The Mustard Seeds

A woman named Kisa gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and then, three months later, he suddenly died. Devastated she pulled his tiny, blue-tinged body from his crib and stumbled through the town, asking anyone if they could help her son.

People looked on her with pity or turned away, but finally a man said, “The Buddha is in town. He’s been wandering the countryside teaching, and he is here now, and I hear he is incredibly wise and holy. Perhaps he can help you.”

So Kisa found the Buddha and, eyes red and wild with grief, presented him with the corpse. “Please sir,” she begged. “Can you help my son?”

The Buddha looked at her intently and said, “I may be able to help your son, but to make the medicine I will need a handful of mustard seeds. You must go through the town and get a mustard seed from each home that has never been touched by death. When you have a handful, return to me.”

Kisa began going door to door, asking if she could have a mustard seed from each home. The people of the village were good, and to give her one mustard seed was no hardship. But after they agreed to give her the seed she asked, “Has this home ever been touched by death?”

At every door she heard a story about a dead parent or a dead sibling, a dead wife or a dead friend. After many hours of knocking on doors she still had no seeds in her hand, but she had heard many stories of grief. She had heard the stories of the lives of those who were gone, and how they had touched those who still remained.

Finally Kisa returned to the Buddha without the seeds, but also without the wild grief in her eyes. “Did you collect the seeds?” the Buddha asked.

“No,” Kisa replied. “But I have learned that death comes to everyone, and that everyone loses someone they love. I have heard a hundred stories of sadness and strength, and they gave me the strength to lay my own child to rest.”

The Buddha smiled. “You have learned the most important thing, that all that begins must end.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Would you like to sit with me and tell me about your son?”

I love this story because it reflects the weird non-comforting comfort you find in Buddhism. The Buddha doesn’t magic the baby back to life, Lazarus-style. He doesn’t tell Kisa that the baby is in another world or a better place. He simply puts her in a situation where she can hear the grief stories of others, and thus process her own grief. It’s the same fundamental foundation that underlies group therapy or recovery meetings. It’s the same concept that drives cathartic art about tragedy. To hear the stories of others allows us to live our own story better, and to one day get to a place where we can usefully share our story with others.

What’s more, the Buddha’s big teaching here is that everybody dies. You can’t stop it from happening. Someone you love WILL die, unless you die before them. It’s a fact of nature, like gravity. If we can accept the fact of gravity we must also come to accept the fact of death.