All in the Family

The first love we receive is from our parents and it is to them that we first give our love. A young man will delight at being called “Baby” by his girlfriend and loving spouses sometimes refer to their partners as “Father”, “Mother”, “Mum” or “Dad”. This is because the feelings of affection, security and acceptance they are experiencing with their partners are reminiscent of what they received when they were young from their parents. The emotional bonds parents and children have for each other seem to be similar throughout time and space. To use the metaphor similar to that of modern English, the Buddha’s father Suddhodana commented that when parents were separated from or lost a beloved child “it cuts the skin, to the muscle, to the flesh, to the bone. It cuts even into the marrow”. [1]

The Buddha used the generic words piya, pema and sineha for familial love but also the more specific terms such as love of one’s mother (matteyya) and love of one’s father (petteyya). Because we are entirely dependent on our parents during our first few years and because they are the first people we have any kind of relationship with, parents have a crucial role in our physical, intellectual, moral and emotional development. Prince Siddhattha, later to become the Buddha, seems to have come from a close family. Although authentic sources about his early life are scant, it is certain that he was an only child and being a boy he was probably particularly cherished by his parents. Later he became a husband for more than a decade and very briefly a father. This – together with his penetrating understanding of human desires, needs and motivations – allowed him to speak of familial love with astuteness and sensitivity.

The scriptures mention the love between parents and their children in the most tender and affectionate terms. “Love of one’s mother and love of one’s father is true happiness in the world.” [2] In one place they describe how a baby boy, while happily playing on his mother’s knee, hits and kicks her in the face and pulls her hair. The mother calls him a “little villain” and pulls him closer to her, cuddling and kissing him and loving him all the more. [3] Apart from loving and nurturing, the Buddha considered parents’ main role to be providing for their offspring’s moral and material welfare. Parents should, he said, restrain their children from wrong, encourage them to do good, give them an education, provide them with a suitable marriage partner, and leave them an inheritance. For their part, children should support their parents in their old age, respectfully cater to their needs, maintain the family traditions, use their inheritance wisely, and give gifts in memory of their parents after they have passed away. [4] The Buddha presented all this as a reciprocal arrangement – they have done all this for you and in return you should do this for them. The Buddha said that when this arrangement worked, that little corner of the world known as the family was “covered, secure and free from fear”. It is also, he could have pointed out, happy, harmonious and wholesome.

For the Buddha, parents were particularly worthy of their children’s love, respect and gratitude “because they do much for their children – they bring them up, nourish them and introduce them to the world”. [5] As if to underscore the blessing of this loving gratitude, he also said that it was impossible for us to repay our parents for all they had done for us. Then he added this important proviso: “But whoever encourages their unbelieving parents to have faith, their immoral parents to become virtuous or their ignorant parents to become wise, such a one by so doing, does repay, does more than repay their parents.” [6]

A well-known event in the life of the Buddha was his so-called Great Renunciation, when he walked out on his family and career and went off in search of Truth. Some have criticised him for neglecting his marital and parental obligations. However he, like other great spiritual teachers, recognised that while we must acquiesce in the wishes and expectations of those close to us and support our partner and offspring, the call of the spiritual quest must always take precedence. Jesus never had to abandon his wife and child because he had none, but there is little doubt that he would have unhesitatingly done so for the Kingdom of God. He certainly encouraged his followers to do this. “And anyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” [7]

For the Buddha, making the choice between being a good family man and discovering the Truth so that he could share it with all humanity must have been heart-wrenching. In the end he chose acting “for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many out of compassion for the world” rather than just for his loved ones. His love expanded from the narrow focus of his world, his immediate family, to love for the whole wide world. This choice was probably made a little easier knowing that his wife and child would be well looked after. This is what makes a great spiritual being, that they are able to give up everything, sacrifice everything, for the Truth. The Jatakas say: “One who would give up wealth to save a limb, or sacrifice a limb to save his life, should be prepared to give up wealth, limb, life, indeed everything for the Truth.” [8]

While a fundamental role of parents is to see to their children’s physical, emotional and moral growth and well-being, a teacher’s role to his or her students is to nourish their spiritual development. It is a testimony to just how much the Buddha honoured familial love that he envisaged the ideal relationship between teacher and student as mirroring that between parents and children. Concerning the training of monks he said: “A caring teacher will have a father-like heart (pītucitta) towards his student while the student will have a son-like heart (puttacitta) towards his teacher. United by this mutual reverence and deference and living in communion with each other, both will achieve an increase, a growth and a flourishing in this Dhamma and training.” [9] The Buddha said a student would relate to his teacher not just with attentiveness and warm regard but also “with endearment”. [10]

The Buddhist tradition has tended to draw a sharp distinction between the monastic vocation and family life, suggesting that the former offers more opportunities for spiritual growth than the latter. This understanding has probably been promoted to some degree because monks and nuns have always been the main transmitters and interpreters of the Dhamma and have tended to see things from their particular perspective. The Buddha described the monastic life as being “as free as the breeze” and the household life as “dusty and confining”. [11] But even a quick perusal of the Vinaya, the huge scripture outlining the rules for monks and nuns, will show that the monastic life always had and still has its problems. Monasteries were by no means free from personal tensions, jealousies and worries, sometimes quite serious ones. [12] Likewise, while monks and nuns during the Buddha’s time had a great deal of freedom, their lives could also be hard and insecure. Many had no permanent home and had to endure “cold and heat, hunger and thirst, the bites of gnats and mosquitoes, the wind, the sun and creepy crawlies”. [13]

By contrast, a married man might have “a gable-roofed house, well-plastered inside and out, with secure doors and windows, furnished with a couch spread with a woollen rug, a white cover, embroidered blankets, a costly deer skin, a canopy above and crimson pillows at each end, a lamp burning next to it and two wives to attend to him with all their charms”. [14] However, domestic cosiness comes at a cost too. Supporting a spouse and children can be difficult, husbands and wives do not always see eye-to-eye, and sometimes there are misunderstandings between children and parents. Hopefully their love for each other survives these and other challenges but of course this does not always happen. Even if love dies and the parents do not separate, they can live as strangers or even as enemies in the same house, continually bickering or rarely speaking to each other. Sometimes children are estranged from their parents and cut off all contact with them. Whether one is a lay person with a family or a monk or nun in a monastery, living in close proximity to others requires skill and patience, tolerance and tact, and most of all love.

Thus family life can be as rich in spiritual opportunities as the monastic life and the Buddha encouraged his lay disciples to practise meditation “as you go about your business, as you dwell in your home crowded with children”. [15] Bringing up children is challenging and time consuming but it is equally true that living with children, like living with a partner, requires us to develop some of the most important spiritual qualities. Being a good parent and partner calls upon us to postpone or forgo our wishes for the sake of others and this reinforces acceptance and detachment. It requires patience and generosity, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Children and partners can also nourish us with love, companionship, tenderness and emotional support, qualities so essential for psychological well-being and sometimes absent in monasteries. Cuddling your children and playing with them or even just watching them play can be as healing as six months’ therapy and perhaps just as calming as a 10-day meditation retreat.

Everyone hopes to be a part of a close loving family but this hope is not always realised. The scriptures mention cases of aged parents being neglected by their children and disputes between mothers and sons instigated by jealous daughters-in-law. The Buddha made reference to “one who strikes or uses angry words towards his mother or father, brother, sister or mother-in-law” [16] , evidence that some of the familial problems we are familiar with today existed during his time too.

However, in contemporary Western society, familial conflicts seem to be more serious and widespread than in the past. There is frequent discussion and hand-wringing about what is dubbed “the breakdown of the family”. There are many reasons for such problems but two that stand out are the teachings of Sigmund Freud and the individualism encouraged by contemporary consumer society. Freud pointed out that many psychological problems had their origin in early childhood, particularly in the way parents brought up their children. Few would deny that there is a great deal of truth in this observation. However, as this idea has filtered down into popular understanding it has inadvertently made it acceptable to attribute all our problems to our parents. Rather than exploring what role our choices and attitudes have had in making us unhappy, and they have probably done so to some extent, we settle for laying all the blame on mum and dad. This causes children to be resentful towards their parents and makes parents feel defensive and guilty, further aggravating any tensions that already exist.

The young are more impressionable and easily influenced than older people, who have had more life experience. The young also have a natural desire for independence and self-expression, manifesting in what the Buddha called “the intoxication of youth”. [17] Aware of this, purveyors of consumer goods assiduously target the young and develop products catering to their fancies. So all-embracing is the resulting youth culture that it leaves very little space for parents, and the outcome can be incomprehension between them and their children. If things unfold for the best, difficult parent/child relationships will not be damaged beyond repair before the children mature, have children of their own and start to understand their parents in ways they never could have earlier. In my own case, I used to deeply resent my mother’s insistence that I always be in before dark or – if I got permission to stay out late – that I explain where I was going, what I was going to do and what time I would be home. While my friends were out having a good time, I was at home sulking. When I was older and after one of my best friends had been in and out of juvenile court and two others had fallen prey to drugs, I understood that my mother put these restrictions on me out of a deep concern for my welfare. But sometimes misunderstandings between people, parents and children included, cause such wounds that reconciliation is impossible, even after many years. The residue of deeds done or left undone, of words spoken or not spoken when they should have been, overshadows any coming together or attempt at reconciliation. When this is the case all that can be done is to accept the break and try to purge any anger or hatred from the heart.


  1. Vin.I,83. [back]
  2. Dhp.332. [back]
  3. Ja.VI.376. [back]
  4. D.III,189. [back]
  5. A.II,70. [back]
  6. A.I,62. [back]
  7. Matthew 20,29. See also Matthew 10,34-6; Mark 3,31-3; Luke 14,26; John 2,4. [back]
  8. Ja.V,500. [back]
  9. Vin.I,45. [back]
  10. M.III,264. [back]
  11. D.I,63. [back]
  12. See M.I,321 for example. [back]
  13. M.I,10. [back]
  14. A.I,137. [back]
  15. A.V,333. [back]
  16. Sn.125. In ancient times a man had the right to sell his wife and children and sometimes did during famines or when in debt. Buddhists looked upon such things with horror and the Upāsakaśīla Sūtra (3rd century CE?) expressly forbids a man from doing this. [back]
  17. yobbanamada, A.I,146. [back]