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Buddhism And The Family

Marriage and family relationships. Buddhism is not a family-centered religion. For a variety of reasons, it does not possess doctrinal standards or institutionalized models of the family. Some of these reasons include the role of renunciation, detachment, and the individual's pursuit of enlightenment. The virtue of renunciation derives from Siddhartha's Great Going Forth, at which point he forsook his family and familial obligations as son, husband, and father. The monastic lifestyle and the role of the religious community (sangha) formalized the renouncing of familial relationships. The goal of detachment also impinges negatively upon family life. The inherent nature of families and family relationships produces attachments that constitute formidable obstacles to achieving detachment from worldly affairs and desires. Finally, the practices for pursuing enlightenment are adult-oriented disciplines requiring significant amounts of time and effort in solitary study and meditation. Although these three factors adversely affect the role of family life, the vast majority of Buddhists are lay people with immediate and extended families.

Because Buddhism does not espouse any particular form of the family or family relationships, Buddhist family life generally reflects pre-existing cultural and religious values, customs, and socially sanctioned modes of expression. Within Asian Buddhist cultures, this typically translates into a traditional, patriarchal family structure with clearly defined familial roles. Buddhism's primary contribution to the family consists of five ethical prescriptions that inform all aspects of family life, including marriage, roles and expectations, sexuality, children, and divorce. Originally composed by the Buddha for families and laity not capable of adopting monasticism, the Five Precepts are binding ethical mandates promoting personal virtues. They are (1) abstaining from harming living beings; (2) abstaining from taking what is not given; (3) abstaining from sexual misconduct; (4) abstaining from false speech; and (5) abstaining from intoxicants. Although none of these precepts directly addresses the family, by governing social and interpersonal relationships they provide an ethical framework for family life.

Buddhism does not regard marriage as a religious act, duty, or obligation. Instead, marriage is viewed as a civic or secular matter. Therefore, wedding ceremonies are not considered religious events, and Buddhist monks do not officiate during the service. Monks may, however, attend weddings, and they often pronounce blessings and recite protective rites for the couple. Depending upon cultural traditions, marriages are either arranged between two families, as in many Eastern cultures, or decided upon and entered into between two consenting adults, as in the West. While monogamy is the principle form of marriage, Buddhism does not prohibit other forms, such as polygamy, polyandry, and group marriages. In fact, although not common, marriages of each of these types have existed within Asian cultures. Again, it is important to remember that the mode of marriage depends not upon a particular Buddhist ideal or teaching but upon pre-existing and prevailing cultural attitudes.

Neither the Buddha nor Buddhist texts give specific instructions on marriage and family life. There is, however, a great deal of commentary offering advice on how marital and family life can be lived happily. The emphasis within family life in Buddhist ethics rests upon the proper roles and responsibilities that characterize the husband-wife relationship and the parent-child relationship. Husbands and wives are to cultivate respect, honor, and faithfulness towards one another. Parents are responsible for inculcating Buddhist ethics and practices in their children and, in turn, children are expected to be obedient and to preserve the traditions of the family.

One of the primary means by which parents teach their children Buddhist beliefs and values is through participation in the life of religious community (sangha). Typically, in Buddhist homes, families erect a small shrine displaying a statue of the Buddha. Some families set aside an entire shrine room. Before the Buddha shrine, families conduct daily, short religious services, especially on full moon and festival days. During these services, members of the family make devotional offerings of food, flowers, candles, and incense to the Buddha. They also, through recitation, commit themselves to the Three Refuges ("I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.") and to Buddhist ethical precepts. Outside of the home, religious instruction consists of regular attendance at religious services and participation in religious festivals.

Divorce, although uncommon for Buddhists, is not prohibited. It is expected, however, that if a couple enters into marriage and adheres to Buddhism's ethical prescriptions for marital and family life, that divorce becomes a non-issue. If, however, a couple refuses to follow the ethical prescriptions, is unable to live in peace, harmony, and mutuality with one another, or in the event of extreme circumstances, such as adultery or violence, it is preferable for the marriage to be broken than for the marriage to destroy the couple or the family.

Although Buddhism is generally viewed as fairly permissive in terms of marriage, sexuality (non-procreative sex, including homosexuality, is not condemned), and divorce, it is important to note that Buddhism condemns abortion as the taking of life. Although abortion is not absolutely forbidden, Buddhism generally considers life to begin at conception and views terminating pregnancy as a violation of the first ethical principle.

Rites of passage. Buddhism possesses few official rites of passage. Most often such events are cultural rituals with little distinctive Buddhist presence or involvement. Like marriage, this characteristic is due to the perception that many rites of passage are social, civic, or secular affairs. For example, Buddhist monks may attend birthing or naming ceremonies; however their role rarely extends beyond reading sacred texts or making blessing pronouncements. There are two noteworthy exceptions to this general rule: ordination and death.

Buddhist males and females may seek ordination for life or, more commonly, for briefer designated periods of time. Ordination ceremonies and vows serve several purposes. They bestow the ordinand's family with karmic merit and honor, they reflect the highest aspirations of Buddhist life, and they signify entrance into adulthood and the larger society.

No rite of passage, however, is more significant than death. Death and funeral rituals, unlike other rites of passage, are distinctively Buddhist. Death's association with rebirth produced highly ritualistic and elaborate ceremonies to prepare for death and to ensure that the deceased enters into nirvana after death (paranirvana). To prepare for death, monks recite religious texts to the dying, creating and maintaining for them a state of peace and tranquility in which they can enter into death. Funeral rituals also involve reciting sacred texts. They include other religious practices as well, especially merit ceremonies designed to bestow additional karma upon the dead and protective rites to exorcise evil influences. These two features of death and funeral rites are crucial to ensure that the deceased is either liberated from the cycle of reincarnation or receives a meritorious rebirth.

Religious festivals. Religious festivals play important roles in preserving basic Buddhist beliefs, practices, and teachings. Because of Buddhism's vast religious and cultural diversity, there is a multitude of diverse religious festivals. There are, however, three principle festivals within Buddhism that celebrate the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings), and the Sangha (the religious community). The Three Jewels are also known as the Three Refuges. Wesak, the most important Buddhist festival, celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death (paranirvana), all of which, according to tradition, occurred on the same day of the year. Wesak is celebrated on the full moon day in late May or early June. Dharma Day, celebrated on the full moon in July, commemorates the Buddha's teachings, particularly his first sermon in which he taught the Four Noble Truths. Finally, Sangha Day, which is held on the full moon day in November, celebrates the founding of the monastic and religious community.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsBuddhism - Buddhist History And Overview, Buddhism And The Family