Buddhist attitudes to family life

Buddhism is not a strongly family-centred religion. It does not have formal models of family or family life, or base its teachings around a family model. This is partly due to its strong focus on personal responsibility for one's own behaviour, on detachment and the individual's pursuit of enlightenment. However, in Buddhist societies families often worship and visit the temple together.

Roles of men and women in the family

Buddhists believe the Buddha left his family to pursue his quest to find out why we suffer.

Buddhist monks believe that they should be detached from the duties of family life. Only then can they focus on reaching enlightenment. However, the lay community is valued in Buddhism for the support it provides to the Sangha.

Not everyone will want to live the life of a monk and most Buddhists want to have a family. Therefore, the importance of family life in Buddhism is acknowledged and integrated into the temple and festival life, and Buddhists believe that they can practise their beliefs within the context of the family.

Buddhist family life tends to reflect pre-existing cultural and religious values, customs, and socially recognised ways or traditions within particular countries. Within Asian Buddhist cultures, for example, the male-lead family is the typical structure, with clearly defined gender roles. British Buddhists, however, might be more equal in their family roles.

Most Buddhists believe that men and women are capable of spiritual development and ultimately enlightenment.

According to the Sigalovada Sutta, within the family both the husband and wife are expected to treat each other respectfully. The wife should manage the home and family and the husband should share authority with his wife. Partners should be monogamous (have just one partner).

What does Buddhism say about cohabitation?

There are no specific references to cohabitation in Buddhist scriptures, so opinions can vary according to the culture in which Buddhism is practised. Some Buddhists accept cohabitation because:

  • there is no Buddhist obligation to get married
  • there is no specific Buddhist religious component to marriage in Buddhist countries
  • cohabitation is not forbidden or criticised in scripture