Buddhism Buddhism and the Family
Reiko Ohnuma
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0201


Buddhism has a complex and multifaceted relationship with the family, familial life, and familial discourses. Buddhism is centered on a monastic path that involves the renunciation of all familial ties—following the ideal model of the Buddha himself, who abandoned his parents, wife, and son in order to work toward the ultimate goal of Buddhahood. Thus, many Buddhist texts are characterized by a strong renunciatory and anti-family discourse in which the family is depicted as a primary source of attachment, delusion, and suffering. Yet to survive, Buddhism also relies on a surrounding lay community that is organized on a familial basis. Thus, in practice Buddhism accommodates and supports the family in multiple and diverse ways: for example, by giving pastoral advice on the conduct of familial life; by promoting rituals and practices supportive of fertility, procreation, and the productivity and success of the family; and by inserting itself as a necessary partner in the exchange relationships between parents and children or between living families and their deceased ancestors. Moreover, Buddhist monasticism itself, in actual practice, has often accommodated familial relationships within the walls of the monastery to a far more significant degree than might be expected, even developing a married, house-holding clergy in some contexts. Throughout Asia, a monastic’s family background has often shaped his or her monastic career in important ways, and monastic sons and daughters have likewise continued to influence the families they have supposedly left behind. Finally, the Buddhist Saṅgha itself has frequently co-opted the language of “family” for its own purposes—using fictive kinship ties to portray itself as a “higher,” more spiritual family and making extensive use of the metaphors of family, lineage, descent, and kinship to structure its own authority or assert a particular religious identity. It is thus impossible to characterize the relationship between “Buddhism” and “the family” in any singular way.

General Overviews

Among the several general overviews available, Cole 2004 is a brief encyclopedia entry devoted to the topic, whereas Cole 2006 is a much-expanded version written by the same author and accompanied by useful primary source readings. Clough 2001 offers another broad overview, though its primary focus is on the ethics of family life. Finally, Wilson 2013 is the introduction to an edited collection on Buddhism and the family, the first half of which provides a useful overview of the topic.

  • Clough, Brad. “Buddhism.” In The Ethics of Family Life: What Do We Owe One Another? Comparing Religious Traditions. Vol. 1. Edited by Jacob Neusner, 124–158. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

    A broad discussion of the ethics of family life from a Buddhist perspective, including duties between husbands and wives, duties between parents and children, and resources for addressing familial discord. Based primarily on texts from the Theravāda Pali Canon.

  • Cole, Alan. “Family, Buddhism and the.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 280–281. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    A brief but useful overview of the many dimensions of the topic.

  • Cole, Alan. “Buddhism.” In Sex, Marriage, and Family in World Religions. Edited by D. S. Browning, M. C. Green, and J. Witte Jr., 299–366. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    The most comprehensive overview available of the many dimensions of the topic, accompanied by a selection of relevant primary texts from both South Asia and East Asia.

  • Wilson, Liz. “Introduction: Family and the Construction of Religious Communities.” In Family in Buddhism. Edited by Liz Wilson, 1–17. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.

    The first half of this introduction provides a good general overview of the topic.

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