But was that ever the point?
I didn’t know much about the Buddha, other than what most people know. He gained enlightenment, then taught compassion and self-awareness to other monks. Buddhist principles are applied in most self-help and spiritual contexts, because they effectively reduce our psychological and emotional suffering. Besides that, I knew practically nothing about the Buddha, until I pressed play on a documentary narrated by Richard Gere. Funny how a familiar voice can reel us in. Even if it is Richard Gere’s.
Initially, this was your basic documentary, presenting information through a serene tapestry of colorful visuals and traditional music. Bright lotus flowers, a gorgeous sitar strumming, and animations blending into one another to tell the story of the Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha. It was light, enjoyable, inconsequential. Until it wasn’t. As if it made no difference at all, Richard Gere casually informs us that the man who became the Buddha left his wife and newborn child to attain enlightenment, driven by his search for a path out of human suffering.
My jaw dropped. The documentary continued in its serene, settled tone while my eyes narrowed and rage began to seep from me, at first heavy in my belly but soon pumping faster and freely throughout my entire body. This man, a prince in fact, born into riches and sheltered from the world of suffering, left his wife and newborn son to pursue his own destiny. He named his son, Rahula, which means “fetter,” like the chains used to confine a prisoner. And we worship him! For centuries, this man’s teachings have been passed on to millions and millions of people, providing a haven in the mind, an escape from the inevitable suffering of man. Yet, it could not have been done without the abandonment of his wife and newborn son.
My mind began to circle around this new insight. The injustice of it was clouding my thoughts. I felt angry and confused, wondering how it could be true! How does a man get away with justifying abandonment of his family for the pursuit of greater spiritual truths? How does the world convince us that a man’s rejection of his family and responsibilities at home is some kind of benevolent sacrifice?
I envisioned the women who came before him, brave enough to bring a child into the world and then sacrifice it all, turning their back on man and child as they embarked on the lonely path toward self-discovery and spiritual mastery. Surely, you will never hear of these women, and it’s not because they didn’t exist. It’s because we would never allow them to exist. History does not honor a female who abandons her family, and no one would believe she was capable of enlightenment, even if she could save the world from itself, she would be shamed and shunned for her selfish choices. Her journey to nirvana would end with her. She will never be the Buddha.
As I continue watching this documentary, I anticipate some update on the Buddha’s wife and son, but there was none. What did they endure? How did they cope with the abandonment and feelings of rejection? Did she pursue a spiritual path? What did she tell her son about his father? Did she protect him from the truth to spare his heart from pain? How was this explained to the child? The documentary glossed right over this tragic event. The Buddha’s wife could not leave the palace and wealth of her husband’s father, which was the only means of providing for her son. She couldn’t join her husband. She did not have a choice, but to stay and continue in the role assigned to her as a mother and now a single parent. This story hit too close to home. I found myself in the depths of memories buried in an old wound, one that once all but destroyed me. Death would’ve been kinder, but I had to stay. I couldn’t abandon my kids.
I imagined the pain and confusion felt by Yasodhara, the Buddha’s wife, as the reality of her husband’s departure began to hit her. The story of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment unfolded as the documentary continued, but my mind remained with his wife, whose suffering didn’t seem to matter in the broader context of this historical account. As if the lavish lifestyle in which she and her son were left behind could somehow cushion the human heart from grief and loss. That the king continued to provide generously for the Buddha’s son apparently justified her husband’s decision to leave him. This quest to end human suffering undoubtedly caused a great deal of suffering to the wife he left behind.
I began to remember the intense fear I felt years ago, when looking at my own son’s sweet face, wondering how I would explain his father’s decision to leave us for his own spiritual journey across the country, with no way of knowing if or when he’d return. My son was three years old, when his father and I found ourselves at a crossroads of significant consequence. I gave him a choice to choose me, his son, and his six-year-old stepson, or his own desires to play music with his brother and live a lifestyle incompatible with my own. He could not have both.
He chose his brother and his music on the premise that it is needed for his spiritual growth and will one day benefit us and the world. I felt the same outrage at the Buddha for his arrogance as I did my own husband when he left. Why is he entitled to pursue his own destiny while, as a mother, I’m forced to accept a life dedicated to my children. My destiny had to wait. Why didn’t he have to wait with me? My higher purpose, my personal fulfillment could not be actualized, at least not until I raised them. Otherwise, who would?
Being left behind to raise a child alone is infuriating, but the unimaginable pain of being abandoned by the one you love is beyond devastating. The anger and fear gave way to deep, long-lasting despair. I cried uncontrollably every day for months, while I struggled to care for my boys, maintain a career, and run a household alone. It took every last bit of strength I could muster just to keep myself from sinking beneath the weight of it all. My body felt like it had been torn from the inside out, as if my husband physically ripped himself from my heart and dragged it, while still attached to me, across the United States from Atlanta to San Diego. The pain permeated my entire body, leaving me dizzy, like at any moment I would stop breathing from the gaping hole left inside me.
Food had no taste. I ate just enough to stay alive. If that’s what you call it. Alive is different from what I was at the time. I felt like I was walking through a daze, barely able to comprehend where I was or what I was doing at any given moment. I was stunned. I was depleted. I was alone. I had to go on, despite this. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. And I wondered if the Buddha’s wife had experienced a similar darkness. But then, I wondered if the darkness she endured had also transformed her, like it had me.
What felt like the most difficult and painful experience of my life, turned out to be the greatest gift I’ve ever received. Through it, I came to find truth, understand love, and realize my own power. It was a spiritual journey that came to me. I did not need to go and seek it out. I imagined the Buddha and his wife simultaneously becoming enlightened, each through their own separate paths of sacrifice, suffering, and transformation.
The outrage I experienced at the injustice of the Buddha’s abandonment of his wife and newborn son was a visceral reaction based on my own false belief that he somehow gained some advantage, some entitled role, that she could never attain. It is true that most people have not heard the story of the Buddha’s wife. She could have never been the Buddha. But, is that even the point? Ultimately enlightenment is a personal spiritual endeavor, regardless of who recognizes it in us.
It is also true that the Buddha began a movement that would spread across centuries and hundreds of nations as Buddhism, teaching the virtues of wisdom, generosity, patience, compassion, and kindness. This was not at the expense of his wife and son, it was certainly because of them that he was able to succeed. My own judgment of what it meant for him to leave his family and what that in turn meant for his wife and son, dealing with the hurt of abandonment, caused me to forget the incredible amount of resilience and empathy I gained from having gone through a similar strife.
I imagined the women who came before him, brave enough to bring a child into the world and then sacrifice it all, turning their back on man and child as they embarked on the lonely path toward self-discovery and spiritual mastery. Surely, you will never hear of these women, and it’s not because they didn’t exist. It’s because we would never allow them to exist. History does not honor a female who abandons her family, and no one would believe she was capable of enlightenment, even if she could save the world from itself, she would be shamed and shunned for her selfish choices. Her journey to nirvana would end with her. She will never be the Buddha.
I had to learn what the pain had to teach me, and I had to forgive him and myself for many mistakes made along the way. I needed to acknowledge my resentment and anger in order to understand how it was affecting my life. Resentment turned into sympathy. Anger turned into gratitude. Eventually, my son was reunited with his father and the joy this has brought my son warms my heart. Children don’t hold grudges or place blame. They just innocently love and want to be loved, another gift I was able to witness through this abandonment story.
There is no one path to truth and freedom from suffering. Though the Buddha is ultimately credited with teaching the way to enlightenment, his wife also achieved enlightenment through her own means at the same time. The journey to actualizing our highest self can take place near or far, under ordinary life circumstances, or after tremendous trauma and pain.
The big picture shows the Buddha, his wife, their son, and the world can be grateful. It’s easy to overlook the greater good achieved when we are in the depths of suffering. We learn the only way out of hell is through patience, understanding, love, gratitude, and truth. Giving up these treasures for self-pity and anger serves no one. I have a long way to go with my own spiritual growth and personal evolution. It takes practice and vigilance and a lot of choosing again. But, it is clear that all we experience is for the best, if we are willing to see it.