Family crisis and breakdown is part of a larger issue for Buddhism: its confrontation with modernity, undoubtedly the greatest challenge it has ever faced.
According to the traditional account, Siddhartha, the future Buddha, embarked on his spiritual quest by deserting his wife and newborn son. This is the beginning of a wonderful story, but is it a wonderful way to begin that story? His son was left to grow up without a father, and his wife to raise him without a partner to share the joys and responsibilities. The Buddhist tradition has not questioned Siddhartha's decision, yet today it raises questions for us.
His departure into the forest established the pattern: bhikkhu (monks) and, less often, bhikkhuni (nuns) "leave the world" to join a sangha of celibate, full-time practitioners who have no families of their own and therefore no family responsibilities. According to the Pali canon, laymen and laywomen can become enlightened, but historically their spiritual role has been to support the sangha by offering food, robes, temple necessities, and so forth.
The difference between these two roles is related to a problematic, even self-defeating, understanding of karma. In many Buddhist cultures, the main focus for devout laypersons is gaining "merit," which can lead to a more favorable rebirth next time, and the main role of the sangha is therefore to serve as a "field of merit," within which, by following the monastic rules strictly, one becomes a worthy recipient of lay support. The result is that some Asian sanghas and their lay supporters are locked into a codependent marriage in which it has become difficult for either partner to change. I wonder if this sort of "spiritual materialism" is what the Buddha intended.
This sharp distinction between monastic and laypeople may even have played a role in the disappearance of Buddhism from India. Long before Muslim conquerors destroyed its monasteries, Buddhism had been eclipsed by Hinduism, which offered more family-friendly religious practices. According to the Hindu ideal, it is all right to wander off into the forest, but only when your children are grown and married. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that you do not need to renounce the world to follow a spiritual path: there are other types of spiritual practice, such as karma-yoga, which involves fulfilling your daily responsibilities as well as you can in an unattached way, without regard for the consequences, or "fruits," of your actions.
The situation of Buddhism in Japan is different but not necessarily better. Since 1872, temple monks have been permitted to marry, which means they must provide for their families. Temples have become family businesses, and the oldest son is often expected to become a priest to keep that business in the family, regardless of whether he has any religious inclinations. As a result, traditional Japanese Buddhism today is a thriving (and lucrative) industry focused on funerals and memorial services--and usually not much else.
In general, the Abrahamic traditions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have done a better job of integrating religious practices into the family (although, according to the Gospels, Jesus had no spouse or children, and his teachings did not promote the "family values" that U.S. Christians emphasize). This integration has become a serious problem for Western Buddhism, especially the white, middle-class convert Buddhists (such as myself) attracted to meditation and practice centers. Western Buddhism has been creating new forms of Buddhist commitment that try to overcome the dualism between monastic and lay practice, yet, by and large, these new institutional structures have not resolved the old Buddhist challenge of what to do about families. Although some practice centers make serious efforts to include activities for children, many Buddhist centers in the United States are noticeably aging and graying, and many American Buddhists are concerned about what will happen to Buddhism when the present generation is no longer around. Most members have families, but (from my experience) few of their children identify themselves as Buddhists. My guess is that the situation in Japan with young people is not much different. They may go to temples for memorial services, but how many have been genuinely influenced by Buddhist principles and values?
I emphasize the above because it broadens our perspective: the issue is not only how Buddhism might help us respond to the critical situation of many families today but also how this challenge points to an ongoing problem within Buddhism itself. It is not a simple matter of going back to what the Buddha and his successors said about family life, because they said very little.
The main exception is the Sigalovada Sutta (in the Digha Nikaya), in which Shakyamuni Buddha offers guidelines to a "young householder." The Buddha emphasizes avoiding the usual vices, including dissipating one's wealth by indulging in intoxicants, theatrical displays, gambling, idleness, and bad companions. This sutta advises parents to restrain their children from evil, to encourage them to do good, to train them for a profession, to arrange a suitable marriage, and to hand over their inheritance at the appropriate time. Children should venerate and support their parents when they are old.
Unfortunately, these general guidelines for laypeople in ancient India do not help us very much when it comes to dealing with the specific family problems that have recently become widespread in our modern societies: domestic violence, juvenile crime, eating disorders, refusal to go to school, and an increasing gap between the older and younger generations. How are we to apply the Buddha's advice today, when parental authority has been eroding so quickly? When divorce is becoming so common? When so many parents are too busy to spend time with their children?
In short, family crisis and breakdown is part of a larger issue for Buddhism: its confrontation with modernity, undoubtedly the greatest challenge it has ever faced. Buddhism has much to offer a world in crisis, but in order to do that well, it must clarify its own basic message. This, I suggest, is where we need to start.
Ever since the Buddha's time the nature of enlightenment (nirvana, satori, etc.) has been ambiguous: does Buddhist "awakening" involve experiencing another reality (where we go after death) or realizing the true nature of this world? Popular Buddhism usually emphasizes the first, but whether or not there is an afterlife today we need to emphasize that Buddhism is about transforming the quality of our lives here and now. According to the Buddha, we do that by transforming our motivations: when what we do is motivated by greed, ill will, and the delusion of a self separate from others (the three poisons), we cause suffering for ourselves and others; when we are motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, and the wisdom that realizes our interdependence with others, we create healthy relationships and our lives become happier.
How does this apply to family dynamics? From a Buddhist perspective, the challenge is twofold: how can such a transformation help the family, and how can the family help with that transformation?
Even as each of us is not separate from other people, so our families are not separate from other families and social institutions. The notion that the family can be understood and its problems solved apart from a larger social transformation is a delusion. It was never a safe haven from a heartless world, and that is even truer today because of modern technologies and social pressures. Thanks to electronic media such as radio and television, cell phones, Internet and e-mail, school demands, peer-group pressures, and so forth, the boundary between the family and the rest of society is increasingly permeable and often fragile. These external influences inevitably have important consequences on how various members of the family relate to one another.
If the family is a microcosm of the social macrocosm, it is an illusion to think that families can be repaired without also addressing an increasingly dysfunctional social system. When our economic system institutionalizes greed and we are constantly surrounded by advertising that encourages us to "buy, buy, buy," we can expect that the main values of young people will become "moneytheism" and consumerism. If the media glorify ultrathin celebrities as role models, of course some young people will do whatever they can to look like them. If schools encourage rote learning that is meaningless except for passing exams, of course students will feel alienated and seek meaning elsewhere. There is something natural, perhaps even inevitable, about the problems of teenagers today: as they become more independent, they must learn to survive and thrive in a sick society. If companies expect one (or both) of the parents to be so workaholic that they can be only minimally involved with their spouse and children, of course there will be something lacking at home. It is unreasonable to expect that isolated nuclear families can be healthy and happy dwelling in high-rise apartment buildings with little social connection or sense of community with those around them.
From this perspective, family breakdown reflects a larger social breakdown, and we cannot expect to resolve the former apart from changes to the latter. But neither can we simply wait around hoping that bigger social changes will improve our situation. So what should we do? What, if anything, do Buddhist teachings imply about family life today?
What little I can suggest is based loosely on the Buddha's advice to "reduce bad influences and increase good ones." The most important point is not to preach but to set an example. This is almost too obvious to mention, yet one of the main things I learned as a parent is that when I became angry at my son for doing something that I did not like, what he really learned from me is that it is permissible to get angry at people when they do something you do not like. This implies, among other things, that when my child develops values that I do not like, the first place for me to look is in the mirror. Now that he is a teenager, peer-group influence is enormous, probably greater than that of his parents, but my sense is that his basic values have already been established.
A focus on values, however, should not overshadow another concern: developing healthy habits. The most important Buddhist principle of all is the emphasis on mindfulness--that is, on one's awareness and attention. One way to understand the distinction between delusion and awakening (the word buddha literally means "awakened") is the difference between awareness stuck in unhealthy grooves and awareness liberated from such ruts. What I do determines the kind of person I become. An anonymous verse makes this point very well:
Sow a thought and reap a deed
Sow a deed and reap a habit
Sow a habit and reap a character
Sow a character and reap a destiny
This gives us insight into how karma works, and it is also consistent with Buddhist teachings about nonself (mu-shin). Buddhism starts with what I think, because that determines the intentions that motivate my actions, and actions repeated become habits. Habits create my character because my sense of self is actually composed of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This sense of self determines how I relate to the world and thereby strongly affects how the world relates back to me.
This is simple but profound in its implications. One of those implications is the responsibility of parents to make sure that their children develop good awareness habits early. (Early, because by the time they become teenagers it is too late.) Among other things, this means avoiding or at least limiting the addictive behaviors that the intrusive electronic media otherwise tend to instill: a radio or television that's on all the time, not to mention obsessive use of cell phones, video games, and Internet/e-mail. It is important to control the amount of time devoted to these activities, which suck one's awareness out of the home and distract from the everyday back-and-forth of family relationships. For those limits to work, however, it is also important that the quality of family communication be high. If Dad prefers to read the newspaper and Mom prefers to talk with her friends on the phone, it is unfair to expect the kids to act any differently.
The other side of this emphasis on the quality of awareness is developing a family spiritual practice--meditation, chanting, prayer services, and the like--that ideally involves the whole family. Such practices help to focus and free our awareness from the attention traps that beckon to us. Living in consumerist societies, we cannot avoid all the advertising messages that increasingly intrude upon us, subconsciously teaching us that the way to be happy is to buy me! We can, however, learn to ignore them.
Finally, I doubt that any of this will be very successful without the support of other families trying to do the same thing. One reason that modern families find it so hard to resist outside pressures is that the nuclear, two-generation, family is inherently stressful and weak. We are all hungry for community, and one way to respond is to develop and strengthen relationships with other families that share the same values and concerns. Mom and Dad need help, too: family breakdown applies as much to pressured parents as to their children. In place of television as the universal babysitter, playgroups and group outings can help to provide the physical and emotional support that young parents often desperately need.
In the face of the enormous challenges that confront so many families today, I am well aware that these general suggestions are woefully inadequate. In line with Buddhist emphasis on interdependence, the best way to conclude may be by returning to my earlier point: that we cannot hope to solve such private problems without also finding ways to address the larger public ills they reflect: institutions that encourage moneytheism, consumerism, workaholism; an educational system that teaches students to hate studying; and so on.
Perhaps the best conclusion, then, is this paradoxical one: in order to address our own personal issues, Buddhists today need to become more publicly involved and socially engaged. Our own family problems are not separate from the family problems of others. The modern world needs a new breed of bodhisattvas.
David R. Loy is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His specialty is comparative philosophy and religion, particularly comparing Buddhism with modern Western thought. His recent books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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