The Buddhist Parable of the Mustard Seed: Grief, Loss, and Heartbreak

Most Christians will know the Parable of the Mustard Seed, wherein Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as like a mustard seed in that it is tiny but grows into a great tree.

Buddhism, too, has its Parable of the Mustard Seed, but here the story is quite different.

Kisa Gotami

In the Buddhist story a young woman -Kisa Gotami- follows a rather fairy-tale like path from birth in a poor family to a marriage to the only son of a wealthy family. She was not treated well by the wealthy family of her husband until she bore them a son. Then she was accepted and respected. Things couldn’t be better for her.

But then, tragedy strikes. Her son, at just the age where he had begun to run around on his own, died.

Distraught, she took up the child’s body and searched for a doctor with the right medicine to revive him. She was laughed at and mocked by those who saw her until, finally, a man told her to go see the Buddha.

She asked the Buddha if he could help her. To her delight, he said, “yes, I can help you.”

What he would need from her was just a simple mustard seed from the nearby village. In India, mustard seeds would be in practically every house as a common spice. She was elated; this would be easy. “But,” the Buddha told her, “you must get the seed from a house that has not known death.”

Realization

“Sure,” she thought, and went quickly on her way. At the first house she asked for the mustard seed and when it was quickly offered to her, she asked, “has there been death in this house?” The kind villager nodded and told the story of a lost uncle or cousin. The same happened at the next house, and the next house, and the next.

As she traveled from house to house and heard story after story, her sense of aloneness in her grief began to subside. “No house is free from death,” she realized. She finally let go of her son, laying him in a forest nearby, and returned to the Buddha.

The Buddha asked her, “Do you have the mustard seed?”

“Dear teacher,” She replied, “I do not, but I saw that the living are few and the dead are many.”

~

Kisa Gotami Bhikkhuni (nun)

Kisa Gotami then joined the Buddha’s order of nuns and gained complete and perfect awakening. One story of her post-awakening life has her encountering Mara – the devil in early Buddhism, a sort of personification of destructive doubt. Alone in the woods one day he came to her and asked:

“Why now, when your son is dead,
Do you sit alone with a tearful face?
Having entered the woods all alone,
Are you on the lookout for a man?”

Perplexed at first, she quickly realized who (or what) this was and replied:

“I’ve gotten past the death of sons;
With this, the search for men has ended.
I do not sorrow, I do not weep,
Nor do I fear you, friend.

“Delight everywhere has been destroyed,
The mass of darkness has been sundered.
Having conquered the army of Death,
I dwell without defiling taints.”

And just as thoughts, when given no power, simply disappear, so too does Mara at hearing this.

Notice that she calls him “friend.” Their is much in Buddhism about learning to “befriend our demons” or “offer them tea when they come to us.” Like any friendship, this is a process and a cultivation based in kindness.

Who among us has not experienced loss? What resources did we have (and have now) for dealing with it?

Kisa Gotami was looking for a miracle when she went to the Buddha. His response was to gently and skillfully guide her to understand and accept the reality of her grief, loss, and heartbreak. It wasn’t the miracle she was looking for, but it allowed her the miracle of profound insight that Buddhists would say is more valuable even than a lost child. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that instruction is the highest miracle (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.11).

A Workshop

In just under two weeks, I will be teaming up with Marisa Diaz-Waian and others to explore this universal human experience from a number of perspectives. I plan to share this story and others from the Buddha’s life, as well as lead some short meditations pointing attendees at not only the universality of loss, but also the importance of feeling deeply one’s own emotions around grief.

We can oscillate between repression or denial and catastrophizing our situation to the point of possibly creating new difficult emotions such as anger or alienation of friends and loved ones. But somewhere in the middle is where we look seriously at our loss and heartbreak. We see it for what it is. We befriend it.

For myself at least, I can say this doesn’t quite make it disappear as in the story of Mara above, but lessen’s the grip it might otherwise hold on us. It allows us to get on with life, to connect with others, to be of service to a world that sorely needs it.

Read about the full workshop here. If you are in or near Helena, MT, please register or spread the word to others who might be interested. We also have a scholarship fund and equipment fund. If you would like to donate to the scholarship fund, click here. If you would like to help with equipment click here and specify “meditation/mindfulness” in the instructions box. This will go to getting more zafus/zabutons, etc.

Originally posted at American Buddhist Perspectives.

Resources:

Kisagotami, from the Dictionary of Pali Proper Names.

Gotami, from the Connected Discourses with Nuns.

The Story of Kisa Gautami from Buddhanet.