Balancing Buddha Dhamma with family life

Written by John. D. Hughes, Vincenzo Cavuoto, Lainie Smallwood, Lisa Nelson and Evelin Halls.

We will illustrate the priorities of a Buddha Dhamma practitioner in contrast to the norms of the four common forms of Australian culture towards family life. There is no pure one culture but rather high-bred mixtures in a range from total denial of any family responsibility or obligation to obsessive clinging to the family unit as the one and only refuge that matters. Both these extremes cause considerable emotional suffering over as many as four generations of family members that could involve a hundred or more persons.
Even in a nuclear family with one or two children it is becoming apparent that the birth rate is falling.
Just because you are working hard does not mean you are doing the right things. It is more important to be doing the right things - than to be doing things right.
One day, the king of Kukkutavati, Maha Kappina, was out in the park with several ministers. While in the park, they met some merchants from Savatthi. From these merchants they heard about the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, and the king and his ministers decided to leave for Savatthi.
The Buddha saw in his visions Maha Kappina and the ministers and knew that they were ready to attain Arahanthood. When the king and his ministers were approaching the Buddha they saw the Buddha with six-colored rays radiating from his body and paid homage. On hearing a discourse delivered by the Buddha, king Maha Kappina and his ministers realised the Dhamma and joined the Holy Order.
Queen Anoja, wife of the king, heard about the king and the ministers setting out for Savatthi and, together with the ministers' wives, followed them to Savatthi. On the way to Savatthi they saw the Buddha surrounded by a halo of six colors and paid homage to him.
However, the Buddha had made the king and his ministers invisible with his supernormal powers, because if the women were to see their husbands in yellow robes and shaven heads, it would have upset the wives and would have deterred them from realising the Dhamma.
The Buddha promised the women that they could see their husbands, which made them very happy. Then the Buddha taught the queen and the ministers' wives and they reached the first stage of Sainthood. The king and the ministers attained Arahanthood. Immediately after the wives' attainments they were able to see their former husbands as bhikkhus.
Following these events the wives entered the Order of bhikkhunis and soon attained Sainthood. (Dhammapada).
The Buddha made the husbands invisible to the wives as otherwise their attachment to family would have hindered their opportunity to be taught the Dhamma.
This teaching was given by the Buddha 2500 years ago and is pertinent today. Being born to a Australian family denotes some form of attachment to parents and siblings. We inherently adopt our family's culture which can create circumstances where it is difficult to learn Buddha Dhamma.
To balance family life and the Dhamma, the Dhamma should be given priority. As long as the attachment to family is dominant, this attachment has the capacity to stop persons from learning Buddha Dhamma. Nevertheless, this does not mean we abandon helping our family.
In the Buddha's sermon on What is True Blessedness, titled the Mangala Sutta, the Lord Buddha stated that 'to wait on father and mother, to cherish wife and child, to follow a peaceful calling; this is true blessedness'.
Childbirth is a major event and denotes religious significance in most cultures. Conceiving a child can secure the emotional contentment and security of a parent.
A few of our Members have young families and learn to involve their children in various activities at our Centre. If the poorly educated grandparents follow another religion beyond mere lip service, they may express a dislike of the direction their sons and daughters take by their attendance at our Centre. If they do not follow another religion, they may still express dislike which often stems from ignorance or fear of losing control of their children.
The detailed methods given by Buddha on the tolerance of how to treat parents of different religious belief is well taught at our Centre.
The net result of even a few months of Dhamma practice shows an obvious improvement of the mental health and educational level aspiration of practitioners. The tolerant behaviour towards their parents view on religion causes the grandparents to pause in their unthinking attack on what they do not know. The grandparents agree to not stress religious differences over time because they approve of the level of courtesy they are shown by their children and grandchildren.
It may be that in their childhood they were taught by their parents who could have been the parochial kind of Australian person that slandered other religions as an act of misplaced faith. Such persons experience difficulty in accepting the sight of Buddha Dhamma followers and fail to see that interfaith services are not uncommon in Australia.
When family culture has no tolerance for other citizen's religious beliefs troubles arise in the short term. Consider the two Christian religions used to promote conflict in Ireland and elsewhere.
We do not see ourselves wanting to hinder the ability to balance Buddha Dhamma practice with multifaith family life.
Most of our Members have been raised in a non-Buddhist family culture because of their past causes. If people understood the "Law of Karma" cause and effect, which the Buddha taught they would make the necessary causes to be born in a family culture conducive to Buddha Dhamma.
At our Centre persons have the opportunity to make the necessary causes to be born in a family culture that enables the practice of Buddha Dhamma in future lives.
The Buddha's teachings provide ethical guidelines towards the function of family life.
The average person's common sense version of being kind, caring and considerate to family members is not correct in most cases to help us to create a more harmonious community environment.
For example, we ought to think twice if we plan to pay for a holiday of any sort for our children or parents where the children are allowed to be foolish by lazing around with foolish friends and attempting to learn nothing.
To fund an overseas or local holiday in the long vacation at University or other tertiary learning establishments may not be the best thing for the mind.
Norman Mackenzie in May 1961 wrote a paper for the New Statesman detailing how students in the UK spent their long vacation. The sample size was 500 students from 9 universities.
The students interviewed were drawn from all social classes. More than 90% of the students had some sort of award. The first point was to establish how many students worked during the long vacation. (work at Christmas and Easter was excluded).
77% of all students worked.
23% did not have paid work.
84% planned to work in the coming vacation.
17% did not plan to work.
What type of work did the students do?
The range of jobs was diverse, ranging from general labouring, farm, and factory work, to employment in offices and shops. Several sold ice-cream or drove lorries. Many girls worked as waitresses; men worked as waiters, orderlies and batmen at army camps.
Those taking scientific, technical or foreign language courses found it easier to get jobs which related to their academic interests. In certain cases, they were required to do this as part of their studies.
The average length of employment was 7 weeks and 23 % worked a minimum of 10 weeks.
For those employed 73% liked their employment and 27% disliked their employment.
There was some interesting points. It is a fair conclusion that if grants were increased many students would continue to work.
A Leicester girl said: "Every student should be compelled to take up some form of work of practical work for a limited time" ...."this would raise the social status of students and help liquidate the rumour that students are just parasites on society".
"How can any self-respecting student" asked another "expect her parents to support her for 14 weeks?".
An Oxford undergraduate observed: " A change of reorientation to normal life after a long exercise in social and intellectual snobbery".
Teaching persons to develop ways of being lazy and idle and wasting their leisure time is not any sort of highest blessing.
The correct view is that even if a fool associates with a wise person all his or her life, he or she does not anymore perceive the truth than a spoon perceives the flavour of the soup.
But if even for a moment an intelligent person associates with a wise person, he or she perceives the truth as the tongue perceives the flavour of the soup.
To waken up persons, we do not tell them they are too young or too old to help others who can learn. This is ageism.
But, like it or not like it, it is true that some persons have wasted this life systematically by doing the things that destroy their chances of learning.
For learning to occur, viriya is needed. The Pali word Viriya is popularly translated as vigour and energy.
There is always some difference or compromise between the popular meaning of words and that of the meaning in a true Dictionary, which is largely concerned with derivations and synonyms, and an Encyclopaedia, which sets out a few terms at considerable length.
When we think of the profile of our average listener's range of vocabulary, we have to stay within the "popular" use of words. For a person to meet with Dhamma the language must suit their knowledge and mind.
At the same time, we issue cautions from time to time that there are levels of meaning that persons born overseas and educated in Buddhist terminology would grasp because certain words are unique in range, depth and complexity.
Ordinary persons in Australia are not expert in all of these meanings.
Our difficulty of compressing 84 000 terms which are current in key Western translations of Buddhist literature into a radio script working vocabulary of perhaps 50, 000 words is therefore obvious.
It follows that the listeners deserve some help to bring them to the mental map in which the terms described had their place and meaning.
In the field of Buddha Dhamma, the component parts of the whole are partly visible and objective, and partly invisible because subjective.
The following may help get to a sketch map of the relationship of family to Dhamma.

Those who can hold their mind steady enough to remember the birth process come to recognise that human life is suffering. No matter how big your family's desire is to deny suffering, it will not change the fact that this is so.
Your family cannot be born for you.
The suffering, large dukkha or small dukkha, comes from past causes and has to be born by your mind, your feelings.
Because life has this dukkha, the same applies to sickness, old age pains and death.
Your family cannot help you other than to tell you to bear up under such dukkha.
Reflection in such a manner makes you know that your family cannot prevent the life processes of going from womb to tomb occurring.
When reason appears, we understand why we ought not bind ourselves tightly in family relationships or go to an extreme view that our family is our refuge.
Since our family is not suitable as our refuge, we must free our minds of family clinging if we can understand the way out of suffering.
All Buddhist schools agree that sooner or later meditation (Bhavana) must be done.
Our family cannot do this for us, nor can they teach us the path out of suffering.
We must become rational, practical minded, and cool to plan the time away from our family for some time to practice.
We must plan ahead for a year or so to get even five days of few duties for this purpose. This is why we serve, or help, or fund others to make causes for their retreat. If we do not do this, we will never come to our time to practice a retreat.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a retreat as, ' A period of seclusion or retirement from one's ordinary occupations devoted to religious exercise'.
Bhikkhu Piyananda says, that many people are searching, they are searching, but they are not finding. Some do not even know what they are searching for, on the other hand, some know they are searching for some kind of inner peace and harmony. They have found worries.
They have found so much confusion and disturbances. They found more unsatisfactoriness. But they have not found the peace and harmony within. Most people are adopting the wrong methods to find peace and harmony: they are looking outside themselves into the external world as the source of their troubles, worries and problems.
They look to the solution of their problems in their family, job, partner, friends, etc. They believe that if they can only change the external conditions in their environment, they can become peaceful and happy.

The external conditions change, but they do not become peaceful and happy.

And now so many people are turning their attention to the real source of their happiness and their troubles: the mind. To turn persons attention to the mind is to come to meditation (Bhavana).

Louis van Loon says: "Although the Buddha had nothing specific to say about the size, composition or limitation of the family unit, he had some definite advice to give on the time and quality of the relationship that should be fostered within the members of the family.

The Buddha considered the family environment a most precious circumstance and opportunity for spiritual growth, second only to becoming a Monk or Nun.

To be born in a certain family results from a special type of Kamma. A Kammic relationship therefore exists between the parents and their child even before the moment of conception. This Kammic link intensifies from the moment of birth and expresses itself in the relationship that parents and children establish between themselves and the family unit.

The parent-child relationship is the basis of human society. From it flow all the other types of interpersonal and community associations. In the well known Sigalovada Sutta these relationships are considered of extending in all 'directions'. To the East one's parents and to the West one's wife (or husband) and children.

The emotional-psychological need for children is, as a rule, basic to the life of the family man and women. The desire to get married is virtually synonymous with the wish to have children of one's own - at least until the relatively modern stage of individualism is reached when cohabitation no longer involves either or wedlock or procreation. The religious 'needs' surrounding childbirth are of a different nature.

The function of religion should, in principle, be able to provide family members with a set of moral guidelines which would enable them to face life difficulties and cultural transitions without falling apart.

In Buddha Dhamma great stress is placed on generating quality in family relationships. The consequence of this is the creation of quality within the community. Great emphasis is placed on a child's education by the parents in a Buddhists family.

Family & Kinship (Encyclopedia Britannica)

"Family and kinship (relationship by descent; consanguinity or blood relationship, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) play an important part in all human societies, both in the regulation of behaviour between persons and in the formation of social, political, and territorial groups.

Kinship tends to be of more pervasive importance in the traditional and especially in tribal societies, in which it exerts far-reaching influence on the social and economic life of the community.

In industrial societies the domestic family remains the chief institution based on kinship, but the form and function of the family has varied over time and among different societies, and continues to evolve in response to societal changes and pressures.

Modern research has revealed the nature of the biological continuity between an individual and his or hers genetic parents. But kinship, as a set of social relations, does not depend on knowledge of genetics or physiology.

Indeed, some societies with elaborate kinship systems have held beliefs about the development of the human fetus that in no way approximate to the actualities of conception and gestation.

Genetic mechanisms are uniform for all humankind, but human groups differ widely in the significance they attach to kinship.

All cultures recognise that the human fetus is born from the womb of its mother, on whom it depends for survival. There is thus, a physically based and culturally defined relationship between mother and child.

Likewise, all cultures distinguish between male and female individuals and institutionalise, in varying forms, a second relationship: that between a man and a woman who copulate in some acceptable way. This relationship is described, in English, as "marriage".

There are vast differences between cultures in the customary entailments of these two relationships- mother and child, man and woman- and in how they generate other separately identified relationships such as, in English, father, sibling, mother-in-law, or cousin.

The study of kinship began with the recognition, from at least classical times, that the names for kin relations in one language cannot always be translated accurately, on a one-to-one basis into the kin terms of another language.

It was stimulated by the discovery of an American ethnologist in 1858, that two Indian languages, Iroquois and Ojibwa, although apparently unrelated, nevertheless possessed common patterns of kin terms so that one-to-one translation was possible.

Yet there is more to the study of kinship than the investigation of patterns of names for kin relations. For such study embraces the investigation of;

(1) The way in which individuals enter into and leave kin relationships;

(2) How they use them in private and public life;

(3) How kin relations are made to define social groups and categories;

(4) What connection kinship has with other sets of relations between individuals and groups based on political, residential, religious, and other non kin criteria;

(5) How copulation and birth are associated with kin relationship;

(6) How ideas about the development of the human embryo, the acquisition of personal characteristics, the fate of the "soul" after death, and other matters may be linked in any culture with a pattern of kin relation; and

(7) What explanations can be given for the genesis, development, maintenance and decay of these various beliefs and practice." Encyclopedia Britannica.

Conflicts arise in families due to numerous factors and each family has their own mechanism for dealing with such conflicts.

One reason for such a family conflict would be the accelerated cultural change a Buddhist practitioner is subject to when he or she decides to take the Buddha Dharma Path on earnest, while other family members regard such a Path outside their cultural stream.

The visible changes in the Buddhist practitioners' behaviour may or may not have the effect of inspiring other family members, to investigate more closely the Buddha's Teachings.

Whether family members like it or not like it, the minds of the practitioner have a wholesome influence on a family mental environment due to keeping five precepts of the Buddhist ethical system. (The five precepts are abstaining from killing, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying and from alcohol and drugs).

Socialising young children for the first four years of their life and forcing them to share basic family values is the self-imposed task of the mother, father and relatives. For example, one of our Members knows of a case where a fourteen year old woman gave birth to a boy nine years ago.

The boy was subject to two mothers because the biological mother reared the child in the same residence as her own mother. The kamma of this child was related very strongly to both women and was bought up with dual mothering and multiple males who acted for short periods of time in a fatherly role.

What are the consequences of this type of kamma?

Because of lack of consistency in mother / father instructions of what is right in family relation and the two mothers competing for power over the child's culture, it should not be surprising that the child is confused about what is the correct view of relating to adults.

The main influence on a child is what they did in past lives. Any such patterning opens up possibilities - regions of concern that prompt responses, through which human beings may come to understand themselves in their actually lived situatedness. Therefore, the facticity of a formal gestalt, as a holistic process, cannot be reduced to nor confused with any static essence.

Facticity implies that the pervasive and inherent intelligence of Being, becomes patterned as the mystery of being human in its most profound sense. So, there are other factors operating apart from the two mothers and the multiple male surrogate fathers.

In conventional non-Buddhistic terms, we say when children are young their main influence is their parents. In conventional non-Buddhistic terms, we say they are indoctrinated into their parents culture. In Buddhistic terms, we say the main influence of the child's value set is their past kamma. In Buddhistic terms, we say nobody can indoctrinate anybody without their consent. This is why some great children arise from poorly integrated parents and why some not so great children arise from what appears to be well integrated parents.

Prince Siddhattha, who later became the Buddha was born, an ascetic of high spiritual attainment named, Asita told his Father King Suddhodana that his son would become a Universal Monarch or a Buddha.

Prince Siddhattha left his family at the palace, renouncing all his worldly possessions and led a life of poverty to search for the truth. He later became the Buddha.

With a basis of cultivated wholesome Cetasikas, the students' wisdom increases enabling them to practise Dana and Sila actions with greater understanding, energy and precision. As a consequence, the students display ever increasing friendliness towards their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and family friends.

Their relatives, seeing the improvements in the students' attitudes and circumstances, in gratitude develop warm feelings towards this Centre and its Members. This is the way we build Buddhist families in this country.

The re-creation of family amity, although praiseworthy, is not our primary objective. We never lose sight of' our primary objective which has been from our inception to encourage the study, practice and realisation of Buddha Dhamma.

The study of Buddha Dhamma has been promoted in various ways by this Centre. The provision of a multilingual Buddhist reference library and Buddhist archives collection is accessible and for use at a nominal cost.

It is not our intention to devote much space to the issues that stand in the way of a change of consensus. But to point out that we believe excellence is necessary in order to preserve our way of life and that the pursuit of excellence may incorporate values arrived at from religion.

It is not the religion itself that is to be promoted but an increased awareness that the criteria for sane living should embody religious traditional values expressed in terms of good behaviour,

Although it may be theoretically argued that social, cultural and economic development policy can occur within a set of standards, this is not supported by religious experience. The facts are that without the energies arising from religious practice these cannot be sustained.

We have used the term energies, since Buddhism does not accept the notion that human affairs are determined by a creator god but rather are determined by the conditioning effects of the physical environment, the physiological condition of body, the social environment, one's own present actions and kamma or by way of any combination of these.

Without elaborating we might say that a factor in the instability of families in Australia arises from not keeping the precept of not committing adultery and it would appear from recent changes in Family Law legislation that there is a consensus that adultery is accepted even though the act of adultery conditions consciousness resulting in anguish and consequent family unit dissolution.

We assume we will go through a life process where we might become educated and attain a good job to support our family and still have the leisure time to read and practice Buddha Dhamma in later years.

In ancient China, scholars could sit the Government exams to be an administrator.

Of those who sat in any province, only 2% passed.

These then went to the national capital to sit the final grading exams.

Of these only 50% passed to acceptance to Government positions.

It should come as no surprise that, in ancient times, the Chinese Government service was staffed with an elite of superior skills.

But the mass of persons never started to study. They were so hard at work they had no time for anything else. Taxes were paid in grain they grew - about one twentieth of their total grain.

The Government stores held the grain to distribute in times of famine.

Slaves were available to help the farmer. These were criminals or captured enemies.

In ancient China, the average life expectancy of a farmer citizen was 26 years. This low figure was a function of 80% of the population.

Total population figures from the census tends to give a wrong picture of the population in absolute figures.

In the Han Dynasty in the year 156 the population was given as 56, 487. 000.

In the Sung in the year 1102 it was 43,822,000.

in the Ming in the year of 1578 it was 60, 693,000.

Population estimates were closely related to the number of taxable cultivators.

This did not include the whole population.

Chen Ta has suggested the Chinese population may have reached 150 million by the end of the Ming dynasty, considering the extent of new land under cultivation.

It seems likely that if you were not in the census your living standard was most likely near famine.

Yet, in spite of all this misery the official view of Confucius was to revere the family and the ancestors. At lot of this misplaced value of placing family values too high is found in our culture today.

Buddha Dhamma never makes you family a refuge. For those who put the family name as number one, there can only be a mass of suffering to follow as they get sick and die in great suffering as they reach old age body symptoms and death at the young age of 26 years.

It is easy to see why Buddha Dhamma refuge that explains the truth of suffering and of how to make merit passing over death found such a strong following in ancient China.

When you realise the truth of suffering is so real, it cannot be not masked by the false values of putting your family on a false pedestal as your refuge, you are ready to begin the practice of Buddha Dhamma where you understand it is sane to help others in suffering not just you own family.

We raise money to help many families in many countries and help this week welcomed Monks at our Centre who were born in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

These Monks are someone's children. We help their living family in their countries by treating them as more precious than our own children and helping them to achieve respect in this land Australia far from their own country.

One of our Members serves the Sangha well because she is learning to speak the Cambodian language and teach several Cambodian Monks English language.

Just as parents who can speak teach their children to speak, so, our Members, too, have taught many Monks and Nuns to speak our English language.

But, this happens because our Members raise money and are wise enough to spend time away from our own children to do such a Noble work.

If our Members were so selfish and foolish, we decided we could only spend our time serving our own family, it would be evident that Buddha Dhamma Teaching would vanish from our Centre.

The concept of adding value is about creating a physical change for the end user and doings things right the first time.

Our Teacher created the causes in the past for our Centre to develop an e-culture today.

When we consider ancient history in China, we see, by merit from past lives, that the total population was divided into two categories - the dominant group was the masses the other comprised of scholars, gentry, officials, merchants and militarists.

Among the masses who had not made much merit in former lives because they spent too much time attending to their family and did not enter public life, we find peasants, artisans and base groups like servants, actors and prostitutes.

Once again, these poor persons spent a miserable life focused on the narrow view of their own family.

When famine came they sold their daughters to the brothel owner.

In conventional terms, we say the underpinnings of this division were power, wealth and literacy.

But in Dhamma terms, we know that the great persons are those who built libraries, attended to many and helped fund orphanages in other countries as we do.

Causes for public service exist for us by putting on line a new multimedia website to help other families. Our Member who drove this project to launch is a mother of two young boys. If she spent all her time looking after them to excess, she would not have studied to bless many, many others.

Our new site is

In ancient China, eighty per cent of the population were peasants and traditionally, together the artisans produced the surplus which supported the dominant groups, which preserved and perpetuated Chinese culture.

Life for the peasants was very hard and the standard of living usually at subsistence level. Taxes and social expenses kept families in a state of impoverishment.

One could say that China was split in two: the many agricultural communities and the city dwellers made up of absentee landlords, merchants and officials. While the peasants were doing it hard, the urban citizens had access to tea houses, restaurants, brothels and theatres.

However, with the development of printing and the resultant access to education and the rise of popular culture in the form of novels and plays, a culture formerly restricted to the privileged city dwellers was made available to the masses.

This increased education had the effect of facilitating social mobility because the examination system allowed selected persons to be appointed to official positions.

The development of Imperial China in ancient times was typical of the times.
The modern age can be better for the practice of Buddha Dhamma.
To meet with the Dhamma, it must be taught with a language suited to individual needs.
May you find the Dhamma in this life.
May You Be Well And Happy.
Beckmann, George M. The Modernization of China and Japan. A Harper International Student reprint, jointly published by Harper & Row, New York, Evanston & London and John Whetherhill, Inc., Tokyo, 1965.
Bhikkhu Piyananda. Why Meditation?. Buddhist Missionary Society Publication. Kuala Lumpur
Encyclopedia Britannica. Macropaedia, Volume 19, Fifteenth Edition, 1987.
Guenther, Herber V. Matrix of Mystery. Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1984.
Loon, Louis van. Family Planning and Birth Control, Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.

Update: 01-02-2001