Thursday, February 19, 2009

Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed

As I waited to birth Lucia, I decided to open a grief package they give to parents who have lost a child. In it was a pamphlet of what to expect after birth, and a local grief support group's newsletter. The newsletter contained poems written by parents who had lost children through stillbirth or miscarriage. On the front page, a piece entitled “A Letter to Alex” caught my eye. I had read this before. It was written by someone I knew. She was my colleague at the job I had before becoming a stay at home mom. They had lost their son four years ago. He was born prematurely, and died three days later. When I sat in that bed, feeling waves of contractions through me, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I am not the first person to go through this pain. Here I was all wrapped up in my suffering, getting incredibly sort of narcissistic about my grief. "Why did this happen to ME? What did I do? Why did MY baby die?" Me. Me. Me. And here was this person who also lost her baby. A person I knew. The fact that I knew her humanized her. I remember her grief, and her sorrow. I remember running into her in the bathroom at work and crying with her. Did I tell her enough how sorry I was? Did I tell her that reading the email about her loss made me cry for the first time in my career in front of my colleagues? Did I even say anything? Was I the person to her that I needed now? No. I knew the answer without asking. But then it reminded me of a story I once read called Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed. It began obsessing me. I was anxious to find a copy right there in the hospital. But I just remembered that suffering affects everyone, in their own way. It calmed me. It made me strong to think of this story.

When I finally got home from the hospital, I googled the story of Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed. I am paraphrasing here, because it means something to me that might not be the true story that Buddhists have studied for years. It is a new story for me now. Kisa Gotami was a wise and kind woman. She married a man who was rich, though she was not. I cannot tell you why I remember that part, just simply perhaps, that it was because she was a wise, compassionate and kind woman, and not because she was beautiful, that she married a nobleman. She had one son with him. On a night while a storm raged, she realized that her baby wasn’t crying. I always remember this part, because it is exactly those types of details that us who have lost our children remember. He should have cried from the thunder, but he didn’t. The thunder. The fucking thunder.

When she realized her baby son had died, she prayed. She prayed to every God she could think of. She prayed to the devils too. She prayed all night, but still, her son was dead. So when morning came, she went into the marketplace with her son in her arms to find medicine to bring him back to life. The people took pity upon Kisa Gotami, because she was such a kind woman.

“Your son is dead, Kisa Gotami. There is no medicine to cure him.” The merchants tried to tell her the truth, but she couldn’t hear them. The entire city felt sorrow for her. Some even suggested killing her to stop her suffering. I like that part. Perhaps because it is morbid, or so unbelievably kind, depending on your perspective, that people would think to do that. Finally, she arrived at the apothecary who was expecting her. When she asked him if he had a cure, he pretended to think for a long time. I always imagine him scratching his chin, and looking up at the ceiling, maybe taking off his glasses, then and putting the stem in his mouth. He told her, “I don’t have the medicine your son needs, but Gautama (the Buddha) used to be a doctor before a monk. He can cure your son.” She took off at once, still carrying her son in her arms.

She ran and ran to the monastery where the Buddha was lecturing to the monks there. She ran in screaming, and disturbing the entire scene. She said, “Please, I was told you can cure my son. Please help him.” The monks chattered amongst themselves. Someone said, “Take her out.” Another said, “Have compassion, her son is dead.” She stared at him pleading. She said to the Buddha, “Please, my husband is amongst the wealthiest men in the city. He will pay you any price. Anything you want.” I can just see this scene in my head, though I am undoubtedly influenced by Hollywood movies.

The Buddha stared at her for a long time and said, “Yes, I know the cure for death.”

Of course, everyone gasped. I’m sure a thought passed through each of the monks heads that they were following a charlatan. I would think something along the lines of, “Sonofabitch, I thought this dude was the real deal and not another snake charmer.” She said, “I will give anything.”

He said, “I only need one thing. A mustard seed. One mustard seed. But it cannot be a common mustard seed. It must be a mustard seed from a family that has never known death. If you bring me that seed, I will prepare your cure.” Of course, she was enthusiastic. He then told her to do this alone, and leave her son. He said that he would prepare the rest of the cure while she was on her mission.

It was the first time in two days that Kisa Gotami did not hold her son, and as he lay there in front of the Buddha, they all saw that he was rotting and had maggots. After she left, they cremated the child in her absence.

That part always makes me shudder. It is so real. I actually thought after I birthed Lucy that I wanted to just keep her. That I didn't care if she was dead, I was going to carry her around with me. As morbid and gross as it sounds, it occurred to me as I was holding her that she would disintegrate and rot, like it occurred to me suddenly that this was just her body. Like that Magritte painting, "This is not a pipe." It is a picture of a pipe, but it is not a pipe. That thought calmed me, strange as that might sound. It reminded me that I couldn't hold on to my daughter's body forever, because it wasn't my daughter. It was the shell that housed my daughter.

She began her arduous search for a seed. She was thorough. She went to each house and asked each family for a mustard seed. The first house she knocked on the door, “Can you spare a mustard seed?”
“Of course.”
“Oh, wait, has your family ever known death?”
“Yes, my father died last month, Kisa Gotami, don’t you remember you were there?
And on and on, “My brother”
“My daughter.”
“My husband.”

Kisa Gotami exhausted her search through the city, and knelt in the mud crying, “My son is dead.”

She went back to the Buddha and he asked her if she has a mustard seed for him, and she said, “No. How selfish to think only I could be spared from death.” And I am going to quote one of the versions that I read, the Buddha says:
"Your observation is accurate in every way, Kisa Gotami. Neither those wise nor those foolish are immune to death. However great a father roars, he can never waken a dead daughter. However much a mother begs the gods, a dead son will never cry again. One by one, Gotami, we each die. "

After reading this story, I traveled about the world for the next few days looking at everyone as though they weren't "Bob" or "Michelle", but they were their suffering. Like Bob had become Prostate Cancer, and Michelle had become the one whose mother just died. Even those who were not grieving, I saw people that were insecure, nervous to talk to me, and I saw them simply in their suffering. I remember saying often in the first weeks, “I’m sorry” after someone would offer condolences. My husband Sam thought it was crazy, as though I were apologizing for our baby dying, or apologizing for receiving condolences, but it wasn’t that. They were suffering. I could hear it in their voices, I could smell it emanating from their bodies. Some of those people felt genuine grief at my daughter’s death, and some had felt genuine fear at having to talk to me. I was sorry for them too.

I also began seeing everyone as someone’s child. I remember having a glimpse of that when I gave birth to Beatrice, but this was different. I felt so kindly towards everyone. It is an incredibly healing way to imagine the world—compassionate, empathetic, vulnerable.

I often thought about my sanity, and if I was sane or not. I thought of Kisa Gotami not being able to see the maggots on her son, but only see her beautiful newborn son. She did not know she was gone. She only knew one thing—save him. I recognized that if I wanted to remain sane, I had to accept this world for what it is, not what I wanted it to be. People die. People we love die regardless of their goodness. Humans are fragile beings. We must be kind and good and compassionate and gentle with ourselves and others when we are not, people die, become wounded inside and out. People ask how us non-religious people move forward, how we deal with death. We deal because we do not pretend that someone will right all this suffering. It simply is. It is sometimes unjust. It is sometimes just. I didn’t much linger on the thought of “Why me?”, because the logical flipside of that coin is, “Why not me?”

I felt this amazing sense of connection with the universe. This calm emanated from me, and around me for two weeks. I sobbed often, but for all of our suffering. Sometimes thinking about my husband’s suffering made me cry more than my own suffering. It was one of the most spiritually profound periods of my life. I just saw everyone as their suffering, and I felt an amazing amount of love and compassion for every living thing. It lasted for two weeks or so. And now, some days, I can touch that again, (just writing about it makes me feel that warmth in my stomach) and other days, I feel like a Neanderthal. "What did I do to make Volcano Gods angry? Must sacrifice goat."


  1. What an incredibly powerful post. So beautiful.

    "Sometimes thinking about my husband’s suffering made me cry more than my own suffering"

    My husbands name is Sam too. I think I cried more for him than what I did for me.

    Wishing you peace and love tonight.

    Carly x

  2. Absolutely stunning. Your writing and your perspective are amazing. I only came to the "why not me" conclusion several months after losing Sam and wallowed in the "why me" and anger for a long time. They still rear their ugly heads once in awhile. Such a beautiful post and story.

  3. There's an extraordinary book, titled The Blue Poppy & the Mustard Seed by Kathleen Willis Morton that is in part based on this story. The book is her memoir of her journey after her baby died, and it helped me so much.
    One of the things I have found is that my own loss has opened me up to how much loss and sorrow there is in the world...its true, death is everywhere, we just chose not to notice it as much before it touched us so profoundly.
    Finally, you do carry Lucia everywhere you go, even if not physically. I know she is there, just feel open to feeling her presence.

  4. I was preparing some writing about the Kisa Gotami story when I came upon this astonishing post. I wasn't prepared for the impact it had on me while I quietly read in bed early in the morning. The power you have not to waver from your experience of loss, to get inside the DNA of the story and to be transformed by it moved me so much that I couldn't keep to my myself. When I wrote my post on Kisa Gotami I cited yours as an example of a writer who wasn't satisfied with conventional truisms and I link to it. Your post is too valuable for it to not be better known.


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