The Vinaya Pitaka contains the rules and codes of conduct for bhikkhunis and bhikkhus, such as codes about eating and sexual practices while living the homeless life. The Buddha laid out these codes in response to situations that would arise (and so the Vinaya contains many stories of the context in which a rule was first introduced). But it seems that, in quite a few instances, the Buddha was strongly influenced by lay people in the introduction of a particular rule.
As an example, when the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu (his hometown) after his Enlightenment, his former wife Bhaddakaccānā (perhaps upset at being left behind with a child to live as a “monk’s widow”) sent their son Rāhula over to him, saying, “That is your father, Rāhula. Go and ask him for your inheritance!”
Rāhula went to the Buddha, stood before him, and said, “Your shadow is pleasant, monk.” The Blessed One got up to leave. Rāhula followed behind, saying, “Give me my inheritance, monk; give me my inheritance, monk!”
At these words, the Blessed One gave Rāhula his inheritance. He told the venerable Sāriputta, “Then give him the going forth [into the homeless life].” Now a monk’s widow would be left without a child as well.
Upon hearing this, the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana, went to the Buddha and implored him:
Lord, I suffered no little pain when the Blessed One went forth. Then there was Nanda. Rāhula is too much. Love for our children, Lord, cuts into the outer skin; having cut into the outer skin, it cuts into the inner skin; having cut into the inner skin, it cuts into the flesh; having cut into the flesh, it cuts into the sinews; having cut into the sinews, it cuts into the bones; having cut into the bones, it reaches the marrow and stays there. Lord, it would be good if the venerable ones did not give the going forth without the parents’ consent.
In response, the Blessed One made this the reason and occassion to give a talk on the Dhamma and address the Bhikkhus thus: “Bhikkhus, you should not give the going forth to children without their parents’ consent. If anyone does this, he commits an offense of wrongdoing”
Stories such as this one from the Pāli Canon shed light on the rich and complicated life of the Buddha and his contemporaries. It also brings to light perhaps not to easy to digest features of the one we trace our practice back to as root and teacher.
But what stands out for me is that the Buddha did not develop this practice and the way it was taught and presented in isolation from those around him. The practice and its presentation, both for lay and ordained followers, was developed in response to particular situations as this one between the Buddha, Bhaddakaccānā, Rāhula, and Suddhodana.
It is a lesson for us today, as we find ourselves in continually changing circumstances. The way I lived and practiced in Michigan may not work in a vastly different Colorado. As the landscape unfolds, we need to be sensitive to how our actions affect the bodies and minds of those around us. For me, I am not giving anyone the going forth, but even in deciding whether to say hello or not, whether to give a homeless person a dollar or keep my change, I am deeply connected whether I like it or not (or, whether I see it or not).
May we be sensitive to our changing contexts so that we may live with ease and joy, practicing the triple teachings of morality, meditation, and wisdom!
(Note: The story related here is paraphrased from two sources: (i) Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, pages 77 – 79 and (ii) H. W. Schumann’s The Historical Buddha (tr. M. O’C. Walshe), page 99.)