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.
Carlos on February 27, 2014:
Don't see anything wrong with the buddah story.(I advise the reader to read it with an open positive mind...not with the attitude of wanting to find something negative).
Carey on July 11, 2012:
Some points not included in the commentary especially relevant to this version of the story:
-- Buddhism is more a casserole that changes from time to time, location to location, language to language. For example, Theravadan teachings usually are sourced from Pali and Mahayana sourced from Sanskrit. In both, the language is a key to open a door to greater understanding, but not to be confused for the actual "Awakening" of direct experience. In other words, the key is useful to open a door, but once you've stepped through the doorway, the key and doorway is no longer useful for that individual, but still useful for others should they choose this way.
-- To gain deeper understandings of any teaching, a Buddhist (Awakening Mind) view would contain 3 qualities that will mean different things to different individuals:
a) Make less Suffering until the individual can stop making it. If we make less Suffering, this is the shortest route to a greater Happiness
b) there are many ways, this is just one way
c) for the benefit of the individual increasing in beneficiaries until it includes all.
d) the teacher can only show the way and embody understandings, but it is up to the individual to test for usefulness before undertaking the journey
Will on May 28, 2012:
I always love this parable. It is about Impermanence. Nothing is permanent; we know this, yet we hide from it daily. We pretend it happens only to others. We submerge our fear of death; Our attachment to our bodies and fear of what comes after death.
However, just as Kisa discovered, there is great freedom in accepting reality and great harm in deluding ourselves.
Shantha Liyanage on March 05, 2012:
2) Why did Buddha lie? He said that he knows the medicine to cure death and that he requires a mustard seed and that he has the other agents for the medicine. But it cannot be any common mustard seed. It must come from a family that has never known death. If she could bring him such a seed, he will be able to prepare the rest of the cure while she searched.
This is preposterous in the site of a Christian. Kisagothami was suffering from extreme sorrow. There are other ways of teaching her that death cannot be reversed. Explaining in a loving way would have solved the problem. Instead what Buddha did was to send her on a useless frustrating journey. This is Buddha’s compassion. There is a vast gap between compassion and the love which is defined in the Bible (1Corinthians 13:4-7).
4 Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, 5 does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked. It does not keep account of the injury. 6 It does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
One may defend by saying that it was an attempt to drive the point clear in to Kisagothami. In that case is it o.k. to lie if it is for the good of others as per Buddhism?
It is my experience that most Buddhists do not think that lying is a sin if it does not do any harm or if it does good to another. But according to Christianity lying is a grave sin in whatever the manner and under whatever the situation you do it. You are misleading another creation of God. So may be the normal lay Buddhist is following their teacher while Christians are following their scripture.
Travis on November 14, 2011:
I know not whether there exists life after death, and neither did the Buddha. But that does not change the fact that others are taken from us, and we must learn to deal with that as best we can. We have no choice in the matter. Cry when you are sad, and laugh when you are happy; don't lie, don't do things you hate, and make every day count for your time here is limited.
Tam on October 10, 2011:
Bart, LdsNana. Excellent dialogue.
I admire both your eloquent points.
Ed on March 31, 2011:
it teaches that we all will die and that every family experiences death. Her pain was NOT unique and once she realized that she was able to accept her son's death.
L on November 02, 2010:
Forgive the misspelling in the above comment. I meant to say PEACE, not peach, but perhaps God just wanted that word reiterated to you. Oh my heart longs for all of you who are 'un-attached' to grow attached to Jesus. You will know no greater love. I pray for all of you.
L on November 02, 2010:
So sad, you should all read the Bible. Yes love, yes be attached. Christ died for us, all of us, and suffering is okay, as he suffered for us. God created a vacuum in your heart that is 'God-shaped' and all of your reasoning, strange thinking, etc. will be lacking if you do not fill that spot with God alone. I wish you all peach and a desire to open the book of Matthew. Start there, you will learn of a man who was the One who holds all of our futures. God bless you.
D on May 14, 2009:
It's much harder when the object of your affection and attachment rejects you. Ask any stalker.
j/l on December 09, 2008:
haha u fu*ckers. u believe in this stuff!!!
TheBuddha from USA on August 29, 2008:
Striving for non-attachment, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. I do the best I can!
RFox on May 22, 2008:
I love this Parable, it is my favorite among the teachings.
And I'm truly enjoying reading your hubs and comments. Sometimes I am wonderfully non-attached and free and at other times my ego rears its ugly head and I feel the need to express my 'opinion' and desires. Reading your words helps me to keep focused on the Dharma path. Thank you!
It is easy to become distracted sometimes. Lol. Although as I get older I find the distractions are becoming quieter, slowly but surely. :)
BartholomewKlick (author) on January 13, 2008:
Humans have always looked for threads of meaning where none may exist. In Buddhist thinking, we create our own meaning, because we know that "meaning" and "purpose" in life are arbitrary concepts that we have invented on our own.
When the Buddha was asked about eternal life, God, and all of the mystical mysteries that mankind spends so much time reflecting on, he did not warrant the questions with an answer. He taught that thinking about the mysteries was detrimental to learning and growth. In the end, no one can make anyone else believe the same thing they believe in. No two Christians have the exact same idea and image of God. Will arguing about which of their visions is correct make them better Christians? Or will they argue for no reason? One of a Buddhist's goals is to pull importance away from things that we have no power over.
Learning a very big part of human life. Our capacity to learn is one of the reasons we must appreciate this precious existence of ours.
You state, "But neither philosophy will change or take away the pain, that we as mortals must experience..."
This is a very wise statement, and true.
I look forward to speaking again, soon,
Kathryn Skaggs from Southern California on January 13, 2008:
It seems to me, that accepting it in this way, does not then allow the purpose for which we do suffer, to be acknowledged, then dealt with, having a proper perspective, and -- ultimately, that which I believe... to learn from.
Isn't learning everything? I prefer to believe that we have a purpose here. If not, then why do I learn so much from life? To live, to die?
And yes, these mortal pains and sorrows are part of the learning of life, which we are here to experience, so that our wisdom may increase. I believe in eternal life. And also with those that I love... Therefore, my relationships and experiences with them, have deepened meaning and understanding.
Are you in love? Do you have children? And then what?
Certainly we can experience this life, and actually value all of our experiences, when seen in the proper light? But neither philosophy will change or take away the pain, that we as mortals must experience... so that we may understand our future joy.
Opposition is in all things, so that we may learn to embrace, all that is good. Even, life and death.
BartholomewKlick (author) on January 13, 2008:
My friend Shweta, who is in many respects one of my teachers, responded to your comment as well. She says,
"There's an assumption in most religions that God (or the gods) can make things better, and will reward us for faith by taking away pain.
One of the fundamental insights of Buddhism is that pain is here to stay. It's part of life. And trying to deny it and push it away only makes it hurt worse; and like Bart says, it's denying life. It's not necessarily a punishment, and you can't necessarily make it go away by being a good/devout person. It's just a thing.
In this parable, the Buddha teaches the woman - in the only way she can understand - that pain and loss are part of life, and it's okay to go on living."
BartholomewKlick (author) on January 13, 2008:
The Christian mustard seed parable and the Buddhist mustard seed parable are completely different. :-)
Also, this is by no means an introduction to Buddhism.
The mustard seed was a trick. The Buddha wanted Kisa Gotami to see that, by carrying her dead baby with her, she was ruining her own life. This can be read figuratively, as well--in all likelihood, the historical Kisa did not carry around a corpse, but instead went into a very powerful mourning.
When a loved one dies, the bereaved often spend a great deal of time in mourning. This mourning causes pain--and while it is perfectly natural to hurt and to mourn, it also a debilitating experience. By accepting death, one also accepts life. By denying death--which is what one does when one spends time wishing that a loved one hadn't died--one denies life as well.
One of the deeper teachings of Buddhism is that we must love everyone, but be attached to no one. Attachment causes suffering. Love does not. If you can love your family without being attached to them, you have immunized yourself from one of the most terrible pains this world has to offer, and in the face of death, you will appear strong and wise to all those around you.
"Toughening up" isn't quite the right idea, nor is "moving on." Toughening yourself would be the same as keeping the feelings bottled up on the inside. It is not the crying that is bad, or the image that crying gives you--it is the pain that death has caused. Freeing oneself from attachment also frees oneself from the pain of death. You can still feel that pain, but it does not cripple you. It helps you, instead.
The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to have complete control over his own life. To not be impacted by the ups and downs that ruin our daily lives.
This is a somewhat deep part of the Buddhist pool to jump into, though hardly the deepest. I hope I have helped make things clear.
Kathryn Skaggs from Southern California on January 13, 2008:
This is an intro to Buddhism. I don't know anything about this at all, but it seems fairly depressing:-) Maybe you can help me to feel a bit better... What I am taking from this parallel, parable... from this perspective, the mustard seed did not merit a thing? In Christs' parable, all things are possible if we have the faith of only a mustard seed, in Him. He is the one who has overcome death and sorrow for us, IF we will exercise that tiniest of a grain of faith in Him.
We will all live again and suffer no more as we do in this life!
This tells me, that we need to toughen up and move past any sorrow and grief we have, because it does us no good. Is that it? Perhaps I missed something here? No attatchment of any kind, thus less pain?
Help me here:-)
P.S. went back and tried again.... sorry, but this is depressing stuff! lol