Fatherhood in Buddhism


Buddhism teaches the importance of respecting one’s mother and father and of repaying their kindness. However, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, himself renounced family life, rebelling against his father and abandoning his wife and son to pursue enlightenment. After he achieved enlightenment, Siddhartha—now known as the Buddha— lived as a monk and established the sangha, a celibate monastic order, to practice his teaching, or dharma. Thus, although the Buddha’s dharma emphasized the importance of respect and support between parents and their children, and these values are clearly manifested in all Buddhist societies today, the Buddha’s own biography, and the religious order he established, reveal a deep ambivalence within Buddhism about family life, including the bonds between fathers and their children.

Siddhartha’s relationship with his own father, Suddhodana, reflected this ambivalence. As a young man, he was confined to a palace by his father to prevent him from turning toward religion. Siddhartha married and became a father himself, naming his son, Rahula, or fetter, because he perceived family life as an impediment to his search for awakening. Eventually, after observing the Four Great Sights— old age, sickness, death, and a religious seeker —he escaped from the palace, abandoning his family to pursue awakening. After six years, he achieved enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. His wife and son joined the sangha.

Despite the Buddha’s ambivalent relationships with his own father and son, his teachings portray the bonds between parents and their children as fundamental to the social order. In the Sigalaka Sutta, the Buddha taught, “There are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father . . . [He should think:] ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them. I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.’ And there are five ways in which the parents . . . will reciprocate: They will restrain him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him some skill, find him a suitable wife, and, in due time, hand over his inheritance to him” (Bodhi 2005, 117).

The Buddha also emphasized children’s indebtedness to their parents. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha stated, “Monks, I declare that there are two persons one can never repay. What two? One’s mother and father.” The reason for this is that “parents are of great help to their children; they bring them up, feed them, and show them the world.” Nevertheless, children can show equal or greater kindness to their parents by showing them the Buddha’s dharma: “[One] who encourages his ignorant parents, settles and establishes them in wisdom . . . does enough for his parents: He repays them and more than repays them for what they have done” (Bodhi 2005, 119).

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as “the father of all sentient beings” (Cole 2005, 115). The Buddha’s relationship to all beings is metaphorically described in the Parable of the Burning House, in the Lotus Sutra, in which a father uses a variety of expedient means to lure his many sons out of a burning house. In East Asia, the Ma-hayana’s paternalistic conception of the Buddha was reinforced by the Confucian ideal of filial piety.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, some texts, such as the Guhyasamaja and Vajrabhairava tantras, are classified as “father tantras.” Vajrayana Buddhism also describes the guru/disciple relationship in paternal terms. In Tibet, this understanding of spiritual teachers as father figures has been expressed through the practice of guru yoga and the institution of reincarnated lamas (teachers).

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