Marriage, Birth Control and Death
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Buddhist Views on Marriage 1
  - Divorce 1.1
Birth Control, Abortion and Suicide 2
  - Committing Suicide 2.1
Why Does the World Population Increase? 3
Sex and Religion 4
In Buddhism, marriage is regarded as a social institution and not as a religious duty.

MARRIAGE is a social convention, an institution created by human beings for their well being and happiness to differentiate human society from animal life and to maintain order and harmony in the process of procreation. Even though the Buddhist texts are silent on the subject of monogamy or polygamy, the Buddhist lay person is advised to limit himself or herself to one spouse. The Buddha did not lay rules on married life but gave necessary advice on how to live a happy married life. There are ample inferences in His sermons that it is wise and advisable to be faithful to one spouse and not to be sensual and to run after other partners. The Buddha taught that one of the main causes of the downfall of man is his involvement with other women (PARABHAVA SUTTA ). Of course the implication is that a woman who gets involved with many men is also bound to suffer. A person must realise the difficulties, the trials and tribulations that one has to undergo just to maintain a family life. These would be magnified many times when faced with self induced complications. Knowing the frailties of human nature, the Buddha did, in one of His precepts, advise His followers to refrain from committing adultery or sexual misconduct.

The Buddhist views on marriage are very liberal: in Buddhism, marriage is regarded entirely as a personal and individual concern, and not as a religious duty. There are no religious laws in Buddhism compelling a person to be married, to remain single or to lead a life of total celibacy. It is not laid down anywhere that Buddhists must produce children or regulate the number of children that they produce. Buddhism allows each individual the freedom to decide for him or herself all the issues pertaining to marriage. It might be asked why Buddhist monks do not marry, since there are no laws for or against marriage. The reason is obviously that to be of service to mankind, the monks have chosen a way of life which includes celibacy. Those who renounce the worldly life keep away from married life voluntarily to avoid various worldly commitments in order to maintain peace of mind. They wish to dedicate their lives solely to serve others in the attainment of spiritual emancipation. In modern society, although Buddhist monks do not solemnize a marriage ceremony, they can be called upon to perform religious services in order to bless the couples.* These remarks are all equally applicable to nuns.


Separation or divorce is not prohibited in Buddhism though the necessity would scarcely arise if the Buddha's injunctions were strictly followed. Men and women must have the liberty to separate if they really cannot agree with each other. Separation is preferable to living a miserable family life for a long period of time for both partners and innocent children. The Buddha further advises old men not to have young wives as the old and young are unlikely to be compatible, which can create undue problems, disharmony and downfall (PARABHAVA SUTRA ).

A society grows through a network of relationships which are mutually intertwined and inter-dependent. Every relationship is a wholehearted commitment to support and to protect others in a group or community. Marriage plays a very important part in this strong web of relationships of giving support and protection. A good marriage should grow and develop gradually from understanding and not impulse, from true loyalty and not just sheer indulgence. The institution of marriage provides a fine basis for the development of culture, a delightful association of two individuals to be nurtured, and to be free from loneliness, deprivation and fear. In marriage, each partner develops a complementary role, giving strength and moral courage to one another, each manifesting a supportive and appreciative recognition of the other's skills. There must be no thought of either man or woman being superior; each is complementary to the other, in a partnership of equality, exuding gentleness, self-control, respect, generosity, calm and dedication.

*Read the book “Happy Married Life” by the same author for more details.

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Although a human being has freedom to plan a family according to his or her own convenience, abortion is not justifiable.

THERE is no reason for Buddhists to oppose birth control. They are at liberty to use any of the old or modern measures to prevent conception. Those who object to birth control by saying that it is against God's law to practise it, must realise that their concept regarding this issue is not reasonable. In birth control what is done is to prevent the coming into being of an existence. There is no killing involved and there is no akusala karma (unskillful action). However, if people take any action to have an abortion, this action is wrong because it involves taking away or destroying a visible or invisible life. Therefore, abortion is not justifiable.

According to the Teachings of the Buddha, five conditions must be present to constitute the evil act of killing. They are:

1. a living being  
2. knowledge or awareness it is a living being  
3. intention of killing  
4. effort to kill, and  
5. consequent death  

At conception, there is a being in the womb and this fulfils the first condition. After a couple of months, the mother knows that there is a new life within her and this satisfies the second condition. Then for some reason or other, she wants to do away with this being in her. So she begins to search for an abortionist to do the job and in this way, the third condition is fulfilled. When the abortionist does his job, the fourth condition is provided for and finally, the being is killed because of that action. So all the conditions are present. In this way, there is a violation of the First Precept ‘not to kill', and this is tantamount to killing a human being. Conversely, however, by birth control, a life does not come into being, and therefore all the above five conditions cannot operate. According to Buddhism, there is no ground to say that we have the right to take away a life once it has come into being.

Under certain circumstances, people feel compelled to do that for their own convenience. But they should not justify this act of abortion as somehow or other they will have to face some sort of bad consequences. In certain countries abortion is legalised, but this is to overcome some social problems. Religious principles should never be surrendered for the pleasure of human beings. They stand for the welfare of the whole of mankind.

Committing Suicide

Taking one's own life under any circumstances is morally and spiritually wrong. Taking one's own life owing to frustration or disappointment only causes greater suffering. Suicide is a cowardly way to end one's problems in life. A person cannot commit suicide if his or her mind is pure and tranquil. If one leaves this world with a confused and frustrated mind, it is most unlikely that he or she would be born again in a better condition. Suicide is an unwholesome or unskilful act since it is encouraged by a mind filled with self importance, greed, hatred and most importantly, delusion. Those who commit suicide have not learnt how to face their problems, how to face the facts of life, and how to use their mind in a proper manner. Such people have not been able to understand the nature of life and worldly conditions.

Some people sacrifice their own lives for what they deem as a good and noble cause. They take their own lives by such methods as self-immolation, bullet-fire, or starvation. Such actions may be classified as brave and courageous. However, from the Buddhist point of view, such acts are not to be condoned. The Buddha has clearly pointed out that suicidal states of mind lead to further suffering. This whole attitude again proves how much Buddhism is a positive, life affirming religion.

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The credit or responsibility for the population increase must go to the medical and other facilities available today.

IF Buddhists do not believe in a soul created by god, how are they going to account for the increase of population in the world today? This is a very common question that is asked by many people. People who ask this question usually assume that there is only one world where living beings exist. One must consider that it is quite natural for the population to increase in such places where good climatic conditions, medical facilities, food and pre­cautions are available to produce and to protect living beings. One must also consider that there is really no ground to think that this is the only period in which the population in the world has increased. There are no means of comparison with any period of ancient history. Vast civilisations existed and have disappeared in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Ancient America. No census figures on these civilisations are even remotely available. Population, as everything else in the universe, is subject to cycles of rise and fall. In cycles of alarming increases of birth rate, one might be consequently tempted to argue against rebirth in this or other worlds. For the last few thousand years, there has been no evidence to prove that there were more people in some parts of the world than there are today. The number of beings existing in the various world systems is truly infinite. If human lives can be compared to only few grains of sand, the number of beings in the

universe can be said to be greater than the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. When conditions are right and when supported by their good karma, a few of these infinite number of beings are reborn as human beings. The advancement of medicine especially in the 19th and 20th centuries has enabled human beings to live longer and healthier lives.

This is a factor that contributes to population increase. Popu­lation can further increase unless sensible people take measures to control it. Hence, the credit or responsibility for increasing the population must be given to medical facilities and other qualified authorities available today. This credit or responsibility cannot be allotted to any particular religion or any external sources.

There is a belief among certain people that all unfortunate occurrences that destroy human lives are created by God in order to reduce the population of the world. Instead of giving so much suffering to his own creatures, why cannot he control the population? Why does he create more and more people in thickly populated countries where there is no proper food, clothing and other basic and necessary requirements? Those who believe that God created everything cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question. Poverty, unhappiness, war, hunger, disease, famine are not due to the will of God or to the whim of some devil, but to causes which are not so difficult to discover.

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Human beings are the only living beings that do not have periods of natural sexual inactivity during which the body can recover its vitality.

THE sex impulse is the most dynamic force in human nature. So far-reaching is the sexual force that some measure of self-control is necessary even in ordinary existence. In the case of the spiritual aspirants, for those who want to bring their mind under complete control, a still greater measure of self-discipline is necessary. Such a powerful force in human character can be subdued only if the aspirants control their thoughts and practise con­centration. The conservation of the sexual force helps to develop this strength. For if they control the sexual force, they will have more control over their whole make-up, over their baser emotions. “Control” means we voluntarily exercise restraint by understanding the need to do so. This is very different from “suppressing” which means simply trying to pretend the urge is not there. Suppression can have dangerous consequences.

Celibacy is recommended for those who like to develop their spiritual development for perfection. However, it is not compulsory for each and every person to observe complete celibacy in order to practise Buddhism. The Buddha's advice is that observing celibacy is more congenial for a person who wants to cultivate his or her spiritual achievements. For ordinary Buddhist lay persons, the precept is to abstain from sexual misconduct. This means that a householder may indulge in legitimate sex. This is because in such legitimate sexual activity there is no guilt and no sense of exploitation of the other party.

However, there is a need even for Buddhist lay people to exercise some degree of control over their sexual force. The human sexual urge must be controlled properly otherwise people will behave worse than animals when they are intoxicated with lust. Consider the sexual behaviour of what we call the ‘lower animal'. Which really is often ‘lower'—the animal or the man? Which acts in a normal, regular manner as regards sexual behaviour? And which runs off into all manner of irregularities and perversities? Often it is the animal that is the higher creature and the human that is the lower. And why is this? It is simply because humans who possess the mental capacity which if rightly used, could make them masters over their sex impulses, have actually used their mental powers in such deplorable fashions as to make themselves slaves to those impulses. Thus people can, at times, be considered lower than animals.

Our ancestors played down this sexual impulse; they knew that it was strong enough without giving it any extra encouragement. But today we have blown it up with a thousand forms of incitation, suggestive advertisements, emphasis and display; and we have armed the sexual force with the doctrine that inhibition is dangerous and can even cause mental disorders.

Although inhibition—the restriction which controls the impulse—is the first principle of any civilization, in our modern civilization too, we have polluted the sexual atmosphere that surrounds us—and greatly exaggerated the mind/body urge for sexual gratification through the mass media.

As a result of this sex exploitation by the hidden persuaders of modern society, the youth of today have developed an attitude towards sex that is becoming a public nuisance. In many cases, innocent girls have no freedom to move anywhere without being disturbed.

Human beings are the only animals that do not have periods of natural sexual inactivity during which the body can recover its vitality. Unfortunately, commercial exploitation of this erotic nature has caused them to be exposed to a ceaseless barrage of sexual stimulation from every side. Much of the neuroses of present-day life are traceable to this unbalanced state of affairs. Men in modern societies are expected to be monogamous, yet women are exploited in every possible way to ‘glamorise' themselves, not for their husbands alone, but to excite in every man passions that society forbids him to indulge in.

Sex should be given its due place in normal human life; it should be neither unhealthily repressed nor morbidly exaggerated. And it should always be under the control of the will, as it can be if it is regarded sanely and placed in its proper perspective.

Unlike what we are made to believe, sex should not be considered as the most important ingredient for one's happiness in a married life. Those who over-indulge can become slaves to sex which could ultimately ruin love and humane considerations in marriage. As in everything, one must be temperate and rational in one's sexual demands taking into consideration the partner's intimate feelings and temperament.

Marriage is a bond of partnership for life entered into by a man and a woman. Patience, tolerance and understanding are the three principal qualities that should be developed and nurtured by the couple. Whilst love should be the knot tying the couple together, material necessities for sustaining a happy home should be made available for the couple to share. The qualification for a good partner­ship in marriage should be ‘ours' and not ‘yours' or ‘mine'. A good couple should ‘open' their hearts to one another and refrain from entertaining ‘secrets'. Keeping secrets to oneself could lead to suspicion and suspicion is the element that could destroy love in a partnership. Suspicion breeds jealousy, jealousy creates anger, anger develops hatred, hatred turns into enmity and enmity could cause untold sufferings including bloodshed, suicide and even murder.

“The lower part of us is still animal” (GANDHI )

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Nature, Value and Choice of Religious Beliefs - Next
Buddhist Teachings Marriage, Birth Control and Death