Family, Buddhism and the

views updated


Given that Buddhism is regularly understood as a monastic movement dedicated to "leaving the family" (pravrajyā), the technical term for becoming a monk or nun, it might seem odd to ask about Buddhism's relationship to the family. Why, after all, would Buddhism as a religion of renunciation have anything to do with family life? However, a closer look at the structure of Buddhist rhetoric, as well as Buddhism's various societal roles, reveals that Buddhism's relationship to the family and family values has several unexpected layers.

Arguably there are at least four basic categories of Buddhist discourse that focus on familial issues: (1) a discourse on the negative aspects of family life, the language of renunciation; (2) a symbolic language in which identity within the monastic setting is understood as a kind of replication of the patriarchal family, a kind of corporate familialism; (3) guidelines for correct conduct at home, pastoral advice from the Buddhist establishment; and (4) specific lineage claims that sought to establish an elite family within the monastic family, a more specialized form of corporate familialism.

As for the first, the language of renunciation, statements regarding the unsatisfactory and even dangerous aspects of family life are typical throughout the Buddhist world. According to this logic, life in the family is fraught with burning desires and gnawing concerns. Consequently, life at home is essentially the environment in which patterns of conduct and thinking develop that will continue to bind one in the cycle of birth and death (saṂsĀra), and keep one from making progress toward nirvĀṆa. Among these statements about the generic risks of family life, one can also find more specific statements about the physical dangers that women court as they follow the prescribed life cycle within the family, the risks of childbirth being paramount. In sum, in this sphere of discourse Buddhist authorities encourage reflection on the benefits of leaving the encumbering and dangerous domain of family life in order to pursue higher spiritual goals.

The second sphere of family rhetoric appears when Buddhist renunciants began to settle down into landowning religious groups, roughly two centuries before the beginning of the common era. At this point, even as the evils of family life were still espoused, monastic relations were explained via a kind of corporate familialism. Apparently, the Buddhists began to construct an ulterior family, actually a purer form of patriarchy, that was to solidify and legitimize Buddhist identity within the perimeter of the monastic walls. Thus, in formally gaining the identity of a monk or nun, one joined the Buddha in a kind of fictive kinship that sealed one's Buddhist identity with a kind of "naturalness" and facilitated harmony within the monasteries. In fact, the ritual for becoming a monk or nun seems to have been conceived as a kind of rebirth back into one's "original" family, and one was thereafter called "a son of the Buddha." This motif of rebirth is clear, too, in the way that one's "age" and seniority within the monastery is determined not by real age, but by the number of years that have passed since one's ordination.

The third sphere of family discourse in Buddhism appears in the way that Buddhist authorities, likely from the earliest phases of the religion, prescribed proper conduct for those who remained in the family. These moral guidelines define the life to be maintained at home: One is to be obedient to seniors and considerate of others' needs, while also adhering to the generic set of Buddhist precepts—not killing, stealing, lying, and so on. Given these statements, and particularly those that urge filial submission to one's parents and seniors, one can see that Buddhist discourse was, and still is, intent on stabilizing and even bolstering the family. The reasons for Buddhism's advocacy of traditional family practice are complex, but one important reason is that Buddhist monasteries relied on families to support them financially. In fact, to facilitate exchanges between the family and the monastery, Buddhist discourse often emphasized that one is only a good, filial son at home if one patronizes the Buddhist monasteries. These injunctions could also be focused on ancestor care, where it was argued that living descendents ought to patronize Buddhist monastics in order to enlist their spiritual power, which could be directed toward caring for the deceased family members in the afterworld. In short, Buddhist monastics inserted themselves within the sphere of at-home family values by arguing that the family's life cycle needed to involve patronage of Buddhist monasteries.

As for the last category of familial rhetoric, at different times in Buddhist history there appeared mystical genealogies in which a higher Buddhist family was established within the already domestic space of the Buddhist establishment. Thus, in tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet, as well as in the Chan school of Buddhism in East Asia, it was claimed that certain monks were more directly related to the Buddha than other Buddhist monks or nuns. In both cases, the language of fathers and sons was relied upon to explain why certain monks should be taken to be living representatives of the tradition, with truth, authority, and legitimacy flowing directly down the lineage from the Buddha to the present master. In fact, intricate logics emerged wherein these elite "sons of the Buddha" were put in charge of guiding other less connected Buddhists back to their true familial relationship to the Buddha.

In sum, though Buddhism sought to escape the family, this very effort to leave domesticity was itself domesticized and remade into a Buddhist family. Moreover, this new Buddhist family established a symbiotic relationship with the lay family, encouraging its stability and productivity, along with a pro-Buddhist orientation. Finally, even within the familial space of the monasteries, other hyper-families appeared, suggesting an ongoing need to re-create identity and authority according to patriarchal logics, along with the sense that sameness and difference in social space are best handled via familial rhetorics that are both inclusive and hierarchizing.

See also:Laity; Monasticism; Monks; Nuns; Women


Cabezón, José Ignacio, ed. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Cole, Alan. "Upside Down/Right Side Up: A Revisionist History of Buddhist Funerals in China." History of Religions 35, no. 4 (1996): 307–338.

Cole, Alan. Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Cole, Alan. "Homestyle Vinaya and Docile Boys in Chinese Buddhism." Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 7, no. 1 (1999): 5–50.

Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Alan Cole

About this article

Family, Buddhism and the

Updated About content Print Article Share Article