The Buddha and His Son

sariputta.and.rahula

There is a quite endearing discourse by the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya called Advice to Rahula at Ambalatthka (Ambalatthaka means “Mango Grove”). What makes it endearing isn’t so much the content as the context. Rahula was the Buddha’s son.

The Buddha left home on his spiritual quest when he was 26. His father – Suddhodana (soo-DOH-dah-nah) – was the raja, the leader, of the Indian republic of Shakya. Suddhodana wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but there are indications that from the very beginning that Siddhartha – the future Buddha – was pretty unhappy about being coerced in this way. There is further speculation that Siddhartha made a deal with his father that he – Siddhartha – could leave on his spiritual journey after producing an heir.

Siddhartha was married to an attractive young woman named “Yasodhara” (yah-SHO-dah-rah). They had been married for some time without having any children. Finally Yasodhara got pregnant, gave birth to a son, and to much weeping and wailing – according to canonical sources – Siddhartha left the palace, donning the robes of samana – a renunciate. He didn’t exactly leave as the umbilical cord was being cut, but there wasn’t much lag time, either.

Siddhartha became enlightened after a 6-year effort, and after his enlightenment he eventually made his way back to Shakya. It must have been some scene. Siddhartha was now the Buddha, wearing the robes of a beggar, returning to the place where he was once on a par with royalty. His parents probably had a hard time knowing what to make of their son. Yasodhara was – not surprisingly – not all that happy with her husband. She rather testily told Rahula to go to the Buddha to “collect his inheritance.” The Buddha, of course, having taken a vow of poverty, didn’t have a material inheritance. However, Rahula became a monk, and that turned out to be a pretty good proxy.

So to set the scene for this discourse, Rahula is now seven years old. According to the sutta, the Buddha “arose from his seclusion in the late afternoon”, and sought out his son.

This is pretty unusual to begin with. The Buddha hardly ever sought out anyone to give them a teaching. He had plenty of people who came to him, and for the most part this is how he operated. But on this occasion he sought out Rahula.

Next, according to the discourse, Rahula, seeing his father coming, “set out a seat and water for washing his feet.” When the Buddha sat down, Rahula washed his father’s feet, and then sat down to his side, which was a way of showing respect.

This is really quite a scene. Rahula, of course, had not seen his father for the first six years of his life. He probably barely knew him at this point. And for crying out loud has dad returns and he’s the Buddha. That is pretty powerful stuff. So now this little boy is going to get a teaching from his Buddha-dad.

What follows is very typical of the Indian philosophical tradition. Discourses were given in a rather exhaustive way. All of the cases are broken down and itemized. Many of the Buddha’s discourses – rather famously – are lists, but many go one step further and are matrices. This discourse is like that.

The Buddha is giving a teaching about how to know if your conduct is proper. In Buddhist thinking, there are three kinds of actions: actions of the body, actions of speech, and actions of the mind. The latter can be a little hard to understand at first. It helps, I think, to remember that in the Buddha’s understanding, actions have karmic results. Take something simple, like speaking harshly to someone. You might feel guilty about that later. That is an example of a karmic result. An unskillful act of speech had a harmful karmic result. You felt bad about it.

Actions of the mind can also be that way. If you feel a lot of hatred, it doesn’t make you happy. It’s a negative feeling. Likewise, if you remember someone fondly it makes you happy. There is a positive result from a positive mental “action.”

So one side of the matrix is complete. We have a list of types of actions: body, speech and mind.

The other dimension of the matrix is whether the action a) has not yet happened, b) is currently happening, or c) has already happened. Thus there are bodily actions about to happen, that are currently happening, and that have already happened, etc. The Buddha walks through each one of these in turn. Here is his first case:

“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.”

Like many of the Buddha’s teachings, this one is remarkably simple. It’s pretty practical and it certainly isn’t rocket science. Don’t do something that will cause harm; do things that will be of benefit. Here is the after case:

“Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction… it was a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then you should stay mentally refreshed & joyful, training day & night in skillful mental qualities.”

Simple to understand, but like so much of the Buddhadhama, not necessarily so easy to do.

The Buddha walks through all nine cases in turn. You can probably figure them out. The full sutta is at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.061.than.html.

Sometimes the Buddha’s teachings can feel quite complicated and overwhelming. However, there are plenty of cases – and this is one of them – where he teaches something in such a simple way. It is very beautiful, and not that hard to remember, and sometimes in the midst of confusion on how to act, a very simple teaching like this can be a lot easier to remember than the intricacies of the law of karma or dependent origination. And all the while we can enjoy the fact that this discourse is so lovely and simple because the Buddha was trying to explain his teachings to his very own son, who was just a little boy at the time.

(As a postscript, Rahula eventually became enlightened. Yosodhara and the Buddha’s step-mother – Mahapajapati – lobbied the Buddha to ordain women, thus beginning the first order of nuns in the world. They, too, both became enlightened, as did the Buddha’s father Suddhodana.)

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