For one who has a clinging mind
and finds delight in babes and herds,
death does seize and carry away
as a great flood a sleeping village.
– The Buddha (Dhammapada, Verse 287)
As the young Kisa Gotami had never witnessed the death of anyone before, while her baby passed away when he could just barely walk, she could neither comprehend nor accept its reality. When his body had to be cremated, she even forbade it, while remaining determined to seek medication to bring him back to life. Carrying his body, she ventured from house to house to ask for a cure… until others came to say call her stark crazy. Yet, she refused to give up. Seeing her heartbreaking and desperate despair, a wise man realised that she must have lost her firstborn, while not being aware of the impermanence of life. Thus, he advised her to ask the Buddha for the ‘cure’. After she managed to meet and pay respects to the Buddha, she enquired if he knew of a cure, to which the Buddha says he does. Asking what she should do, the Buddha instructed her to find and return with a pinch of white mustard seeds – from a house in which no death of a son, daughter or any other person had ever occured.
Still carrying her child, she entered a village and came to the door of the first house, anxiously requesting for the seeds. When some were brought to her, she remembered to ask if no son or daughter had died in the household. (We are all are sons and daughters, whether young or old!) With incredulity, the householder’s reply was that the living are few, in comparison to the deceased who are many. Hearing so, she returned the seeds. In this way, from house to house, she searched for the right seeds… to avail. When evening arrived, she calmed down and reflected that it was an impossible quest, that while she assumed she was the only one who had lost a dear one, many others did too. Her broken heart thus healed with renewed resolution, as she decided that it was time to let go of her child’s body. Returning seedless to the Buddha, he affirmed that all beings are subject to the raging torrent of death, which sweeps all to ruin, with desires unfulfilled (when there is much attachment not relinquished in time).
As he finished uttering the opening verse, she realised stream-entry and requested to ordain as a nun. One day, after lighting a lamp, she contemplated that similar to the flames, some beings ‘flare up’ to life, others ‘flicker out’ in death, while those who attained Nirvana are no more seen (trapped in rebirth). Knowing this, the Buddha manifested before her and proclaimed the ending verse, with which she attained Arhathood. Although her ignorance of death seemed unbelievable, most of us also complacently deny its eventuality to some extent, which is why we often live as if we will never die. Even as we treasure our relations and possessions now, we should be mindful that these too, shall pass. Appearing to ‘lie’ when asking for arbitrary seeds for a medical cure, the Buddha was actually skilfully guiding her to gradually awaken to the prevalence of death, to let the truth sink in. Without false hope, eventually shared was the cure for transcending cyclical life and death – the path to deathless self-liberation!
Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the deathless state [Nirvana],
yet better is life for a single day
seeing [realising] Deathlessness.
– The Buddha (Dhammapada, Verse 114)
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