This is Anti-Enlightenment

Buddha is one of the greatest figures in all of history. He has inspired millions to follow the path of enlightenment and peace and made millions—billions perhaps—of people better by helping them find peace, serenity and alleviate suffering. 

Yet it’s worth pointing out that Buddha was not perfect. As Karen Armstrong writes in her fascinating and accessible biography Buddha, the man struggled (and indeed failed) as a parent. “Gotama had felt no pleasure when the child was born,” Armstrong explains. “He called the little boy Rahula, or ‘fetter’: the baby, he believed would shackle him to a way of life that had become abhorrent. He had a yearning for an existence that was ‘wide open’ and as ‘complete and pure as a polished shell.” 

Tragically, selfishly, inexcusably, Buddha walked away from his young family. In fact, he left without saying goodbye. We have talked before about this disturbing pattern—of great men and women who achieve incredible things but do so at the cost of their children. We’ve talked about the false belief that children are somehow the enemy of good work, of insight, of peace. Buddha himself proves this because what happened when he got older? He brought his son to study and be with him—the thing he had mistakenly believed was a fetter was actually critical to his journey later in life. In the end, he wanted a crowded table, as we’ve talked about. Still, we can imagine as wonderful as that was for Rahula, he carried pain about it that even the most dedicated spiritual practice had trouble alleviating.

Enlightenment, success, happiness, our destiny—these things cannot be reached by abandoning our responsibilities. Our children are not obstacles to them but opportunities, ways of re-constituting what’s important, ways of creating urgency, joy, purpose and perspective. Wide open spaces? Another way to express that is empty. Pure? That’s another way to say isolated. That’s not what you want…even if you sometimes fantasize about it.

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