Was the Buddha a Deadbeat Dad?

Via Daniel Scharpenburg
on Nov 8, 2013
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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?

Why not?

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


About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City with two kids and two cats. He teaches classes in Buddhist studies at the Rime Buddhist Center, where he's starting a Zen meditation group in the near future. He's studied with a wide variety of different Buddhist teachers and is a dedicated follower of the Zen tradition. He received personal instruction from Shi Da Dao, in the Caodong (Soto) tradition, and he has served as jisha (personal attendant) to Karen Maezen Miller on a Zen retreat. He's the writer of Notes from a Buddhist Mystic Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook and  Twitter.


10 Responses to “Was the Buddha a Deadbeat Dad?”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for sharing Daniel,

    As a Zen priest and family man with a wife and 2 wonderful kids, I too struggled with this aspect of the Buddha’s life. It is not a message for everyone’s life and I most certainly don’t think people should leave their families in general to pursue a “spiritual” life, of course there are always extremes. Yet , in one sense, since the Buudha found The Path, we can all benefit from his wisdom and guidance without without leaving our families or the world and torturing ourselves as aesthetics. That is the peace I came to in regards to this story. It still must have caused much pain to his wife and son as he grew up at times I’m sure. Eventually he returns home and teaches his own family and Rahula even joins the Sangha as a monastic.

    If you want a story/myth that explains and gives a reason to lessen the blow of the Buddha leaving his family, read Chapter 36, titled “Lotus Vow,” of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing narative biography of the Buddha’s life, “Old Paths, White Clouds.” This book to me is one of my all-time favorites and hands down the best bio of the buddha’s life and I have read many. It reads like a movie, a real page turner and you feel like you were there. It truly moved me in many places. Basically, the Lotus Vow was a vow taken by the Buddha and his wife in a past life many lives before he became the historical Buddha and it basically said that their love was so strong that his wife would love and support him in multiple lives and eventually even let him completely go when the time was right. Real or myth? Don’t know. Yet, nice story where at least someone put some thought into it, knowing this would be seen as irresponsible and unloving/not compassionate action on the Buddha’s part. This story came from the sutras, not the author, just FYI.

  2. nutsalive says:

    The beauty of the Buddha story, in my opinion,is that the Buddha was a human being. He made mistakes and hard decisions, just like every other human being in the history of humans.He lived a life of extreme luxury and extreme poverty, and ultimately became a being who realized his own divinity on that perilous journey.It is difficult not to have compassion for the young Siddharta, whose thirst for ending the suffering of all beings led him to leave all that he loved and suffer for many years until he finally found his answers. The Buddha was Arhat and Bodhissatva. Had he not left his world behind, he would not have realized his own divinity. Both paths lead to the same end, and they are likely not the only two. We can walk in the direction that the Buddha points, but we do not need to sit under the same Boddhi tree to become unbound.Indeed, I believe he would encourage us to find our own.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    The Buddha was well aware that though we pray for all beings…those same beings have different acumen and needs. That the "story", as you put it, rings true for those who want to limit the Buddha's activity which is an also valid view. But it is also valid that on Vulture Peak he taught to the Mahayana sangha the Prajnaparamita Sutra. To King Indrabhuti he taught the Vajrayana, which is a bodhisattva imbued practice as are all Vajrayana, in the form of Ghuyasamvajra Tantra. If your statements, to which I disagree, regarding "the Buddha never taught Buddha Nature" or "the bodhisattva or bodhicitta is a recent creation" are your interpretation from your particular school of buddhism then please site the school. You make controversy where there needs not be, i.e., the "deadbeat dad" thing with no references.. When you do not site reference for the above statements or qualify them as particular doctrine then it comes off as your historical version and a little passive aggressive.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    nuts alive…your statement that the path of an Arhat and the Bodhisattva "lead to the same end" is just not true. An Arhat's enlightenment is not without karmic residue because they aspire to liberate only themselves. The bodhisattva vows to attain enlightenment only when all beings before them attain supreme enlightenment and that enlightenment is complete liberation without stain. This can be referenced in Kunzang Lamai Zhalung, or The Words of My Perfect Teacher, a commentary on Longchen Nyintik Ngondro written by Dza Patrul Rinpoche. This of course is not the only reference. There are bhumis of realization and then there are stainless complete realizations. Also the bodhisattva path inherent in Vajrayana is known as the quick path.

  5. danielschar says:

    I hold a historical view and not a mythic one.

    Is it possible that the Buddha gave some of his teachings to snake men to deliver to humanity later, at the proper time?
    I guess so, but I prefer a skeptical view based on historical sources to a mythic view.

    It seems more likely to me that the creators of these teachings had a view that for a Buddhist teaching to be valid it had to come from the Buddha himself, so they created a narrative that tied back to him. I don't agree with that view.

    And I think one of the important things about Buddhism is that it welcomes common sense. Buddhist teachings don't necessarily expect us to accept them blindly or turn off our rational minds.

    Does it matter? I think it does. We live in the modern world and rational people that could benefit from Buddhism could be turned off by stories about snake people, couldn't they?

  6. saddha123 says:

    Buddha was a dead beat dad? He was THE best dad that ever lived! That’s like asking since fathers leave their children for war, are soldiers dead beat dads?

    Buddha fought a war against death and won and came back to teach the world and his wife and son to beat death and suffering.

    YOU and all nonBuddhist parents lazily enjoying their time with their kids while they are aging and in the hands of death are the true dead beat parents. I would rather have Lord Buddha as a father any day!

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    The teachings of the Buddha are not accepted by everyone. They are not exclusive though. An individual can find authentic buddhist teaching if they choose to. It is not required to convince others nor is it imperative to explain teachings to those who are not serious about dharma. There is nothing mythic about the Prajnaparamita Sutra nor, for that matter, the entire collections of Kangyur and Tengyur. I appreciate skepticism whole heartedly. In your bio you state you practice Vajrayana. How do you reconcile bodhicitta and refuge and the practicing of the three samadhi without faith and devotion in something other than a story or your corporeal self? Would not vajrayana come under your historical linear scrutiny.? Finally, rational people "that could benefit from Buddhism could be turned off" is fine. America is doing it's best to change buddhism to be more accessible to the western mind…how can that happen if those who allegedly are doing the "changing" do not understand it?

  8. @errantabbot says:

    Look folks, to try to analyze a story, be it myth, fact or somewhere in-between that has been propagated for at least 2000 years outside of our own culture, and only recently (within a hundred years or so) translated and introduced for study through the lens of our own cultural karma and personal paradigms is folly.

    The concept of a "deadbeat dad" is a uniquely western phenomenon, and with such terminology, a fairly modern one at that. Indian culture and thus culturally bound spirituality is VERY different from our own- in fact even in current day Indian men have VERY little to do with the rearing of their children, which is almost entirely the purview of mothers and grand mothers. In fact, in Vedic spirituality, the concept of family as we see it is non-existent. The highest calling for a male would be to become a spiritual seeker, in the Indian varna or caste system Brahmin or Priests are the highest rank, above even warriors and kings (Kshatriya).

    In the scriptures of sanatana dharma (Hinduism) there is a system described in the varnashram wherein a couple are married and have children, and from then on the husband and wife progressively and purposefully work to detach from one another more and more so that the husband may do nothing less than completely leave the family life and become a mendicant (sanyassi) who completely dedicates his life to practicing austerity and traveling to teach the dharma, whilst the wife stays behind to help her own children (daughter) raise her children.

    All is not as it seems- we have to step out of our own way and stop trying to interpret everything we find in other cultures through the lens of our own, as if in fact it was non-different. And that's not to say that we don't examine something and note, that hey yes, that is how it is in another culture and is not a problem for them and yet a direct transplant may not be compatible with our own culture, time and place.

  9. @errantabbot says:

    The distinction between Arhat and Bodhisattva is not exactly correct- when the concept of a Bodhisattva arose, it was literally as one who put off final enlightenment (nirvana) and the escape from samsara (rebirth) in particular to be consistently reborn into this world to help all people attain to Buddhahood (by means of an arousing of bodhichitta) and then escaping him/herself. The concept of a Bodhisattva did not imply, or indeed have anything at all to do with one being householder, at all.

    In our common vernacular today, we relate to having “Bodhisattva action” etc. which basically means self-less action, or action that puts the needs of others completely ahead of our own, as all action of a true Bodhisattva would be, but that is ALOT to live up to, that I doubt any of us (me included) approach with even remote consistency.

    Bhikkhu Bodhi has taught (in summation from the Pali cannon) that Arhatship may be defined as the “attainment of nirvāṇa in this present life”, which is why it is written in mahayana literature that the purpose of our training is to “first wake up, and then instruct all beings (on the causes and conditions of awakening)”, therefore all Bodhisattva's are Arhats, and yet not all Arhats are Bodhisattva's. The paths are not distinct in the way that we in the west would like to think.

    I believe it's important that we consistently evaluate own presuppositions (and even at times, motivations) for how we translate, literally or figuratively, the teachings of Buddhadharma to support our support our views. In the west, the most common thing I see, that skews understanding of the original concepts is our notion that all training is equal whether it be in robes in Thailand or on our couches- we like equality for all things and people, which is not innately bad of course, but none-the-less, if a factor concerning why concepts like Buddha nature has been so obscured, in that we dont need training outside of our daily lives, because we're already enlightened. Of course the latter is ALSO true, but so few of us are anything close to being an Arhat, let alone a Bodhisattva.

    And further, the concept of Buddha Nature is not recent, it's an original teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni appearing Anguttara Nikaya (the fourth of five), in the sutra pitaka (sutra basket) of the Pali Cannon (tripitaka), where the concept appears as “prabhasvara chitta” or “luminous mind” (which always shining like the sun is only obstructed by passing clouds, which actually do not effect the sun or its shining). Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates the teaching from Pali as "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn't discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind. Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind."

  10. @errantabbot says:

    That final sentiment is soooo important!