- Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism by Reiko Ohnuma, and: Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticism by Shayne Clark, and: Family in Buddhism ed. by Liz Wilson, and: Little Buddhas: Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions ed. by Vanessa R. Sasson
In recent years, children and childhood have become topics of great interest in the academic study of religion, which has resulted in some interest in religious constructions of family as well. This interest has also affected Buddhist studies, and these four books, two monographs and two anthologies, are some of the results of this interest. Of these four books, the two monographs are by far more interesting and important. Both of them contain provocative theses and information, especially for those more interested in Buddhisms as living social systems than in purely doctrinal or theological formulations. These four books are also purely books of academic Buddhist studies, showing little interest in constuctive or normative concerns dealing with how Buddhism could best develop in the future or better serve the needs of contemporary people. In many ways, they demonstrate both the promise and the limits of Buddhist studies as a purely academic discipline interested in information about Buddhism but little connected with Buddhism as a living option and life choice for contemporary people.
Given how much of women’s lives as constructed by patriarchy is consumed by maternal duties and how little attention mothers and mothering have received from some commentators, curiosity about Buddhist teachings about mothers and practices surrounding motherhood is warranted. This is especially the case given that Buddhism is less pro-family than most other religions, and that celibate men have been its favored adherents, and that celibate women have fared less well in most forms of Buddhism. Ohnuma’s monograph on maternal discourse in Indian Buddhism is by far the thoroughgoing such account to date. As is well known, mother-love is praised in Buddhism as a model for how a Buddhist practitioner should cherish all beings. The words are justly famous: “Just as a mother would guard with her life her own son, her only son, so should one cultivate an unbounded mind toward all living beings, and loving-kindness toward the whole world” (quoted on p. 15). Ohnuma does not ask but a reader might ask, Does this mean she would or should cherish her daughter less? Ohnuma does point out, as have others, that this praise of mother-love is a two-edged [End Page 225] sword for women. Mother-love is also faulted for its partiality; mothers tend to favor their own children over the children of others, whereas the ideal, presumably male, monastic practitioner strives to love all beings equally. In some discourses, mothers, rather than being the models for compassion, become the objects of compassion because their motherly attachment to their children contributes to their unenlightened state of mind.
Maternal discourse may seem to elevate mothers, but such discourse is constructed mainly from the son’s point of view, according to Ohnuma’s reading of the Indian texts, which makes him the more admirable member of the mother-son dyad and the one more representative of Buddhist values, as is the case when attached mother-love is compared unfavorably with the (male) bodhisattva’s non-attached universal love This kind of analysis is applied to other major motifs in Indian Buddhism, which have often been interpreted as elevating the status of women and mothers, despite Indian Buddhism’s unmistakable male dominance and occasional misogyny. Many commentators have thought that the Mahayana elevation of Prajnaparamita, personified transcendent wisdom, as Mother of all the Buddhas elevates mothers and women to a higher level of respect and...