A Buddhist Family: Redefining the Myth

Photo courtesy of cat gwynn © 2011

If you are browsing for dharma books in the religion section of your favorite bookstore, chances are that most books you pick up will begin with some version of the historical Buddha’s life story.  Usually the story will tell you how prince Siddhartha led a privileged life, protected by his father from the influence of the outside world until he had his three encounters with sickness, old age, and death.  The story continues with the decision of Siddhartha to leave his family to renounce the world until he can find an answer for the problem of suffering.  We are told that for seven years he struggles valiantly until he finally achieves liberation under the Bodhi tree.  Having become the Buddha, he sets the wheel of Dharma in motion, teaching for the rest of his life, and encouraging others to abandon their worldly concerns and enter into homelessness.

There is no doubt that the Buddha was a home wrecker.  Many who joined the Sangha did as the Noble One did with his example: leave their families behind.  The path of going into homelessness caused problems between wives and husbands, between parents and children.  The Buddha’s wife brought his young son before him and told Rahula to ask him for his inheritance.  I’m sure the single mothers of many a deadbeat dad delinquent on their child support can relate to this moment.  The Buddha himself recognized how the problem created suffering in the community and many rules in the Vinaya (the guidelines for Monks and Nuns) reflect his responses to these sticky domestic situations.

In many American import lay sanghas (especially amongst those who practice “Vipassana”), this model of homelessness and renunciation still appears to be the template for practice.  Partly due to the influence of IMS teachers who returned from Southeast Asia with a monastic model that they grafted onto American culture, practitioners often take long retreats, varying from 7 days to 3 months.  These retreats are conducted in noble silence, with no contact with the outside world.  Rates of marriage and childbirth are consistently lower amongst convert Buddhists than compared to the general population.  And although I haven’t seen any statistics on this issue, my own experience with Dharma teachers is that they tend to be single, or divorced.

Clearly there is a benefit to the practices that have been laid down in the Satipatthāna Sutta, the Vinaya, and in the many varied teachings of the Buddha and other teachers since.  I have the greatest respect for those who bravely enter into the Sangha of monks and nuns, and I am grateful for the support and fruits of their practice.  I know the value of retreat from experience.

But the question for me (especially being a married father) is, do we have to be single to practice, do we still have to follow this example of the Bhikkhu Buddha and abandon our families?  Can we as householders find practice beyond merit making and worship, which are the traditional practices of Buddhism for householders in many Asian countries as well as here in the U.S.?

I’m not sure how many of you reading this are in a relationship, but I can tell you that explaining to your spouse/partner that you need to go away for 10 days by yourself when you haven’t been on a honeymoon/vacation yet, and how it’s going to cost $1200 dollars, or however much plus Dana (what is the percentage tip on Dana anyway?), and how you won’t be available for conversation, so essentially any problems that arise will be the burden of your spouse/partner – this isn’t an easy conversation.  I don’t think this model works well for the health of relationships, and I don’t want my Buddhist practice to create more suffering.

I remember having to decline an opportunity to help lead a teen retreat at Spirit Rock over the New Year holiday.  I explained to the woman who invited me that it was the one-year anniversary of proposing to my wife.  Her response seemed appropriate to me, “Of course you can’t come, after all, isn’t that what we are doing all this practice for?”

Perhaps the model that we are following is the wrong one for us married / committed / parental householder types.  Perhaps that story at the beginning of all those dharma books is the wrong one for us.  I think it’s time for the myth to be retold.  Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, certainly has given us some reasons to take a look at the historical validity of the Buddha myth.

Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born into a large, loving family who had the means to support his development.  When his mother died of complications from childbirth, another of his father’s wives stepped in to help raise the boy.  As a member of the ruling warrior class, Siddhartha would have received vigorous training in weapons, hunting, and horseback riding that would have increased his stamina, strength and mental endurance.  His father, after all, did hope for him to become a great leader of men.  He would have also received a quality education.  To be a ruler requires the ability to administer, to read, and to think critically.  The qualities that allowed him to become, “the enlightened one,” physical endurance, mental clarity, and tenacity existed because of his upbringing.  Far from being a lone bull elephant, Siddhartha’s achievements were due to the support and connection to his family.  Even his entering into homelessness was due to the support of his family, or do you believe that the Noble One would have left his wife and infant son in poverty, alone and without protection?

Upon his awakening, the Buddha chose to return to the world, not to remain in the forest, not to slip into final nibbana.  In fact, he returned to his family.  The Buddha returned to the role of father, ordaining and teaching his son.  He also ordained his mother, who is the mythic/historic founder of the nuns sangha, and his wife.  Many of his clan entered into the Sangha, the men of the Sakya clan, and many of their abandoned wives who had nowhere else to turn for support did likewise.

It is doubtful that he would have found as many followers without his clan’s support network.  He wasn’t the only Śramana heterodox teacher on the scene after all.  Because of his connections and good table manners, he was able to teach to Kings, and the wealthy merchants who offered protection and large tracts of lands to the fledgling teacher.  These gifts of support were the Oprah Book Club of their day and because he was allowed the means to teach, we have today heard the Dharma of the historical Buddha.  However, had the Buddha ever truly abandoned his family, or had he been without family, I have doubts that “Buddhism” would even exist.

There is power in myth.  Storytelling teaches us on a level that is cellular, if not genetic.  So while I don’t always know how my practice as an American, married householder will continue to develop, I do know the power of a good tale.  Our mythology contains our view of the world, informs our intentions, and of course guides our actions.  If we are to find an “American” Buddhism, we may struggle when attempting to graft the mythology of another culture and time upon our own.  Perhaps it is time to embrace a different version of the story if we are to find our own way in the dharma of American family life.

Post by: Joseph Rogers.

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8 thoughts on “A Buddhist Family: Redefining the Myth

  1. Alan says:

    Excellent Joesph. Thank you for putting into words what I have felt for a long time. I’m sure the official story had a lot of power to the monastics of the time and now, but the story as you present it rings much truer. I also have struggled with imagining the Buddha disappearing in the middle of the night, leaving behind a mess for his family to sort through. As I read and study the Pali Canon I have gotten a feel for the Buddha as a human being and I never felt he abandoned his wife and child. The logic you have brought to this discussion (the importance of his family connections and backing to the success of Buddhism) is something had not thought through. And, would have his family trusted him enough to enter the monastic sangha if he had abandoned his family? Probably not.

  2. Alan says:

    P.S. Love your photo!

  3. Alan says:

    P.P.S., I also really doubt that he called his child fetter or impediment (Rāhula) but I’m afraid we will never know for sure.

  4. Betty says:

    From what I’ve read and learned the Buddha left instructions for laity to care for their family first and to follow the basic precepts. He didn’t want everyone to become monastic because that would have meant the end of the sangha. The monastics teach and guide the laity in leading wholesome lives and the laity support and aid the monastics in leading wholesome lives.
    Without one there can not be the other. Laity are meant to go forth, care for each other and be responsible members of the world. We are not all meant to drop everything and abandon our responsibilities to seek enlightenment. We need to seek it where we are now.
    I may advance slower and have to work harder at it because I don’t go on retreat any longer than a few days due to having a family, but I am still advancing and leading the most wholesome life I can.

  5. I converted to Buddhism after marrying and starting a family, and have wondered about many of the points you make. Does anyone know about any great books on raising a Buddhist family? I intend to raise my daughter with a free mind, with freedom to choose for herself. I feel I can answer questions about the Dharma satisfactorily, but would like to share some books on her level some day, when she asks.

  6. MettaPhoric says:

    I’ve been playing lately with a version of the myth that takes into account what we’ve learned about family, memory, “triggers” for reflection, and developmentally appropriate attachment (in our culture). Also, I keep in mind that the heroes of our stories don’t start out enlightened…they begin with as many issues, as much confusion, as we do.
    The son of a community leader, Siddhartha grew up “sheltered” and more than a little “spoiled.” Ever since he was born, people tried to make it up to him that his mother died shortly after his birth. He grew up hearing how fortunate he was that his mother’s sister was willing to marry his father and raise the son. No one told him that the constant, low-level ache he felt was normal – that by the time we are born we know our mothers’ voices and heartbeat – and they certainly never gave him time, space, permission to feel his grief.
    Now of course there is no way Siddhartha avoided seeing illness, aging and death in that community, but he learned it was not good manners to dwell on it. It made the grownups too uncomfortable to think of the loss of mother, wife, sister. Instead, they avoided exposing themselves – and him – to anything unpleasant that reminded them of the pain of their losses, and because they could afford distractions, they made use of them.
    So Siddhartha’s unacknowledged grief and loss was buried under distraction, until the birth of his son disturbed that sleeping bear. Seeing his son nurse from the same body that bore him, feeling a kind of love that would allow Siddhartha to lay down his selfish life, frightened Siddhartha and uncovered forgotten festering pain.
    Sid’s grief shifted from denial to anger. Having been indulged whenever possible, he had more than his fair share of entitlement and less than average tolerance for distress. Anger with his mother for leaving him, with his father and aunt for pretending that his mother was replaceable and not worthy of memory or acknowledgement, jealous of his son and worst of all, confused and guilty that he felt these things, he distanced himself from his own suffering heart by complaining about suffering in a general way, believing he felt for all of humanity when he couldn’t even feel for himself.
    He decided his problem was that he just cared too much. Spiritualizing this somewhat childlike response to grief, he set out to find freedom from suffering by finding freedom from connection to other human beings; in fact, he tried to find freedom from needing…period. He even tried going without food, his way of saying to life, “See? I don’t need anything from you.” His aesthetic practices sometimes gave him a buzz, but when the buzz wore off, his heart was still wounded and in need of healing.
    When it became clear that this adolescent approach to the problem of grief and loss was failing him, Siddhartha became open to the insights that led to his enlightenment. When his healing heart urged him to go back to those he loved – and to love others – by teaching them, his protective, defensive ego made one last effort to “protect” him from connection; but lucky for us, he answered the call and made the return, engaging with his family and all the people he loved from a standpoint of deep connection. He treated people as though they were worth loving, even with the grief involved. Finding his healing in grief, he no longer feared it, so he no longer had to fear love. The rest of his life was devoted to putting his practice to work in relationships, fortunately for us who would otherwise have never heard the story.
    I can’t help but wonder, if this were the version of the myth that had taken hold in our culture, would more meditation groups offer childcare?

  7. Bill M. says:

    Thanks for writing this. I liked this article very much, as well as the comments.
    As one poster noted above, I’ve been feeling the same way for a while. Another said the path to Enlightenment may be slower as a householder. I’m ok with that.
    I admire the monastics, and their dedication to the Buddhadharma. It’s not for me. I have joyful duties and responsibilities to my family. Perhaps, its a Western bias, this preference to life as a householder. I try to look at it this way- work, family, interpersonal relationships- these are all opportunities to practice. I’m grateful for them.

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