Family Values

A Morning Mind Essay

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yes, and his life also, he cannot be my disciple.” –Luke
Who seeks the sorrowless dispassion
Should have no loved one in the world.
— Pali Canon

“Is it a problem that we’re partners?” the young woman said.

She was short and waif-like, wore a nose ring, had long stringy brown hair. Her partner was taller and thicker, with a round face and spiky black hair. I had just given them meditation instruction at our Zen Center, and they looked back at me, blushing slightly.

I went into my best pontifical mode. I’ve noticed that often when two people begin practicing together, one takes to it more. That person might want to come every day, participate in the study group, attend all-day sittings and sesshins. Her partner might be more cautious. She doesn’t want to jump right in, so she always seems to be putting on the brakes. Finally, to make her point, she quits altogether.

The important person in this situation is the enthusiastic one. She’s got to let her partner stay home when she wants. Start at her own speed. Not everyone takes to it right away. Not everyone takes to it at all.

The young woman smiled. “That’s a good answer. But what I meant was, does it matter that we’re lesbians?”

Oh. Of course not. This is the Chapel Hill Zen Center. We’re affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center. Anything goes.

I didn’t mention, because it seemed too much for the first time, the more interesting question: if you’re facing the wall and sitting quietly, letting go of all ideas and concepts, not clinging to anything as me or mine, are you still a lesbian?

I have been studying the Buddha’s life lately, and one of the strangest and—to me—most disturbing episodes is the first time he came home after his enlightenment. He was acquiring a reputation as a teacher, had—according to the story—upwards of 1200 followers, and his father had sent word asking him to come home. It had been at least seven years since he’d been there.

He hadn’t left under the best of circumstances, sneaking away in the middle of the night without telling his father, his stepmother, his wife, without even holding his newborn son one last time. He had been afraid—rightly, I’m sure—that they would have made it harder to leave. The only person he told was his servant, who begged him not to go.

Now he had found what he had been looking for, and embarked on a life as a teacher that would last for 45 years. By all accounts, he was extremely effective. His father and stepmother were won over by his first talk, and a number of Sakyans—members of his clan—would follow.

Other elements of his homecoming were more problemmatic. His stepbrother Nanda—his stepmother’s only son—had just announced his engagement, and the Buddha took him aside and asked him to become one of his followers. The young man agreed, more out of reverence and respect than any real inclination. That brought the engagement party to an abrupt end.

The one person the Buddha didn’t meet with was his wife. She did send out their young son Rahula and—in what seemed a bitter gesture—told him to ask for his inheritance, apparently pointing out the fact that her husband was penniless. But the Buddha believed he had a priceless legacy to leave his son, and told his head monk, Sariputra, to initiate the child into the sangha. The child was a tad young, only eight or nine. Sariputra seemed so flummoxed by the situation that he didn’t know what to do.

These episodes led to a touching conversation with the Buddha’s father Shuddhodana, who made a plea his son eventually accepted.

“Lord, I suffered no little pain when the Blessed One went forth. Then there was Nanda. Rahula is too much. Love for our children, Lord, cuts into the outer skin . . . it reaches the marrow and stays there. Lord, it would be good if the venerable ones did not give the going forth without the parents’ consent.”i

We shouldn’t impose our own values on a situation from 2500 years ago (dragging the Buddha and his wife into therapy, perhaps bringing the whole group into Family Therapy). Marriage isn’t the same institution in our country now as it was in India in 500 BC, and the concept of fatherhood was undoubtedly different too. The Buddha hadn’t left his family in the lurch. There were servants and a whole extended family to take care of them, and they had lived a lavish life, the same overprotected life that the Buddha had felt compelled to flee.

Yet Shuddhodana by any standards was a doting father all his life, continued to love his son and be proud of him even after he’d taken a path he hadn’t wanted for him. It is rather disturbing to see the Buddha portrayed in these scenes as a man with no family feeling at all, behaving coldly toward his son, calling his father Gotama, not even visiting his wife.

There is a scene later in the canon with a woman named Vishaka, “foremost among all his women adherents,”ii who comes to him in mourning for a beloved granddaughter. He asks if she would like to have as many children and grandchildren as there are people in her town, and she—a warm, maternal person—says that she would. In that case, he says, she would be in mourning every day.

“Those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred pains. . . . Those who have no dear ones have no pains. They are the sorrowless, the dispassionate, the undespairing, I say.”iii

Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, makes a similar point more strongly. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yes, and his life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

What do we make of this anti-family sentiment? The first thing I make of it in the Buddha’s story—an important factor—is that our biographer isn’t a threat to win any prizes. We have no idea who wrote this account (the stories were assembled from the teachings centuries after the Buddha lived), but whoever it was didn’t have the literary skill of the Old Testament prophets (to pick another text wildly at random). His characters are lifeless caricatures, and he puts them in one stock situation after another, just to make a point. The story has its moments later, especially when the sangha gets larger. But I would definitely recommend that this guy keep his day job.

In his defense I should mention that Indian culture did not consider the story nearly as important as the teaching it embodied. In the Old and New Testaments, the story is the teaching; historical events are vastly important. But Indian culture saw history as endlessly repetitive, the never ending wheel of samsara. The whole point was to escape it, and the teaching showed how to do that.

The problem in an account of the Buddha’s life is how to portray someone who is beyond attachment, beyond clinging to anything, what Karen Armstrong calls, in her own excellent biography of the Buddha (which does not try to portray him) a new kind of human being. Many people, imagining an enlightened person, picture someone with no personality at all. Try making that interesting.

But most contemporary candidates for enlightenment—fill in your personal choices here—seem full of personality. I’ve heard that the Dalai Lama, for instance, could double as a stand-up comedian. And the old Zen masters sound like characters from slapstick comedy. The point isn’t that they have no personality; it’s that they’re not attached to it. They don’t think it’s who they are.

I don’t believe that the Buddha showed no feeling toward his father and son. He wouldn’t be human if he acted that way, and I believe he was fully human, the epitome of what a human being could be.

So what was our hapless biographer, unskilled in literary matters, focused on a message rather than a story, trying to say?

He was delivering an important truth, what Krishnamurti spent his whole life teaching, what Jesus meant by that rather knotty koan from the book of Luke. What passes for love in this world—parental love, filial, romantic, you name it—is a deep and strong emotion, vulnerable and terribly human, but it is not the love the teachers are pointing us to. It is full of attachment, clinging, jealousy, hurt feelings, rage, all the things that make us suffer. The usual human mess.

It is only by abandoning these attachments (hating them, as Jesus would say) that we arrive at real love. It isn’t the love of a father for a son, a daughter for a mother, a man for a woman, a woman for a woman. It is just love. It doesn’t have an object; it permeates everything. It isn’t my love or yours. It isn’t anyone’s. It is beyond possessiveness, beyond any individual ego. It is what remains when we leave all that behind.

That is what the Buddha found under the Bodhi tree, what Jesus found in the wilderness. The Buddha taught a method for finding it, a whole system of training; Jesus seemed to teach it just by embodying it. That was how you came to know it, by knowing him. The Buddha said the same thing in a way: if you had seen the dharma, you had seen him.

So do we have to give up families to discover this love? In a way we do and in a way we don’t. The Buddha felt that the best way was to get away from the whole family tangle, to remove oneself from those attachments at least for a while and live with other practitioners. His followers seemed to find once they had done so that they wanted to stay in that life, though to some extent they had just swapped one family for another, with all the old problems. And there were people who stayed home and achieved realization, Shuddhodana himself, for one. Through the history of Buddhism, the history of all religions, there have been people who discovered that depth of love while staying at home.

We don’t in any case stop loving our family. How could we? The family just doesn’t seem such a separate entity. We feel the same love for everyone. Once we get into my family, my partner, we’re back in that old world of suffering and sorrow.

I do—as that young woman asked—practice with a partner and a family, and fall into that suffering all the time. But everybody suffers some way, and the family variety is rather interesting, at least as fertile as a gathering of monks. It is our suffering, we are told, that leads to liberation. And liberation—if I understand the direction it is heading—shouldn’t diminish family feeling. It should expand the family until it takes in the whole world.

There is a later version of the story that makes the Buddha’s wife sound not so bitter. And there are other ways to read the incident; perhaps Sariputra simply hadn’t initiated anyone before. But the earliest stories from the Pali Canon are considered the most reliable, and there is definitely a strained feeling to the whole episode.

To show a little filial feeling of my own, I should mention that my brother William Guy, a scholar of both Greek and the New Testament, believes that “and his life also” is a later addition.

i Life of the Buddha p. 78

ii 151

iii 156