Pain, Buddhism, and Childbirth…

Dr Paul Fuller from Bath Spa University in a guest appearance! I ask him tough questions..

Staff from the Religion, Philosophy & Ethics course at University of Gloucestershire talking about Philosophy of Religion..

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  1. In the Aṅgulimāla Sutta (towards the end) the pain of childbirth is alluded to. It is dealt with by using a truth act (saccakiriyā).

    I was somewhat surprised that you did not get into the fact that the Buddhist ideal is not to have families but to remain celibate and avoid such entanglements. Admittedly the vast majority of Buddhists do have families, but the childless celibate has high status. For example the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh.

    My sense of this question is that there is a certain amount of fatalism in the Buddhist tradition (and here I’m mainly aware of early Buddhism, and modern Western Buddhism). If a baby is conceived then it has accumulated karma in such a way as to be reborn in the kāmaloka. If it is going to reborn in the human world, then nothing the parents do can prevent this. It will be reborn here. If it will not be reborn here then it will not be. It is the actions in a previous life that determine this.

    I think Buddhism is, as you say, fairly patriarchal; and I would add that all of the theory was worked out in a patriarchal framework before effective contraception methods, i.e. before this was really a question for laypeople.

    1. Yes, the Aṅgulimāla-sutta could have been used in our conversation. The Sutta is used, and chanted, by Buddhist women in order to have a pain free childbirth – so, your point is well taken.

      The issue of children being is some ways a hindrance to the religious life – though true for the religious virtuoso, and held to be an ideal for the layperson (in theory, at least), is part of a very text based reading of Buddhism? I know where you are coming from but I would suggest that it’s a literal reading of Buddhist ideas and philosophy. I do take your point though and it is clearly part of the Indian ascetic ideal that the religious life is lived by one who has gone from the home to the homeless life. The Buddha leaving his son signifies this and in a rather startling way is some sort of ideal, followed by the few.

      Great comments! Thanks.

      1. Actually childlessness was until recently very much part of the ethos of the (non-monastic) Order of which I’m a member. My own decision not to have children was influenced by this ideal, as was the decision of any number of friends and colleagues. In recent years I think the narrative has shifted somewhat with more couples deciding to have kids, but it remains a living ideal amongst us even where celibacy per se has become a less popular lifestyle choice. My impression is that it is still true that you will only rarely find events for families and children in our centres.

        So for me it goes well beyond a literalistic reading of the texts – if you read my blog you’ll realise I tend not to take texts literally anyway. My approach is rather more iconoclastic and deconstructive 🙂

  2. Yes – we were talking about the Aṅgulimāla Sutta afterwards – and that it should have come up!

    I think Paul will reply later (once home) to this and the comment on the other post – but I can certainly second the idea of something akin to fatalism re childbirth in Western Buddhism – I am not sure re the early tradition, only as I don’t know the evidence..

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