As you might’ve already guessed, I love parables and fables. The power of story helps the core message go through even more powerfully.
This is a famous Buddhist parable about a woman named Kisa Gotami. She lived during the time of Buddha’s life when he had already achieved nirvana and was traveling to impart his teachings upon others.
Kisa Gotami married young and gave birth to a son. She absolutely adored her son. But one day, her son became sick and died soon after. Kisa Gotami was so grief-stricken she refused to believe that her son was dead. She carried the body of her son around her village, pleading for someone to bring him back to life.
The villagers shook their heads and tried to tell her there was nothing that could be done. She needed to accept his death and make arrangements for the funeral.
She fell upon her knees in hysterics, holding her son’s dead body.
A village elder took pity on her and suggested to she consult the Buddha.
“Kisa Gotami. I’m so sorry but we cannot help you. You could go to the Buddha, maybe he can bring your son back to life!”
Kisa Gotami was extremely excited upon hearing the elder’s words. She immediately went to the Buddha’s residence, paid homage and asked,
“Can you make a medicine that will restore my child?”
“I know of such medicine,” The Buddha replied. “But in order to make it, I must have certain ingredients.”
Relieved, the woman asked, “What ingredients do you require?”
“Bring me a handful of mustard seeds.”
The woman was thrilled. Just as she turned to run out the door, Buddha added, “I require the mustard seed to be taken from a household where no child, spouse, parent, sibling, or servant has died.”
Having great faith in the Buddha’s promise, Kisa Gotami ran from house to house, trying to find mustard seeds. At each house she visited the people agreed to give her the seed. But once she asked them if anyone had died in that household, they nodded. In one house a daughter, another a husband, a sister, a servant. No matter where she went, death was a part of everyone’s life. Kisa Gotami was not going to find a house free from the suffering of death.
She let her son go, finally burying his lifeless body. She then returned to the Buddha with her hands empty.
“You thought that you alone had lost a child. But the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”
While this tale is rather bleak, and as nice as it would have been if her son was brought back to life, the resisting against reality is only causing more pain.
As human beings we will go through extraordinary leaps to avoid pain and suffering. We might use drugs or alcohol or psychological defenses. Other times we might deny the problem completely or busy ourselves to the point where we have no time to think. In ‘The Art of Happiness’, the author Howard Cutler talks about a client of his who lost his father to cancer. Everyone around him was shocked by how well he handled the death. “Of course I’m sad, but life goes on. Anyway I can’t focus on it too much, I need to sort of the estate and take care of my mum… but don’t worry I’ll be fine.” One year later, just before his father’s death he had sunk into a deep depression. He explained, “I just can’t understand what is causing this. Everything is going well for me right now. It can’t be my dad, he died over a year ago I have come to terms with his death.” But it was clear that in keeping such a tight hold on his emotions in order to “be strong” he had never actually dealt with his feelings of grief and loss. When we don’t address our pain, it accumulates in our mind until it finally manifests as an overpowering depression.
Why is it that Eastern cultures seem to be more accepting and tolerant of suffering? Part of it is due to their beliefs and part of it because suffering is so much more visible in poorer nations such as India. Hunger, poverty, illness and death are in plain view. Wheres in Western society we deny these things by placing them behind closed doors. Old people are put in homes, sick people are kept in hospitals, dead people are buried underground. Suffering is relatively quiet and hidden. Because of this, us Westerners go through life thinking death, illness and poverty doesn’t really exist. When something goes ‘wrong’ – it can feel like our entire life is crashing in on us. How could this happen? How could this happen to me?
Well it happens to everyone, eventually.