Marriage in Buddhism


Buddhism teaches the importance of marriage and places emphasis on the mutual respect that should exist between husbands and wives. However, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, himself renounced family life, abandoning his wife Yasodhara and their son Rahula 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. Although the Buddha’s dharma emphasized the importance of mutual respect and support between husbands and wives—and these values are clearly manifested in all Buddhist societies today— the Buddha’s own life story and the religious order he established reveal a deep ambivalence within Buddhism about family life, including marriage.

Despite this ambivalence, the Buddha’s teachings on marriage emphasized its critical role to society and stressed the importance of husbands and wives supporting each other in their practice of the dharma. Describing the ideal way that husbands and wives should behave toward each other, the Buddha taught, “There are five ways in which a husband should minister to his wife: by honoring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, and by providing her with adornments. And there are five ways in which a wife . . . will reciprocate: by properly organizing her work, by being kind to the servants, by not being unfaithful, by protecting stores, and by being skillful and diligent in all she has to do” (Bodhi 2005, 117). In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha stated, “When both are faithful and generous, self-restrained, of righteous living, they come together as husband and wife full of love for each other. Many blessings come their way, they dwell together in happiness, their enemies are left dejected, when both are equal in virtue” (Bodhi 2005, 121).

There is no single pattern of Buddhist marriage because Buddhist societies have widely varying cultural norms and values. However, “as Buddhism has a monastic emphasis, marriage is not regarded as ‘sacred,’ but as a secular contract of partnership. . . . Marriage services are not conducted by Buddhist monks, although they may be asked to bless the couple at or after the marriage” (Harvey 2000, 102).

Historically, marriages in most Buddhist societies were usually arranged, although this is now changing. In Thailand, it is common for men to be deemed unsuitable for marriage until they have completed a period as a temporary monk. Although monogamy is the norm in all Buddhist societies, there are also examples of polygamy. Polyandry is also practiced by some Himalayan Buddhists, generally as the marriage of two or more brothers to one woman, although this is only one of several marriage patterns practiced in the region. In Japan, married clergy have existed since the thirteenth century CE, and in 1872 the government ordered all monks to marry. Since then, celibate monasticism has been largely replaced by a system of married priests who pass their positions on to their sons.

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