The Parable of the Mustard Seed
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is, perhaps, one of the most famous stories from the Pali Canon. This is my interpretation of the Sutta, to be clear. I understand very little Pali and less Sanscrit, so this is not a translation, and I am not trying to convince anyone otherwise.
This is an interpretation of a Sutta, and that means my opinions on the original parable are undoubtedly present. I encourage everyone to read a translation of the original Sutta.
When the Suttas first came into existence, mankind did not have paper, let alone the internet. Thus, stories like this one were told and memorized orally. The natural consequence of this was that Suttas are very, very repetitive. The modern reader is often turned off by the style of a Buddhist Sutta, and this is my attempt to make the world of Buddhism a little more accessible.
In case you're new to Buddhism altogether, a Sutta is a Tale of the Buddha. They were often very poetic and repetitive, as I mentioned, and they always, always had some sort of moral. The moral is the blood and bones of a Sutta, and ultimately, the morals of these stories are WHY Buddhism still exists today. The stories--Suttas--are the preservation of the religion itself, and that makes this project all the more exciting.
Without further ado, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed
Have you time, friend? I've a story I'd like to share.
There was once a woman from the city of Savatthi by the name of Kisa Gotami, known for her wisdom and kindness. Her many uncountable merits earned her, as a husband, the son of a nobleman, and she bore him a single child. In the dark of a storm, in a flash of lightning, with animals baying just outside her window, Kisa Gotami realized that her baby was not crying. Death had claimed the child in his sleep.
Kisa Gotami pleaded with God and the spirits, and with every devil by name, but none of them would answer her prayers. Thus, her dead babe in arm, she went out into the morning marketplace to find a medicine that could cure death.
"Please," she would plead to the merchants. "My son needs medicine. He's ill."
"Kisa, your son is dead."
But she would not hear their words. Thus she wandered the market, asking everyone if they knew a medicine for death. The woman the whole city once looked to for advice was now the center of everyone's pity.
"Gone mad, she has," some said. "She'll come to her wits," said others. "It may be kinder to kill her," said others still. Every single body in the city was moved by Kisa Gotami's sorrow.
She arrived with her dead baby to a certain apothecary and, once again, begged for a medicine with which to cure death. The apothecary, having been given warning of Kisa Gotami's coming, pretended to consider her question long and hard. Finally, he told her, "No. No, I don't have anything to cure death. But if anyone does, it would be the ascetic Gautama. He was a brilliant doctor before he retired, you know."
"Where can I find this man?" Gotami screamed, clutching her dead child.
"He is staying in the Jeta Grove, where they're building the monastery."
Gotami fled the medicine shop without another word. That same day, she rushed into the Jeta Grove, where the Buddha was lecturing a large assembly, many of whom knew of Kisa Gotami's plight.
Crying, reeking of death, and stained by the city, Gotami threw herself at the Buddha's feet, disturbing the lecture and laying her dead son flat on his back.
"Remove her," someone grumbled.
"Stay your tongue," came a reply. "That is Kisa Gotami. She can't be held accountable for what she does."
"Please," Kisa Gotami said, ignoring the murmurs about her. "I've been told that you once practiced medicine, and that you knew a cure for death. I beg you, sir, bring my son back to life. Please! My husband is amongst the city's wealthiest-I can pay you any fee."
A silence of pity spread through the crowd, and the Buddha looked on the distraught mother in silence.
"Please!" She cried.
Still the Buddha was silent.
"Do you know the cure or not? I beg you!"
"Yes," the Buddha said. "I know the cure for death."
A collective gasp went through the crowd, and the Buddha's closest disciples gave him a suspicious look.
"Any price," Gotami said, weeping. "Anything!"
"Very well," the Buddha said. "I require but a mustard seed-the other reagents I have. But it cannot be any common mustard seed. It must come from a family that has never known death. If you bring me such a seed, I will be able to prepare your cure."
"Oh, most generous doctor! Enlightened sage! Thank you! Thank you!"
"Ah-Leave the child," the Buddha said, as Gotami stood. "I can prepare the rest of the cure while you search."
For the first time in two days, Kisa Gotami traveled without the presence of her son's corpse.
When she was finally out of sight, the Buddha cast his gaze at the child's body, rotted, riddled with maggots and broken.
"Come, Ananda. We must cremate Kisa Gotami's son."
Kisa Gotami searched Savatthi with impeccable order, going from home to home, and asking everyone the same question. "Can you spare a mustard seed?"
"I don't see why not."
"Thank you! But-has your family ever known death?"
"Yes, Gotami. Only four months ago, my father passed. You were there, remember?"
"Yes, Gotami. My parents and their parents, and the brothers of them all are all dead and gone. I am alone in the world."
"Yes, Gotami. My son was slain in battle."
"...killed by wolves."
"...fell from a partition..."
"...died from a cold..."
"I am the only one left of my family, Kisa Gotami." Kisa Gotami, battered and coated in filth, knelt in the mud of a long-due rainstorm and said to herself, "My son is dead."
Pellets of water battered her forehead and streaked the dirt down her face.
"My son is dead."
Kisa Gotami returned to the Jeta Grove and found the Buddha, sweeping wood-dust from the construction site.
"Kisa Gotami," the Buddha said in greeting.
"Blessed Sage," Kisa replied.
She was smeared over with the grime of the road, and old tears had carved paths through the dirt on her cheek. Despite this, the Buddha said, "Your wandering has done you well."
"Oh, Gautama, how selfish was my grief. I went from family to family, and pretended for two long days that there might exist some clan of immortals. Those wives alive in Savatthi who haven't already lost a son are bound to lose one someday. And if they never lose a son, then a son is bound to lose a mother. And how many parents lay buried beneath our feet!"
"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. This is but a greater disappointment among a thousand lesser ones, and just as a Sage does not mourn a broken pot, a Sage does not mourn death.
"Your tears painted trails down your face, once, Gotami, but those trails did not lead you to peace of mind. For four days, you suffered the elements as if you wandered a jungle instead of the heart of a great city. But your sorrow accomplished nothing for your son. Be prepared, Gotami, for you will suffer many other deaths in your time, and some day, your own. Destroy the attachment that causes your grief, and you will lead a better life."
Thus Kisa Gotami took her first step down the path of wisdom. And the Buddha finished sweeping the floor.
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