Buddhist saints are often described as maternally compassionate, with the endless patience of a mother who feeds, cleans and cares for children around the clock. In fact, the Theravada branch of Buddhism holds mothers in such high esteem that two men among the Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputta and Mogallana, are said to be “like the mother giving birth” and “the nurse raising a child.”
Yet in Buddhism, as in some other religions, views of motherhood are complex. Motherlike compassion is idealized – yet so are celibacy and monasticism. Historically, the faith does not have a core ideology that values marriage and procreation as central virtues to be pursued at the cost of spiritual study and enlightenment. However, as a scholar of gender and family in Buddhism, I have noticed shifting views about how spirituality and motherhood can be combined.
Repaying a mother’s debt
Cultivating gratitude toward sentient beings is a central focus of Buddhist practice, particularly toward elders. Buddhists are exhorted to be grateful for the sacrifices parents make to bring them into the world and raise them. In fact, failure to repay debts owed to parents can land one in a realm of hell exclusively for ungrateful children, according to one sutra that is often called the filial piety teaching.
Buddhists might show reverence for mothers or motherlike figures in their lives by preparing a meal or offering a gift. Year-round there are many other specific ways Buddhist children might honor a parent. In Thailand, for example, some boys seek to repay what is known as the “milk debt” to their mothers by temporarily taking monastic vows and spending a few weeks living with monks – a tradition meant to show deep respect.
If someone’s mother is no longer alive, however, there are still many ways to direct loving kindness toward her. One of the most common ways is to make food offerings, such as rice balls, at ancestral shrines, altars to the family lineage and the like. As with feeding a living parent, the ritual is meant to make Buddhists aware of the sacrifices their parents made to feed them.
The Buddha’s gift
Buddhists commonly believe there are many possible realms where a person might go after death – some heavenly, some hellish. Children can prevent a mother who landed in hell from staying there long by doing good deeds and transferring good karma to her. Even a mother who was reborn in a heavenly realm can be sustained there by her children’s gifts of good karma.
The downside of the Buddhist heavens, however, is attachment to fine food, drink, clothing and other sensual delights. In many legends, the gods have a hard time seeing the cardinal teaching of Buddhism: the evanescent nature of all phenomena. Whatever you want more of will not last.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha’s mother, Maya, was lucky in that she had good karma and became a goddess after death. But after he had achieved enlightenment, the dutiful Buddha ascended to the heaven where Maya resided and taught her that even heavenly enjoyments pale in comparison to liberation. Legends say he spent three months teaching her the most advanced doctrines in the Buddhist canon – far more complicated than what legends say he taught his father.
Focus vs. family
Buddhist Asia, from the western end of the Silk Road in Turkey to the eastern end in China, is full of fertility traditions and fertility figures. In many parts of Asia where Buddhism is practiced, however – especially in elite monastic circles – texts about the freedoms and virtues of celibacy hold pride of place.
Much of Buddhist teaching is rooted in the idea that all things are impermanent. Therefore, all desires – including to have sex or have a family – are seen as forms of bondage: These cravings tie people to worldly goals rather than to the path of wisdom toward nirvana.
In this view, one should curb sexual desires just as much as gluttony. Sex in particular has cascading effects that make study and meditation difficult: children, family time and work to support them. Indulging in lust, the Buddha warns men in one story, is as foolish as putting one’s penis in the mouth of a venomous snake.
The Buddha’s eightfold path requires focus – and focus is a precious commodity, as every parent knows. The Buddha himself left his wife and baby son to seek wisdom through a disciplined life. After achieving enlightenment, he returned to his hometown – and ascended to heaven – to teach members of his family what he had learned.
Attitudes toward families and monasticism vary by culture, however. One won’t hear fertility put down in Nepal and Japan. In those countries, those who wear monastic robes marry, procreate and serve in temple settings, running Buddhist temples as inherited family businesses that provide for the needs of lay Buddhists.
In addition, modern interpretations of Buddhism tend to be more family-friendly. Rather than see parenthood as an obstacle, some contemporary Buddhists see parents’ work as spiritual labor. Caring for children, for example, can be a form of meditation, requiring an observant but nonjudgmental focus akin to practicing mindfulness. Mothers and other people who provide child care can experience seeing things as they really are, without attachment and grasping.
Scholars such as Reiko Ohnuma, Vanessa Sasson and Amy Langenberg have shown how the relationship between celibacy and family life is more complicated than “either/or,” and how parenting and Buddhist values intersect.
After all, Buddhists believe that the historical Buddha had many past lives and was not celibate in all of them. As a family man, he practiced many Buddhist virtues, such as kindness, forbearance and patience. And even when celibate, his spiritual teachings are like breast milk, according to Theravada Buddhist tradition: “the milk of immortal doctrine.” This stance of unconditional concern made him a spiritual mother in the eyes of many Buddhists – a virtue they seek to emulate today.
Liz Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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