The Great Teenage Refusal: A Buddhist Comedy (Ratthapala, Pt.2)

Who is this Ratthapala who cannot be intimidated by a mighty king and who sets this king a new standard of strength and mastery? 

   He is introduced as a scion of a wealthy Brahmin family from the once great kingdom of the Kurus, at the foot of the Himalayas. When the Buddha wanders into town, Ratthapala accompanies the other brahmin householders to hear this famous guru teach and is at once so moved by the teaching that he asks the Buddha if he can leave everything and join him. The Buddha replies: “Raṭṭhapāla, Tathāgatas do not give the going forth to anyone who does not have his parents’ permission.” This might be read as disingenuous, since the Buddha himself simply left his family without anyone’s permission — but he is probably telling this to Ratthapala because he knows that youthful impetuousness and shallow zeal are best tested by parental disapproval and obstruction. 

   The young man’s reply is evidence of a strong-willed child used to getting his way with his parents: “Venerable sir, I shall see to it that my parents permit me to go forth from the home life into homelessness.” When he asks his parents he is told, predictably, 

“ Raṭṭhapāla, you are our only son, dear and beloved. You have been raised in comfort, brought up in comfort; you know nothing of suffering, dear Raṭṭhapāla. Even in case of your death we would lose you unwillingly, so how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?”

To Ratthapala, this appeal is impotent because he despises the way his family lives and cannot imagine any satisfaction for himself from their coarse materialistic existence. To his parents, he is being typically willful and impulsive, and needs to see that they are acting only out of love for him and care for his best interests. Of course these parents do not understand the Buddha’s teachings; to them, the guru provided interesting entertainment with some instruction, but did not inspire them with a wish to emulate. Besides, how could any parent envision with equanimity their child living as a homeless person, begging for food and sleeping on the ground wherever he can? — especially a boy brought up with every comfort. The exchange between them is repeated three times, as if to enact in prose the repetitive intransigence between mutually uncomprehending family members. The conflict has no middle ground and therefore no satisfactory solution for both sides.

Then, not receiving his parents’ permission to go forth, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla lay down there on the bare floor, saying: “Right here I shall either die or receive the going forth.”

Taken out of context this reaction looks like a tantrum, but taken in the context of many years spent living with these people Ratthapala’s action is an expression of desperate yearning. We have all been in a situation when we know with every cell in our being that if we continue the life we have been living our souls will wither and die, and when we see a path out of this horrible living-death we are only too happy to cast off everything that we have known and are used to. “I have go, or I am going to die here.” The usual effect on those around us is consternation. Something in them must recognize some truth in our reaction, and this provokes a more vehement counter-action against the rejection of their cherished way of life. There is a redoubled effort to win the boy back to the attractions of comfort and pleasure:

Then the clansman Raṭṭhapāla’s parents said to him: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla, you are our only son, dear and beloved. You have been raised in comfort, brought up in comfort; you know nothing of suffering, dear Raṭṭhapāla. Get up, dear Raṭṭhapāla, eat, drink, and amuse yourself. While eating, drinking, and amusing yourself, you can be happy enjoying sensual pleasures and making merit. We do not permit you to go forth from the home life into homelessness. Even in the case of your death we would lose you unwillingly, so how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?” 

And making merit: You can lead a good life and enjoy yourself, Ratthapala, it doesn’t have to be either/or.  You don’t have to give up all the comforts that a reasonable human being lives for! Ratthapala of course hears this as a soul-killing compromise: “By these I would not care to die, / Half convention and half lie.” (Dylan Thomas) His family cannot grasp not only that he has no interest whatsoever in comfort, pleasure, amusement, and the accumulation of merit that results in prolonged comfort, pleasure, and amusement — but that he is actually repelled by the sheer meaninglessness of the round of porcine contentment. Most people want nothing more than this: a comfortable life with as few inconveniences and troubles as possible. It takes an intelligent teenager to perceive that even when people have all of this they are still peevish and unhappy, and none of the “good things” of life have any power to make them better or happier. But to them, Ratthapala’s refusal is unintelligible, and he knows that nothing he can say will have any persuasive impact. So, when this was said, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla was silent. The exchange is repeated: For the second time…For the third time his parents said to him: “Dear Raṭṭhapāla…how could we give you our permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness while you are still living?” For the third time the clansman Raṭṭhapāla was silent.

   They attempt to break the impasse by enlisting his friends, who reiterate the temptation but see more quickly than the parents do that their friend is obdurate:   

Then the clansman Raṭṭhapāla’s friends went to his parents and said to them: “Mother and father, the clansman Raṭṭhapāla is lying down there on the bare floor, having said: ‘Right here I shall either die or receive the going forth.’ Now if you do not give him your permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness, he will die there. But if you give him your permission, you will see him after he has gone forth. And if he does not enjoy the going forth, what else can he do then but return here? So give him your permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness.”

“Then, dears, we give the clansman Raṭṭhapāla permission to go forth from the home life into homelessness. But when he has gone forth, he must visit his parents.”

This seems to be an entirely sensible solution; after all, most young people smitten with spiritual ideals are quite likely to give up after some experience of the difficulties of living up to them. Once again, Ratthapala’s parents demonstrate that they simply do not know their child; indeed, this may itself be a significant reason for his anger at them — that they are so blinded by the life of material luxury that they are unable to see the unhappiness of the individuals closest to them. 

   Against their hopes and expectations, Ratthapala blossoms under spiritual cultivation. He is a “natural”:

Before long, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla, by realising for himself with direct knowledge, here and now entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. He directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” And the venerable Raṭṭhapāla became one of the arahants.

At this point he asks the Buddha if he can visit his parents, and the Buddha, seeing that the young arahant has passed beyond all susceptibility to familial seduction, says yes. Now why does Ratthapala want to go back? Is it solely because he has promised to do so, and a noble spirit will keep his vows? If so, it must be a task that he will now discharge with cold efficiency and some distaste. Or is it as many of us have experienced going home after many years away in a new life: we have to return just once, to verify for ourselves that the old life was exactly as oppressive as we remember it to have been, and we have indeed freed ourselves for good as well as for the good of all? 

Now on that occasion the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father was sitting in the hall of the central door having his hair dressed. When he saw the venerable Raṭṭhapāla coming in the distance, he said: “Our only son, dear and beloved, was made to go forth by these bald-pated recluses.” Then at his own father’s house the venerable Raṭṭhapāla received neither alms nor a polite refusal; instead, he received only abuse.

The detail of his father sitting in the hall of the central door having his hair dressed is a wonderful image of the life of indolent and ostentatious luxury, and in this life, once again, he fails to recognize his son. It takes a maid from whom Ratthapala begs cold leftover porridge to recognize him, and now the mortified father comes running out:

Just then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla was eating the old porridge by the wall of a certain shelter. His father went to him and said: “Raṭṭhapāla, my dear, surely there is…and you will be eating old porridge! Is there not your own house to go to?”

“How could we have a house, householder, when we have gone forth from the home life into homelessness? We are homeless, householder. We went to your house, but we received neither alms nor a polite refusal there; instead we received only abuse.” 

“Come, dear Raṭṭhapāla, let us go to the house.”

“Enough, householder, my meal for today is finished.”

In other words: I don’t need you and don’t want you. Ratthapala’s coldness of speech verges on aggression; the word “householder” functions as a high barbed wire fence, which not only keeps intruders out but looks bristly enough that they won’t even think of coming in. Shouldn’t Ratthapala have been softer, friendlier, to his dear father who cannot help loving him in the only way he knows how? Why does he have to be so harsh, since the harshness in this case can deliver only wounds but no comprehension? When a young person insists on eating leftover porridge on the street while his father pleads with him in vain to come home and have a decent meal, he obviously intends to upset, humiliate, and cause pain. While the Buddha knows that there is no possibility of Ratthapala’s reversion to the old life, he must also see that the young arahant needs to return home one more time to make the definite violent cut — in this case by forcefully putting his father in his place and demonstrating, for himself as well as his father, that the filial relationship no longer exists. 

   Later that day, when Ratthapala reluctantly goes to a feast arranged for him by his father, he is shown two heaps of gold and told that they are all his, to be used in a life that any mortal would envy. Instead of polite refusal, he rejects it all with contempt: 

“Householder, if you would follow my advice, then have this pile of gold coins and bullion loaded on carts and carried away to be dumped midstream in the river Ganges. Why is that? Because, householder, on account of this there will arise for you sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

— as if his father were capable of understanding this admonition!

Then the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives clasped his feet and said to him: “What are they like, my lord’s son, the nymphs for whose sake you lead the holy life?”

“We do not lead the holy life for the sake of nymphs, sisters.”

“Our lord’s son Raṭṭhapāla calls us ‘sisters,’” they cried and right there they fainted.

Every conceivable attempt is made to win him back to the life of comfort, until Ratthapala cuts it short with a comically cruel command:

 “Householder, if there is a meal to be given, then give it. Do not harass us.”

“Eat then, dear Raṭṭhapāla, the meal is ready.”

Then, with his own hands, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father served and satisfied him with the various kinds of good food. 

From the point of view of most Asian traditions, the inversion of filiality in the image of the aged father serving the renegade son would be both touching and shocking. Moreover, the son lets himself be served by his father, and eats without pleasure or gratitude; the drama is simultaneously perverse, unnatural, and cruel. The father has been reduced to silence, and he must know that this will be his last opportunity to serve his own son at home. Then, with his own hands, the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s father served and satisfied him with the various kinds of good food. The meal has now turned into a sacred valediction, ritually and perhaps tenderly — with his own hands — administered by the father. 

   Is Ratthapala at all moved by this?

When the venerable Raṭṭhapāla had eaten and had put his bowl aside, he stood up and uttered these stanzas:

 “Behold a puppet here pranked out,
A body built up out of sores,
Sick, an object for concern,
Where no stability abides.

Behold a figure here pranked out
With jewellery and earrings too,
A skeleton wrapped up in skin,
Made attractive by its clothes.

Its feet adorned with henna dye
And powder smeared upon its face:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

Its hair is dressed in eightfold plaits
And unguent smeared upon its eyes:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

A filthy body well adorned
Like a new-painted unguent pot:
It may beguile a fool, but not
A seeker of the further shore.

The deer-hunter set out the snare
But the deer did not spring the trap;
We ate the bait and now depart
Leaving the hunters to lament.”

The stanzas are an expression of disgust and triumph, with some element of cold rage; they feel like a parting curse. There is no way that the king could understand why his son is saying these things, and Ratthapala must know that. Thus the stanzas are intended to inflict a painful rejection, as well as to fortify a final relinquishing of the old life: Nice try, but you failed to trap me. What Ratthapala fails to see is the ambivalence of his father’s attempt: yes, it was a trap, but not merely a trap; the father is trying to love in the way that he knows how. It may be that love of this kind is really nothing more than a trap, a device to possess and control — but what would it take for a person to notice this confusion in himself? If he errs, it is more from ignorance than from malice, and what he needs is to be instructed. Ratthapala also doesn’t see the ambivalence of his own reaction: yes, the noble soul has succeeded in holding out against the seductions of pleasure and the soft life of mortals with no higher aspirations, but the vexed haughtiness of the noble soul betrays a certain neediness — for what? For understanding and respect? A helpless and unreasonable demand that those closest to him be better and wiser than they are?  Why can’t his family just be like him? The accusation of the parting stanzas barely conceal a raging disappointment in the failings of ordinary people. 

   At this point Ratthapala leaves his father’s house and settles down for the day in King Koravya’s Megacira Garden — either completely satisfied that he now no longer needs to think of his family again, or to still his furious, grieving heart. The arahant who asserts his mastery in instructing the king has revealed himself to us as a young man of iron will and truculent pride — not a humane, compassionate Buddha or one with skill in saying to people what they need to hear. His summaries of the Buddha’s teachings express the vision of a fierce but rigid spirit, one who bends to no one, and who lets it be known that he bends to no one. Perhaps it takes such a character to command the attention of the Kuru king.

I have longed to move away
From the hissing of the spent lie
And the old terror’s continual cry
Growing more terrible as the day
Goes over the hill and into the deep sea;
I have longed to move away
From the repetition of salutes,
For there are ghosts in the air
And ghostly echoes on paper,
And the thunder of calls and notes.

I have longed to move away but am afraid;
Some life, yet unspent, might explode
Out of the old lie burning on the ground,
And, crackling into the air, leave me half-blind.
Neither by night’s ancient fear,
The parting of hat from hair,
Lips pursed at the receiver,
Shall I fall to death’s feather.
By these I would not care to die,
Half convention and half lie.

(Dylan Thomas)

The Ratthapala Sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, can be found here:


2 thoughts on “The Great Teenage Refusal: A Buddhist Comedy (Ratthapala, Pt.2)

  1. Like St. Alexis (or Alexius), who left home on his wedding day and later returned as a mendicant without being recognized. The family only learned of his identity after his death, if I recall correctly. They complained bitterly afterwards.
    Alexis was only following the precept of Jesus: “One who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” The reconciliation of compassion with renunciation is a great and impossible challenge of a spiritual path. It is both nonsensical and necessary.

    • Wonderful, Bill — “both nonsensical and necessary.” Could compassion be one natural consequence of true renunciation? That is, when we have renounced ourselves, surely there is nothing left to inhibit feeling for others?

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