It’s said that soon after the birth of Siddhartha (the Buddha-to-be), a local seer, Asita, came down from his hermitage in the mountains to check the baby boy’s body for the marks of a “great man.” When he was finished, he concluded that the boy would grow up to be either a great ruler or a great spiritual leader. In other words, he bore the marks.
Now, “great ruler” and “great spiritual leader” may sound like two good options, but Siddhartha’s father, the king Suddhodana, didn’t think so. Suddhodana is portrayed sometimes as a hindrance, as someone who tried to steer his son away from his deepest potential. But I think we can give him more credit than that. Suddhodhana understood things that some people never see.
Before I get into that, though, I want to simply acknowledge that Suddhodana was a dad. I am too. I get what he was doing. We wish the best for our kids, but no matter how open-minded we aspire to be, our definition of “best” comes from somewhere in our experience, not our kids’.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actor. I loved theater; I auditioned for every play in our little town. I dreamed of studying theater in college and then giving myself over to a life on the stage. My parents came to the plays; they never tried to get in the way. But they also made clear that they hoped this was a phase, something that would not in fact lead to a career. Later, when I ordained and entered a monastery, they were concerned—not because it was Buddhism but because of what that path might mean for me in terms of family and financial security and status. They wanted what was best for me—but “best,” for them, looked a lot like what they knew. That’s normal.
In the story, Suddhodhana hears this prophecy and then goes out of his way, for decades, to steer Siddhartha away from that spiritual path. But he isn’t trying to hurt Siddhartha, and he isn’t anti-religion, either. He just wants what’s best for his son, and for him, that means success in the world he himself already understands. He’s a good dad, making the mistake that too many of us make. So maybe we can cut him a break.
But what makes Suddhodana such an interesting character is the way in which he tries to push Siddhartha toward a secular life: by shielding him from sickness, old age, and death. Before the Buddha became the Buddha—before his story formed the foundation of Buddhist teachings—his father saw clearly what kinds of experiences spark spiritual questioning. Clearly, he had known them firsthand; clearly, he had asked those questions himself. Perhaps they had caused him so much pain or frustration that he wanted to protect his son from them, or perhaps he had come to the conclusion that they were simply a waste of time. But he knew, deeply, the origins of the spiritual path.
The whole thing backfired, of course. Suddhodana kept his son so sheltered, so totally in the dark, that when Siddhartha finally did see sickness, old age, and death with his own eyes, they shook him to his core and took him away from everything he had ever known: power, wealth, family, and the future that his father had seen for him. But Siddhartha saw something his dad hadn’t—the fourth sight, a wandering ascetic who had given himself completely to the spiritual life. He didn’t see an answer to his questions. He didn’t see a buddha. But where his dad saw a dead end, Siddhartha saw a possibility. He saw what his dad saw, but he saw through the eyes of hope.
It’s spring, the season when we celebrate Siddhartha’s birth. We tell the story as if it’s his story, as if he broke free from a cage and found his destiny. But it’s also the story of those around him, the ones who loved him enough to try to protect him, and who later loved him enough to let him go. If you’ve ever had parents, you understand part of this tale; if you’ve ever had children, you understand another; if you’ve ever been married and watched your spouse grow into someone new, you know yet another.
No one’s story is just their own. But no one’s story is ours, either. Suddhodana learned that the hard way. I suspect it’s the same for all of us.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.