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Kisa Gotami and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Melissa Bjordal)

Kisa Gotami and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Melissa Bjordal)

Kisa Gotami and the Parable of the Mustard Seed

A famous parable of Buddhism is called The Parable of the Mustard Seed. It is found in the foundational texts of Theravada Buddhism. It revolves around a woman named Kisa Gotami, who lived during the time of Buddha’s life when he had already achieved nirvana and was traveling to impart his teachings upon others


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Kisa Gotami

Kisa’s only child, a very young son, had died. Unwilling to accept his death, she carried him from neighbor to neighbor and begged for someone to give her medicine to bring him back to life. One of her neighbors told her to go to Buddha, located nearby, and ask him if he had a way to bring her son back to life.

Bringing the body of her son with her, Kisa found Buddha and pleaded with him to help bring her son back to life. He instructed her to go back to her village and gather mustard seeds from the households of those who have never been touched by the death. From those mustard seeds, he promised he would create a medicine to bring her son back to life. Relieved, she went back to her village and began asking her neighbors for mustard seeds.

All of her neighbors were willing to give her mustard seeds, but they all told her that their households had been touched by death. They told her, “the living are few, but the dead are many.”

As the day became evening and then night, she was still without any of the mustard seeds that she had been instructed to collect. She realized then the universality of death. According to the Buddhist verse her story comes from, she said:

“It’s not just a truth for one village or town, Nor is it a truth for a single family. But for every world settled by gods [and men] This indeed is what is true — impermanence” (Olendzki, 2010).

With this new understanding, her grief was calmed. She buried her son in the forest and then returned to Buddha. She confessed to Buddha that she could not obtain any of the mustard seeds he had instructed her to collect because she could not find even one house untouched by death.

Here is a passionate interpretation of what Buddha imparted upon Kisa Gotami at this point from The Buddha: His Life Retold, by Robert Allen Mitchell:

“Dear girl, the life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and inseparable from suffering, for there is not any means, nor will there ever be, by which those that have been born can avoid dying.  All living beings are of such a nature that they must die whether they reach old age or not.

As early-ripening fruits are in danger of falling, so mortals when born are always in danger of dying.  Just as the earthen vessels made by the potter end in shards, so is the life of mortals.  Both young and old, both those who are foolish and those who are wise – all fall into the power of death, all are subject to death.

Of those who depart from this life, overcome by death, a father cannot save his son, nor relatives their kinsfolk.  While relatives are looking on and lamenting, one by one the mortals are carried off like oxen to the slaughter.  People die, and their fate after death will be according to their deeds.  Such are the terms of the world.

Not from weeping nor from grieving will anyone obtain peace of mind.  On the contrary, his pain will be all the greater, and he will ruin his health.  He will make himself sick and pale; but dead bodies cannot be restored by his lamentation.

Now that you have heard the Tathagata [a term Buddha used to refer to himself], Kisa, reject grief, do not allow it to enter your mind.  Seeing one dead, know for sure: ‘I shall never see him again in this existence.’  And just as the fire of a burning house is quenched, so does the contemplative wise person scatter grief’s power, expertly, swiftly, even as the wind scatters cottonseed.

He who seeks peace should pull out the arrow lamentations, useless longings, and the self-made pangs of grief.  He who has removed this unwholesome arrow and has calmed himself will obtain peace of mind.  Verily, he who has conquered grief will always be free from grief – sane and immune – confident, happy, and close to Nirvana, I say” (Allen, 1991).

Kisa entered the first stage of enlightenment from her experience. She decided to become a disciple of Buddha’s and went on to become the first female arahant.


From the Christi Center. Read the full post here.

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