The Mustard Seed
From Kindness <A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom For Children and Parents>
By Sarah Conover
Unlike the Buddha, Kisa Gotami grew up very poor. Her family had little food to spare. She often felt weary, hungry, and weak and so was called Kisa-meaning”frail”-Gotami. When Kisa Gotami married, she moved into the house of her husband’s family: the custom in India at the time. But because she came from a humble background, her new family treated her harshly until the day she gave birth to a child. She was respected now, with her new baby boy. Kisa felt proud and happy. Her new son was the light of her life. She cherished everything about him-his delightful laughter, his eager brown eyes, his toothless smiles. But one terrible, tragic day, the boy was taken by a sudden illness. His death overwhelmed poor Kisa. She bundled him in warm blankets and held him tightly to her chest. Crazed with grief, she stumbled from house to house, begging for medicine that would bring him back to life. But instead of helping, people mocked her madness. “Crazy woman!” they jeered. “How can a person be brought back to life!” Hours later, Kisa Gotami stood in the street, wretched and disheartened.As she wept over her child,a kind man passing by studied her.To himself he said, ”This poor woman has lost her mind from sorrow. I think I know how to get her the medicine she seeks.” He placed his hands firmly on her shoulders.”Dear woman, please let me help you.The wisest of men, a man named the Buddha, resides at a monastery nearby. I will take you to him and you can ask his advice. If anyone has medicine for your child, it is he.”
He led her to the monastery where she found the Buddha teaching, at the front of a large group of monks and nuns. From the edge of the crowd she shouted,”Teacher, teacher! My name is Kisa Gotami. I am desperate! Please, my son needs your medicine!”
The crowd made way for Kisa to reach the Buddha. As she stood before him, he observed the child’s lifeless face.”You did well in coming here for medicine, Gotamit the Buddha comforted her.”Here you will find the help you need. But first, before l can save your child, you must do something for me.You·must return to the city from which you just came. There, find me a single mustard seed and bring it back.”
Kisa Gotami’s face lit up, for she thought this a simple task in exchange for her son’s life.”Most important of all,”said the Buddha,”the mustard seed must be from a family in which no one has died. Go now, make the rounds of the city and·ask at every home. Bring me back just one mustard seed from such a family.”
“Thank you good sir!”said Kisa happily. She turned and hurried back to the city.At the very first house she stopped and knocked at the door.An old woman answered. She easily gave Kisa Gotami a mustard seed-all India used them in cooking. But just as the seed was placed -in Kisa’s palm, she remembered the Buddha’s further instructions. ”Oh, pardon me. Before I take this, I must ask you, has anyone died in this family recently?” The old woman’s head lowered. She fell silent. When she raised her face, there were pooled tears in her eyes.I’m sorry to say the answer is yes,” replied the old woman. “ My dear husband died six months ago.”
“I am so sorry; said Kisa Gotami.”Thank you for your kindness, but I cannot take this seed.”
A few minutes later she knocked at the door of a house with children running in and out of the entrance,chasing each other in play.A young woman saw Kisa standing in the doorway, and came to greet her. Some of the children stood behind the young woman’s skirt to hear what the stranger wanted. “Can I help you?” she asked Kisa Gotami.
“I have been sent here to find special medicine for my son. I am looking for a single mustard seed from a household in which no one has died;’ said Kisa.
“We cannot help you. l am sorry. We lost our mother two years ago;’ stated the young woman quietly. “For many months I was so unhappy I didn’t know how to go on” One of the boys reached up to hold her hand. She clasped his little fingers and continued,”But I knew I had to help my father take care of my brothers and sisters. That’s what my mother would have wanted. I’m sorry we have no such special mustard seed for you:’
And so Kisa Gotami continued to the next house, and then to another, asking for the single mustard seed. But always, someone had lost a beloved-a brother or a sister, a grandparent, an aunt or cousin, a mother or father. The list grew longer and longer. After a time, nightfall came. People snuffed out their oil lamps for the evening. Kisa Gotami sat down, resting against a tree. She gazed down at her son in her arms.
Studying him closely, she felt a gradual change in herself. Not a single household she had visited today lived untouched by death’s sad hand. Many suffered just as she did now. She was not alone. And somehow, with these thoughts, her grief lightened just a bit, and she returned home. The next day, at first light, Kisa Gotami readied her son for his funeral. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wrapped him in clean cloth and said farewell. After the funeral, Kisa Gotami went back to the monastery to speak with the Buddha.The Buddha dearly saw in her face that she had come back to her senses. He asked,”Gotami, did you bring me a tiny grain of mustard?”
“ No, teacher. I am done looking for the mustard seed. I know that in the whole city, in the whole world, there is not one family, not one person, free from the certainty of death. It is the way of all living things-we must at some time leave one another.”
”And where is your child, dear woman?”
”At last I have said good-bye to him. I felt terribly alone in my grief, but now I know there are many others who have lost what they most cherished. We must help each other, as you have helped me.”
Kisa Gotami, brought back to her right mind from her search for the mustard seed, became a very wise and compassionate woman. It is said that she never left the Buddha after her return to the monastery. And that from her experience, she was able to comfort many, many others in her lifetime.
The moral is : All fear death, all hold life dear. Feel for others as you do for yourself. Remember this and cause no harm.
Title: The Mustard Seed
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