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A while ago I wrote about how Indian traditions upset conventional assumptions about family and community being essential to premodern tradition and culture. There, I was responding to a piece by Patrick Deneen, which drew only on Western traditions. As a result, Deneen’s piece had a narrowness of focus, but within that focus it was able to attain some accuracy. Not so for a recent report by urban geographer Joel Kotkin, entitled The Rise of Post-Familialism. Kotkin achieves breadth of focus by means of ignorance.

Kotkin’s subject is the decline of childbearing family units as central to society – put another way, the growth of households with no children, often unmarried. I’m not going to take issue here with Kotkin’s demographic analyses or projections of the future. What he gets wrong, rather, is the past.

What Kotkin wants to tell us is that “traditional values — Hindu, Muslim, Judeo-Christian, Buddhist or Confucian”, were all about valuing the family. But they weren’t, at least in some of these cases. And Kotkin’s comments on the subject are deeply misleading. Here’s Kotkin on Buddhism:

Buddhism, too, placed the family high in its hierarchy of values. The family was to be animated by Buddhist virtues, and “the core” of the broader society. Respect for parents and proper relations within the family were a starting point for a more enlightened community. Notes the thirteenth century Zen Master Dogen, “Those who see worldly life as an obstacle to Dharma see no Dharma in everyday actions; they have not yet discovered that there are no everyday actions outside of Dharma.”

I’m not an expert on Dōgen, though Kotkin clearly isn’t either; his source for the Dōgen quote is a website called familybuddhism.com, which itself provides no source for the quote. The quote could certainly be apocryphal. But it does sound to me that it is something Dōgen could have said. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it is. Then who are “those who see worldly life as an obstacle to Dharma”? They will be people who see the dharma as a good and are concerned about obstacles to it; that is to say, they are other Buddhists. As it turns out, they were the mainstream of Buddhism for at least the first several hundred years of the tradition.

The reason I think Dōgen could have said this is that he was part of a significant change that Buddhism underwent as it entered different contexts, and especially the East Asian context. The strong ascent and integrity orientations that characterized early Buddhism became moderated with descent and intimacy orientations in the Buddhism of East Asia – certainly in China, and perhaps even more so in Japan, further removed from Buddhism’s Indian origins.

In the classical Buddhism of the Pali suttas and vinaya, on the other hand, we hear far more about family as an obstacle to liberation. According to the stories of the Buddha told there, when the Buddha’s son was born, he named him Rāhula – “fetter” – on the grounds that this new birth would be an obstacle to his own liberation. In the Vessantara Jātaka, the widely told story of the Buddha’s penultimate rebirth, his predecessor is said to be so generous that he gives his wife and children away – an act of renunciation so complete that it paves the way for his next incarnation as the Buddha.

Nor did this praise of renunciation end with the Mahāyāna, as is sometimes thought. Jan Nattier has demonstrated that some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, urge an ascetic renunciation even more extreme than the early texts. Śāntideva, a self-identified Mahāyāna thinker, puts it in no uncertain terms that celibate monkhood is preferable to family life.

This is not to say that Indian traditions were entirely anti-family. They weren’t. Buddhism, and its fellow ascetic traditions like Jainism, were themselves a reaction to a family-centred Vedic brahminical culture. But their anti-family reaction remained a strong counter-current in those cultures. Enough so, indeed, as to invalidate Kotkin’s main claim about “Hinduism”:

In Hinduism, human life is believed to comprise four stages called “ashrams” that every man should ideally go through. The second stage, “Grihastha”, was conceived as the Householder/Married Family Man Stage.

This view is relatively recent, as Dōgen’s would be as well. Patrick Olivelle’s remarkable The Āśrama System, examining the classical dharmasūtra texts, established that the “four āśramas” – celibate student, householder, forest-dweller and renouncer – were originally conceived not as stages, but as choices, alternatives. It was only in a later stage of Indian thought – a stage that sought to diminish the importance of free choice – that it was claimed that one should renounce the world only after having children. This compromise was an attempt to bring the kind of renunciation pioneered by the Jains and Buddhists back into the fold of Vedic familial tradition. But it ran counter to the strong undercurrent – praised by the Buddha and remaining in Indian society to this day – where people would never start families, renouncing from the beginning of adulthood or even earlier, and where they were strongly praised for doing so.

What’s the point of saying all this? For one thing, though Kotkin in this passage avoids the problematic term “religion”, he still seems to fall victim to the underlying concept: assuming that “religion” is one thing, with a relatively uniform set of “traditional values”, set aside against a modernity that values something different entirely. This isn’t the case. Traditional India is full of views praising the monk’s independent individual integrity, against family and community. The integrity orientation of traditional Indian thought is not the same as that of modern thought, certainly, but in many respects the two are closer to each other than they are to the familial worlds of premodern Judaism or Confucianism. (Even Christianity is far less intrinsically oriented toward “family values” than is often supposed. In a rough parallel to the Vessantara story, Jesus is said to have insisted that family needs to be a low priority compared to salvation, going so far as to say in Luke 14:26 that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.”) Of late I’ve even been noting a kinship between that thought and Marxism, in the way that both seek to move beyond the everyday world as it is given to us.

There is plenty that may be said in favour of the family life. But let us not pretend that premodern traditions agreed on its worth.

After today, Love of All Wisdom will be taking a break for about a month. I’ll be taking time off for Christmas and the New Year, and then my wife and I will be travelling to India to have an Indian wedding ceremony. Expect the blog to return in late January, and have a happy holiday season.