One of the most interesting and defining moments in the biography of the Buddha comes when he decides to leave his father's palace and head out in search of a remedy for human suffering. When he embarks upon his quest, the Buddha is turning his back on the pleasures of earthly life—-but he also leaves behind a wife and newly born son.
“Before leaving home,” writes Karen Armstrong in her biography Buddha, “he crept upstairs to take one last look at his sleeping wife and their baby, but could not bring himself to say goodbye. Then he stole out of the palace . . .”
Huston Smith and Philip Novak describe it like this: “Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep, he bade them both a silent good-bye, and then ordered the gatekeeper to bridle his great white horse.”
In both descriptions, note that the Buddha leaves his wife and son without explanation, without goodbye. It's not too difficult to imagine why, of course. Leaving behind your infant child in the hopes of searching for a remedy for all human suffering seems like it might be a difficult conversation to have with your wife on a Tuesday at midnight.
Of course the story ends well—-for Buddha. He achieves enlightenment. In the wake of that achievement, though, he has left behind a fatherless son and a bewildered spouse.
But before throwing stones at the Buddha, remember that Jesus—-despite what Republicans might suggest to us about “Christian family values”--also preached the gospel of renouncing your family to seek spiritual fulfillment.
“In truth I tell you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, “there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—-and persecutions too—-now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”
Or how about this one from the Gospel of Luke:
“His mother and brothers came looking for him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. He was told, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you.' But he said in answer, 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.'”
These are the moments and words in the life of our great spiritual sages that we try to pretend don't exist. I would love to hear the folks who expound upon the importance of family values, and count themselves as followers of Christ or Buddha, explain what they mean. I would love to know how to reconcile them with my intuitive sense that leaving behind my wife and five children, or turning my back on parents and siblings, in order to seek enlightenment would be a morally reprehensible action.
So what do we do with these actions and words? Do we try to explain them away as parables, or as symbols? Do we ignore them and do as best we can with all of the other commands that we are willing to follow?
Or are they hard and strange enough to make us want to chuck the whole enterprise?