Buddha: The Deadbeat Dad
Mindful Minute Up Front (MMUF):
Seeking ultimate truth & following his heart, the Buddha abandoned his family. Was he brave? Or cowardly? Following a 29 year old Prince trying to figure shit out — we discover why family — is overrated. Yet in that realization, each of us will become enriched and happier people. (~12 Minute read).
Searching for a world free of heartache and pain, the Buddha followed his heart. So what did he do?
He abandoned his family in the middle of the night. No goodbye. No Note.
Was he a coward? Or Courageous?
When pondering what to write in my nephew’s 16th birthday card, as only hippie uncles can, that paradox flashed. We may not be hardcore Buddha’s, but we all have to battle the tradeoffs of life.
A nagging tension of choice and time that aches the heart. Work vs family time. Passion vs money. Pleasure vs peace of mind.
And so it was for the Buddha — he could sacrifice his dreams for his family. Or sacrifice his family for his dreams.
So welcome to world’s weirdest birthday card. A card written from the heart, yet uncomfortably, it will persuade you that family — is overrated. In shattering that ideal, counter intuitively, the work of growing our hearts can blossom.
But I will warn you now. After this post, family may be less important. Yet you may more loving — more happy — more tranquil. Just ask Buddha — the deadbeat dad...
PUNK’s & BUDDHAS FIGURING SHIT OUT
My nephew (Hi Alex) isn't taller than me yet, but it’s likely coming. He’s at the age where he’s measuring his height weekly — and god knows what else. But even with his newfound swagger, the igloo of his childhood is melting.
He now has to start planning for the future. Life wants choices — and Snapchat has no answers. Colleges & majors. Careers & life paths. Shit is getting #real.
So what do you tell a teenager in his rare reflective times?
Hell if I know - I’m a former MBA techie — turned vagabonding dharma-bum. But my mind just couldn’t escape that image of the Buddha standing in his royal doorway. His family sleeping. His worldview shattered. His toiletries and underwear packed.
‘Should I go? Or should I stay?' A prince, pondering his pros and cons list.
What would you do?
Is there a dream — a truth — that you would sacrifice your family to achieve? Settling Mars? Curing cancer? Enlightenment?
Let’s see why one of the most compassionate beings ever, rightfully ditched his family.
A GHOST & A SEEKER ARE BORN
The Buddha was a big pimpin prince. PSG, formerly known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan, had grape feeding servants —a dozen singing maidens — the whole jazz.
But swimming in a pool of pleasure, sadly with no Instagram to record his follies, his world was one big lie.
Do you know that feeling when you realize your most cherished joys of Christmas and Santa Claus — are all an elaborate con? And even worse, you realize your idolized parents were the conspirators?
That was the disenchantment of PSG — but he was not 10 — but a jaded 29 year old prince.
See his father, due to a prophecy, sheltered Siddhartha from sickness, aging, and death his entire life. But that delusional bubble eventually popped. And so PSG had to know what was true. What was a lie. And what was a dream.
In that hunger for truth — a seeker was born. But a spiritual seeker with a wife, Yasodhara. A seeker with a newborn son, Rahula. And a seeker with a shit storm of conflict in his heart.
Which raised more questions:
- What if to follow your heart — you need to pain those dearest to your heart?
- What if to serve the larger human family, you need to leave your family behind?
- Can you leave your family now, to help them more later?
- For deep self-inquiry, do you need to retreat from the ‘regular’ world?
But PSG had no answers — only an ultimate question.
For the Buddha was not a Buddha — but a young dude trying to figure shit out. A dissatisfied man — surrounded by a rapacious world — who longed for another way.
He was stuck.
(Yes I realize I am going back 2,612 years to psychoanalyze the Buddha — but let a brother project!)
Stuck with no where to turn, he had to listen to the ineffable cries of his heart-mind. An inner voice that silently screams from within the caverns of us all. You can listen to her songs, or risk her bellowing in regret. You can either swim in short-term pain and uncertainty — or drown in a lifetime of what if’s.
Ultimately, PSG sacrificed the royal robes for the beggars' bowl. But What is often overlooked, is that the man, the myth, and the legend — in the middle of the night — ghosted his entire family. Not only did leave them behind — he couldn’t stomach saying goodbye.
To ensure his ghosting was not in vain, he made a vow. He resolved to never to see his family again — for 5 or 50 years — until he knew his truth. Until he was fully awakened.
Damn, talk about a commitment device — Mom, I will see you at Christmas in 2046!
So maybe PSG marched a path of minimized suffering for us all. Regardless, one of the most compassionate beings ever — walked out on his family without a trace.
From that painful choice, Prince Siddhartha was buried and “The Ascetic Gautama” was born. The ‘student of life’ (or ascetic in Pali) grabbed his walking shoes and lunch box — and snuck out his royal door*.
The Ascetic Gautama chose a student’s dream — over a Prince’s family. And by the time we get to Alex’s 4 contemplations — you would do the same.
But first, why “family is everything'“ is bullshit.
IS ‘FAMILY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING’ BULLSHIT?
Do you ever listen to a parent give advice to their kids and think — ‘ugh...Bullshit!’ ?
Recently, I had such a moment. But at a family BBQ. See my brother (sorry bro) was lecturing my nephew. Yet rocking in my chair — my lips sat motionless. And that silence probably birthed this bizarre birthday card.
See the family was relaxing on the patio, and my brother was telling Alex that, “Family is everything. The most important thing.”
A good point. A comforting point. But not the whole truth.
Of course, the wife-less, childless, vagabonding philosopher with a non-agreeable personality type — and attachment issues — would call bullshit. But we live in a world of nuance. Not simplified absolutes.
However, before you think I am a sociopath — of course love, social connection, and family provide the juice of so much of our happiness*. And we owe an unpayable debt to family. They give us life and nurture us with love and sacrifice — from diapers to diplomas.
But how can it be true that “ FAMILY IS EVERYTHING” if :
- The family is abusive and toxic physically or mentally?
- You’re gay in some evangelical’ you’re going to hell’ home?
- To follow your acting/startup dream, you need to turn down the family business?
- A parent pursues a masters degree, but that means less family time?
- You’re a ‘family man’, but a douche bag as a person?
Yes family is important, but what if the Buddha was onto something — that it’s not the ultimate importance?
A blind loyalty to family can act as a ‘golden chain’. Family is warm and cozy. Nourishing and secure. It’s our loving bunker in a dangerous and judgmental world.
But it’s comforting safety is a double-edged sword. It encourages homogeneity. Conformity. Stagnation. A social structure that reinforces order and the tribe. And that cushy bunker, often although not always, limits personal development and growth*`.
Research suggests social connections (like friends and family) correlate with happiness. But they do not correlate with satisfaction and finding meaning in life. Thus a hole often sits unfilled that no baby, no family, no money can fill.
So what my brother said sounds good. It feels good. But it’s bumper sticker simplified.
There’s a blind spot in ‘family is everything’.
In determining our priorities — our world view — and ways to achieve lasting happiness and meaning in life — we must transcend ‘family is everything’.
But transcend to what? And how?
FILLING THE HOLE WITH WHO
Living the good life is not simply WHAT you have in life. Or even WHO you have.
Rather it’s WHO YOU ARE that manifests life’s fruit.
And what cultivates that — is how you live life — your virtues and values.
Virtues such as loving-kindness, humility, compassion, generosity, wisdom, joy, tranquility, discipline, trust, equanimity, courage, justice, equality, loyalty, mindfulness and faith.
These virtues act as building blocks of our character, behavior, and hearts.
What are your building blocks?
We prioritize family. We provide for family. We think if we give more, we are doing more.
But if ‘family is everything’, how do you actually enrich it?
Is it simply more money, opportunities, and time?
In reality, we love family. We trust family. We are loyal to family. With discipline and hard-work we provide for family. These are our tools of love that enrich the family. And these virtues — these skills — are not binary, but a life’s work. We cultivate them not in isolation, but with others.
But virtues don’t trump family. Cultivating our Virtues “transcend and include*” family. This nuance sounds simple. But it’s integrally profound.
You can prioritize family, yet be a selfish prick. So we have to raise our children, but continue to grow WHO WE ARE. Time and children force some of this growth, but we can proactively cultivate our building blocks.
Because if you’re wise, balanced, and integrated — a less judgmental and more patient and compassionate heart only benefits the family.
But there’s a catch.
Living virtuously, can still hurt those you love. For virtues go to war.
Just ask my shameful 10-year-old self...
DAD’s HOME RUN & MY STRIKEOUT
For I can still hear the sound of van’s door sliding shut — and the embarrassing loneliness closing in.
Weighed down with hidden caves of shame, I dove for the ball. Playing 2nd base, I threw the runner out. Yet I felt thrown out.
For Guilt is about your behavior. Shame is about who you are.
And when my dad with 2 jobs — busted his ass working 80 hour weeks to provide for the family — but often had to prioritize work over time with me — a 10 year old (perceived and unconsciously) buried it as shame. A first world problem, but pain is pain.
See my dad was my brother’s baseball coach (yes totally the youngest whining). But by the time I was in Pony League — he was my Coach — but now had no time.
Business was booming, but not baseball.
It got to the point where other player’s parents, who weren’t coaches, started organizing practices for our team. One summer day he had to cook for 3 events & 800 people! So ironically — he dropped me off in his work van (yes with the best logo ever of a giant clam drinking a beer & smoking a cigar) — at a parent run practice.
Rmmmm TK bam! A door and a father shut behind me.
And so my pride limped to practice. I had no coach, but the hardest working father I have ever seen.
“This is the tension of time and heart-choices we must all confront. Where even doing virtuous things, can sting those you love”
That drive to practice likely stung us both. My dad didn’t selfishly follow his creative passions like Steve Jobs — or sit on some bar stool — but did everything he could to provide for those he loved.
This is the tension time and heart-choices we must all confront. Where even doing virtuous things, can sting those you love (See Gratitude Letters for more on this story).
So it’s not just about family. Nor only virtues. But managing this chasm of enriching our selves — and the family.
As the quote goes, “You can do anything, but not everything”. The buddha was self-centered. My dad family centered. Yet neither could do it all.
And what about me? I don’t have wife and kids and I am balking from the sidelines. How am I tackling my inner-heart tension?
By running away like the Buddha of course.
RUNNING AWAY — TO RUN AT IT
I don’t have a family, but I empathize with my dad and the Buddha — pulled like Gumbi in multiple directions. Traveling now for 2 years, I sometimes feel guilty for leaving family and friends behind.
Many think I am running away from life and responsibility — ‘Having fun seeing the world”. They imply I am not living in ‘the real world’, like I am in some alternate dimension or something.
But in reality I am not lost in a dream, but waking up from one. For I know my current spiritual work ( I know it needs a non-cringe worthy name) is the most important work of my life. I’m not running away, but mindfully nurturing virtues I actually give a fuck about.
For my journey is not about seeing the world — but a ‘wisdom of experience’ that is opening doors. Opening my mind. Opening my heart.
Like that 1st pair of glasses, a new world is born. But a growth of everything heart and mind. A grand unfolding of a more authentic life — a more authentic “me”. Not to be an enlightened all perfecting saint that is free of emo baggage, for that is naive bullshit.
Instead to be less of what everyone else wants me to be, and more Me. To not sleepwalk in a dream — but live my dream.
“We have to raise our children, but continue to grow WHO we are. To cultivate virtues we cherish, to love those we cherish even more”
Now where it all goes, I don’t know. That uncertainty is scary, but all I know is I must continue to go deeper. That this path, inner heart tension and all, will enrich me, my family, and the world.
Enriching me to be… a kinder friend. A more generous stranger. A wiser father. A more compassionate (cult?) leader. A more loving son, brother, uncle, and husband. And more importantly, less of a judgmental self-righteous asshole.
So we have to serve our families, but also ourselves. To cultivate virtues we cherish, to love those we cherish even more.
Following a spiral of growth, we don’t leave family behind. We transcend that love — with more openness, love, and wisdom to love everyone and everything.
So that’s why I think “family is everything” is bullshit. And why PSG made the tough, but righteous choice to be a student of life — to love and help his family — and — the human family.
EVEN BUDDHA’S CAN’T HAVE THEIR VEGAN CAKE & EAT IT TOO
So one of the greatest mystics, psychologists, and teachers in all of history battled his inner heart tension. And he realized this…
he could not do it all.
Just like my Dad. Just like me. Just like us all.
So the wandering Siddhartha ditched his family and then endured 6 years of self-inflicted torture.
He practiced extreme fasting and meditation, which was thought to be one of the best ways for acquiring wisdom.
Eventually, he realized his austerities were foolish. That for true wisdom, a path of balance, rather than extremism was the way. Voila, the Buddhist “Middle~Way” was born.
Add an all-night meditation rager under that Bodhi tree and the “Student of Life” Gautama — became an enlightened master.
And so he returned to see his family (temporarily). Not as a father. Nor husband. But a monk. A Buddha.
For the Buddha — family wasn’t everything, but he found a transcendental wisdom and compassion that included them. A peace of heart and mind no one could steal. A peace he taught them — and the world.
His family lost a father and husband — but gained a liberating teacher. Both became disciples of the Buddha — eventually becoming fully enlightened (Arahants) themselves (so the story goes).
SO…UMMM…WHAT ABOUT THAT DAMN BIRTHDAY CARD?
Alex probably stopped giving a fuck about this 42 notifications and 7 minutes ago. I should probably forget the birthday card and send a Snapchat video. But stubborn uncles will be stubborn uncles. And I don’t know how that works.
“YOU CAN DO ANYTHING,
BUT NOT EVERYTHING”
— David Allen
So Alex (and whoever made it this far), in life even the Buddha couldn’t do it all.
Steve Jobs was an icon who changed the world. But he also was a mean, narcissistic, and a piece of shit dad.
Yet — he chose his way. And so must we all. For we “…can do anything, but not everything”.
I don’t have a clue about what you should do. And if anyone says they know the job landscape in 10 years — they are full of shit. But you must honestly look into your heart tension of time and choices.
Choices will be hard, and not everyone will agree. But if you’re wise — choose a middle-way based on what you give a fuck about.
But realize this, many people never contemplate their priorities and values consciously. Whether due to fear, ignorance, or follow the herd mentality — the tidal forces of time pull on them before an answer is reached. Or sadly — before a question is ever asked.
So Alex, I don’t have answers for you, but as you know your Uncle, here are 4 questions to contemplate. For that’s the meta lesson here ;).
Ponder well my beloved ‘punk’.
1. Not WHAT, but WHO do you want to be?
This is the question of questions. “WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?” is a narrow framing.
Instead, WHO do you want to be? Meaning what values, priorities, skills and interests?
For example, not an architect. Instead… a father who has work-life balance— who lives in a zero-waste ‘tiny home’ near the beach so he can surf — and gets to create and build things that tackle critical environmental problems.
2. What problems do you want to solve?
Fear Careers — it’s too abstract and a dated view. Rather, what questions salivate your mind?
For Elon Musk it was: the internet, sustainable energy, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and rewriting human genetics.
We are not an alien robot like him, but the problem-solving view is a good gauge.
3. What do you want to do that is non-routine, involves complex critical thinking, and social intelligence?
The recipe of AI and technological automation — sprinkled with 2 Billion Indian and Chinese kids — will blow up this job market as we know it.
Thus think not in terms of 1 job area, but skipping between FIVE or TEN. And these skills will be automation obstacles. Like our monkey ancestors, learning and adaptability will be the meta skills.
4. How long do you want to be a corporate whore?
College brands and networks matter. But it’s not all about follow your passions — for costs and ROI matter. They are investments, but also burdens that limit freedom.
Because debt, before money, was the original enslaver (great book here for non 16 yr old readers).
Figure out your threshold of debt and optimize the burden accordingly.
ALEX & THE BUDDHA LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER (MAYBE)
OK Alex, maybe that helps. Maybe it’s shit (*see Nerd notes below for Buddha’s literal shitty death).
So here’s your summary cheat sheet:
1. You will have to make tough choices — ones that conflict your heart-mind.
2. Following your heart, may hurt those you love.
3. Family isn’t everything. Virtues transcend — yet include family.
4. You can do Anything, but not everything. And the choices you make become your life. For we must all walk the tight rope of inner heart tension of choices and time.
So good luck my nephew. I love you.
Maybe you will be like Siddhartha seeking spiritual truth.
Maybe you will help humans colonize Mars.
Maybe it’s perfecting a 12 grain sprouted bread.
Maybe it’s being a stay at home dad.
Maybe its being a designer of virtual shoes for Avatars within some AI designed augmented world (open your present).
Who knows if you will choose wisely, for Mother Time grades that. But you can contemplate your heart-mind wisely. So fuck the world — fuck the herds — and give a fuck about what you give a fuck about.
And remember just like the Buddha — you can do anything, just not everything. Even being a badass deadbeat dad...
Giving a f*ck with a little grace & a lot grit,
*NERD NOTES: where cool kids PONDER more
Lunch Pale: Ok maybe he didn’t have a lunch pale. But eventually he had an Alm’s bowl (what traveling monks collect and eat food out of). If so, he likely picked that up at a thrift store on the road. But whether later or then, it’s interesting to ponder the image of Siddhartha’s travel bag.
Buddha’s Shitty Death: Allegedly, the Buddha was in someone’s home who generously offered him spoiled food. Being too polite to refuse (and deny) someone’s generosity — the Buddha ate it. He died of dysentery at ~80.
“Transcend & Include”: this is referencing Ken Wilbur’s developmental psychology model of Integral theory. Although he doesn’t cite family directly, it is a spiraling growth of virtues - where one set is not supreme but like a spring bounces on the rest.
Enlightened Siddhartha’s Return: To be fair to the Tathāgata, the Buddha did return to his family. However, not as a regular householder, but a monk. My inference of “deadbeat” may be unfair, as he was a Prince. It’s not like he left his family starving and on welfare. But he did ghost them. He did leave them. And he had to battle that choice of family and his heart.
From a utilitarian/consequentialist perspective, it probably worked out for the family in the end. His son and wife both became fully enlightened (Arahants).
The Buddha directly taught his son Rahula meditation. His 1st lesson? Be like the earth. Pissed on, spat on, rained on, accept it all in meditation. This lesson (in equanimity) was then followed by Sati, or mindfulness of breathing, via Annapanasati. But at the time of his dilemma to leave his family, Siddhartha knew NONE of this.
Buddha Ascetic Practices quote source: https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/14lbud.htm
“A Buddha”: There have been other Buddha’s, Siddhartha Gautama or Shakyamuni Buddha, just happened to be the latest Buddha (4th out of a total of 5 in this age apparently). Thus “a Buddha”, not “The Buddha”. This is the simplified version avoiding all the ‘living buddhas” after Siddhartha of Tibetan Buddhism.
Scarcity of Fucks to Give a Fuck About - Great counter intuitive book, “The Subtly Art of Not Giving a fuck” by Mark Manson. I came to a similar conclusion when contemplating quitting work “Why do I give a fuck about all this shit? With $10 million I woundn’t spend my precious time (and fucks) in the rat race. So why now?”
Philosophical Middle-Way: The middle way typically refers to moderation on the spiritual path, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Other philosophical applications or frames are around eternalism (primarily interpreted as belief in an eternal self), and nihilism ( no eternal self — rather the belief that one is annihilated at death). These were hotly debated between philosophical schools at the time. Yet the Buddha typical avoided such metaphysical ‘what if’ philosophical questions. For WTF does it matter? It’s not about what happens after you die, but what you do before you die that is of critical importance. Either way you’re in stress and suffering, solve that and then worry. Thus the middle way and applying skillful means.