It’s part of the Buddha’s life story.
It could easily be skipped over when the story is told, but it usually isn’t. Before he was the Buddha, Siddhartha was a prince. He didn’t even start his spiritual journey until the age of 29. He was married to a woman named Yasodhara, which makes sense given his status and the culture of the time.
It would have been a conspicuous story if he was not married before his spiritual journey. He was married and shortly before he left the palace to start his spiritual journey, he had a son named Rahula. He left his wife and son behind to embark on the spiritual quest.
In the modern world, we sometimes struggle with this part of the story. His son was just born and he left. He didn’t know how long his spiritual journey would take but he left anyway. He felt a great desire to find the end of suffering and he thought that that was more important than his own desires and the needs of his family. He was gone for years.
Now, to be fair for a second, he didn’t leave his wife with a child to care for and no means to do it. When we think of deadbeat dads we think of children left with nothing. Rahula did still grow up in the palace of Siddhartha’s father and he almost certainly had all of his needs met…except that he didn’t know his father.
This is what we need to remember. This is a story. It’s a mythic narrative. Some of it is probably true and some of it isn’t. (Does anyone really believe the Buddha spoke the moment he was born?)
We also need to remember that there are two versions of the ideal Buddhist. One is the Arhat, who retreats from the world to pursue the spiritual journey. The other is the Bodhisattva, who lives in the world and does everything to help others while pursuing the spiritual journey.
The Arhat ideal basically says the best thing one can do is leave family life and become a monk. It’s the older ideal and one that the Buddha’s life story resonates with.
The Bodhisattva ideal hadn’t been conceived yet when this story was written.
The concept of Buddha nature is a more recent development within Buddhism. It’s the notion that we are all enlightened already, that it’s just something we have to uncover, not something to attain. If we believe in Buddha nature, then did Siddhartha have to leave his family? Could he have stayed with them? Could he have gone for the Bodhisattva ideal instead?
If enlightenment is within us, then what’s the difference between going away to a monastery and staying in the world?
I hope people don’t get too hung up on it.
It’s just a story.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise