A Buddhist Perspective
by Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda
The Buddha’s Advice to a Couple
I. THE WIFE
In advising women about their role in married life, the Buddha appreciated that the peace and harmony of a home rested largely on a woman. His advice was realistic and practical when he explained a good number of day-to-day characteristics which a woman should or should not cultivate. On diverse occasions, the Buddha counseled that a wife should:
a) not harbor evil thoughts against her husband;
b) not be cruel, harsh or domineering;
c) not be spendthrift but should be economical and live within her means;
d) guard and save her husband’s hard-earned earnings and property;
e) always be attentive and chaste in mind and action;
f) be faithful and harbor no thought of any adulterous acts;
g) be refined in speech and polite in action;
h) be kind, industrious and hardworking;
i) be thoughtful and compassionate towards her husband, and her attitude should equate that of a mother’s love and concern for the protection of her only son;
j) be modest and respectful;
k) be cool, calm and understanding — serving not only as a wife but also as a friend and advisor when the need arises.
In the days of the Buddha, other religious teachers also spoke on the duties and obligations of a wife towards her husband — stressing particularly on the duty of a wife bearing an off-spring for the husband, rendering faithful service and providing conjugal happiness.
Some communities are very particular about having a son in the family. They believe that a son is necessary to perform their funeral rites so that their after-life will be a good one. The failure to get a son from the first wife, gives a man the liberty to have another wife in order to get a son. Buddhism does not support this belief.
According to what the Buddha taught about the law of Karma, one is responsible for one’s own action and its consequences. Whether a son or a daughter is born is determined not by a father or mother but the karma of the child. And the well-being of a father or grandfather does not depend upon the action of the son or grandson. Each is responsible for his own actions. So, it is wrong for men to blame their wives or for a man to feel inadequate when a son is not born. Such Enlightened Teachings help to correct the views of many people and naturally reduce the anxiety of women who are unable to produce sons to perform the “rites of the ancestors.”
Although the duties of a wife towards the husband were laid down in the Confucian code of discipline, it did not stress the duties and obligations of the husband towards the wife. In the Sigalovada Sutta, however, the Buddha clearly mentioned the duties of a husband towards the wife and vice versa.
II. THE HUSBAND
The Buddha, in reply to a householder as to how a husband should minister to his wife declared that the husband should always honor and respect his wife, by being faithful to her, by giving her the requisite authority to manage domestic affairs and by giving her befitting ornaments. This advice, given over twenty five centuries ago, still stands good for today.
Knowing the psychology of the man who tends to consider himself superior, the Buddha made a remarkable change and uplifted the status of a woman by a simple suggestion that a husband should honor and respect his wife. A husband should be faithful to his wife, which means that a husband should fulfill and maintain his marital obligations to his wife thus sustaining the confidence in the marital relationship in every sense of the word. The husband, being a bread-winner, would invariably stay away from home, hence he should entrust the domestic or household duties to the wife who should be considered as the keeper and the distributor of the property and the home economic-administrator. The provision of befitting ornaments to the wife should be symbolic of the husband’s love, care and attention showered on the wife. This symbolic practice has been carried out from time immemorial in Buddhist communities. Unfortunately it is in danger of dying out because of the influence of modern civilization.
In the past, since the social structure of most communities was different from that we find today, a husband and wife were interdependent on each other. There was mutual understanding, and the relationship was stable because each knew exactly what his or her role was in the partnership. The “love” that some husbands and wives try to show others by embracing each other in public does not necessarily indicate true love or understanding. In the past, although married couples did not express their love or inner feeling publicly, they had a deep even unspoken understanding and mutual respect for each other.
The ancient customs which people had in certain countries that the wife must sacrifice her life after her husband’s death and also the custom which prevents a widow from remarrying is foreign to Buddhism. Buddhism does not regard a wife as being inferior to a husband.
Some women feel that for them to concentrate on the upbringing of the family is degrading and conservative. It is true that in the past women had been treated very badly, but this was due more to the ignorance on the part of men than the inherent weakness in the concept of depending on women to bring up children.
Women have been struggling for ages to gain equality with men in the field of education, the professions, politics and other avenues. They are now at par with men to a great extent. The male generally tends to be aggressive by nature and the female more emotional. In the domestic scene, particularly in the East, the male is more dominant as head of the family whilst the female tends to remain as passive partner. Please remember, “passive” here does not mean “weak.” Rather it is a positive quality of “softness” and “gentleness.” If man and woman maintain their masculine and feminine qualities inherited from nature and recognize their respective strengths, then, that attitude can contribute towards a congenial mutual understanding between the sexes.
“I believe in the proper education of woman. But I do believe that woman will not make her contribution to the world by mimicking or running a race with man. She can run the race, but she will not rise to the great heights she is capable of by mimicking man. She has to be the complement of man.”
The basis of all human society is the intricate relationship between parent and child. A mother’s duty is to love, care and protect the child, even at extreme cost. This is the self-sacrificing love that the Buddha taught. It is practical, caring and generous and it is selfless. Buddhists are taught that parents should care for the child as the earth cares for all the plants and creatures.
Parents are responsible for the well-being and up-bringing of their children. If the child grows up to be a strong, healthy and useful citizen, it is the result of parents’ efforts. If the child grows up to be a delinquent, parents must bear the responsibility. One must not blame others or society if children go astray. It is the duty of parent to guide children on the proper path.
A child, at its most impressionable age, needs the tender love, care and attention of parents. Without parental love and guidance, a child will be handicapped and will find the world a bewildering place to live in. However, showering parental love, care and attention does not mean pandering to all the demands of the child, reasonable or otherwise. Too much pampering would spoil the child. The mother, in bestowing her love and care, should also be strict and firm in handling the tantrums of a child. Being strict and firm does not mean being harsh to the child. Show your love, but temper it with a disciplined hand — the child will understand.
Unfortunately, amongst present-day parents, parental love is sadly lacking. The mad rush for material advancement, the liberation movements and the aspiration for equality have resulted in many mothers joining their husbands, spending their working hours in offices and shops, rather than remaining at home tending to their off-spring. The children, left to the care of relations or paid servants, are bewildered on being denied tender motherly love and care. The mother, feeling guilty about her lack of attention, tries to placate the child by giving in to all sorts of demands from the child. Such an action spoils the child. Providing the child with all sorts of modern toys such as tanks, machine guns, pistols, swords and such like equipment as an appeasement is not psychologically good.
Loading a child with such toys is no substitute for a mother’s tender love and affections. Devoid of parental affection and guidance, it will not be surprising if the child subsequently grows up to be a delinquent. Then, who is to be blamed for bringing up a wayward child? The parents of course! The working mother, especially after a hard day’s work in an office to be followed by household chores, can hardly find time for the child that is yearning for her care and attention.
Parents who have no time for their children should not complain when these same children have no time for them when they are old. Parents who claim that they spend a lot of money on their children but are too busy should not complain when their “busy” children in turn leave them in expensive Homes for the Aged!
Most women work today so that the family can enjoy more material benefits. They should seriously consider Gandhi’s advice for men to seek freedom from greed rather than freedom from need. Of course, given today’s economic set-up we cannot deny that some mothers are forced to work. In such a case, the father and mother must make extra sacrifices of their time to compensate for what their children miss when they are away. If both parents spend their non-working hours at home with their children, there will be greater understanding between parents and children.
In his discourses, the Buddha has listed certain primary duties and functions as essential guidelines for parents to observe. One of the primary guidelines is, by precept, practice and action, to lead the children away from things that are evil and through gentle persuasion, to guide them to do all that is good for the family, for society and for the country. In this connection, parents would have to exercise great care in dealing with their children. It is not what the parents profess but what they really are and do, that the child absorbs unconsciously and lovingly. The child’s entry to the world is molded by emulating parental behavior. It follows that good begets good and evil begets evil. Parents who spend much time with their children will subtly transmit their characteristics to their offspring.
Duties of Parents
It is the duty of parents to see to the welfare of their children. In fact the dutiful and loving parents shoulder the responsibilities with pleasure. To lead children on the right path, parents should first set the example and lead ideal lives. It is almost impossible to expect worthy children from unworthy parents. Apart from the Karmic tendencies children inherit from previous births, they invariably inherit the defects and virtues of parents too. Responsible parents should take every precaution not to transmit undesirable tendencies to their progeny.
According to the Sigalovada Sutta, there are five duties that should be performed by parents:
1. The first duty is to dissuade children from evil
Home is the first school, and parents are the first teachers. Children usually take elementary lessons in good and evil from their parents. Careless parents directly or indirectly impart an elementary knowledge of lying, cheating, dishonesty, slandering, revenge, shamelessness and fearlessness for evil and immoral activities to their children during childhood days.
Parents should show exemplary conduct and should not transmit such vices into their children’s impressionable minds.
2. The second duty is to persuade them to do good
Parents are the teachers at home; teachers are the parents in school. Both parents and teachers are responsible for the future well-being of the children, who become what they are made into. They are, and they will be, what the adults are. They sit at the feet of the adults during their impressionable age. They imbibe what they impart. They follow in their footsteps. They are influenced by their thoughts, words and deeds. As such it is the duty of the parents to create the most congenial atmosphere both at home and in the school.
Simplicity, obedience, cooperation, unity, courage, self-sacrifice, honesty, straightforwardness, service, self-reliance, kindness, thrift, contentment, good manners, religious zeal and other kindred virtues should be inculcated in their juvenile minds by degrees. Seeds so planted will eventually grow into fruit-laden trees.
3. The third duty is to give the children a good education
A decent education is the best legacy that parents can bequeath to their children. A more valuable treasure there is not. It is the best blessing that parents could confer on their children.
Education should be imparted to them, preferably from youth, in a religious atmosphere. This has far-reaching effects on their lives.
4. The fourth duty is to see that they are married to suitable individuals
Marriage is a solemn act that pertains to the whole lifetime; this union should be one that cannot be dissolved easily. Hence, marriage has to be viewed from every angle and in all its aspects to the satisfaction of all parties before the wedding.
According to Buddhist culture, duty supersedes rights. Let both parties be not adamant, but use their wise discretion and come to an amicable settlement. Otherwise, there will be mutual cursing and other repercussions. More often than not the infection is transmitted to progeny as well.
Parents not only love and tend their children as long as they are still in their custody, but also make preparations for their future comfort and happiness. They hoard up treasures at personal discomfort and ungrudgingly give them as a legacy to their children.