September 27, 2018

The Holiness of Family Life: can Dharma & Domesticity Coexist?

Earlier this year, my husband and I wound down jobs, sold our house, and plucked our two kids out of school to take a sabbatical.

My family happily agreed to include a tour of Asia while we unplugged. We trekked across Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Bhutan chatting with monks along the way as we visited Wats, Temples, Monasteries, Nunneries, Dzongs, and Stupas.

In the years before our trip, my interest in Buddhist-principled practices and teachings led me to various silent retreats, dharma talks, and study.

Through “loving coercion” tactics, my family began attempts to meditate together and find ways to bring mindfulness into our daily routines.

As I traced my experience with Buddhism in the West to its earliest origins in the East, I got a close-up view into how little explored the experience of women and families is in the canon of Buddhist teachings.

Tradition for monastic training prescribes that monks divest themselves of domestic obligations such as preparing food, handling money, or childcare. This absolution has long been in the fabric of monastic traditions, framing life at a monastery.

It also shapes the assumptions of where and in which contexts Buddhist principles can most effectively be studied and applied.

As the head of a household, I am obligated to earn and manage finances, prepare meals, drive a car, and raise children.

The teachings suggest that these domestic responsibilities remove me from a direct and sustained experience of the dharma.

It is true I sometimes leave the house with peanut butter on my hands and wearing the clothes I slept in—nevertheless, I began to question this separation and wondered if it is an ancient yet false dichotomy.

Is the home front really a place that siphons off our capacity for spiritual dedication or could it be as expansive a domain of practice as sacred as any monastery?

This suggestion does not presume to upend rich and complex wisdom traditions that are thousands of years old. Serving as a religious mendicant most certainly allows a singularity of focus that deepens the capacity for spiritual study.

The space to deepen the wisdom in our hearts and minds in places of silence and solitude—such as nature, through meditation and prayer, or in a dedicated retreat or monastic setting—cannot be replaced.

And still, I wonder, what could be possible if we also consider the most domestic and ordinary spaces of our lives as sacred as a remote mountain monastery—places like the dinner table, a work meeting, passing strangers on the sidewalk, paying bills, voting, grocery shopping, or homework time with our children.

There is a growing understanding of the power of bringing mindfulness into daily lives.

In addition to a mindful presence, could we view our most ordinary moments in the home as sacred grounds of practice?

Could a parent filling a lunch box carry the same spiritual sincerity and dedication as a monk eating from an alms bowl? Is that tenable or sustainable?

Can we be as noble in everyday matters as we would be in their renunciation?

Many parents would attest that drawing on the teachings of the Eightfold Path while raising children, namely wise Speech and wise Action, is one of the most rigorous and gutting purifications a practitioner could undertake, possibly leading the most experienced of monks to stumble.

These reflections may spark debate, but the invitation is compelling and expansive.

There is a pervasive correlation between the traditional roles of women and domestic responsibilities.

As both women and household obligations lack prominence in the history of the Buddhist canon, the experience of half of the population is not fully reflected.

Women often carry greater responsibility in raising a family and managing a home, which means they are further distanced from Buddhist tradition if we draw a strict line between the home front versus monastery.

The prominence of women in Buddhism is slowly changing. Nevertheless, the teachings of Buddhism passed down are largely shaped by male voices.

How far along the path to enlightenment could we be if only half of us has helped shape our understanding of it? What expands as we bring the voices of the other world’s half to the fore?

These questions explore what is possible in our personal and collective unfolding as we open the aperture of sacred domains.

Here, we can revisit long-held assumptions and give an honest look at their roots. Who and what is served by a formal separation of domestic versus monastic life or believing one has less sanctity than another?

Many threads emerge from these questions and our wisest answers will come from an undefended heart and mind.

Perhaps we can reflect humbly together as we break bread across our alms bowls and lunch boxes.


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Ashley Gibbs Davis

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