Saturday, September 5, 2009

How could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

Mason Brown
Professor Jobson
Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A
“Life of the Buddha”
How Could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

I have heard the story of the Buddha's life from childhood. I have always been inspired by the uplifting sense of hope it contained; by the possibility of actually ending human suffering. I was also fascinated by the details: the miraculous events at his birth and the predictions of the court seer; the almost immediate death of his mother; the attempts of his father to shelter him and prevent his singular karma coming to fruition; his escape from a life of pleasure and leisure to intentionally practice the most extreme asceticism; his abandonment of austerities and discovery of the “middle way”and, of course, his enlightenment and subsequent teaching career. This story always made perfect sense to me. I suppose stories we learn in religious contexts as children often go unquestioned. So I was taken aback years later, after I was an ordained priest and had been a serious practitioner of Buddhism for decades, by a question put to me by my brother-in-law, John: “how could the Buddha have abandoned his son?”

I have to admit, I never considered this question before. It seemed obvious to me that the Buddha had “bigger fish to fry”, but I could hear the pain in John's voice and sense that he had felt abandoned himself, and that what I had taken for granted was not obvious to him. John had been raised in some form of traditional Christianity. I can't remember which one, but When he asked me this question he had just finished his first intensive meditation retreat and, in the context of that, had been told the Buddha's story. This one detail had become a sticking point for him and, though he appreciated the value of the sitting, he had trouble getting past it. “Why should I follow the teachings of someone who would do that to his own son?” he asked me.

Though I tried to articulate some kind of response, I was at a loss and I don't think my answer helped him. I know it didn't satisfy me and I still think about it some ten years later.

When the Future Buddha was informed of the birth of his son, he said: “An impediment [rāhula] has been born; a fetter has been born”(28). The Buddha knew that the attachment of a parent for his child is one of the strongest attachments we develop as human beings. He seems immediately to have instinctively distanced himself from his son in order to avoid such attachment. When he heard that “...the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana”(28), the Buddha asked himself “...wherein does Nirvana consist?”(28).
The answer came to him that:

“When the fire of lust is extinct, that is Nirvana; when the fires of hatred and infatuation are extinct, that is Nirvana; when pride, false belief, and all other passions and torments are extinct, that is Nirvana...Certainly, Nirvana is what I am looking for. It behooves me this very day to quit the household life, and to retire from the world in quest of Nirvana.”(28)

The Buddha understood that the problem of human suffering was greater than any one person; any one relationship; any one lifetime. He knew that, even if he raised his son with loving and constant attention, as he himself had been raised, that in the end, his son would be subject to suffering, sickness, old age and death. He realized that a way had to be found to end suffering once and for all, and not just for himself, his son and his family, but for all beings.

Still, he seems to have hesitated. He went to take “just one look”(30) at his son. When he saw the beautiful sight of his son and wife asleep together he gazed at them for a moment and said:

“If I were to raise my wife's hand from off the child's head, and take him up, she would awake, and thus prevent my departure. I will first become a Buddha, and then come back and see my son.” So saying, he descended from the palace.(30)

So it seems clear to me that the Buddha did not “abandon” his son, but that the problem he was trying to solve was so big, and the solution to it was so important, that he felt he had to leave his wife and son, who he knew would be well and extravagantly cared for, in order to accomplish his purpose. He did, in fact, return to see his family after his enlightenment, and many of them, including his son, became the Buddha's disciples.

Though I think I have answered John's question to my own satisfaction, I know that it is an imperfect answer in terms of relieving the deep suffering caused by abandonment. But as the Buddha observed, Life is suffering. The only further help I can give, other than my willingness to be in that suffering with him, is to quote the Buddha's final teaching:

“And now, O priests, I take my leave of you; all the constituents of being are transitory; work out your salvation with diligence.”(45)

Work Cited
Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha. New York: Doubleday, 1968.


  1. I just don't get it. I read about Buddha's story this morning, and I can't see anything other than that he was a selfish man, who put his own desires before that of his father, wife and son, not to mention the land that he was meant to rule. He was able to abandon all his responsibilites because he'd had a father who hadn't abandoned him, and who raised him while he was a helpless baby. He was also able to abandon his wife and son only because he believed that SHE wouldn't abandon her son like he did, but would go on to look after him till he could do it himself. What kind of example was he setting really?? To go off on a selfish journey, begging off other people who didn't have the selfishness to abandon their own livings....what would happen if all the farmers decided to follow Buddha's example? Or the shepherds? Or mothers? Where would the world be then? To me, the point of life is to LIVE it, and there's freedom and incredible love in paradoxically taking complete responsibility for those you love and the world around you. Yes there's suffering, but when you're brave enough to experience ALL your feelings, there's also bliss, and the two go hand in hand. The idea of Nirvana to me seems desolate, empty, and devoid of all life and love. I don't see it as any solution or end of suffering for the world at all.... And even at the end he hadn't come up with any grand solution, he just told people to go find thier own. If he'd been a poor man, or a mother, or any other person than a 'prince', I can almost guarantee that he wouldn't be a 'Buddha' now, he'd just be considered a selfish bastard. He only had the luxury to give it all up, because there were so many other people around him who loved deeply enough to pick up what he'd thrown down, and to feed him while he begged.

    I really don't mean to offend you, but this is a new found realisation for me and I'm feeling rather strongly about it. I don't see the Buddha as anyone to emulate. I'd have to say that even though my spirituality is a blend of Quantum Physics and Paganism, I reckon that Jesus and Mohammed were more loving and acknowledging of their interconnection to the rest of life than Buddha. But they had their shortcomings too - Jesus said that if you didn't hate your mother and father etc etc you couldn't get to heaven. A lot of these male 'prophets' seem to find it easy to come to conclusions given the self sacrificing love of their mothers and the other people that help them to survive. Not saying that mothers are perfect either, but I personally think the image of a mother goddess who loves and nurtures all is a helluva lot more comforting than a buddha who abandons his family, and strives to attain nothingness.

    I'm sure you have a different view on all of this, and probably some reasons as to why I'm wrong, and I'd be more than happy to open a conversation with you if you feel so inclined....

    1. "I just don't get it. I read about Buddha's story this morning, and I can't see anything other than that he was a selfish man, who put his own desires before that of his father, wife and son, not to mention the land that he was meant to rule."

      Considering his father lied to him, telling him the world was a nice place where nothing bad ever happens, then he learned the truth, I don't really blame him. Besides, he went to save both himself and his family. He couldn't stand to know that they would one day grow old, suffer, and die. If he didn't care, he would have never returned to them.

      "To go off on a selfish journey, begging off other people who didn't have the selfishness to abandon their own livings...."

      The reasons ascetics and monks went begging was because they didn't grow their own food. They were supposed to spend most of their time finding enlightenment. Besides, admitting we need help is a humbling experience. It probably helped the ascetics and monks from growing an ego.

      "The idea of Nirvana to me seems desolate, empty, and devoid of all life and love."

      That's you then. Don't become enlightened.

      "If he'd been a poor man, or a mother, or any other person than a 'prince', I can almost guarantee that he wouldn't be a 'Buddha' now, he'd just be considered a selfish bastard."

      I doubt that.

      "I reckon that Jesus and Mohammed were more loving and acknowledging of their interconnection to the rest of life than Buddha."

      How so? Muhammad was a basket case who couldn't decide whether you were supposed to kill the infidel or feel compassion for him. Jesus just taught a bunch of parables and claimed to be the Only Son of God.

      "Not saying that mothers are perfect either, but I personally think the image of a mother goddess who loves and nurtures all is a helluva lot more comforting than a buddha who abandons his family, and strives to attain nothingness."

      *facepalm slap.*

      "I'm sure you have a different view on all of this, and probably some reasons as to why I'm wrong, and I'd be more than happy to open a conversation with you if you feel so inclined...."

      I agree. I respect your opinion, but I feel your concept of Nirvana and Buddhahood is flawed.

  2. One probably needs to understand that if one were rich in the past, the parents generally have very little child rearing to do.

    The idea of enjoying your children and having your children enjoying the parents is just as foreign to our parents, who talk about "children are best seen and not heard".

    In response to your brother-in-law's question, young Siddharta was in no doubt his son's needs and education was already well provided for. Until his burning questions were answered, he had little to contribute to his son's development.

  3. Chui Tey's response is the most sensical I have found yet.
    However, "abandonment" still resonates in this story for me.
    As this culture is indeed foreign to me, I am curious how his wife responded/felt about him leaving.

  4. I don't know Chui Tey, I can't help but think you're being rather shallow on this matter. Are physical needs the only ones a child has? You say Siddharta had little to contribute to his son's development until his burning questions were answered.....what about just being there? As one of the genetic parents from which the child inherited his personality, characteristics, physicality...don't you think children know who their parents are and feel kinship with them, and like to watch and observe them to learn how to be in the world?

    And Jill, from the accounts I've read, his wife and father felt betrayed and wounded by his leaving, and when he came back they asked him if he'd learnt out there what he couldn't have learnt at home. To which he replied that he hadn't, but that he needed to drop his personality. Fortunate for him that he had the luxury to do so for a start, but also, could it not have been a greater challenge to learn what he learnt whilst still being at home and being engaged with his loved ones who loved him?

    Me and my partner want to write a book about the Buddha who stayed at home, and learnt everything he learnt in the world as a vagrant, by staying home and loving his partner and children as equals......

  5. @Hellana, please study what the Buddha teaches before you condemn him with your unkind words. However, even if the Buddha were to hear what you said about him, his heart would still be at peace, it wouldn't have bothered him a bit. Why? Because he understood the nature of the Universe and he would understand that your perceptions are clouded by ignorance.

    Nirvana is not nothingness. When NIrvana is achieved, one breaks away from the cycle of life and death, or being reborn in the 6 realms. Because humans are ignorant of the truth about themselves or the Universe, they can't see reality. They think reality is what they see around them. Scientists today are just beginning to prove what the Buddha had taught 3500 years ago. However, scientists today will never discover the truth about the Universe because they too are clouded by ignorance. With ignorance, they will never have the wisdom to understand the truth, unless they give up everything and try to attain Nirvana themselves.

    If the Buddha were a selfish man, he wouldn't have searched so hard to find a way to end suffering for all beings. And he wouldn't have spent 39 years of his life teaching for free after he attained Enlightenment. It's because his love for all sentient beings was so great that he wanted all to see the truth of the Universe.

    If you have a teacher today who is so willing to help you find a way to end your own suffering, would you say such ungrateful words to him? Maybe you would since you are so lost in your own "reality" of life.


  6. Correction, the Buddha taught for 49 years instead of 39 years.

    Amituofo _/\_

  7. Have anyone of you considered the opinion of the Buddha's family members themselves?

    Actually, the Buddha did not abandon his son and wife forever. If you look in the suttas, the Buddha came back and visit both of them 7 years later after he found his answer(in the Buddhist context).

    And did they rebuke him? No. In fact, years later, the Buddha's son made the following utterance :

    "I am called Rahula the lucky because I am both the Buddha’s son, and because I have seen the truth”

    What about his father and wife? Both of them achieved the highest form of spiritual happiness possible(in the Buddhist context)! Thus they were ultimately grateful and happy for the Buddha's renunciation in retrospect.

    To put things in perspective(my perspective actually, which of course may be flawed and jaundiced), the Buddha is like a lone man in he vast universe realising that there is somthing wrong with us and himself. He(at that point in time) is like the only insane man who realises that he is insane. Therefore, he realises he has to seek treatment. My question is, is seeking medical treatment for a medical condition a selfish act? If yes, then perhaps the Buddha is selfish(Pls avoid delving into an intense philosophical debate over the nature of selfishness)

    But the problem is, the his family are like insane people who sees nothing wrong with themsleves. As such, the Buddha is faced with two choices:

    1)Continuing living an insane life with his family while feeling depressed and all.
    2)he go seek medical treatment for his illness and come back and heal his family members.

    The former leads to short term happiness but long term suffering, while the latter leads to long term happiness but short term suffering. The Buddha chosed the latter. Was it a right choice? Its up to you to decide.

    But what matter most? Our opinion or the opinion of Buddha's wife and son (which is suprisingly, positive!)?

    * A similar story would be John Bunyan's masterpiece, 'the pilgrim's progress' where the protagonist abandoned his family to seek God and thus was in a better position to save his wife and children.

  8. Wow HappyMe. For a Buddhist you sound a bit harsh in your judgment toward Hellana. She never claimed to be an expert on Buddhism, and was looking for an open dialogue. Obviously this is an issue for many because we are commenting on an article written on the topic. Do not ever say that the Buddha would have thought anyone ignorant. That just makes you appear ignorant. For many people, the abandonment issue is a tough hurdle to climb toward accepting Buddha's teachings. Your judgmental response may very well have driven away someone who could have benefitted greatly from his teachings. Way to go. You are CLEARLY as enlightened as the Buddha himself.

  9. @Kok Chun Hong: Thank you very much for your thoughtful and well reasoned explanation. This particular point has been difficult to reconcile with what I have read of the Buddha and his teachings.

    This clarifies things immensely. I appreciate you taking the time to do so peacefully and without judgment. The concept of parental abandonment is more than just a theological debating point for some, as it can be quite personal and painful indeed. Your gracious approach and respect for people's honest questions is genuinely admirable.

  10. Poor Buddha. Born as a human being with the body of an animal. What a shame. He's much better off now. News flash: the world kicks all our asses eventually. Some of us just prefer to drop our drawers, face the reality, and say, here I am, come and get me. Passivity is admirable until somebody like Hitler or Bin Laden shows up with a bomb or a sword. If we were all Buddhas, we'd all be speaking either German or some dialect from the Middle East. And we wouldn't be sitting under a Bodhi tree, contemplating our navel. We'd be subservient to some fanatical crackpot. You can trust me on that. Maybe we should have stayed in the trees. Ya think?

    1. I would like to offer an alternative perspective on the supposed "passivity" of the Buddha.

      The Buddha was in no way a passive person. This is clearly demonstrated in his teachings, his attitude and his various encounters with the "world". During his struggle for enlightenment, he made the following utterances:"Shame on life! I would rather die in battle than live on as a vanquished one!" In order to achieve what he value most (enlightenment), he attempted all kinds of ascetic practices (though he realised that these were futile in retrospect). Assuming that the suttas were accurate, it was reported that the Buddha slept no more than 1 hour a day, so that he could resume his teaching duties. All these clearly demonstrated that the Buddha as an individual is not at all passive. In fact, he displayed tremendous energy in both his pursuit of enlightenment as well as the disemmination of the teachings.

      Also, the Buddha repeatedly emphasised the importance of the faculty of "energy" in his teachings. Take for instance, in the dhammapada the Buddha uttered:"By sustained effort, earnestness, discipline and self-control, let the wise man make for himself an island, which no flood overwhelms." Also in the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha exhorted his disciples: "Arise! Sit Up! Train yourself resolutely to attain Peace." It is extremely clear that the Buddha's teachings is rather "energetic".

      However, the difference between how the World uses its' "energy" and the Buddha (and his followers) is the direction of it. The world directs its energy outwards while the Buddha chosed to direct it inwards. Both are equally non-passive. As such, one cannot simply label the Buddhist way as being passive simply because it decided to direct its energy on different things.

      I believe that your allegations of the Buddha primarily arise from your disagreement with the doctrine of non-violence. You seem to assume that non-violence equates to passivity. This is based on the belief that violence is the only option to solving problems. The Buddha is much more resourceful than that. Non-violence simply means one less option to solving problems, albeit a commonly used one.

  11. All -

    I do realize that this thread is now somewhat old, but I am none-the-less compelled to respond in a spirit of awe at the many, yet varied, responses to the Buddha's way of life.

    What is "just" and "right" looks differently from each person's perspective, so might I add that each person's distinction has merit and must be interpreted in the context of each individual's experience? Let us not confuse the "form" of what is "right" and "just", with the "substance" of what is "right" and "just".

    Some contrasted and comparative examples are as follows: A) Leave family to attain nirvana and thereby be able to ultimately help family; B) Stay with family and seemingly never experience nirvana but none-the-less care for them in the short-term by tending to natural needs; (changing context) C) Adopt a passive stance against violence such that one never engages in any outward form of combat; D) Adopt an aggressive stance against violence such that one always engages in an outward form of combat to supress and resist the violence. Each of these examples reflect diametrically opposing viewpoints yet in each one the person is doing what he or she believes is right. We must understand this phenomenon as we reflect upon the human condition and seek to relate to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

    A person may do what is right, yet have a form completely different than another.

  12. A lot of anger all round! I think Hellena has made very important observations, much more honest than most. WHilst I think the Buddha's story, essentially as a parable, is very powerful, it is true that Buddhism is mysogynistic, like all the great world religions. One reading of the Buddha is that he was a narcissist - if we take the story literally. In fact, I think the truth is more than we have to start with the story and make of it what we will, at a heart level, not a head level.

  13. @livingwordsforever

    I'm in absolute awe of your post. That is the most balanced and well-written answer I have ever read in my life.

    Thank you.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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