By John Author
Siddhartha Gautama was a deadbeat Dad. How does that make you feel?
We don’t talk about that very often because, unlike ancient Indians, modern Westerners don’t look too fondly on abandoning your wife and child in the dead of night to seek spiritual liberation. I’ve even omitted it from the Buddha’s story a few times when discoursing with non-Buddhists—I’m sure many of us have.
He’d just had a son that he, while undoubtedly amidst a state of overwhelming existential depression, named Rahula which means “fetter.” When his son was born, he didn’t feel what most fathers do—Siddhartha felt sorrowful. This was another being bound to suffering, sickness, and death; another being for him to fret over and eventually lose to time.
He saw dukkha.
The Suttas say that he almost didn’t leave. One account says that, as he looked in on his wife and child before he left, he wanted nothing more than to kiss them and say goodbye. Instead, he vanished into the night because he knew that if he said goodbye, he never would have had the fortitude to leave.
The Buddha returned to the palace when Fetter was seven. Fetter’s mom, Yashodhara, told him to ask Buddha for his inheritance. He asked and asked, but instead the Buddha decided to give him a Dharma inheritance; Fetter was made a novice monk and joined the Sangha. Buddha’s father actually begged the Buddha to stop ordaining so many people. He asked the B-man to only ordain minors if they had their guardians’ permission. The Buddha agreed, and he extended this rule to spouses as well.
So get that, Siddhartha left home without to become a mendicant and without asking his spouse. Yet after he became the Buddha, he discouraged others from doing that. “Yeah, I just did it, Steve, but you should really ask your wife first before you join me.” Double standard much?
Even though Sid didn’t leave his family destitute, and even though his son eventually joined his father in the mendicant life, this still paints young Siddhartha as…kind of an ass. I’ve heard dozens of stories in the “seeker” religions like Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita, etc. about people abandoning their families to cultivate enlightenment.
No matter how many times I hear it, and regardless of the intentions and logic behind it, I still think it’s a pretty shitty thing to do.
One leaves home to alleviate suffering, and they end up making people suffer in the process. “Suffering is caused by clinging and craving, which are only in the mind, so we’re responsible for how we feel.” Get outta here with that nonsense, you’re cleaning the Zendo outhouse tonight now—here’s some disinfectant, a toothbrush, and a stick.
When we interact with people, what we’re doing is giving them inkblots. Sure, people can create different images in them, but we’re still the ones who design the inkblots. Thus we are the ones who designate the possibilities. So even if Siddhartha’s wife and son’s suffering was directly caused by them clinging to him, it was still him who provided that possibility; he provided the circumstances—he blotted that page.
I’m actually a child of an absentee father. He took off when I was three or four, and I didn’t see him again until I was in my 20’s. So even if Fetter had everything he needed, it was definitely still hard growing up with feelings of abandonment. He probably even hated Siddhartha at times.
I know I hated my father at times. Other times, I wished he’d get in touch with me. Most of the time I didn’t think of him at all. It was great when I did finally see him again. I even visited him in Alabama where we hung out with a biker gang in the woods; drinking, smoking, building a clubhouse and shooting semi-automatic weapons. Fun fact, I was the only one to hit the target, which was a pencil perched on a log. The fun part is that I’m very nearly blind.
So, it was great seeing him again and I’ll bet it was great for Fetter too. Unlike Fetter, I don’t have a huge urge to make my birth father a big part of my life. I’m not going to renounce my Northern world to go romping around the ‘Bama wilderness with him.
I’m not saying that Siddhartha shouldn’t have left home, he had to, I’m just saying it wasn’t the most kind or compassionate thing to do.
I’m sure Sid really beat himself up about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that weighed heavy on his heart during his first forays into meditation. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to go to that extreme, and several accounts show wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers stumbling on their enlightenment among family life.
The difference is that we have the Buddha, we have Buddhist teachings—the Buddha didn’t. He had to figure all this stuff out without any kind of roadmap after all of the prominent teachers of his day had failed him. He was nagged the entire time by an existential crisis that just wouldn’t abate.
I wonder what would have happened if he stayed home?
We wouldn’t have Buddhism, for one thing, and Sid would have probably lived in some degree of misery or another throughout his life. Or, who knows, maybe he would have committed suicide. There are some unanswered questions that take all the life out of living.
“Why doesn’t she love me?” “How do I pay off this debt?” “Why can’t I just be happy?” For him, it was, “What is suffering? Why do we suffer? Is there an end to suffering? If so, how do we end suffering?” Of course, how things would have turned out if Sid stayed home is just a bunch of speculation.
Thankfully, we’ll never know for sure.