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Buddhism and Family

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Buddhism and Family

Liz Wilson*

Miami University


The received wisdom about Buddhism depicts it as an otherworldly religion that values the solitary monk or nun and devalues family life and the social world in general. Recent scholarship, however, reveals evidence that this picture is seriously flawed. Yes, there are many seminal Buddhist texts that suggest that monastics should destroy familial ties to whatever extent is possible. But there are many other texts, as well as inscriptions and other forms of material culture such as art and architecture, that indicate that in both the past and the present, Buddhist monks and nuns have remained embedded in family life in ways that might surprise us. Moreover, many Buddhist institutions have been modeled on the family and rely on familial loyalties for their strength and endurance. Familial ties have shaped the expression of Buddhism in every Buddhist society, structuring Buddhist institutions and providing a fundamental language and form of practice.


Kinship ties that bind us in family networks are some of the most powerful social forces operating in our lives. An individual’s sense of being embedded in a family, as we can see from many examples of art and literature, holds a primary place in the human psyche; that sense of belonging to a family performs a great deal of social labor. Family ties can bind us to people whom we respect and whose moral examples provide support for our religious lives. Family ties can also come into conflict with our religious objectives and bind us to people who don’t share our values. For those who seek to find a congenial community with like values, non-kin communities such as those found in monasteries or other intentional communities offer alternative forms of belonging. Fictive kinship ties, however, often structure such alternative non-kin communities. To invoke family relationships and take one’s monastic colleagues as brothers and sisters and one’s superiors as parents integrates the individual into the monastic community and draws on the affective powers of sibling and parental relationships to maintain communal bonds. Such ties can be a powerful motivational tool for the monk or nun who is exhorted to behave as if the members of his or her monastic organization were family members who would be shamed if the monastic individual behaved scandalously. From the beginnings of the religion in ancient India to current expressions all over the globe, Buddhists have created intentional communities, constructed religious authority, and guarded religious privilege through invoking family ties. The language of family and lineage constitutes a remarkably wide-ranging discourse that thrives in a variety of Buddhist cultural contexts. Recent literature counters the widely held assumption in Buddhist studies that Buddhism is a world-renouncing religion that is essentially antithetical to family life, showing that kinship making is a foundational form of practice in Buddhism. Scholars have found texts, inscriptions, and various forms of art and architecture that show some monastics continuing to identify with their families after taking robes and others continuing to live the lives of family men and women, including in some cases giving birth and raising children in monastic settings.

Scholars of Buddhism have risen to the challenge that this data provide. Many scholars are rethinking what it means to retire from the world and offering models of monastic life that include familial relations as a feature of monastic institutions. A number of recent studies show how family informs Buddhist practice. Some of the work shows families engaged in Buddhist practice together, drawing sustenance in their practice from their familial bonds. Other studies focus on individuals who have taken ordination as monks and nuns but who remain embedded in the lives of the families in which they were born, men and women who carry out their Buddhist monastic practices in ways that promote family interests. Recent scholarship has uncovered evidence of interdependence between monastics and their families in terms of financial support, care-giving, and ritual labor. The scholarly work reviewed here also looks at familial ties as a structuring principle of religious community and considers the role of the fictive kinship ties as a force that helps to shape the religious practices of individuals.

Of the many ways that family can intersect with the institution of renunciation, three in particular offer some analytical precision and provide a helpful organizing structure for the materials we explore here:

1. Renunciation as the creation of a new family. Renunciation as a monk or a nun often leads to a communal existence that is organized along familial lines, thus giving a pseudo-familial quality to the social lives of those who renounce. As Richard Cohen suggests, ‘Kinship need not be a matter of blood and bones. Kinship is a system of meaning, communicating the existential embeddedness of social relations joining individuals, communities, and divinities’ (Cohen, p. 11). Fictive kinship structures have long provided the ordering principles that have enabled Buddhist monastic communities to work effectively. Scriptures such as the Aggaññā Sutta show the Buddha describing members of the monastic community as his spiritual offspring: ‘He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakable … can truly say: “I am a true son of the Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.”’ (Dīgha Nikāya 3:81, transl. Walshe, p. 409). Monks and nuns thus constitute the offspring of the Buddha; they are born from the dhamma or the teachings that constitute the Buddha’s deathless body. Paul Mus argues that in formulating the notion of the Buddha as the father of a monastic family, Buddhists in India drew on Brā ma ical notions of kinship that entail the transfer of personhood from father to son after the death of the father; Mus describes this transfer of personhood in this way: ‘One does not inherit from one’s father; instead, one inherits one’s father.’ (Mus 1978, volume 1, p. 12). To claim to be a son of the Buddha has serious consequences, according to John Strong. To claim to be a son of the Buddha is potentially to stake a claim to the possibility of Buddhahood for oneself, as Strong has shown in reference to key figures in avadāna literature.1 Mus suggests that Aggaññā Sutta passage cited above provides a kind of blueprint for the Indian Buddhist community’s development, with different interpretations of this kin relationship leading to different sectarian orientations. Richard Cohen offers an example of how the language of fictive kinship allows for assertions of authority by a specific sectarian group claiming the position of sole inheritors of the Buddha’s legacy. In an article on the way that assertions of kinship with the Śakya clan were used in Mahāyāna texts as a social marker of the bodhisattva, Cohen shows how a narrowly defined group claimed to constitute an elite family within the broader Buddhist family. From examples such as these, it should be clear that the language of kinship serves to help Buddhists articulate who they are in relation to idealized figures of the past as well as to get a better purchase on who they are in relation to present-day sectarian alternatives.

2. Renunciation for the sake of family. While it is true that monastic recruitment has historically posed a potential hardship for families who cannot afford to lose family members to the monastery, there can be many benefits that accrue to the families of those who ordain and many reasons why families would support the ordination of their members. Taking robes as a monk or a nun can be an action that one does for the benefit of one’s biological family. One example of renunciation for the sake of family is the custom of temporary ordination as practiced today in Thailand and Burma (Swearer; Gombrich 1984; Keyes). In these Theravāda Buddhist societies, boys and young men often take novice ordination and spend some time in the monastery before resuming lay life. There are a variety of motivations for taking robes as a monk for a time. Spending time in monastic settings can offer educational opportunities not otherwise available, thus leading to the possibility of upward social mobility. But a primary motivation is to assist one’s family through the generation of merit. Entering the sangha is thought to generate merit both for oneself and for one’s parents (especially one’s mother) and ancestors. In this way, a young man can ‘repay’ his parents the debt he owes them for giving him life and raising him. Support for the renunciant community can also redound to the benefit of the family, both those who are living and those who lived in the past. As Teiser and Cole show, during the Ghost Festival, Buddhist temples in East Asia promote support for the renunciant sangha as a means of helping deceased parents and ancestors. Festival participants offer gifts to monastics while narrating accounts of how the Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyāyana (Pāli, Mogallana; Chinese, Mulian) generated merit through such offerings as a way to ensure his mothers release from hell. Renunciation has served as a way for elite families to maintain their hold on power and property, in cases where renunciant members entitle the clan to possession of monastic properties. It’s not uncommon, for example, for abbots of land-owning temples in Sri Lanka to select their nephews as successors, thus ensuring that the family keeps its entitlement to monastic property holdings.2 3. Renunciation together with family. In biographies of the Buddha analyzed by Strong (1983a), renunciation is often represented as an extended family affair in which the entire Śākya clan of Gotama Siddhartha plays a role. The historical Buddha leaves his family to seek awakening, but he returns after achieving his goal to teach them what he has learned. In the process, he brings key members of his extended family into his spiritual family. Even before the Buddha’s awakening and return home, while he is in the forest practicing extreme forms of self-denial in the pursuit of awakening, the Buddha’s chief wife is said in some texts to practice her own version of asceticism, turning her home into a domestic hermitage. She wears saffron robes, eats a limited diet, and engages in other forms of self-discipline even while living in the palace. After the Buddha’s awakening and return, many members of his family joined him in taking up the renunciant life. The Buddha is shown to have focused special attention on some resistant family members in order to bring them into the monastic fold. For example, on the day when his stepbrother Nanda was to be married and made king, the Buddha intervened to ensure that Nanda would instead take robes as a monk, despite Nanda’s reluctance to do so. This attention to the importance of family ties is also well established in literary records of the past lives of the Buddha. Many past life stories show the Buddha practicing asceticism while maintaining ties with family members. Jātaka tales show the bodhisattva practicing asceticism along with kinsmen (often biological brothers) who are depicted as having shared the renunciant life with him on many occasions in past lives. In a preface to the Sāma Jātaka (Jātaka 540), we learn of a man who becomes a monk.3 After seventeen years away from home, he learns that his aged parents have been exploited by their retainers and are starving.

So this monk leaves his hermitage and goes to his parents’ home, feeding them food that he acquires as alms and clothing them with clothes obtained the same way. Other monks grumble that this monk is doing wrong by supporting his parents with alms. The matter is relayed to the Buddha and the Buddha praises the monk for his actions. Telling the story of his past life as Sāma, the Buddha explains that he himself looked after blind parents in that past life and that he regards such filial practices as highly meritorious. From these wide-ranging examples, it should be clear that renunciation has historically not meant only one thing to Buddhists but has taken vastly different forms in Buddhist practice. If one is to survey the ways that kinship making has served as a fundamental form of Buddhist practice, one should be prepared to look at a broad array of social structures and institutions.

Buddhism and Family Life in South Asian Contexts

What did it mean in ancient India to take the robes and precepts of a Buddhist monk or nun? The action of joining the sangha through ordination is described as a termination of ties to home and family. The monastic is one who ‘goes forth from home into the homeless life’ (Pāli, agārasmā anagāriya pabbajjati). What does this entail? Early Buddhist literature describes the renouncer as one who completely severs all family ties. The Rhinoceros Horn Discourse of the Sutta Nipāta explains that the renouncer should abandon family and wealth for an autonomous lifestyle: ‘Leaving behind son and wife, and father and mother, and wealth and grain, and relatives, and sensual pleasures to the limit, one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.’4 In many passages found in Sanskrit and Pāli sources, the Buddha declares it impossible to practice celibacy (brahmacarya) while living at home. This passage from the Mahāvastu, a Sanskrit biography of the Buddha, has many counterparts in Pāli literature: Now this householder life is constricting. One must go forth to an open space; it is not possible for one to practice the utterly specified, utterly irreproachable, pure, clean celibate life (brahmacarya) while staying in a house. I will go forth from home to homelessness.5 Such passages in the Buddhist textual record depict the life of the renouncer as completely separate from and even antithetical to family life. And it would seem that some in ancient India perceived monasticism as an anti-familial force. Indian Buddhist literature contains a passage suggesting local outrage over Buddhist recruitment records. The Pāli Vinaya records the disapproval of some of the distinguished families of Magadha who lost their men to the sangha: ‘That monk Gotama is on a path that takes away people’s children. That monk Gotama is on a path that makes widows. That monk Gotama is on a path which destroys families.’

In contrast to the portrait of the Buddha and his monastic followers rejecting family life that the passages above suggest, scholars such as Gregory Schopen and Shayne Clarke have offered literary and material evidence that many Indian monks and nuns continued relationships with their families even after going forth from home to homelessness. Gregory Schopen’s analysis of inscriptional evidence from a variety of Indian sites shows that Indian Buddhist monastics made donations to the sangha in order to benefit their parents, both those who were living and those who had died.7 Comparing inscriptions of donations made by laity with those made by monastics, Schopen suggests that the concern for parents is even more evident in inscriptions recording donations made by monastics than in inscriptions by lay people.8 And Schopen indicates that some of the monastic donors whose gifts were earmarked for the benefit of their parents were titled, educated monks, ‘teachers and transmitters of “official” Buddhist literature’, and not just uneducated monks who might not

be expected to know the official norms.9 Schopen has also argued that Indian monks had considerable family-based economic resources at their disposal, making donations to monasteries that would not have been possible if they strictly adhered to precepts about handling money. Rulings found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya that Schopen has analyzed suggest that even after going forth from home to homelessness, Indian monastics living under that monastic code enjoyed the right to inherit family property.1

Shayne Clarke has also found evidence from Indian Buddhist sources that challenges the centrality of the image of the renunciant who has severed all family ties. The most comprehensive treatment of Clarke’s findings is found in a monograph entitled Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms (2014), but much of what Clarke has to say can be gleaned from journal articles published from 2008 through 2010. Clarke has found inscriptional and textual indications that relationships between renouncers and their families did not end with ordination. In his analysis of inscriptions from various sites around the Indian subcontinent, Clarke shows that monks and nuns made donations together with family members and that monks and nuns continued to identify as members of families when describing themselves in inscriptions. 11 Moreover, Clarke suggests that the line between celibate renunciant and sexually active lay person is not as clear as received wisdom in Buddhist studies would have it, arguing that only the Pāli Vinaya mandates expulsion for those who violate the precept on celibacy. The other five Vinayas presuppose that violations will occur and make provisions so that violators are able to stay.12 Clarke maintains that attention to Vinaya literature provides a useful focusing lens for exploring issues of family life in Indian monasticism. Extant Vinayas are much more permissive of ongoing relationships between renunciants and their families than one would guess from the portrait of the renouncer found in sūtra literature. Sūtra literature presents an idealized portrait of the renouncer because, according to Clarke, it represents the public face of Buddhism that monastic institutions wished to present. The monastic codes, which were produced for internal consumption, offer scholars a more accurate window onto Indian monasticism as a set of mundane practices.13 The work of Clarke and Schopen, taken together, suggests that going forth from home to homelessness may have been more a matter of rhetoric than a matter of reality on the ground, as indicated by inscriptional evidence and evidence from extant Vinayas. These findings suggest that scholars should rethink the classification of family-friendly monastic practices in Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Newari, and Tibetan contexts as deviant and instead assume that few monastic contexts required monks and nuns to completely sever ties to families created by blood and marriage.

Jonathan Walters (1994, 1995) shows the importance of the Buddha’s foster-mother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī in his analysis of the Pali Gotamī Apadāna. Walters suggests that this text depicts the Buddha’s foster-mother as a virtual ‘female Buddha’ – a female counterpart to the Buddha himself. One of the interesting themes developed in the Gotamī Apadāna is the parallel between the Buddha and his foster-mother as mothers. Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī gives her milk to the Buddha when he was a child, thus allowing his physical body to flourish. The Buddha is depicted as offering his followers a more refined kind of sustenance in giving them the milk of the Dhamma, or the teachings. Reiko Ohnuma expands on a theme that Walters deals with in his treatment of the Gotamī Apadāna – the debt that a son owes his mother for giving him birth and nurturing him. Ohnuma (2006) draws attention to the theme of familial obligation that marks some narratives about the founding of the women’s monastic order. In these narratives, the Buddha agrees to admit women into monastic life, against his better judgment, because of the obligation he feels for Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī. By admitting his foster-mother as a nun as repayment for the debt of raising him, the Buddha thus establishes the precedent of admitting

women into monastic life on the basis of familial obligation. In Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (2012), Ohnuma analyzes discourses about motherhood in South Asian Buddhist literature, suggesting that the figure of the mother reveals key fault lines in the institutional and emotional lives of the monastic authors who composed and redacted much of the South Asian Buddhist literature extant today. The book explores images of mother love and mother grief that reveal the ambivalence of maternal affections in the discursive world of South Asian Buddhist monastic authors, offers a series of portraits of mothers related to the historical Buddha, and shows a range of meanings associated with images of breastfeeding and nurturing.

As the material above suggests, there are a great number of contexts in which Buddhists have reflected on parental roles and the work of parenting. This leads us to ask about the corresponding category of the child. Although the topic of children has not received much scholarly attention in Buddhist studies, Vanessa Sasson’s 2013 edited volume on children in Buddhism addresses this problem. The contributors to Sasson’s work explore topics such as Buddhist conceptions of childhood and the institutional structures that have shaped the lives of Buddhist children in various contexts. The book is divided into two parts, one that deals with texts and the other with lived traditions.

One of the themes developed in work on Buddhism and family is the way in which Buddhist texts and institutions legitimate their authority by occupying social roles associated with parental figures. Alan Cole, whose work on mothers and sons in Chinese Buddhism is treated separately below, has published an interesting and highly original study of four Mahāyāna sutras (Lotus, Diamond, Tathāgatagarbha, and Vimalakīrtinirdeśa) in his 2005 monograph. Cole argues that key texts associated with the early Mahāyāna movement endow themselves with authority by presenting themselves as substitutes for sites of authority associated with traditional monastic Buddhism, such as monastic leaders and teachers and celebrated religious sites and icons. These sutras redirect devotion toward texts – the Mahāyāna sutras themselves – and away from competing sites of authority by claiming a paternal role for themselves vis-a-vis the reader.

Buddhism and the Family in Theravāda South and Southeast Asia

As the sect of Buddhism with the most pronounced division between the lay and the monastic realms, Theravāda Buddhism poses some interesting problems for scholars who wish to understand family life. On the one hand, leaving home and taking robes as a monk or a nun is highly valorized, and lay life is often described in sermons as a lesser way of being a Buddhist. One the other hand, as we have seen above, many individuals are motivated to don the robes of a monastic in order to gain merit for their families. Charles Keyes (1986) demonstrates the centrality of family as a motivating factor in temporary ordination rites for young men in Thailand. Jeffrey Samuels (2010) explores how familial ties permeate monastic life in contemporary Sri Lanka. Based on extensive fieldwork in Sri Lanka, Samuels provides a vivid portrait of the quasi-familial roles that monastics play in relation to one another, such as the parental roles that senior monks play with regard to novices and younger monks. Sid Brown (2001) shows that for Thai Buddhist nuns, the option of remaining embedded in the family is present and often a source of financial strength and emotional support. Throughout South and Southeast Asia, mothers appear to be especially important figures. Richard Gombrich (1972) uncovers the significant and revered role of themother in popular Sinhalese Buddhism, a role epitomized by the common Sinhalese saying Ammā gedara Budun, ‘the mother is the Buddha of the home.’ Barbara Watson Andaya suggests that a large part of the appeal of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia during the 12th and 13th centuries was due to the way that Buddhists were able

to deploy notions of motherhood that were linked to the Sa gha, with women as the nurturing force providing all that the Sa gha needed to sustain itself. Buddhism and the Family in East Asia Ch’en’s 1968 article on filial piety in Chinese Buddhism shows the importance of filial piety in the Chinese context and suggests the strategies that Buddhists employed to overcome allegations that Buddhists religious practices are unfilial. The article summarizes a number of scriptures that depict Buddhists doing heroic things to benefit their parents. A classic example is the tale of how the monk Mu-lien rescues his mother from hell with the help of the Buddha, who institutes a ritual of giving focus on the well being of deceased ancestors. This tale serves as one of the textual bases for the Ghost Festival, a festival explored by Teiser (1988) and others during which it is said that the dead roam the earth in search of sustenance and entertainment. Another strategy that Buddhists used was to argue that their Confucian opponents overlooked what happened to parents and ancestors in the cycle of reincarnation. Such opponents claimed to practice filial piety but did not see that deceased ancestors could exist in various forms due to reincarnation. Only Buddhists, practicing universal compassion extending to animals, hell beings, and denizens of various post-mortem realms, can properly address the needs of reincarnated family members.

Faure (1998) has accrued a vast array of material on Buddhist constructions of sexuality and gender. His work is especially useful for those interested in East Asian, particularly Japanese contexts. Following a 1998 monograph that dealt largely with the experiences of male Buddhist monastics, Faure published a follow-up work in 2003 focusing on Buddhist conceptions of women and the feminine. Chapter Five of this work deals with images of women as mothers.

In his Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism, Alan Cole suggests that a major factor in the growth of Buddhism in medieval China was the fact that Buddhist discourse made Buddhism essential to the proper maintenance of family relationships, particularly between mothers and sons. By tying the family to the Buddhist monastery, Buddhists gained material support and institutional strength. Using warnings of damnation and the assurance of salvation, Buddhist texts exhorted their audience to patronize the Buddhist monastery, declaring that this patronage provided the only way to ensure the salvation of one’s ancestors – in particular, the debt that a son owed his mother.

Richard Jaffe’s 2001 monograph on clerical marriage in Japan takes up an important topic: how did it come to the case that Japanese priests view marriage and family as among their objectives in leading religious lives? Jaffe’s work ranges from the early Meiji period to the mid-20th century, showing the various trends and forces that led to the development of clerical marriage and temple families as norms in Japanese Buddhism.

One consequence of clerical marriage in Japan is that distinctions between clergy and laypeople are less clear than in the case of clerical celibacy. Stephen Covell deals with the consequences of such confusion. In a 2006 monograph, Covell focuses on 20th-century Japanese Buddhism through the lens of the post-war history of the Tendai sect. The author grapples with the tensions between the traditional image that Tendai has of itself as a renunciant tradition and the regular activities of the sect in promoting this worldly life, tensions that shape other Buddhist sects as well.

Buddhism and the Family in the Himalayas and Central Asia

Familial and pseudo-familial lineages play an important role in Vajrayāna Buddhism. This esoteric tradition arose in India at an early medieval time period (seventh to eighth centuries)

in which political authority was significantly decentralized. Lineages that provide an organizing principle for a small group such as an extended family or clan tend to thrive in such situations. Just as family lineages have supplied the basis for social cohesion in much of the Himalayan region and in Vajrayāna-based societies in Central Asia, likewise family-like ties bind groups of monastics and adepts in these places. In Vajrayāna Buddhist circles, the guru stands as the key figure anchoring the lineage system. The guru initiates adepts who are henceforth treated as family members. In the tulku system (whereby Vajrayāna religious leaders return to earth as reincarnations of themselves), the reincarnate inherits the property and religious students of the previous incarnation in the lineage, playing a role that is parallel to what the designated heir of a dead family patriarch would do. Likewise, meditative and ritual practices enable the Vajrayāna practitioner who has chosen a celibate life to transform the attachments developed in familial settings into more universal modes of relatedness. For example, Martin Miller gives an example of this transformation in a study based on fieldwork in Ladakh (2000), showing how initiations as well as ritual and meditative practices transform the household-based sentiments of monastic practitioners into sentiments appropriate to the monastic state.

Buddhism is of interest to many in Europe and the Americas, but monastic Buddhism has not translated well in these Western contexts. Lay people are the key figures in the expansion of Buddhism in the West; because of their key roles, there has been much innovative rethinking of what family life can mean for Buddhist practice in Western settings. Meditation teacher and writer Katie Lila Wheeler is an example of someone who has looked at the place of family in her own life and the lives of American Buddhist practitioners. After spending several years in a community of women renunciants in Burma, Wheeler returned to lay life and grappled with the issue of whether to have a child. In the process of thinking through her own desires and options, Wheeler interviewed a number of female Buddhist practitioners, both those who had children and those who did not. Wheeler found some interesting trends among those women practitioners raising children. Many compared the self-imposed discipline and requisite attentiveness of their daily life as mothers with the monastic discipline of an ordained Buddhist or a Buddhist engaged in an intensive meditation retreat. For example, a Danish laywoman complained:

So many Western practitioners don’t understand Buddhism really. They only identify with monks and monastic practice. Intensive retreats – that’s all they know. It’s crazy because they’re not monks and they can’t be in retreat all the time, but they think that’s all that Buddhism is. They don’t see that Buddhism has teachings for the whole society. These [[[Westerners]]] feel that reproduction is just the reproduction of delusion. What if it were the reproduction, the cultivation, of awareness? If I teach my child to recognize that her anger is not her real self, is this not a valid practice of Buddhism? With a child, every day is important, every moment is so important. You can’t just say, “It doesn’t matter,” because you are forming a person. How is that not meditation, how is that not intensive practice? (Wheeler 2000, p. 418) A Swiss laywoman elaborates this concept of domestic life as intensive practice: Why avoid family life? If you can’t practice love and generosity and mindfulness with those you love, where is that at? If you just make your life to avoid conflict and obligation, what does that mean? I believe in working with what’s real, not in avoiding it. And so here is my practice – (laughs)

to find myself right in the middle of fighting with my husband and children, to ask how are we going to come through this, what’s best for all of us, what is the path of wisdom in this case? (Wheeler 2000, p. 418)

Wheeler’s own teacher, a Bengali woman named Dipa Ma who trained in the Burmese vipassanā tradition, taught that children can be an excellent focus for meditation: Dipa Ma countered the common argument that children are a distraction. . . . A mother cannot wallow in ordinary, self-centered thoughts, according to Dipa Ma. A mother has to put her attention fully outside of herself, focusing here, there, and there, in a very quick succession. The attention has to be not merely focused, but also soft and loving, aware of its own quality. (Wheeler 2000, p. 418) Wheeler describes the parallels many Buddhist women draw between being a mother and being a full-time monastic meditator. ‘Women feel, and say, that they are practicing like monks. They draw many parallels, including monks’ short sleeping hours. To be bound to the needs of children is the equivalent of having to follow 227 rules and regulations’ (Wheeler 2000, p. 419).


New work in Buddhist studies has led to considerable rethinking of the place of family in Buddhist history and contemporary Buddhist practice. It is no longer clear that we should take the scriptural metaphor of the monastic wandering solitary as a rhinoceros horn as indicative of actual practice in Indian settings. Scholars have urged that the literature from which the simile of the rhinoceros horn is taken be seen a part of a public relations campaign that sheds little light on lived Buddhist history. Drawing on monastic literature written for internal consumption, these scholars have shown that familial relations continued and found support inside monasteries in ancient India and South Asia. Provisions were made for children and parents. Monks and nuns were motivated to make donations in the name of parents and ancestors, and showed in other ways their concern for the welfare of living relatives and departed ancestors. Due to these new data pertaining to historical practices in India, practices in other parts of Asia that were once considered deviant (such as married monks in Japan) are now being looked at differently. This rethinking of Buddhist history can, in turn, give credence to the efforts of contemporary Buddhist practitioners who are creating family-friendly Buddhist settings in European and American contexts. What may seem to be radical experiments without precedent in Asia may not be such radical departures after all.

Short Biography

Liz Wilson is a Professor of Comparative Religion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio,
where she also teaches as an affiliate in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program and
in the Asian/Asian American studies program. She is author of Charming Cadavers: Horrific
Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) and editor of The Living and the Dead: Social Dimensions of Death in South Asian Religion (SUNY Press, 2003) as well as Family in Buddhism (SUNY Press, 2013). Her
research interests include gender and religion, marriage across cultures, death and dying,
and Buddhist revival movements.
196 Liz Wilson
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Religion Compass 8/6 (2014): 188–198, 10.1111/rec3.12107

1 See Strong’s discussion of Buddhist monks as ‘sons of Śākyamuni’ (Śākyaputra) and ‘heirs of the Dharma
(dharmadāyada) in his translation and analysis of the Aśokāvadāna: Strong 1983b, p. 82. See also instances in the
Aśokāvadāna where this language is used in by the elder Upagupta in assertions of power: Strong 1983b, pp. 187–188,
p. 217, p. 259.
2 On the transmission of monastic property within family lineages in Theravāda settings, see Bechert, 225–226; Evers
1967, pp. 703–710; Evers 1969, pp. 685–692.
3 See Chalmers’ translation.
4 Transl. K. R. Norman 1995, p. 7.
5 See Émile Senart, ed., 1882–1897, 2:117. Parallel passages in Pāli are to be found at several points in the Majjhima Nikāya, Dīgha Nikāya, and the Vinaya Pi aka.
6 See H. Oldenberg, ed., 1879–1883, 1:43.
7 Schopen 1997, pp. 62–64.
8 Schopen 1997, 65.
9 Schopen 1997, 65.
10 Schopen 1995, pp. 101–123.
11 See Clarke 2006, pp. 57–72; Clarke 2014, Chapter 2.
12 Clarke 2009, pp. 1–43.
13 Clarke 2009, 18.
Works Cited
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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 33(1), pp. 1–30.
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Brown, S. (2001). The Journey of One Buddhist Nun: Even Against the Wind. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Chalmers, R., et al. (trans.). (1895–1907). The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, 6 vols. London: Pali Text Society, (reprinted in 3 vols., 1973) 6:38–52.
Ch’en, K. (1968). Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 28, pp. 81–97.
Clarke, S. (2006). Family Matters in Indian Monastic Buddhism. Ph.D. dissertation. The University of California-Los
——. (2009). Monks Who Have Sex: Pārājika Penance in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms, Journal of Indian Philosophy, 37,
pp. 1–43.
——. (2014). Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms. Honolulu, Hawai‘i: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Cohen, R. (2000). Śākyabhik us and the Institutionalization of the Bodhisattva Ideal, History of Religions, 40(1), pp. 1–31.
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