"Buddhist wedding" in Maharashtra, India

For Buddhists, marriage is generally viewed as a secular, non-religious activity. Buddhist theologians have never defined what a proper marriages between lay Buddhist entails and generally don’t preside over marriage ceremonies. Sometimes monks are invited to weddings to bless the couple and their relatives and bring them religious merit.

Gautama Buddha was married. He never set any rules for marriage—such as age or whether marriage is monogamous or polygamous—and never defined what a correct marriage should be. Monogamy is prevalent but polygamy and even polyandry (marriage to multiple men) exists in some Buddhist societies. Tibetan Buddhists practice polygamy and polyandry.

Marriage has traditionally been viewed as a partnership between the married couple and their families sanctioned by the community and relatives often in a way that shows respect for parents. In many societies where Buddhism is the dominant religion, arranged marriages are the rule. In many South and Southeast Asian countries, marriage is traditionally arranged based on social status, education, and horoscope compatibility, among other factors.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddhist Views on Marriage

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Buddhist texts are essentially silent on the subject of marriage. Although the Buddha did not lay out rules on married life, he did offer basic guidelines for how to live happily within marriage. Married people should be honest and faithful and avoid adultery — indeed, one of the ethical rules in the pancha sila is the prohibition against sexual misconduct, which is frequently taken in practice to be the endorsement of marital fidelity and monogamy. In the Parabhava Sutta, for instance, a significant cause of human error and negative karma is involvement with multiple women. As for polygamy, the Buddhist laity are advised to limit themselves to one wife. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Burmese wedding procession

According to the Dhammapada: "Health is the highest profit, Contentment the highest of riches. The trustworthy are the highest of kinsmen, Nibbana the highest happiness." In this verse, the Buddha emphasises the value of ‘trust’ in a relationship. "Trustworthy are the highest of kinsmen’ is taken to mean that trust between two people makes them the highest of kinsmen or greatest and closest relatives. It goes without saying that ‘trust’ is an essential element of the the relationship between husband and wife.

According to Buddhism, there are five tenets on which a husband should treat his wife: 1) being courteous to her, 2) not despising her, 3) not betraying her faith in him, 4) handing over the household authority to her and 5) providing her with clothes, jewellery and ornaments. In turn, there are five tenets on which a wife should treat his husband: 1) performing her duties efficiently, 2) being hospitable to relatives and attendants, 3) not betraying his faith in her, 4) protecting his earnings and 5) being skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

Buddhist Weddings

Buddhist weddings are a relatively recent innovations largely developed as a result of colonial exclusion of those who were not formally married. In some instances monks officiate at such events, although this is unusual. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Monks are often invited to marriage ceremonies but not in role of performing the ceremony itself, but rather to bless the newly married couple as they begin a new stage in their lives. Ceremonies vary greatly from country to country and school to school. In Theravada, for example, the couple might recite a text such as the Sigalovada Sutta, which deals generally with marital duties, and they might also recite a devotional text such as the Mangala Sutta.

In Theravada countries, the wedding ceremony often symbolically joins the entire community with the wrapping a long piece of string or thread around a picture of the Buddha and then around all the people present. A monk then cuts two pieces from the string and wraps one around the groom's wrist. The groom then wraps the second piece of string or thread around his bride's wrist, symbolizing their unity.[Source: Encyclopedia.com]

In other countries, the wedding ceremony is simpler. The bride, groom, family, and friends gather at a shrine of the Buddha, sometimes after a secular ceremony. The couple makes offerings of food, flowers, and incense to the Buddha and lights candles. At a ceremony, the groom and bride recite from the Sigilovdda Sutra. The groom first says to the bride, 'Towards my wife, I undertake to love and respect her, be kind and considerate, be faithful, delegate domestic management, provide gifts to please her.' The bride vows to perform her household duties efficiently, be hospitable to her in-laws and her husband's friends, be faithful, protect and invest their earnings, and discharge her responsibilities lovingly and conscientiously towards her husband.Following this, the guests and parents recite various sutras and chants as a blessing.

The Mangala Sutra is often read during weddings. Part of it reads: "Not to associate with fools, to associate with the wise, and pay honor to those who are worthy of honor, that is the highest blessing." The Vandana is a Pali chant used in some ceremonies: Part of it goes: "Homage to the triple gems, homage to him, the blessed one, the exalted one, the fully enlightened one." A wedding feast follows the ceremony.

wedding of Prince Siddhartha (Buddha) and Princess Yasodhara

Dwell together in mutual love.—Brahmanadhammika-sutta.

He who ... is tender to all that lives ... is protected by heaven and loved by men. —Fa-kheu-pi-u.

Even as the lily lives upon and loves the water, So Upatissa and Kolita likewise, Joined by closest bond of love, If by necessity compelled to live apart, Were overcome by grief and aching heart. —Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Loving and merciful towards all.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king. Filled with universal benevolence.—Fa-kheu-pi-u.

Exercising love towards the infirm.—Fa-kheu-pi-us.

Ever inspired by pity and love to men.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Buddhist Sources on Love

Closely as cause and effect are bound together, So do two loving hearts entwine and live— Such is the power of love to join in one. —Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg] That thou mayst know— What others will not—that I love thee most Because I loved so well all living souls. —Sir Edwin Arnold.

He truly must have a loving heart, For all things living place in him entire confidence. —Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

The good man's love ends in love; the bad man's love in hate.—Kshemendra's Kalpalata.

Buddhism, Family and Childbirth

Siddhartha (Buddha) leaving his family

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Buddhist views about the family tend to be general in nature, based in principle on the interconnectedness of karma. Because the traditional Buddhist family is a large and extended group that includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on, one has a duty to honor and respect both one's immediate family and one's extended family. In a famous statement the Buddha remarked that one should be kind and compassionate to all living beings because there can be found no being who was not once in some former life one's brother, sister, mother, or father. In many Buddhist countries, particularly those of East Asia, one of the most important familial duties is toward one's dead ancestors, who are thought to exist in a special realm and who depend on the living to continue to honor and care for them. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

In some Buddhist countries there are certain rites that can be performed when a woman is about to give birth. Usually the husband will recite certain sutras and prayers, including the Angulimala Paritta, named after the Buddhist saint, Angulimala, who took special care of women in childbirth. This prayer states, "Sister, since I was born, I (intuitively) know that I have not intentionally deprived any living being of life. By this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for the unborn child!" [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

After the birth of a child in Theravada countries, the parents take the child to the local temple to be given a name. Then the baby is blessed by monks and sprinkled with water. This is followed by a final ceremony with a candle. The lit candle is tilted so that drops of wax fall into a bowl of water and become solid again. This symbolizes the blending of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Relationship Between Husband and Wife

Major General Ananda Weerasekera, a Sri Lankan general who became a monk, wrote in Beyond the Net: “The word "protection" of a husband could be extended to go beyond today’s formal marriage and accommodates a relationship between man and woman established by habit and repute and would include a women who is recognised to be a consort of a man (a women who lives with a man or who is kept by a man). Reference to the women under the protection of a guardian precludes elopement or secret marriages without the knowledge of the guardian. The women protected by convention and by the laws of the land are women who are forbidden by social convention such as close relatives (i.e. sexual activity between sisters and brothers or between same sex), women under a vow of celibacy (i.e. nuns) and under-aged children etc. [Source: Major General Ananda Weerasekera, Beyond the Net]

wedding portrait of a Vietnamese couple

In the Singalovada Suthra, Buddha enumerated certain basic obligations in the relationship between husband and wife, as follows: There are 5 ways in which a husband should minister or look after his wife: 1) By honouring her; 2) By not disparaging her and not using words of insult at her; 3) Not being unfaithful, by not going to wives of others; 4) By giving her the authority in administering the affairs at home; and 5) By providing her with cloths and other items to maintain her beauty.

There are 5 ways in which a wife should fulfil her obligations towards her husband, which should be done with compassion: 1) She will reciprocate by properly planning, organising and attending to all the work at home. 2) She will be kind to the servants and will look after their needs. 3) She will not be unfaithful to her husband. 4) She will protect the wealth and property which the husband has earned. 5) She will be skilful, hard working and prompt in attending to all the work she has to do.

On how a a woman should tolerate a drunk, wife beating husband, Mr. Mithra Wettimuny wrote on Beyond the Net: “A direct answer to this question can only be given after consideration of some very important issues. A man who becomes an alcoholic or consumes alcohol regularly enough to get intoxicated is a fool. A man who resorts to beating a woman is full of hate and is also a fool. The one who does both is an absolute fool. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says that "it is better to live alone than to live with a fool, like the way an elephant lives alone in the forest" or "like the king who leaves his kingdom and goes to the forest". This is because frequent association of a fool will only bring forth unwholesome qualities within you. Hence you will never progress in the right direction. However, human beings very easily look at others and pass judgment on them and rarely look at themselves. Again in the Dhammapada the Buddha declares "look not to the faults of others, their omissions or commissions, but rather look at your own actions, at what you have done and left undone"...Therefore before passing judgment on the husband and coming to conclusions, the wife should first take a good look at herself. [Source: Mr. Mithra Wettimuny, Beyond the Net]

Types of Wives in Buddhism

Mr. Mithra Wettimuny of the Sambodhi Viharaya in Columbo, Sri Lanka wrote on Beyond the Net: “A wife must first clearly comprehend whether she has been a good wife or a bad wife. In this regard the Buddha declares that there are seven types of wives in this world: 1) There is a wife who hates her husband, would prefer to kill him if she could, is not obedient, is not loyal, does not guard the husband’s wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Killer wife’. 2) There is a wife who does not guard her husband’s wealth, scrounges and wastes his wealth, is not obedient and is not loyal to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Robber wife’. 3) There is a wife who behaves like a tyrant, cruel, oppressive, domineering, is disobedient, not loyal and does not guard the husband’s wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Tyrant wife’. [Source: Mr.Mithra Wettimuny, Beyond the Net]

“4) Then there is the wife who sees her husband like the way the mother sees her son. Looks after all his needs, safeguards his wealth, is loyal and is devoted to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Motherly wife’. 5) Then there is also a wife who looks up to her husband like the way she looks up to her elder sister. Respects him, is obedient and humble, safeguards his wealth and is loyal to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Sisterly wife’. 6) Then there is the wife who when she sees her husband, it is as if two friends have met after a long time. She is humble, obedient, loyal and safeguards his wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Friendly wife’. 7) Then there is also the wife who serves her husband at all times in every way without complaint, bears up shortcomings of the husband, if any, in silence, is obedient, humble, loyal and safeguards his wealth. Such a wife is called an ‘Attendant wife’.

These are the seven types of wives found in the world. Of them, the first three types (the Killer, the Robber and the Tyrant wife) lead a life of unhappiness here and now and at death is born in a place of torment [i.e., the animal world, the world of prethas (ghosts) and demons, asuras and the realm of hells.] The other four types of wives, that is the Motherly, Sisterly, Friendly and the Attendant wife lead a life of happiness here and now and at death is born in a place of happiness [i.e., divine worlds or human world].

Buddhist Sources on Being a Good Wife

Buddhist monks in Japan, like the temple priest here, often are married and have families

She orders her household aright, she is hospitable to kinsmen and friends, a chaste wife, a thrifty housekeeper, skilful and diligent in all her duties.—Sigalovada-sutta.

The wife ... should be cherished by her husband.—Sigalovada-sutta.

Were I not ready to suffer adversity with my husband as well as to enjoy happiness with him, I should be no true wife.—Legend of We-than-da-ya.

He is my husband. I love and revere him with all my heart, and therefore am determined to share his fate. Kill me first, ... and afterwards do to him as you list.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Married Monks in Japan

Japanese Buddhist monks don’t have to be celibate. Both Buddhist and Shinto priests marry, and sons often inherit responsibility for their father's congregation when he dies. Wives sometimes receive some training and participate in the running of a temple.

Reporting from Yamagata prefecture in Japan, Chihiro Fukai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Along with his job as the 33rd chief priest of the Toshoji temple of the Soto Buddhism sect in Nagai, Yamagata Prefecture, Takuya Ono takes care of his three children aged 12, 8 and 5 as a full-time househusband. “His wife, who works as a researcher in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, lives separately from her family. [Source: Chihiro Fukai, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 16, 2014].

As Ono, 41, does all the housework, including cooking, he became well known as the “ikumen” chief priest from about a year ago. Ikumen is a recently coined Japanese word for fathers who actively take part in raising children. When he is invited as a lecturer to local meetings of parents and guardians or on other occasions, the priest of the temple established in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) talks about his feelings and the joy of raising children.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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