hate me,
also be happy, free from sorrow and suffering.”
Rationale for this is found in recognising common hedonist nature of
all beings. This stand, as it ought to be, may seem to imply,
paradoxically though, that in order to love others one ought to love
oneself first, so that love for oneself is held to indicate the level to
which the love for others should be raised and to constitute the
measure, pattern and value of one’s love for others.
One begets love, naturally, only by loving. So, Buddhist ethic of
love and compassion helps people to understand that only by providing
happiness and safety to others one gets himself of those beautiful
things in life.
At least, when we have happy community of fellow beings around, it
becomes so much more pleasant to live with. One who practised this ethic
creates an environment in which everyone will live in harmony, share
happiness and have extremely pleasant interpersonal relations.
A person who is unhappy, jealous and stressed will never make
positive relationships with others. As an additional benefit, the person
who cultivates social emotions like love (metta), compassion (karuna),
joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha) will find the defiling emotions
like ill-will and hatred vanishing from his mind which makes it easy for
him to pursue his progress in the path to Nibbana.
Motivated by love or metta one becomes friendly towards his fellow
beings. It leads one to the practice of non-violence (ahimsa). His life
does not involve any harm to anyone (Itivuttaka p.31) Compassion or
Karuna, however, makes him active in more positive manner since it means
attending to the needs of persons who are in difficulties.
According to Buddhaghosa, it makes one’s heart tremble and quiver at
the sight and thought about the suffering the others experience and even
arouse the desire to take upon oneself, and to put an end to release
them from suffering. (Visuddhimagga. 263).
The most important aspect in interpersonal relations that the Buddha
laid was to perform one’s social role dutifully. In fact, Anathapindika,
an exemplary, Buddhist during the days of the Buddha, once declared, in
the presence of the Buddha, that it was one of his goals to have the
pleasure of performing his duty to his immediate social fellow beings.
The Buddha’s teachings on such duties and social interactions are
clearly explained in Sigalovada Sutta. There the Buddha was provided
with an attractive discourse context by Sigala who worshipped six
directions. He explained to Sigala that one worships six directions not
by literally worshipping them but by playing his social role well to his
six fold directions is society. Six directions according to the Buddha
East - Parents (when one is a son or daughter)
South - Teachers (when one is a pupil)
West - wife (When one is a husband)
North - friends (When one is also a friend)
Up - Clergy (When one is lay person)
Down - Employer (When one is an employee)
These six directions represent the basic social relationships of any
individual. One’s interactions are mainly connected to these six
directions. As these relationships are mutual and reciprocal, we can get
twelve kinds of relationships within this frame.
They are given as duties of individuals towards their counterparts.
But the important fact is that the Buddha has taken care to include what
others might call rights within the scope of duties. For instance, what
is given as the duties of employer are, in real terms, the rights of
The rights of all individuals in society are made duties of their
counterparts and, this, in effect, makes any dispute regarding rights
How the children should treat their parents
* Supporting them in gratitude
* Perform duties incumbent on them
* Keeping up the lineage and tradition
* Make oneself worthy of his heritage
* Transfer merits when they are dead.
How the parents should treat their children
* Restrain them from vice
* Exhort them to virtue
* Train them for a profession
* Contract suitable marriages for them
* Hand over the inheritance in due time.
How the pupils should treat their teachers
* Rising from their seats and salute
* Waiting upon them
* Showing eagerness to learn
* Personal service
* Attentive learning
How the teachers should treat their pupils
* Training them well
* Making them master out of what they have learnt
* Instructing them in the lore of every art
* Speaking well of them among their friends and companions
* Providing for their safety in every way.
How the husbands should treat their wives
* Showing her respect
* Being courteous towards her (refraining from disrespect)
* Being faithful to her
* Handing over authority of household management
* Providing her with adornments
How the wives should treat their husbands
* Performing her duties well
* Showing hospitality to relatives
* Being faithful to him
* Watching over the wealth
* Discharging her duties with skill and industr.
How the Clansmen should treat their friends
* Equality, using his own wishes as a guide and lTruthfulness
How the friends should treat the clansman
* Providing protection when he is off his guard
* Guarding his property when he is heedless
* Becoming a refuge when he is afraid
* Not forsaking him when he is trouble
* Showing consideration for his family
How the employers should treat their employees
* Assigning work according to their strength
* Supplying them with food and wages
* Tending them in sickness
* Sharing special treats with them
* Granting leave from time to time
How the employees should treat their employers
* Rising before them
* Lying down to rest after them
* Being content with what is given
* Doing their job well
* Caring about their good name
How the Laity should treat their clergy
* Treating them with affection in act
* Treating them with affection in speech
* Treating them with affection in mind
* Keeping their house open to them
* Supplying them their temporal needs
How the clergy should treat laity
* Restraining them from evil
* Exhorting them to do good
* Loving them with kindly thoughts
* Teaching them what they have not heard before
* Correcting and purifying what they have heard already
* Show them the correct path
Looking at the duties enlisted in Sigalovada Sutta, one may notice
that the six fold (or twelve fold) relations the Buddha has defined have
love, compassion, care and gratitude as their basics.