Embracing Family

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Monasticism reconsidered

Family life as a path of practice is a relatively undeveloped notion in traditional Buddhist texts. Certain devotional activities, ethical precepts, and the like were recommended for householders, and laypeople played important roles in the religious life of Buddhist communities, yet the monastic path was almost always considered the highest calling. Shakyamuni left his family, including his wife and just-born son, to seek enlightenment.


In East Asia, the word for monastic ordination is composed of the two characters "leave" and "home." Zen master Dogen claimed (at times) that only monks could reach enlightenment. In sculpture and painting, revered figures grasp bowls, ropes, mirrors, and many other things, but there is no mudra for holding the hand of another person.

In mainstream Western culture today, monasticism is not widely supported, so most aspiring Buddhists must find other viable approaches. How does one practice within a family? Is it possible to treat the home as a dojo, a place of training in the Way? If so, what is lost—or gained? Although the word "family" often implies a conventional nuclear family, here it is meant to include all kinds of families, conventional or not. Nor does family-as-path imply a rejection of the solitary aspects of spiritual development.