Was the Buddha really a “deadbeat Dad” as we would say in modern parlance? The real answer is that we have no idea, because all the stories of the life of Siddhartha the Buddha are heavily overlaid with mythological and idealized elements. But the scriptural accounts of his life do say that he was born a prince, was married with an infant son, and abandoned his family and his life of royal privilege at the age of 29 for the life of a sadhu, a homeless monk. Whether these accounts are objectively true or not, they are spiritually and psychologically relevant as the founding legend of a world religion which has inspired and transformed countless millions of adherents the world over.
His life story is also culturally normative for his time and place. A “holy man” in ancient India was by definition someone who renounced family and conventional livelihood, and lived alone outside of ordinary society, seeking spiritual awakening. Had the Buddha’s life been otherwise he would never have been respected as a great spiritual teacher. By today’s standards, however (and that is the point of this article) we need to examine whether the practices of male celibacy and neglect or rejection of family represent a wholesome model for mature manhood or not. I contend that they do not, and insofar as the (supposed) rejection of a sexual life and the responsibility of raising children is still upheld in some contemporary religions as a worthy ideal. Even when it is not, the notion that having a family and children are a hindrance to a man’s destiny and fulfillment generally is an unhealthy example of male primacy and privilege. Even the 1950s notion of a single male breadwinner married to a stay-at-home mom (a model that is still admired in some parts of today’s society) is a version of this male-centric view of success.
Of course Siddhartha was a prince of a wealthy family, so no doubt (if we allow ourselves for a moment to believe the legend) his abandoned wife and child were well taken care of. In the modern sense of a deadbeat Dad being someone who misses his child support payments, the Buddha was certainly not that. But his solitary spiritual search is couched in the manner of a hero myth, in which he battles demons internal and external and wrestles with his conscience before finally attaining the supreme goal of his dragon-slayer journey: Enlightenment. There is actually a passage in the Buddha’s life story where he wrestles with and conquers Mara, the Devil of Buddhist mythology—an episode with many similarities to Jesus’ temptation in the desert by Satan. In both cases these warrior-like inner battles take place outside the realm of conventional society and family.
As any family therapist or psychologist can tell you, it is frequently more difficult for a man to be a good husband and father than it is for him to be a good warrior (or for that matter a good spiritual adept). I have a memory of my own Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki once admitting that he had not been a good husband. Suzuki Roshi was a wise, wonderful and deeply evolved human being, but like many Japanese Zen priests of his generation, he modeled his spiritual identity after the Buddhist tradition of monastic renunciation. I don’t think he saw his wife and children as the focus of his spiritual life.
These days, for a man to be a good father requires a level of maturity, responsibility, and commitment that eludes many men, particularly to day when many young men lack good role models to learn from. To be there for your children as an engaged, loving father for the many years it takes for a child to grow up is, in my estimation, as much a hero’s path as the old models of warrior or monk. The name given to Siddhartha’s only son, “Rahula,” in the traditional stories means “fetter” or “chain.” From the standpoint of the ancient Indian ideal of the sadhu, family is seen as a burden, something to be transcended. From the modern perspective of healthy parenthood and fatherhood, the notion of a child as a “fetter” is wrong.
No, Buddha was not a deadbeat Dad. He taught and modeled universal compassion for all living things, human and non-human. He is an inspiration for today’s troubled, strife-torn world. But the historical Siddhartha as a home-leaver, whatever his actual human story, cannot in most cases be a sound model for today. In every generation there needs to be a new Buddha, in the sense that the word buddha in the ancient language of India simply means “to be awake.” We all need to be awake, and men need to be awake to their need to continually evolve as fully awake human beings.