Can Buddhist monks and nuns get married and have children?

The short answer is no. The Buddha was very explicit that monks and nuns on ordaining should relinquish their household ties (except for dedication to and respect for parents) and take a vow of celibacy. That’s because full-fledged devotion to following the Buddha’s path of practice leading to enlightenment is extremely hard to accomplish when the distractions, entanglements, and obligations of romantic relationships and family life are at play. Sensual attachment, especially, is one of the most intransigent obstacles to freeing the mind from craving. The Buddha saw that separating oneself from sensual relationships and external attachments was a critical step to loosening the interior attachments of the mind.

In fact, the Vinaya—the Buddha’s code of conduct for monks and nuns—includes many rules about which relationships and family ties are permitted and which are not. These restrictions were probably established in response to actual situations that arose in the early monastic community. (There are even rules about not ordaining when pregnant and not sleeping with your former spouse after being ordained—which suggests that those things happened.)

In the centuries since the Buddha’s lifetime, some monastic communities in various traditions have developed their own take on what works for monks and nuns. In Japan, for example—where the emperor, the titular head of Buddhism as the state religion, abolished celibacy as a rule for monastics in the 19th century—monks and nuns are permitted to marry and raise families after ordination.

In Tibetan Buddhism, some schools developed celibate and non-celibate lineages: the Sakya school has a hierarchy of married monk-teachers dating back to the 11th century. Moreover, there are traditions of tantric marriage in some Tibetan schools, whereby two people regarded as being very spiritually advanced enter into a spiritual union. But these are the exception. The rule in most Buddhist traditions for monks and nuns is celibacy and the single life.


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