In the time of the Buddha many people came to seek his advice for mundane matters as well as spiritual. One of the stories of a lay person who sought out the Buddha that has survived over the centuries is the tale of Kisa Gotami.
Thus I have heard. One day a woman carrying a child came to the place where the Buddha was staying with his sangha (spiritual community) of monks, lay seekers and attendants. She was granted an audience with the Buddha and, clearly in considerable distress, told him how she needed medicine for her baby son who had fallen into a deep sleep and would not wake up.
The Buddha asked the woman, named Kisa Gotami, to pass the child to him so that he could see what he could do. The Buddha was no physician but was willing to do anything he could to relieve suffering in anyone, be they his friend, enemy or a complete stranger. Upon receiving the child into his arms, though, it was obvious to him that the child was dead and had been so for some days. It was also obvious that to break this news to Kisa Gotami would have a devastating effect on her mind.
The Buddha told Kisa that he could help to cure her child but that he would need for her to leave her son with him while she got a special ingredient which he needed to prepare medicine. Close followers of the Buddha were surprised at this, as they could see that the child was long beyond the help of even the most skilled medical men. However, the Buddha went on to explain to Kisa that she would need to get some mustard seed from one of the nearby houses and bring it to him. Kisa was expecting to be asked to find something very rare to use as medicine so was surprised and delighted that the Buddha had only requested that she obtain something as commonly used as mustard seeds which were part of everyone’s store cupboard.
This was, however, not all. The Buddha said that the mustard seeds must come from a very particular house, one that had never experienced death. Still, Kisa thought that this would not be such a hard task. Although many houses would have suffered the loss of a family member, surely many had been untouched by this. So, with a lighter heart, she set off to begin her quest for mustard seeds.
Kisa approached the first house in the town and knocked at the door – a woman answered. Kisa explained that she needed some mustard seed to help her sick son and, since mustard seeds were commonly used in home remedies in India at that time, the woman simply nodded and went into the kitchen to fetch some. Coming back with a small jar containing the seeds, Kisa suddenly remembered the second part of the Buddha’s request and asked the woman if anyone had died in her house. If this was a strange thing to ask the woman of the house did not let on but told Kisa that her elderly father had died upstairs over the last winter. Kisa was sad but took the seed anyway. Surely she would have better luck at the next house.
As you may have guessed, this was not to be the case. She went to every single house in the town but at each door was told the same story. No house had escaped the touch of death. Sometimes it was a child who had died, more often an elderly parent or aunt, occasionally a husband or wife taken unexpectedly in the night. Kisa grew more and more despondent as she continued her search and finally made her way back to the Buddha after the sun had set. The moon, however, was full, and reflected light allowed her to see the way to where the Buddha’s sangha were staying.
The Buddha was seated in meditation, still holding Kisa’s child and Kisa waited for him to finish, not wanting to interrupt his contemplation. He soon opened his eyes and looked at her.
“My son is dead, isn’t he?”, Kisa asked. “Yes”, the Buddha replied.
“Will you help me to bury him?”.
The Buddha assented and the two of them found a peaceful spot under the tree in which to inter Kisa’s child. She was upset but the knowledge that her son was dead and not merely sleeping but now at least could face the reality of her grief on her own terms. In the morning she asked the Buddha if she could become one of his followers and he agreed.
This story can barely be described as a happy one, yet it amply demonstrates the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. Rather than telling Kisa what she needed to hear straight out, he skillfully devises a way for her to come to her own realisation that death was commonplace and she was not alone in experiencing it. It seems that she already knew that her son was dead but was clutching at straws rather than face the reality. The death of one’s own chuld is never going to be an easy burden to bear but by gently bringing her to realise the truth, the Buddha reduced the length of her suffering.
In our own lives we do not see reality more often than we would care to admit. Many of us have issues which we need to face, but instead of doing the wise (and brave) thing by addressing them, instead we often engage in distracting activities such as shopping, drinking, eating high calorie foods or watching television. Like Kisa’s hopeless quest for a cure, this merely prolongs our suffering, although at the time it feels like an escape from the pain of the truth.
Buddhism teaches us that freedom is found through facing the uncomfortable parts of life and dealing with them head on rather than hiding from reality. Dharma teachings (the teachings of the Buddha and later Buddhist gurus) also explain how reality really is, rather than how we usually see it. Our own self-interest can often distort our objective view of how things are to our own disadvantage. I am sure we can all recall situations of how we thought that someone had badly wronged us only to realise later that we had over-reacted through anger or self-interest. This is what happened to Kisa Gotami – she would very likely have seen that the child of another woman was not alive, but her very normal attachment to her own child did not allow her to see this.
Facing up to uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the way the world is can be a painful journey but leads to a greater quality of life, as no experience is off limits and suffering can be seen as an inevitable part of life rather than something to be feared. Seeing things as they really are does not have to happen all at once (although there are cases of sudden awakening) and is more like a gradual opening to what is. Many modern day pain clinics advise gently exploring painful areas of the body with our mind to increase blood flow to those areas and decrease tension. In a world filled with so much mental stress and tension this is also very wise advise to do with the painful parts of our mind, and something that the Buddha realised 2 500 years ago.
Chödrön, Pema. 2004. The Places That Scare You.
Chödrön, Pema. 2008. Comfortable With Uncertainty.
Vessantara. 2000. Tales of Freedom.