One of the most beautiful and moving stories to be found in the Buddhist tradition comes from the Therigatha or ‘Poems of the Buddhist sisters’. It is the story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed. Kisa was a young woman who had a beautiful baby boy who she loved with all her heart, but while her baby was still very young he suddenly grew very sick and, despite her efforts to save him, her child died. Kisa was overcome with such grief that she refused to acknowledge that he had died and she grew hysterical. She carried her dead baby in her arms, wandering around her village asking people for help and medicine to help save her baby. Her relatives and friends tried to comfort her and explain to her that her baby was dead, but she would not listen. Others avoided her and looked upon her with scorn and embarrassment as a mad woman who roamed the village.
After a while she was told that maybe the Buddha could help her as he was believed to have all sorts of magical powers. Hearing this news, and with renewed hope, she set off in search of him. Having found the Buddha she tearfully explained her situation and asked him for medicine for her sick baby. The Buddha looked at her kindly and said yes he could help, but in order to prepare the medicine she needed to go and collect a ingredient for him, a mustard seed that has come from a house where death had not visited. Kisa enthusiastically set off, thinking that an end to her suffering and that of her baby’s lay in sight. She went from house to house asking for a mustard seed and people were kind to her and willing to help. But she then remembered the words of the Buddha and asks if anyone has died in this house – the reply was yes, only the other week my grandmother died. She continues her journey and again asks for a mustard seed from other homes where death has not visited, and again and again is told, I am sorry I cannot help you as my mother died here, my son, father, daughter, husband, wife… There was no household that had not been touched by death.
Slowly she began to realise the universal nature of her grief, that death and sickness touch all our lives in some way, sooner or later. Having seen more deeply into the nature of life and death and that her personal grief was not unique to her, she went and found a quiet spot, buried her baby and let him go. She then returned to the Buddha who asked her if she had found the mustard seed for the medicine. She answered that the work of the seed was done.
I was reminded of this story several years ago when my girlfriend was diagnosed with breast cancer. I too, like Kisa, wandered around in a state of devastation and grief, feeling that it was unfair for this to happen to me and my girlfriend. I soon discovered that the more I shared my story with others the more people told me their story. Many women told me of their experience of breast cancer, others of different types of cancers that a loved one had died from or that a family member was living with. Over the weeks and months as I listened to these stories and allowed them to touch me, my grief and sadness took on a different form and shape – still a very challenging and difficult time but no longer was it something that I alone was living with. It connected me to a universal experience of being in relationship to sickness, loss and grief.
It is interesting that the word “grief ” comes from the Latin gravis, ” to bear,” which also is where we get the word “gravity” from. I am also reminded of the words of Atula, a Buddhist psychotherapist, who says grief is a blessing, because it is a calling to return home to ourselves. When the experience of grief or loss enters our life, rather than seeing it as something that separates us from the world, we could allow it to bring us into a deeper relationship to what it is to be truly human and alive.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. . . . This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular.”