In most of the versions I know of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, his father King Suddhodana serves as a kind of setup man. Maybe you’ve heard the story the same way. The king’s overbearing attempts to insulate his son from the realities of impermanence and death are what the young man rejects when he leaves home on his quest. Shakyamuni’s insights into the nature of suffering and change come in contrast to–stand as a repudiation of–his father’s misguided belief that a life without suffering is possible. The son sees through his father’s foolishness and comes to wisdom.
Or at least that’s how I’ve always thought about it.
In the last year or so, though, I confess that I’ve been seeing and feeling the story in a sharply different way. I’m a father now, of two sons–Leo, our youngest, was born March 1–and I think about the story of the life of the Buddha with a new flood of sympathy for the king and a new feeling for a parent’s role. I turn the story in my mind in a different way.
I guess the difference is that I used to think that the king was trying to protect the boy, and thought he could. This is nuttiness, even if understandable nuttiness. But what if he were trying to protect the boy and knew he couldn’t? What if he were trying to create a set of experiences for his son that would create the stores of confidence and courage the child would need to face difficulties later on? Well, that feels to me like what most of the parents I know are doing. That feels to me like what Devon and I are trying to do.
If I could build my sons a palace, I probably would, at least for a while. That’s the pivot, I guess–that for a while bit.
In my work in hospice I pretty regularly encounter families who choose to keep the truth of serious illness from young children, sometimes even from adults. This is all really tricky, of course. With much of myself I think that we can’t ever know all of what’s going on in a family, and that the whole complex set of cultural expectations around illness and death make it really, really hard to judge what’s right and wrong in any particular case. I have a lot of respect for people’s own decisions.
But I do judge, finally, and I think that people, even really young people, do eventually need to be told the truth. The truth, even when it’s painful, has value. And lying to kids about reality doesn’t actually do them any favors.
So was that what the king was doing? Was the palace a lie? Sort of. It erected a barrier to certain truths, and created the conditions for certain other truths. As a child, under a rose-apple tree, Gotama had an experience of deep peace and concentration while his father worked in the fields and many years later, after nearly starving himself to death in his efforts, he remembered that experience, and used it as a guide.
I’m trying to learn how to be a good father. If the king thought he could keep his son imprisoned in the palace forever, then I’m not interested. But if he knew that the palace itself was temporary, a bubble in a stream? If he wanted to help nurture the qualities his son would later need to encounter difficulties with great courage? If he wanted to share the experiences of deep safety and love that we can see when the son one day touches the earth to ask for support? Who wouldn’t be proud to be a parent like that?