The Buddha and his Dysfunctional Family

The Buddha and his Dysfunctional Family


Just because a man is called “Sir,”

it does not mean he is free from habits and clinging. (Sn.620)

King Suddhodhana and Queen Mahamaya of Sakya engaged in the preparation of the birth of their child due to be born in the land of Koliya, east of the Sakyan kingdom of north India. While en route with her entourage, guards and servants to Koliya (the small kingdom of the Queen’s birth), Queen Mahamaya suddenly went into labour and gave birth to a baby boy under a sal tree in full blossom in the park in Lumbini on the full moon of May of 563 BC. Born into the warrior caste, Gautama had the duty to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the future king as well as enforce the military, political and religious institutions of the nation state.

His mother died seven days after his birth. She lived long enough to see her son’s skin with ‘a golden hue and his blue eyes like the flax plant.’ The Queen’s younger sister, Pajapati, took responsibility for bringing up the week-old baby and his privileged upbringing in the royal household  ensured isolation from the vicissitudes of the citizens of the Sakyan people.

This, at least, is the legendary account, familiar to most Buddhists. It is difficult to distinguish any historical facts of the life of Gautama, from his birth to his death, from the additional embroidery of some 2600 years of commentary on his life and teachings. Whether factual or embroidered, or probably both, facts matter little in the Indian tradition. Insights may emerge from history or mythology, thus making allowances for embellishment to make a point. The story of the Buddha’s life has the potential to shed light on our lives and the all too common dynamic of the dysfunctional family.

Various commonly held incidents in various Buddhist texts and legends indicate the positive and negative aspects of the Buddha’s upbringing. From a contemporary analysis, Gautama experienced a dysfunctional family that had repercussions for many years, before and after his awakening under the tree of awakening (bodhi) in Bodh Gaya at the age of 35. Prince Gautama could claim to be a victim of a dysfunctional family but he contributed to it when he fled in the middle of the night from his wife, Yashodhara, his week old son, Rahula, his step mother, his ageing father and other members of his family.

Gautama may not have realised at the time,  the long term significance in relationship to women of apparently major and minor events in his life up until the age of 29 years when he ran away. The loss of his mother a few days after his birth must surely have had an impact. Perhaps Gautama did not have total confidence in his step mother when she wanted to join his nomadic Sangha after his awakening? Perhaps he had a general lack of confidence in the abililty of women to live the homeless life?  He may have felt that it was too radical a step to endorse a Sangha of women wanderers who could be vulnerable on the road, or that a mixed Sangha would lead to suspicion among the laypeople.

Astrologers and clairvoyants predicted that Gautama would become either a great emperor or a buddha. They said that the boy displayed signs in his behaviour of a young man destined for future greatness. While the King felt proud of such predictions by the leading fortune tellers of the time, he also felt intense anxiety that his son would flee the Palace and go on a spiritual search until his became a buddha, a fully enlightened one. The King’s fears of losing his successor lead him to exercise an unhealthy control over the upbringing of his son. Unwittingly, his father ruled over a dysfunctional family which impacted on his son, his daughter-in-law, his grandson, his wife, his nephew and the entire royal household.

The story of Gautama’s upbringing reminds all of us that the problems of the dysfunctional family go far back in human history.  Such issues do not just belong to the malaise of contemporary society.

I met with a 29 year old corporate lawyer for a multi-national oil company. He told me that his father had placed on him years of pressure at home and throughout his education to make a ‘real success’ of his life. For his father it meant that his son should climb the corporate ladder and by the age of 50, he could be the CEO for the oil company.

“I felt I was living my life to please my father,” he told me. “I needed to get out of the oil business and experience the real world.  I quit the job. My father was furious. I travelled to India and started living in the real world. My father thinks that I have thrown my life away. Fortunately, my mother, who divorced my father, understands my interest in spiritual matters, compassion and travelling on a small budget.”

Like Gautama, we may have to break away from parents who imagine they always know what is best for us. We may have to find our own way in the world. Well-intentioned parents may not realise that their expectations on their children can actually inhibit their growth and development as adults. King Suddhodhana thought he knew what was best for his son. His pressure to get his own way brought about a backlash. The same situation keeps repeating itself in human history.


A Fateful Decision

The King took the fateful decision that his son must lead the most sheltered of existences through hiding him from him the pain facing human beings, such as sickness, ageing and death. Perhaps the King felt his son suffered over the death of his mother days after giving birth to Gautama. He wanted to protect his son from further suffering. Perhaps he believed that his son would then have no need to question life, no need to leave the Royal Family to search for an authentic reality. Gautama thus lived in a world apparently happy, secure, and exposed to the arts, religious learning, sports and intellectual development. Owing to his fears and anxieties, the King gave his son an utterly distorted picture of reality that Gautama eventually rebelled against. The King’s worst nightmare eventually came true.

Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, proved to be another influential family member whose personal problems contributed to a dysfunctional influence through a lack of empathy with humans, animals and birds. As young boys of similar age, Gautama accompanied Devadatta, who loved hunting. Spotting a beautiful white swan flying overhead, Devadatta took his bow and arrow, aimed and shot the bird through the neck. Gautama ran over to the swan, drew the arrow out and provided a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Devadatta argued that since he shot the bird he should keep it. Gautama adopted a different viewpoint that since he saved the life of the bird, the fate of the swan rested with him.

Two wise men of the kingdom decreed that those who preserved life had the right to make the claim for its continued support, rather than those whose motivation was to destroy life. In later years, especially after his full awakening, the Buddha consistently gave teachings on compassion which he described as a divine abiding (Brahma Vihara) or the kingdom of God in monotheistic language. The incident with Devadatta may have had a significant future influence on Gautama, since after his awakening he consistently advocated the importance of compassion and concern for the welfare of all creatures.

King Suddhodhana invited numerous beautiful young women to his palace so that his son Gautama could select a bride. The young man’s eye fell on Yashodhara, whom he subsequently married and the couple moved into the palace, as custom dictated and still does. In the Indian tradition the bride uses her powers of seduction and erotic sexuality to keep the attention of her husband, as the son can find himself living under the demands of his mother and father at the expense of intimacy with his wife.

After his marriage, Gautama personally witnessed the painful signs of human existence: ageing, sickness and death. He also witnessed a yogi on a spiritual search. It is said that King Suddhodhana lived in such fear of his son going on a spiritual quest that he did not allow family, friends or servants to even talk about such suffering in front of the Prince. Despite all the King’s efforts, Gautama saw, for the first time, human suffering when Channa, his faithful charioteer, took him on a ride through the capital. He came face to face with human reality, including a corpse, and Channa whispered to him “Everybody will die one day. There is no escape from death.”

Gautama clearly felt distress at the sight of individuals who were sick and diseased, decrepit with age, and he was distressed at the sight of a lifeless body. He probably became angry with his father and family for conspiring together to keep him isolated from the real world through his confinement to the Royal Palace and Gardens of Kapilavashtu, the Capital of the Sakyan kingdom. Secrecy and denial eat away at the emotional fabric of the inner life, when members of a family make every effort to hide the Truth as a means of control over another. The evidence shows that Gautama became disillusioned to the point of rejection of everything he had been brought up to believe. Rather than rejoice at the birth of his son, Gautama exclaimed ‘bondage’ and then named the baby ‘Rahula, ‘which means bondage.

The obsessively protective and controlling King caused widespread pain and confusion throughout the family living in the palace, while Gautama entered into a personal crisis. Despite the loss of his mother soon after birth, the conflict with Devadatta, a controlling father with family and friends conspiring to hide reality from him, he, nevertheless, had an experience in his youth that made him a lifelong advocate of the power of meditation.

Once a year his father, in his role as King, initiated a ceremony to begin the rice ploughing season. Around the age of 11 or 12 years, Gautama sat in the cross-legged posture in the shade of an apple tree watching the ceremony. While sitting there, the boy effortlessly entered into a deep meditation experiencing happiness, concentration, a glow throughout his cells and inner peace. Gautama recalled this experience, years later,  while sitting under the Bodhi tree. He then turned away from severe spiritual austerities and life denying practices towards similar meditative absorptions experienced under the apple tree as a means for a total waking up. In his teachings, he made frequent reference to the power of meditation to know inner peace, happiness and to see into the depths of existence, pleasing and displeasing, welcome and challenging.

Experiences, spiritual, mystical and esoteric, can have a beneficial influence on our daily life. There is a tendency for some people to have such experiences and then move quickly on from them without giving time to digest the significance of the experience. We can forget important moments in our life or push them away as we give more priority to other matters.  There is an opportunity to reflect on these experiences to learn something from them. These experiences may point the way to profound realisations and may uncover perceptions of life hidden from us in conventional consciousness. Sitting under the tree, Gautama recalled his meditation experience that had occurred some 23 years earlier. He recalled the inner peace, clarity and happiness that he felt within and realised its potential for a liberating wisdom.

We may need to make time for reflection on any important spiritual experience in our life. Perhaps such an inner event can encourage us to explore further rather than just ignoring it. If our life has been devoid of any spiritual, mystical or esoteric experience, we should engage in some questioning of ourselves. Am I trapped in my five sense and my views about them? Do I believe that true reality depends upon my thoughts about the past, present and future? What steps would I be willing to make to experience an altered state of consciousness?

We do not have to rely upon a spiritual experience to trigger a spiritual quest. The sight of somebody suffering through sickness, the decrepit posture of a very old person and a corpse sparked Gautama’s existential search. At the age of 29, he had to face up to the Truths of life free from denial and suppression. Gautama’s family had let him down and now he would run away and let them down. A dysfunctional family living in the same household had entered into a crisis.

The Final Straw

The final straw for Gautama came when his father offered a party to celebrate the birth of Rahula, his week old grandson and successor to the throne after Gautama. Musicians, dancers and magicians entertained the numerous guests. Gautama was in no mood for partying. He felt despair with thoughts of future of sickness, pain and death. No one had been honest with him. He had lost faith in them. They had denied him a balanced view of life, and he needed to seek out his own way of life. He resolved to run away and discover for himself what mattered. Even after his awakening he established a vinaya (discipline, literally ‘to turn away from what is not wholesome’), that strongly discouraged his nomadic Sangha from involvement in entertainment. He wanted them to face up to every aspect of life without denial or avoidance through self-indulgence.

Gautama reacted, in the most direct way possible, to his sheltered upbringing and the pleasures and comforts of a seductive lifestyle. Knowing the emptiness of it, he made up his mind to run away. He would flee from his wife, child and all his responsibilities. Just as his mother had died seven days after the birth of Gautama, Gautama ceased to be a father, both in terms of presence and responsibility by making his escape from the palace seven days after the birth of his son. A strange karma had arisen through this dysfunctional family.

During the night he made his getaway, Gautama felt afraid to take a final look at Rahula and Yashodhara in bed in case he lost his determination and settled for his comfortable and protected lifestyle as a prince, husband and father. Again, years later, after his full awakening under the bodhi tree, Gautama ensured that his teachings and the practices addressed the important issues of daily life. He took a completely different position from his father: instead of trying to establish a pleasurable heaven through a withdrawal from witnessing suffering and sorrow, Gautama advocated the facing up to existence and non-existence: life and death, as it is. It meant bringing mindfulness and awareness, with complete comprehension, to everything whatsoever, no matter how apprehensive or fearful the mind. The Buddha’s teachings meant getting close to the ‘tiger of suffering’, to look into its face and to see clearly that the tiger of terror had no teeth.

The meditation under the apple tree, the compassion for the swan and the human capacity to witness the pain of life formed essential cornerstones of the Buddha’s teachings, mattering more than the conventions of family life and following the wishes of parents and other authority figures. The Buddha sanctioned the seeing and knowing of Truth as a higher calling rather than obedience to roles as a married man and father of a child.

Contemporary psychology recognises the impact of childhood influences whether an early bereavement, meditative states, acts of compassion as well as the impact of influential family members in the short and long term. With his capacity for recollection, the Buddha drew extensively from the experiences of his upbringing. He would have sensed the power of his early life as a resource for his awakening and priorities in teaching. Rather than portray himself as a victim of his dysfunctional family, he drew upon his formative years for insights. His story has been a source of inspiration for centuries and has become one of the most famous stories in human history.

The life story of the Buddha shows the heart and mind of a man who has not rejected the past, nor denied its influence, but he has positively acknowledged influential and informative experiences. His awakening shed light on various experiences so that he understood clearly their causation, rather than acting as a shadow or an obscuration of a liberated life. We also have the capacity, if necessary, to track our childhood influences upon our adult life so that we have the capacity to recognise those experiences that provide insight to develop what is healthy, and the ability to let go and dissolve what is unhealthy.

Owing to his vested self-interest in his son becoming his successor, King Suddhodhana extended so much control over freedom of speech on his family that Gautama reacted aggressively and he could not offer his presence to his new born son. There has been a lot of criticism over the centuries of Buddha’s decision to avoid responsibility as a father, husband and future King of his country. This long-standing historical viewpoint fails to distinguish the mind-set of a young man obviously experiencing an existential crisis and burdened with the problem of a fixed and programmed life, from his becoming a Buddha at the age of 35. In such a tightly controlled family dynamic, Gautama could not address the core issues of what really matters in the movement between birth and death and possibly beyond.

The mind of Gautama the Prince was utterly different from the awakened mind of Gautama the Buddha. Gautama makes this distinction between the pre-awakening consciousness and the post awakening consciousness. To put it in simple terms, the Buddha did not run away from the comforts of the Palace. A disillusioned 29 year old man tormented with doubt and confusion fled the Palace to try to gain some resolution to burning questions about life and death. His quest ended with the discovery of the Deathless while under the Bodhi tree.

There are numerous voices from politicians, the business community and the family who insist on their prescription for a good life, generally meaning personal success through social standing, career, disposable income and acquisition of desirable consumer goods and property. The compelling attraction towards these goals offers a rather narrow view of a fulfilled life. The spiritual quest offers the potential for a different vision of life, nourishing and enlightening. Unlike Gautama, it does not mean that the seeker must flee their personal circumstances, unless one feels trapped and overwhelmed with confusion and despair.

The quest may include the exploration of meaning, purpose, love and the natural inter-connection we have with everybody and everything. The spiritual quest puts materialism and the material world in its perspective enabling consciousness to be receptive to meditation, to the inner world, the natural world and the sense of wonder and inquiry into what it means to be human.

The account of Gautama’s spiritual quest continues to resonate with countless numbers of women and men who search to resolve deep issues and questions about life. In that respect, there is a timeless element to his story. A single recollection of an experience in the past or present can become the event that changes the direction of our life forever.


A Return Home


A decade after his awakening, the Buddha finally agreed to the request of his ageing father to make the 600 kilometre walk from Rajghir to Kapilavasthu. The Buddha’s first meeting with his father did not go well. When he heard that the Buddha went on alms round begging for food every morning, the imperious King told his son. “The warrior caste never goes on an alms round.”

The Buddha replied: “The lineage of the Buddhas have always received alms.”

The Buddha showed such little concern for the caste system, royal protocol and family life; he offered instead the alternative of the Sangha family and daily disciplines instead of protocol.

There is a telling incident with regard to the anguish and sorrow felt by Yashodhara upon the Buddha’s return to see his family. Instead of happiness and delight, when her attendants spotted the Buddha walking towards the walls of the city, she sent her son, Rahula, to meet him.

Yashodhara had experienced not only a betrayal but bereavement at the loss of Gautama. This left her husband’s father taking on the role of the father to Rahula, his grandson. It is said in the tradition that Yashodhara said to her son: “Do you know who that is?” Rahula replied: “That’s the Buddha, mother.” His mother replied: “That’s your father.” With tears in her eyes, Yashodhara told Rahula to collect his inheritance. “What belonged to the father must be passed on to the son,” she told Rahula. The Buddha listened to his son. It is said that the thought arose in the Buddha’s mind “My son is asking for his father’s wealth but I can offer him an inner wealth that is seven times more precious.”

Impressed with his father’s way of life, Rahula joined the nomadic Sangha. This brought further anguish to his grandfather, having lost his son and now his grandson. The King probably regretted inviting the Buddha to the palace. The Buddha agreed to the King’s request to, in future, seek permission from parents/guardians whenever children decided they wanted to join the wandering Sangha. The Buddha had not applied this guideline with regard to his son. In his anguish, the King sent delegation after delegation to try to win his grandson back.

The Buddha also encouraged his half-brother, Nanda, the son of the King and  Queen Pajapati to join his nomadic Sangha. This brought further anguish to the King and Queen and added further distress because Nanda left home on the day of his marriage to the beautiful Janapada. It meant again that the King and Queen had lost another heir to the throne. It was not long before Nanda experienced doubt about leaving behind his beautiful wife. The Buddha told him that the happiness of Nirvana meant much more than the happiness of marriage to a beautiful woman, adding that Nanda would have to find out through his own experience.

The differences between the Buddha and his father around caste and family duty took years to resolve and led to a major inner transformation for his father. Gautama attended his father’s funeral.

Queen Pajapati pleaded with the Buddha to allow her to join the Sangha after the death of her husband. The Buddha refused to give her the opportunity to make the transition from home to homelessness. He gave no explanation for refusing his stepmother. It became another indication of yet another rift in the family. Later both the Queen and her daughter-in-law, Yashodhara, approached Ananda (the Buddha’s first cousin), for support to join the Sangha.

Ananda, who acted as personal attendant to the Buddha, asked the Buddha a direct question: “Are women equally capable of achieving full awakening?” The Buddha agreed that women had the same potential for full awakening (to become a Buddha). The Buddha then had to let go of any misgivings about his stepmother and his wife renouncing their privileged life to become Dharma practitioners. Once he opened the door to the two women, he made it possible for all women to leave the ‘dusty life of the householder’ and join his wandering network, free from the social/religious constraints imposed upon women. Thus he facilitated the first liberation movement for women who were denied the same choice as men.

Buddhist texts claim the Buddha demanded that an ordained woman, even if ordained for many, many years, must bow first to a monk who had been ordained for only one day. Another rule prohibited nuns from reproving monks in any way, but monks were allowed to reprove nuns. There is a strong suspicion that conservative monks, long after the death of the Buddha, added such extra rules for men and women in order for men to maintain control over the Sangha.

The Buddha seemed determined to develop a rather austere tradition, even if it meant rejecting kind offers from members of the royal family and other wealthy supporters.  Queen Pajapati offered the homeless Sangha finely woven cloth to wear. The Buddha refused such fine material as he felt it could have a corrupting impact on their simple way of life. His step mother would not have found it easy to hear his good intentions from her stepson.

The difficult family dynamics may have been a factor influencing the mind of the Buddha when he showed such resistance to the request of his stepmother to join the order of practitioners. Three times he refused his stepmother’s request to join the Sangha. It is not easy to apply the fusion of family and spiritual life with the interpersonal dynamics affecting all those concerned.

It was never easy for the Buddha dealing with a family constellation where the shadows of roles:  such as husband, wife, son, father, grandfather, stepmother, cousin, half-sister and half-brother, wanted to engage with the Buddha and his rapidly expanding spiritual movement. Wise and emotionally well integrated family members have the responsibility to explore ways to resolve family disputes and sometimes take tough decisions. Sometimes the creator of a project may have to say “no” to family involvement, even though it hurts the feelings of close relatives and loved ones.

Wise counsel of others outside of the family matters a great deal in terms of making a contribution towards establishing a genuine sense of harmony and well-being between relatives and loved ones. Sometimes one family member knows that he or she cannot communicate with another, no matter how wise and compassionate the person, such as the Buddha. The voice of wise counsel may carry more weight, be more effective and healing than close family members trying to sort out all of their own problems. For example, the Buddha’s stepmother and wife went to Ananda to seek support to join the Sangha as the Buddha had blocked their way.

We may have the blessing of loving and dedicated parents who wish to be involved in our initiatives or projects. They may offer all kinds of support, such as time, money and presence, but we sense that we could be storing up trouble in the future. Family members might find themselves engaging in squabbles, if not conflict, over disagreements in the decision making process. An intensity of tension and disputes can arise between parents and children with parents thinking they know best because of their seniority.

Yet flexibility matters, rather than  holding to an intransigent attitude. The Buddha listened to Ananda, his personal attendant, who reminded him men and women equally have the opportunity for a liberated life. The situation of the Buddha serves as a reminder that we may need to listen to the counsel of good friends when expressing a standpoint about members of our family. Friends may see a different angle on the family dynamics.

Support for Members of the Family

The Buddha permitted men, women and children in his family to explore the Dharma of ethics, meditation, wisdom and the disciplines of an austere lifestyle. It was not always easy for family members to make the shift from their identity as members of a family to one of Dharma student with a family member, Gautama, as their Dharma teacher. Though Gautama fled his family and responsibilities for six years, he, nevertheless, supported, albeit reluctantly at first, the daily presence of his family, as well as being an active role model to his son in daily life.

Sundari-Nanda, daughter of King Suddhodhana and Queen Pajapati and half-sister of the Buddha, came to be regarded as the most beautiful woman in Sakya. When she joined the Sangha the Buddha reminded her that parts of the body were not beautiful but were subjected to ageing, wrinkles, sickness, disease and decay. She said: “I practise to perceive the body fully. I looked at it this way night and day. I am now carefree, quenched, calm and free.”

At first glance, it might appear that the troublesome family dynamic that had gone on for years, had been finally resolved through the noble motivations and intentions of all concerned. It was far from being the case. The Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, also joined the Sangha under the influence of unresolved personal shadows: power seeking, jealousy and an underlying hatred of the Buddha’s success and inspiration that he offered many, including members of his own family. Devadatta tried to organise a spiritual coup to depose the Buddha and replace himself as the leader of the Sangha. His vitriolic hatred of the Buddha reached such an intensity that Devadatta attempted to assassinate Gautama on three occasions:  by getting an elephant to charge down on the Buddha to trample him to death, by throwing a boulder from a ledge, and by paying hired killers (who had a change of heart after listening to the Buddha).

It is not unusual, in any extended family, for an individual to carry the shadows of other family members as well as their own shadows. One family members absorbs backbiting, fault-finding and blame from other members of the family which only intensifies their unresolved rage. When the self feels unloved and unwanted, it usually pursues attention seeking activities to get away from lack of self-worth. Devadatta sought to create a division in the Sangha through the introduction of additional disciplines as a means to generate the sense of self importance, and to overcome the lack of self-worth. Devadatta wanted the Sangha to become vegetarian as he knew the Buddha took a tolerant view of meat eating, provided animals were not specifically killed for his Sangha. Gautama considered it more important to examine what comes out of our mouths in terms of what we say, rather than what goes in. A Buddha today would surely advocate a vegetarian diet out of compassion for animals, birds and fish, for health reasons and wise use of land and food resources; though perhaps not impose it as a hard and fast rule in the way that Devadatta demanded.

At the time of the Buddha, and right up until today, yogis, wandering mendicants, spiritual seekers and similar networks of people who depend on householders for their daily meal, would live naturally as vegetarians. It is virtually unheard of in India to feed meat and fish to yogis. The refusal of the Buddha to endorse a vegetarian diet meant that few Buddhist monks and nuns today live as vegetarians. In fact, some monks and nuns today eat more meat and fish than householders because laypeople like to offer them such food since it is the most expensive food to buy. Householders believe they make more merit in offering meat and fish.

Many Buddhists have religious sensitivities and hesitate to become vegetarians because it could appear they are taking sides with Devadatta. It is believed that Devadatta eventually persuaded some 500 followers (500 is a metaphorical term and in the texts means ‘a lot’ to leave the Sangha and to follow him when he had formed a cult to act in competition with the Buddha’s Sangha.

The Buddha surely knew the mind of his cousin. He had had the painful interaction with him over the swan when both men were boys. He would have heard about the hostility and jealousy of his cousin towards himself.

Today, a family can undergo an intensity of differences involving beliefs, values, money and interpretation of events. In the intensity of family dynamics, we have to find ways to stay true to ethical principles even though major risks might be the outcome. It would surely not have been easy to invite his stepmother, stepbrother, wife and son to an austere way of life, where their entire possessions in the Sangha could rest on an outstretched arm and with servants and officials agreeing to their every whim.

Out of compassion, the Buddha eventually agreed to members of the family joining his Sangha while knowing that difficult issues would arise. In a one to one talk with his son, the Buddha emphasised the importance of Truthfulness in speech (perhaps an echo of his pain due to his father’s deceit about the realities of life).  The Buddha’s teachings make it clear that we learn to take responsibility for the condition of our inner life. We do not need to live in blame and fault finding of others, including parents and other important family members, no matter how dysfunctional the family.


Our First Gods


The Buddha described our parents as our first gods when, as children, we revere them. He went on to say that our parents are also our first teachers and worthy of donations (dana) as our parents introduced us into this world, cared for us and nourished us. As adults, we show our respect to them through honouring what they have done for us and giving them gifts such as food, drink, clothing and bedding. He said a son or daughter supports his parents through:

  • engaging in tasks for them,
  • supporting the tradition of the family,
  • living a worthy life,
  • giving dana on their behalf when they die,
  • living without causing harm to others.

 Parents act in sympathy with their sons and daughters by:

  • restraining them from unhealthy behaviour,
  • exhorting the to virtue, values and ethics,
  • training them for a profession,
  • contracting a suitable marriage
  • and in due time handing over their inheritance. (D.III.189)

The Buddha gave reminders to parents and their children of matters that deserve mindfulness and reflection so that the whole family lives in ‘mutual accord’ with each other. He also had his responsibilities as father with regard to his son who he neglected for the first six years of the boy’s life. The Pali suttas (the texts recording the Buddha’s discourses) include the essence of some of the conversations the Buddha had with his son.

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection,” Rahula replied.

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & and mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection:

“If on reflection, you know that your actions would not cause affliction, then it is fit for you to do. If, on reflection, you know that it is not causing suffering, you may continue with it. He said to his son: “If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the teacher or to a knowledgeable companion. You should exercise restraint in the future.” MLD 61.

 The same principle again applied to speech and mind. The Buddha advocated that his son share his experiences rather than suppress them. The Buddha knew the significance of listening/counselling/ to resolve unresolved problems involving actions of body, speech or mind that led to painful consequences.

The Buddha promoted “skilful actions with pleasant consequences are fit to do.”

“Rahula, all priests and meditators in the past, present and future who dwelt in purity (absence of greed, negativity and ignorance) did so through repeated reflection.”

The Buddha concluded: That’s how you should train yourself.”  Rahula told his father he was delighted with the advice he received from his father. (MLD 61)

The dialogue between the Buddha and his son shows the love and trust between man and boy. This trust develops through years of daily acts from the father through his presence, his loving kindness and the capacity to recognise the son’s needs. Children need to know when parents give advice that their parents ‘walk the talk,’ especially when parents give blunt advice to their children. So when the Buddha spoke of the importance of skilful actions and repeated reflection, Rahula knew his father remained committed to such a way of life. Instead of resisting the advice of his father, Rahula told him of his delight in listening to such advice.

Skilful action and regular reflection enable us to evolve as human beings. As we practice to walk our talk, it may mean at times that we take three steps forward and one step back. Reflection safeguards us from taking four steps back.

To his nomadic Sangha, the Buddha said:

“I lived a very spoilt life (as a Prince). I saw an old man. All delight in youth left me. I saw a sick person subjected to disease. All delight in health left me. I saw a dead person. All delight in life left me.”

From his personal experience of a dysfunctional family life, the Buddha subsequently took a realistic approach to such matters. He gave a simple injunction in response to a problematic upbringing.

Develop and practice trust if our parents were untrustworthy.

Develop and practice wholesome actions if our parents engaged in unwholesome behaviour.

Develop and practise generosity if our parents were mean.”

If we experienced loving parents, he said, then we repay them for their efforts with our inner development. He said: If one should carry one’s mother on one shoulder and one’s father on the other, and while doing so should live a hundred years, even by that one would not do enough for one’s parents to repay what they have done for us.” (AN. Chapter of the Twos) These principles of autonomy and the willingness to trust in one’s own experience and insights,  at the expense of parents and the other gods of influence in our daily life, show a sense of inner worth even if the family constellation becomes somewhat fractured as a result.

At the end of his life, the Buddha declined to make any family member head of the Sangha or appoint one of the liberated ones in the Sangha as head. The Buddha told Ananda to tell the Sangha to make the Dharma their teacher.


Legend says that King Suddhodhana and King Pasenadi (of the neighbouring Kosala kingdom) were in constant conflict. The King of the Kosalas wanted to marry one of the Sakyan princesses but King Suddhodhana deceived the Kosala King and offered him a beautiful slave. The slave married the King of Kosala and gave birth to a son who found out about the deceit and vowed revenge on the Sakyans. He murdered his father and declared war on the Buddha’s homeland. Generals and soldiers believed in a superstition that their army could not invade another country if they met a holy man on the way. The Buddha attempted to stop the war on the Sakyans by sitting under a dead tree. When the Buddha left the tree, the army returned to launch the battle.

Shortly after the death of the Buddha, often referred to as Sakyamuni (the Silent One of the Sakyans), the Kosalans massacred the Sakyan people. It was another tragic consequence to the control, pressure and deceit by King Suddodhana and the devastating impact upon his family and his people.

We can learn about the significance of causation, compassion and wisdom, from the dynamics of the Buddha’s difficult family history. The Buddha, who used his insights into his upbringing to form part of his teachings, shows that we can draw insights from our family history and apply them to daily life.

We may need to look into the dynamics of several members of our family. Are there family members that we can rely upon? Are there family members who express problematic states of mind? Are there family members who are insecure and vulnerable? Do we have any unresolved issues? What steps can we take? In what ways can different members of the family come together to give support to each other or support a particularly troubled individual?

The Buddha adopted a practical approach that we can summarise today: Mindfulness of thinking, words (speaking/writing) and actions matter. If we know there is kindness or supportive concern in our thoughts, words and actions, then we follow through.  If there is negativity or blame, then we mindfully breathe in and out to clear the mind. We reflect on the changes necessary to develop a clear comprehension of situations with a healthy attitude and the necessary insights for the way forward.  These are challenging and memorable principle for the benefit of oneself and others as an important contribution to an awakened life


1 thought on “The Buddha and his Dysfunctional Family”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top