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