It has been said that grief is love, it’s all the love we want to give but can not give. The grander the love, the deeper the grief. And because parental love is grandest of all, grief for a child becomes a bottomless well of pain, sorrow, and despair. This is a theme of a famous Buddhist “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” a version of which is included in an anthology Teachings of the Buddha edited by a renowned meditation teacher and writer Jack Kornfield.
Once upon a time, there lived a girl called Gotami, but because her body was very skinny and tired easily she was called Kisa Gotami or Skinny Gotami. When she grew up, she married, going to the house of her husband’s family. Being a daughter of a poverty-stricken house, she was treated with contempt. Only when she had given birth to a son was she accorded the respect she deserved. But that son, running hither and thither, while playing met his end. Overwhelmed by grief, she thought:
Since the birth of my son, I, who was once denied honor and respect in this very house, have received respect. These folk may even seek to cast my son away [into a charnel ground].
Taking her son on her hip, she went about from one house door to another, saying, “Give me medicine for my son!”
Whenever people encountered her, they said, “Where did you ever meet with medicine for the dead?” So saying, they clapped their hands and laughed in derision. But hearing their words, Kisa Gotami had not the slightest idea what they meant. A certain wise man saw her and thought she must had been driven out of her mind by grief for her son. With compassion and kindness, he told her to see the Buddha who lived at a neighboring monastery. If anyone had a cure for the breathless body in her hands, it would be him. Upon meeting the Buddha, Kisa Gotami said, “Oh Exalted One, give me medicine for my son!” To which he replied:
You did well, Gotami, in coming hither for medicine. Go enter the city, make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in whatever house no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of mustard seed. [They will cure your son.]
“Very well, revered sir,” she said and glad of mind entered the city and went about from one house door to another, saying, “The Buddha bids me fetch tiny grains of mustard seed for medicine for my son. Give me tiny grains of mustard seed.” But she found no house where death had not claimed a family member. And finally, she understood: in the entire city this must be the way. The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have seen. Overcome with emotion, she carried her son to the burning ground and cast him away into the fire. Then she uttered the following stanza:
No village law, no law of market town,
No law of a single house is this —
Of all the world and all the worlds of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.
Another version of the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” is included in the album Ghosteen by Nick Cave. In the track “Hollywood” he retells the story in his own words as a way to process the tragic death of his son.
PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED
from Ghosteen by Nick Cave
Kisa had a baby but the baby died
Goes to the villagers says my baby’s sick
The villagers shake their heads and say to her
Better bury your baby in the forest quick
Kisa went to the mountain to ask the Buddha
My baby’s sick! Buddha said, don’t cry
Go to each house and collect a mustard seed
But only from a house where no one’s died
Kisa went to each house in the village
My baby’s getting sicker, poor Kisa cried
But Kisa never collected one mustard seed
Because in every house someone had died
Kisa sat down in the old village square
She hugged her baby and she cried and cried
She said everybody is always losing somebody
Then walked into the forest and buried her child
Complement the “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” an integral part of Teachings of the Buddha, with the art of jisei, a Japanese death poem, and then revisit symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s art meditation on death and life.