The third, and pivotal, element in the story of Siddhartha as archetypal bodhisattva is his great home-leaving, abandoning family and position, fame and gain, to seek spiritual truth. The version that has been generally recounted in the West is that at age twenty-nine, after his experiences of worldly suffering, in the middle of the night Siddhartha left his beautiful young wife and infant son in the palace and began a life of spiritual austerity in the Himalayan forests. In some accounts he is described giving a last loving look back at his sleeping wife, Yashodhara, and their child, before departing. Sometime after his enlightenment six years later, his wife and son, along with his stepmother, joined the Buddha's order, and his son Rahula became one of Shakyamuni's celebrated ten foremost disciples.
Siddhartha's dramatic departure from the palace is so fundamental a motif in Buddhist practice that all Buddhist monks are referred to formally as home-leavers. While the model of solitary or sometimes loosely associated spiritual seekers predated Shakyamuni in India, in East Asian societies family loyalty and structured social roles were fundamental to all human identity. A Buddhist order composed of monks and nuns who had left home and turned their back on family ties and conventional social position posed an ongoing, radical alternative to the usual way of being in the world. Although Buddhist monasteries in later Asian societies sometimes became conservative and comfortable establishments, the vision of Dharma community as a counterculture challenging the established social order never completely faded.
Shakyamuni's home-leaving is especially controversial in the modern transition of Buddhism to the West, with its valorization of lay life, family practice, and the spiritual value of intimate relationships. The value of monastic or semi-monastic training and ordination has been accepted by many Westerners. But many emerging Western Buddhist communities are dominated by sincere and often rigorous practice by lay people, congruent with non dualistic Mahayana teaching that this very world is the realm for realization. This is reflected in an emphasis on spiritual practice in the family setting, with recognition that parenting and care for personal, intimate relationships may be challenging, and even enlightening, spiritual activities.
The insights of feminism also have been influential and have led to changes in traditional community practices developed over centuries in patriarchal cultures. There have been only occasional precedents in Asian Buddhist history for residential practice communities composed primarily of lay people, with men and women, and families with children, practicing together, such as those that have developed in America.
Although Siddhartha's home-leaving is central in all versions of his life, the Mahayana versions have his family playing a role in Siddhartha's spiritual pursuit. There is an implied promise by the prince to return and enlighten them as well, which is fulfilled when his wife and son join his order, and his stepmother becomes leader of the order of nuns. Many of his other relations also joined Shakyamuni's community, such as his cousin, the prominent disciple Ananda, and Shakyamuni's half-brother, Nanda. In the Mahayana, Shakyamuni's enlightenment is thus seen as a family affair, with blood ties acknowledged and loved ones included among the beings to be saved. Historically in Buddhism, the families of sons and daughters who become monks or nuns are said to receive great merit upon their ordination.
The inner meaning of home-leaving
What is the inner meaning of the home-leaving? Home-leaving may be understood in terms of shedding the antiquated home of familial conditioning for the ultimate homecoming to the awakened heart. This is the homecoming to our original, inalienable true nature, not separate from all being (which is indicated in Zen slogans such as "to see your original face before your parents were born"). Buddhist disciples are referred to as children of Buddha, indicating the new "home" of Buddhist practice and community. Ancestry is seen by East Asian Buddhists in terms of historical lineages of teachers, similar to traditional genealogies of genetic ancestors, and transmission of the teaching is nicknamed "maintaining the family business." The fellowship of bodhisattvas working for universal awakening is seen as a wider, more fundamental family. Practitioners or devotees are encouraged to see each other as buddhas, more closely related to one another than genetic siblings.