The Parable of the Mustard Seed I DharmaCrafts Blog

There’s a story about the Buddha—maybe you’ve heard it, or some version of it—in which a woman asks the Buddha to bring her dead child back to life. Kisa Gotami, the wife of a wealthy man, lost her only child, her baby. I don’t know why or how; what we know from the story, though, is that her grief was so all-consuming that people started to think she had lost her mind. She was just drowning in loss and, at least in the version I heard and that stuck with me, would not let go of her baby’s body. She kept carrying her baby around, refusing to let go.

Someone suggested that maybe the Buddha could help. She went to him, desperate, held out her baby, and begged, “Please bring my baby back to life.” It’s heartbreaking, this scene. You don’t have to have lived 2500 years ago to be driven to a place that’s so lost, so irrational. Anyone could reach this place. You just have to lose more than you ever thought possible.

The Buddha told the woman that he could, in fact, bring the child back to life. You can imagine her joy—even from that lost place, did she expect him to say yes? He could do it, he said, but first he’d need her to collect a mustard seed from a household that had never been touched by death. She took off, baby in her arms, and began to scour her village, knocking on every door. 

I don’t know how long she tried; I’ve never heard a version of the story that says how many hours or days it took her to figure it out, to see that she would never find that house, that her baby would never come back, that it had never been a possibility, not even for a second. Did that moment knock her down, sobbing—or did it arrive as relief, as the realization that she could finally put down this burden? 

The Parable of the Mustard Seed I DharmaCrafts Blog

Kisa Gotami eventually returned to the Buddha, who had been waiting for her. He knew how this would go. He comforted her. In time she ordained as a nun, dedicating her life to the path she had just begun to walk, and so painfully.

In that critical moment, when Kisa Gotami realized she could knock on a million more doors and never find what she was looking for, what did she see? For one thing, she saw the truth of her own circumstances; she truly acknowledged, for the first time, the loss of her child. She let go. When we talk about grief and the notion of acceptance, there are degrees—in Kisa Gotami’s case, in the way the story is told, she reached a deep acceptance. The pendulum swung, from desperate, clinging confusion to unblinking clarity of vision.

But what makes the story so beautiful—and so important—is that she discovered the universal nature of loss. She saw impermanence, mortality, pain, and recognized for the first time that what she was experiencing was something shared, something fundamentally human. She wasn’t alone; she never had been. Knocking on those doors, how many stories did she hear of loss? How many women did she meet whose babies had also died, who had suffered as she had, who had learned somehow to carry that loss and still carry on? In an afternoon or a week, she fell into profound sympathy with the whole world. 

What are we to do with a story like this? The answer is always the same: find ourselves in it. We are all Kisa Gotami—we all know loss of some kind (some, in the last year, have known more than we imagined possible), and we all, in the face of that loss, have known the experience of contracting around it, of imagining that our pain is unique, of retreating into our own suffering because we don’t know another way. We have also been the Buddha—perhaps with a child, or maybe with a friend—watching that devastation and knowing, because we have some distance from it, that there is something else on the other side. 

It’s easy to forget, especially when we are in the midst of loss ourselves, that we are actually surrounded by it. Everyone you see outside your window, on the street, on TV—they all are carrying a loss, they all are anticipating more. They feel the ache of absence. Some have learned to carry it, to function, but for others, right now, it’s too much. 

There’s no happy ending to the story, no way out, no comfort but the gentle reminder that when the world starts to feel small and tight, compassion makes it bigger. Noticing makes it bigger. Let’s not forget. 

The Parable of the Mustard Seed I DharmaCrafts Blog

Author: Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.

 

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