In This Article Buddhist Views of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Young Monastics in Monasteries
  • Children, Sex, and Monastic Life
  • Rituals for Buddhist Children
  • Masters in Young Bodies
  • The Buddha and Rāhula
  • Children and Vinaya
  • Buddhist Families
  • Global Conversations

Childhood Studies Buddhist Views of Childhood
by
Vanessa R. Sasson, Franz Metcalf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0073

Introduction

The theme of children and childhood in Buddhist studies has only recently begun to receive academic attention. Perhaps because the Buddha-to-be abandoned his own son in order to pursue his quest for enlightenment, or because Buddhism tends toward celibacy as an ideal, the role of children in Buddhist traditions has been little more than a footnote in scholarly literature. Recently, however, studies are emerging that challenge the status quo. These studies result from a number of “co-arising” factors, including the burgeoning of childhood studies, a growing interest in ritual and education among Buddhist scholars, and, perhaps most importantly, the decentralization of philosophy in Buddhist studies. So long as Buddhism was perceived as an exclusively philosophical tradition, children were deemed marginal to its concerns. One influential scholar has gone so far as to describe Buddhism as “anti-family,” which speaks volumes about assumptions that were being made concerning the relationship Buddhism was believed to have with children. Another important development helping create room for children in Buddhist scholarship arises out of research surrounding the theme of monasticism and renunciation. Although many texts do present the monastic ideal as being one in which the practitioner severs all ties to the outside world, recent scholarship presents a very different model of the situation on the ground. In many contexts, monastics continue to have ties to their families and social networks, care for them, and are responsible for them in a variety of ways. Even the Buddha’s narrative, in which he abandons his son moments into fatherhood can be interpreted to reveal an ongoing concern for that son. Celibacy and solitude are certainly strong Buddhist ideals, but they do not tell the whole story of Buddhist life. Children have always been associated with Buddhism, have participated in Buddhist life and rituals, and have been the carriers of Buddhist expectations in a variety of ways. Rules and regulations regarding children are found in the vinaya; some suttas may in fact be directed at children, or at the very least at adults who engage with children; and Buddhist “saints” are often identified in the bodies of children from early ages. In so many ways, children are part of the fabric of Buddhist life. The materials below attest to the beginnings of this field of Buddhism and childhood and the growing interest scholarship is demonstrating in it.

General Overviews

As mentioned in the Introduction, although isolated scholarly works on Buddhism and childhood go back at least to the 1970s, as a recognized field in Buddhist studies the study of children is quite new, and there is only one published overview at this point: the edited collection Sasson 2013. Each of its chapters is considered in the various other headings in this article. This section only makes reference to its introduction.

  • Sasson, Vanessa. “Introduction: Charting New Territory: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions.” In Little Buddhas: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions. Edited by Vanessa R. Sasson, 1–14. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    This introduction gives a preliminary overview of some of the foundational issues concerning children and Buddhism. Additionally, it provides an entry into the field and the existing literature as it currently stands.

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