Was Buddha a Good Parent to His Son? Why Buddha Left His Son the Day He was Born?
by Gil Fronsdal
Most contemporary Buddhists know that Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, left his family in search of liberation on the day his son, Rahula, was born. Many have been perplexed, sometimes outraged, at such a seemingly irresponsible act. What is less well-known, though, is that after his awakening, the Buddha became his son’s primary parent for most of the boy’s childhood. From the time Rahula was seven, he was under the care of his father, who proved to be a remarkably effective parent: Rahula had reached full awakening by the time he reached adulthood. So we can ask, what kind of parent was the Buddha? What kind of parenting techniques did he use? How did an enlightened teacher convey his spiritual message to his own child? (What Lord Buddha Searched Leaving his Beloved Family Behind? )
The scriptures offer detail about the relationship between the Buddha and Rahula, but various hints provide a very interesting picture of how the teacher guided his son’s maturation. An earlier story describes how Rahula came to practice under his father, and most of these hints are contained in three discourses, which, when read together, follow the pattern of the three successive trainings forming the path to awakening: when Rahula was seven, the Buddha taught him about virtue; when he was a teen, the Buddha instructed him in meditation; and when he was twenty, the Buddha taught him liberating wisdom. Rahula’s gradual maturation to adulthood thus paralleled his progress along his father’s path to awakening.
When my older son turned seven, I began to wonder what kind of spiritual guidance I could offer him and his younger brother. At a minimum, I wanted them to learn enough about the practices and teachings of Buddhism so that as adults they could turn to these resources if they desired or needed to. I also thought it would be wonderful if they could feel at home in Buddhism so that no matter where they went in life, this home would always be available as a refuge. And finally, because the greatest wealth I know is the well-being, peace and compassion I have found through my Buddhist practice, I’ve often wondered how I can pass along these riches more broadly to the next generation as a kind of spiritual inheritance. Remembering that Rahula had entered his father’s care when he was seven, I searched through the Pali discourses to learn what I could about how the Buddha taught his son.
I found the question of how to leave a “spiritual legacy” beautifully addressed in the story about the way Rahula came to practice under his father. Six years after he left his family, and one year after his awakening, the Buddha returned to his hometown. Seven-year-old Rahula, on the urging of his mother, went to meet his father to ask for his inheritance. If Siddhartha had remained at home, Rahula would have been in line to inherit the throne. But as a renunciate living a life of poverty, what could the Buddha pass on? In response to Rahula’s request, the Buddha said to Sariputta, his right-hand monk, “Ordain him.” Rather than receiving the throne, Rahula inherited his father’s way of life, a life dedicated to liberation.
While it is unlikely that my son will shave his head and take robes anytime soon, I would still like to expose him to the basic Buddhist principles that have so deeply informed my own life. When I came across the three discourses where the Buddha teaches Rahula, I was surprised that the teachings seemed not only still fresh but also relevant to raising a child in modern America. In fact, these discourses have now become a guide for me as a parent.
The first story illustrates how Rahula was taught to live a life of integrity. The sutta called The Discourse of Advice Given to Rahula at Mango Stone (Middle Length Discourse 61) tells how the Buddha dealt with this. Having first meditated, the Buddha went to his son. Rahula prepared a seat for him and, as was the custom, put out a bowl of water so the Buddha could rinse his feet. After his father cleaned his feet, a little water was left in the bowl. The Buddha asked, “Rahula, do you see the small quantity of water left in the bowl?”
“Yes, My Lord” replied Rahula.
“As little as this,” the Buddha said, “is the spiritual life of someone who is not ashamed at telling a deliberate lie.”
I imagine Rahula taking a deep gulp upon hearing this.
The Buddha then threw out the remaining water and said, “Thrown away like this is the spiritual life of someone who is not ashamed at telling a deliberate lie.”
The Buddha then turned the bowl upside down and said, “Turned upside down like this is the spiritual life of someone who is not ashamed at telling a deliberate lie.”
And to drive the point home, the Buddha then turned the bowl back upright and said, “As empty as this bowl is the spiritual life of someone who is not ashamed at telling a deliberate lie.”
He then taught his son, “When someone is not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie, there is no evil that he or she would not do. Therefore, Rahula, train yourself to not utter a falsehood even as a joke.”
This part of the story reminds me that there is force but no inner strength behind angry castigation of children. Calmly, when he thought the time was right, the Buddha made his point without punishment or anger.
After this brief but sharp admonishment of lying, I imagine the Buddha had his son’s attention. He then instructed his son to become more reflective about all his behavior. The Buddha asked, “What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, My Lord” replied young Rahula.
The following paraphrase conveys what the Buddha said next:
Whenever engaging in a physical, verbal or mental activity, you should reflect, will this activity bring harm to myself or to others? If, on reflecting, you realize it will bring harm, then such activity is unfit for you to do. If you realize that it will bring benefit to you or to others, then it is something fit for you to do.
It strikes me as key that instead of teaching his son to recognize absolute notions of right and wrong, the Buddha was teaching him to reflect on harm and benefit; this requires both self-awareness and empathy. Grounding moral decisions in what is harmful or beneficial helps protect our ethical life from being guided by abstract and external ideals unrelated to the effects of our behavior. Harm and benefit are also related to a person’s sense of purpose. Things we do can either detract from or support the direction in which we want to go.
This teaching reinforces my belief in the importance of cultivating a child’s capacity for empathy and an understanding of how his or her actions impact others. The powers of reflection and compassion do not come only from being told to be reflective or compassionate. They come from seeing these qualities modeled in others, particularly one’s parents.
The Buddha also told Rahula to notice after doing something whether or not it caused harm. If harm resulted from something Rahula did, he was to find a wise person to confess this to as part of a strategy to do better in the future. From this I have learned the importance of helping a child develop the integrity to admit mistakes. And such integrity depends a lot on how a child’s mistakes are received by his or her parents. Again, the parents’ ways of being and acting in the world are crucial to how a child’s virtue grows: if the parent is someone who can be trusted and who is more interested in helping the child grow than in punishing the child, then the young person is more likely to be honest.
The second story shows how the Buddha began teaching meditation to Rahula as a way to develop a foundation of inner well-being (Middle Length Discourse 62). This story takes place when Rahula is a young teen. It starts as he sets out with his father on their morning almsrounds. Rahula was having conceited thoughts about his good looks, which he shared with his father.
Noticing his son’s preoccupation, the Buddha said, “When seen with wisdom, the physical body should not be viewed as me, myself or mine.” In fact, the Buddha continued, one shouldn’t see any feeling, perception, mental activity or consciousness through concepts of me, myself or mine. Hearing this, Rahula felt admonished and returned to the monastery without collecting food for the day.
I take this to be a radical teaching for a young teenager. I can’t imagine that as a teen I could have understood what the Buddha was talking about. However, I remember all too well how, at that age, I was preoccupied with my personal appearance. I have often heard this justified in teens as part of the important developmental process of individuating, of finding themselves. Is it appropriate to admonish a fourteen-year-old for feelings of vanity? Was the Buddha interfering with normal developmental issues that teens should negotiate alone? Without developing a strong sense of self, how can a young person grow into a psychologically healthy adult? What kind of self-concern does a teen need in order to mature?
The Buddha’s answer to these questions is seen in what he next did for his son.
The evening after he was admonished, Rahula went to his father and asked for instruction in breath meditation. The Buddha first used analogies to illustrate how to have equanimity during meditation. He said,
Develop meditation that is like the earth: as the earth is not troubled by agreeable or disagreeable things it comes into contact with, so if you meditate like the earth, agreeable and disagreeable experiences will not trouble you. Develop meditation like water, like fire, like air and like space: as all of these are not troubled by agreeable or disagreeable things they come into contact with, so if you meditate like water, fire, air or space, agreeable and disagreeable experiences will not trouble you.
Then, before actually teaching him breath meditation, the Buddha told his son to meditate on lovingkindness as an antidote to ill-will, on compassion to overcome cruelty, on sympathetic joy to master discontent, and on equanimity to subdue aversion.
Only then did the Buddha teach breath meditation in its classic formulation of sixteen stages. These stages go through phases of calming the body and mind, cultivating strong states of well-being and insight, and letting go. And then, as a powerful punctuation to his teaching to Rahula, the Buddha concluded by stating that if mindfulness of breathing is developed, a person will have the ability to be calmly mindful of his last breath.
As I read about the Buddha’s teaching his son breath meditation to cultivate strong states of inner well-being, I saw how this is an alternative to building a rigid conception of “self.” I wonder how much of modern teenage attempts at self-building and differentiation are fueled by their being ill at ease with themselves and with others. I assume that the process would be very different if based on a sense of being both at ease within oneself and imperturbable in the presence of others.
When teaching meditation to kids I have noticed that at about thirteen or fourteen, a jump occurs in their ability to meditate. I have been quite impressed by the ease with which some young teens can drop into deep states of meditation (though it tends not to last long). I have known young people for whom meditation became an important tool for finding stability and peace in the midst of their adolescent challenges.
But it is not just for the usual teenage trials that breath meditation is useful. Breath meditation can be drawn upon at every step in one’s journey in life. In this story, the Buddha concluded his instruction of his son by pointing to the value of breath meditation practice in preparation for the moment of one’s death.
In the third and final sutta the Buddha guides Rahula through a series of questions that lead him to liberating wisdom (Middle Length Discourse 147). By this time Rahula had devoted the greater part of his teen years to the path of awakening. In one passage he is described as exemplary in his love for training. By the time Rahula was twenty, his father understood that he was close to liberation. The Buddha then did something that I find quite touching: he went for a walk with his son deep into the woods in a grove of majestic sal trees. Sitting at the base of one of these large trees, he led Rahula through a thorough questioning of every basis used for clinging to the idea of a self. The process the Buddha used was one of progressively loosening the enchantment with finding a self in anything. For someone as well trained as Rahula, the deeply rooted tendency to cling to some idea of an essential self can be the last barrier to liberation. As he listened to his father’s teachings, this clear seeing of the impersonal nature of phenomena was the final step Rahula needed for his full liberation.
The Buddha’s teaching on not-self can be perplexing. It is easy to see it as abstract philosophy and so miss that this teaching is a form of practical instruction on how to find happiness through letting go. To me it seems important that the Buddha taught Rahula about not-self while they sat deep in the woods. I have often found that I have a very different perspective when in nature than when in the middle of urban life. I find that the sense of peace and well-being that nature can provide facilitates letting go of self-concern. To contemplate letting go while reading a book on Buddhist philosophy in one’s own home is a lot different from doing so surrounded by a quiet grove of trees. In reading this third discourse, I reflected on how useful it is to know oneself in the context of the natural world.
When the seven-year-old Rahula asked for his inheritance, he couldn’t have imagined that thirteen years later he would have received the greatest gifts that any parent could pass on to a child. In Buddhism, awakening is known as the greatest happiness. As I consider my wishes for my own sons, I wish them the peace, happiness and safety that the path of awakening provides. Perhaps in the different phases of their growth they too can be established in the three trainings of virtue, meditation and wisdom.