Was Buddha a Bad Father?

Via elephantjournal.com
on Mar 25, 2011
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I have a wealthy friend who has three homes, is going to inherit a growing business, has a stunningly beautiful wife, and yesterday his first son was born.

Then, like many dads do…he panicked.

But he took it one step further. In the middle of the night, the first night of his son’s life, he got dressed, got in his car, and drove off without a word, without even a note saying goodbye.

He was gone for good.

…I’m not one to judge. I’ve described it before. I don’t care what anyone says: babies drag you down. You would never invite a one foot tall, non-English speaking person to come in your house, cry all day until you feed them by hand, and then shit on your floor. But that’s what bringing home a baby is. To this day I have yet to change one diaper in my life. I’ve missed school presentations, the occasional Halloween, and other major events in their early years.

But what about my friend above?

What about Buddha? Siddhartha Gautama had it all. The three houses, the kindgom, the beautiful wife, the adoring subjects and family. His son was born (and his son’s name “Rahula” even means “fettered”) and Buddha got scared out of his mind.

He needed to be unfettered. So he got on his horse (and the mythology is that the gods kept the horses hooves quiet) and he rode off into the night. Not to return for seven years.

And it gets worse. His wife suffered from a massive depression at the abandonment. His son was raised with no father and a clinically depressed mother. Buddha’s father also was frustrated and greatly missed his son.

Skip seven years later. We all know what happened between now and then so I’m just going to focus on his family. Siddhartha is now Buddha and he returns home accompanied by hundreds of his followers. Buddha doesn’t ask to see the mother of his child, and she remains (at least at first) hidden. So she asks Rahula to ask Buddha for his inheritance, since the inheritance must be given by the father. So as Buddha is leaving, after having dinner with his father, the king, for the first time in seven years, Rahula runs after him, asking his father for his inheritance. Buddha, thinks about it, decides either that he doesn’t want to give it up or that he think its worthless compared with his spiritual inheritance and says to Rahula, come with me and you will get your inheritance.

So now Buddha’s wife is torn not only from her husband but her son. And his father has lost not only his son but his grandson. They both beg Buddha not to take Rahula but Buddha ignores them. Rahula becomes the youngest monk in Buddha’s following. Was Siddhartha a good dad? A good husband? I’m not one to judge.

The other day my two kids were arguing. One of my kids is good on the attack. She  has memorized every word ever said by the other one and is quick to catch her in any emotional or verbal contradiction. The other kid, used to being on the defensive, has a way of making annoying comebacks that disregard the attack. So the other day they got into “the death spiral”. It ends in tears and crying.

Buddha gave the seven year old Rahula one lecture, which I should give to my kids. It was a big lecture but I’m going to summarize it in two paragraphs:

A) Never tell a lie. Anyone who can tell you the slightest of lies is also capable of any evil. We’ve seen this repeatedly in the financial world.
B) For every physical, verbal, emotional, and mental action you take, FOCUS before, during, and after to make sure nobody is getting hurt.

That’s it. Beautiful. Its all you need to live a good life.

Did Rahula pay attention? I hope so. . He worshiped his dad. But he died young (he was the child of two first cousins. Who knows what medical issues he had) so we don’t really know how he applied the advice in his life.

When my kids were fighting this weekend I called a timeout. I told them what I thought: Mollie was a good debater. So I told her she should be proud. She remembers everything and that talent will come in handy. And Josie can bounce back from anything. No matter what you throw at her she bounces back and tries harder. So they were proud in their accomplishments and that slowed them down enough to appreciate what they had with each other. And then they started arguing again. But proud of it.

So many siblings who should love each other fall apart in later life. The malignant disease starts when they are young when they need their parents around them to set boundaries. Maybe following the advice Buddha gave Rahula would help avoid these disasters. Certainly it could lead to a more peaceful life. But at the end of the day, I hope I’m a better dad ultimately than Buddha was.

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(Buddha with Rahula and, oddly, a red-headed caucasian)

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Comments

39 Responses to “Was Buddha a Bad Father?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    You are really funny!!! You are not a Buddhist I am guessing as the example of your theoretical wealthy friend leaving his family was being compared to the Siddartha's actions. Do you remember why the Buddha left the kingdom? Was he bored or looking for a Porsche to buy? Tell me…what do you say to your GOD when he/she takes your wife or child away and seperates loved ones from each other? Do you also write smarmy condescending dittys about your GOD's actions?

  2. Ben says:

    His rule is "make sure nobody is getting hurt." So how does he reconcile that with leaving his family? I don't know anything about Buddhism, just curious.

    That description of children arguing was brilliant.

  3. jenfnp says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful questions on the story of the Buddha. Lots to consider. I think one of the differences between Buddha's social norms (of the time) and ours is that being an esthetic was a cool thing to do. Not so much now. I prefer not to mix the times in my consideration of this legend. I find that we can go off course in our evaluations of the past when we use todays mores as our foundation.

  4. Claudia says:

    Interesting James, leaves me wondering. What the Buddha finally taught his son, the second lesson:

    "For every physical, verbal, emotional, and mental action you take, FOCUS before, during, and after to make sure nobody is getting hurt."

    Is one that many of us could use… not easy, but it would be good if we could remember it

  5. Justin says:

    "Hard" is a relative term.

    I'm a 24 year-old grad student with three kids. The reality is, it's reality.

  6. This is a really interesting discussion. I hope we can get a lot more people involved.

  7. Joe Sparks says:

    Boys must not be abandoned. They need parents close to them, providing nuture, information, guidance, companionship, and cherishing. They need parents who are actively involved in their lives from birth until maturity at least. Boys need to be truly appreciated just for their existence, independent of what they might do for someone else and independent of their families dreams for them.

  8. Justin says:

    I was reading over this post again this evening and had some more thoughts.

    This all may just be a result of my LDS theology [so I'm essentially just asking this as a question] — but I'm wondering about the justification of a spiritual out-look that has a founding story based on a father viewing his firstborn son as "burdensome" and then going out on a seven-year "spiritual journey" at the expense of his wife.

    I feel like he may have sat under that tree and discovered there is no self — but that story seems like he had to be pretty selfish in order to do that.

    James, your struggle to balance the "hard reality" of having children, changing diapers, and being a present father with your spirituality is foreign to me — do you have a "Cliff Notes" version for why these things oppose each other?

    You said in a comment above: "And, I tihnk the questioning about fatherhood is deserved. Sometimes our responsibilities as a householder come into conflict with our desires to be a spiritual person. Siddhartha exemplifies this struggle. Its interesting for me as a questioner how he resolved this struggle."

    To me there is no such thing as a "spiritual desire" that would come into conflict with my responsibilities as a householder. What is there to be said about "spiritual desires" that do?

    I think Ben above pointed out the paradoxical selfishness of a path to discover your self-lessness that begins with hurting the three people a human being is meant to be the most connected with: Spouse, Child, and Parent.

  9. Priscilla Wood says:

    I think you are brilliant and an out of the ordinary writer. Enjoy reading you as much as Ben and that's a lot to say! Great job!!!

  10. elephantjournal says:

    #
    Tim de Phan Hmm, I never thought about that. Shame on me. Good question.

    #
    Mich Magness I think he was what he was. Legend says he named his son Rahula, meaning Hindrance. We are attached to our children, and attachment leads to suffering/dukka. Our attachment to children and family can definitely become a hindrance to practicing the noble eightfold path. And yet, acknowledging my imperfection, I must admit that I accept my love for my sons and accept that I will suffer from the attachment I feel for them. I can work to become less attached/involved, but may never be able to let go the way the Buddha was able to.

    #
    Sandi Strong After reading Old Path, White Clouds years ago, I thought the same thing about Siddhartha leaving his wife and child. Reading it again, last year, when my children were 5 and 7 years old, I again had that thought. Now I want to go back and read the build up to his point of leaving his family and see how Thich Nhat Hanh interprets this. Thanks for the thought. It will be interesting to explore this in the context of the male god archetype throughout mythology and religion.

  11. ARCreated says:

    sometimes when I feel like sitting on a mountain top I have this "well buddha abandoned everything" argument with myself :) fortunately for my husband and children I am not really a buddhist and it hasn't worked yet :) I think this is an awesome article…I don't know a lot about LDS but I think its super neat that Justin has no conflict with his householder duties and spirituality…I find that odd…I mean as far as I can tell a lot of religious/spiritual modalities/faiths/practices have a "removed" stance — monks, nuns etc… It is very normal for people to choose one over the other and so it is perfectly reasonable, as far as I can tell for people to feel "torn" … raising children is HARD…because it is important. It's a reality and being a good loving parent doesn't negate feelings of overwhelm, desire for freedom and questioning about the correctness of the path.

  12. boulderwind says:

    I heard that Albert Einstein also was a terrible father…. and I also sometimes think that "spiritual" people can be the worst parents and the biggest narcissists. I once knew a guy who was in a "spiritual" community who abandoned his wife and children to go follow the guru. He just cut off all relations with them. I could never really respect him. I think that parenting and really being on the selfless journey to raise them properly is way more spiritual than going off and becoming a narcissistic navel gazer…. but truthfully, once you have kids your meditation practice often goes to hell….

  13. NotSoSure says:

    As stated in earlier posts I think it can be problematic to deconstruct ancient stories using our modern viewpoint. Deadbeat dad is a modern concept. Leaving family for extended periods of time was much more common in the ancient world that today. Often, soldiers joined the army for 15 to 20 years back in the day. Spiritual seekers often "abandoned" their families without the social stigma such an action would encounter today.

    Another issue is how close are the legends to Siddhartha's life. Please correct me if I am wrong but I am unaware of Buddha leaving any writings. Is it possible that Siddhartha really named his son Bob and Bob's name was changed as the legends and religion grew?

  14. matt helmick says:

    As a parent I love the message of this article and I like to think that part of Buddha’s awakening was realizing his own mistakes and unnecessary asceticism on his way to discovering his path.

  15. dan says:

    “Never tell a lie. Anyone who can tell you the slightest of lies is also capable of any evil. We’ve seen this repeatedly in the financial world.”
    Lol. The financial world (the one we have now) is predicated if not on lies, certainly partial truths.
    Did Siddhartha choose his wife, and then leave her and their child to bootstrap themselves? No and no. Siddhartha was a great father, he found the end of suffering. Buddhahood I don’t think is in realm that it could appropriate the parenthood paradigm as we have it. What Siddhartha “achieved” is beyond our attachments, our tethers.

  16. JamesAltucher says:

    I don't know. does a good father leaev his family on THE SAME DAY his son is born?

  17. […] fear, anger, anguish and suffering help keep life real. Jesus rampaged through a temple while the Buddha walked out on his wife the day after she gave birth to his son, but we all know what happens in the end of […]

  18. helen says:

    As a commentator says, don't mix up hagiography with history. he came from a community where people died prematurely all the time, his rich and important family took care of his wife and child without a blink, his wife became the wife of his.brother. he left knowing all those traditional mechanisms would fall into place.
    Are you trying to expunge some guilt here?

  19. Jan says:

    Boulderwind: I initially felt that too. but if you make every moment of your life a living meditation, it is less likely to happen.

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