Just about all versions of the Buddha’s biography tell us that the Bodhisatta—the future Buddha—made his great renunciation of the household life shortly after his wife gave birth to their first and only child, the boy Rahula. According to the classical story, he departed late at night on the very same day that his wife gave birth, slipping out of the palace undetected while everyone else was asleep. Many Western students of Buddhism find this action hard to empathize with; some even consider it a breach of duty, so contrary does it run to our own sense that a man is obliged to remain with his family at least until the children reach maturity. Yet, for traditional Asian Buddhists, part of the appeal of the Buddha’s life story rests on the resoluteness with which he heeded the call to the spiritual quest even when this demanded that he leave behind his wife and newborn son.
For Buddhist tradition, justification for this decision hinges on two presuppositions embedded deep within the Indian cultural view of the period: first, that one’s wife (or wives) and children are one’s personal assets (upadhi); and second, that one’s wife (or wives) and children are generally the personal assets to which one is most attached. For this reason, leaving them to embark on the spiritual quest becomes the most difficult act of renunciation a man can make, a true display of detachment and determination. One who can so act thereby testifies to the strength, sincerity and loftiness of his yearning for enlightenment, and thus to his right to attain buddhahood. Indeed, according to the Jatakas, the relinquishing of wife and children in previous lives is one of the “five great relinquishments” a bodhisatta must make to fulfill the perfection of giving (danaparami). The future Buddha Gotama fulfilled this requirement in his life as Prince Vessantara, who handed over his children and wife to a cruel brahmin. (The brahmin, it turned out, was the chief god Sakka, who assumed this guise to test Vessantara’s resolve and returned the family members after Vessantara passed the test.)
Apologists for Buddhism often say that the future Buddha could give up his wife and child because he was intent on finding the way to liberation for all the world, and thus that the universal good he sought took precedence over his private obligations to wife and children. This argument, however, is not supported by the most archaic texts, which do not explicitly highlight an altruistic motivation behind the Buddha’s embarking on his “noble quest.” These sources do not endorse the idea that the future Buddha left behind home and family in order to find the path to the Deathless for the whole world. As they depict his renunciation, his primary purpose was to find the way to release from old age, sickness and death for himself. It would thus not be legitimate to try to justify Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation by a principle of beneficence. This interpretation of the renunciation is more typical of later literature, when the figure of the Buddha was being glorified and his quest was given a more distinctly universal dimension.
But even if we grant to the Bodhisatta such an altruistic motive, we still run up against the somewhat discomfiting fact that after his enlightenment, as the Buddha, he encouraged others to give up their wives and children and take to the homeless life, a point illustrated by such archaic sources as the Suttanipata, the Dhammapada, and the Samyutta Nikaya (see e.g., Dhammapada 345–346). During the first phase of his ministry, householders even launched a protest against the Buddha, complaining that “the ascetic Gotama gets along by breaking up families,” by luring men away from their wives and children and ordaining them as monks (see The Book of the Discipline, I, pp. 56–57). It took some effort on his part to convince the people that he was acting in accordance with Dhamma. A well-known sutta in the Udana (I, 8) depicts a young monk sitting in meditation. His former wife comes to him with their young son and says, “Support me and our son, ascetic.” Three times she makes this appeal, but he does not even look up at her. Finally she gives up and walks away. The Buddha, who has been observing this, does not advise the young monk to disrobe and return to his family. Rather, he recites a verse praising the man’s unshaken equanimity.
Those who might find this side of early Buddhism disturbing should understand that the Buddha had the capacity to read deep into people’s minds and discern the maturity of their spiritual faculties and their potential for achieving liberation. When he encouraged others to go forth into homelessness, he generally recognized that such people had the capacity to attain final realization in the present life. From his perspective, a man faces two obligations—one towards his family and clan, the other towards himself—and the weightiest duty he has towards himself is to secure his permanent liberation from the suffering of repeated birth and death. The Buddha would probably not encourage a man to leave his family if its members were utterly dependent upon him for their living. In fact, the Buddha speaks eloquently and convincingly about the duties a husband should fulfill towards his wife and a father towards his children (see e.g., the Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya 31). Thus he does not encourage the husband-father to neglect the welfare of his family.
We should also remember that in ancient India almost all families were extended ones, integral parts of a larger clan, and thus, if a man left his wife and children, others in the clan would take over the task of providing for their needs. This was certainly the case with Prince Siddhartha’s own family, which belonged to the aristocratic Shakyan clan and thus would have been well looked after.
However much we might feel that a young son should have regular contact with his biological father—or with a surrogate father-figure in his immediate family—Indian tradition did not accept this as an absolutely binding obligation. Our own commitment to it, too, is not as unqualified as we might imagine. We would have no trouble accepting the decision a man might make at a time when his nation faces a genuine threat to its security to leave his family and join the armed forces, even when by doing so he might risk death, thereby orphaning his children and widowing his wife. Most people would regard this as an act of courage and self-sacrifice. So why then should we feel such a decision is unwarranted when a person seeks to gain full enlightenment and unshakable liberation—an achievement that would bring vast merit to his family if they accepted his decision with love and trust?
In our efforts to understand Prince Siddhartha’s decision, it becomes clear from the suttas that the Buddha regards one’s obligation to one’s highest spiritual destiny, that is, to win release from the bonds of samsara, as more compelling than one’s obligation to one’s mundane parental and marital commitments when pursuing such a goal does not cause one’s family members harm. Nevertheless, it is very rare in Asian Buddhist countries today to find a young man who would leave his wife and children to become a monk. The general ordinance, implicitly accepted by just about everyone, is that a family man must wait until his children have grown up and become independent before he can leave the home life to become a monk. The same, of course, applies to a mother who wishes to become a nun.
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