The Buddha and his disciples were unable to design as detailed a code of life for the laity as they did for the monastics because the lifestyles of the lay community were too diverse. Thus the various teachings on ethics and social commitment were given in the context of social structures that already existed in the societies of those times.
For example, if a couple got married, it was a marriage relationship with another person and it was also a marriage that brought the couple within the community of married people. They weren’t an isolated couple; they were a couple who had joined a ‘guild of married people’. And that implied an obligation. It implied a moral obligation, a familial obligation and a communal obligation. The whole community understood that obligation. And so the whole community could support marriage, through encouragement, through admonishment, through helping in times of sickness, and so on.
These kinds of supportive structures are harder to find in modern urban society. Today we might ask, ‘What is a partnership? Is there a guild of partners? What are the obligations in a partnership? How is that defined and are there like-minded people who support such obligations?’ There are no clear answers and this is a very real difficulty in our culture.
In a Buddhist community the accepted ethical framework is the five precepts. Those who are committed to a religious life based on Buddhist principles have these kinds of obligations to each other. If anyone in our community, be it a monastic person or a lay person, is not fulfilling this principle of impeccability in relationship, or if someone is being in any way promiscuous or abusive, it is our duty as a community to talk about that, to reflect on that, not in a gossiping manner but in a way which honours the precepts. This requires courage and compassion. It is a kind of social activism.
It means speaking about things which are important. This kind of honesty can be very helpful if it is done correctly: not from self- righteousness, not from anger, but from the fact that we have an obligation to the well-being of our community and its individuals. The one quality the Buddha could never go against in his spiritual journey was the quality of truthfulness.
Truthfulness is the heart of the religious life because enlightenment is about truth.
This reflection by Ajahn Viradhammo is from the book, Seeing the Way, Volume Two, (pdf) pp.165, 166-167.