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.