Buddhism and the Parable of the Mustard Seed

This is part of our Diverse Expression of Grief series, written by Hilary Dockray.

Buddha and the Origins of Buddhism

Buddha statue in Sarnath Museum
Buddha statue in Sarnath Museum

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, more commonly referred to as Buddha, was the founding spiritual leader of Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions. He is presumed to have lived either in the 4th or 5th century BCE in what is either present-day Nepal or present-day India. Born into a royal Hindu family, he was a wealthy, pampered prince. Wishing to shield him from knowledge of human suffering, his father made sure that he did not see anyone who was sick, aged, or suffering.

At age 29, he left the palace to meet his subjects, where for the first time in his life he saw people who were sick, aged, and suffering. Distraught by how he saw his subjects live when he himself led an indulgent life, he soon escaped his palace and began living the life of an ascetic. He begged for alms on the streets and abstained from physical wants and needs, to the point of near-death.

He discovered in his ascetic journey the Middle Way, or the middle ground between self-indulgence and ascetism that would lead him to enlightenment. He sat under what is now known as the Bodhi tree and meditated for a reputed 49 days. Then, after those 49 days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment at the age of 35.

Some Basic Concepts of Buddhism

This state of enlightenment, also known as nirvana, is a state of liberation from physical wants and needs. Buddhism claims that those who have not achieved nirvana are still in samsara, or the cycle of life, death, and rebirth characterized by continuous suffering. This suffering is said to be rooted in humans’ attachment to impermanent things.

The achievement of nirvana breaks this cycle of samsara by releasing a person’s attachment to impermanent things. When a person who has achieved nirvana dies, instead of re-entering the cycle of samsara, they achieve what is called parinirvana, or a person’s full passing away. Instead of being reborn again into a new life, they truly die in all senses, dissipating completely as a being.

Buddha formed out of his path to liberation the Four Noble Truths, a central teaching of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths describe the nature of human suffering, its causes, and how it can be overcome. The fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path, describes the intentional journey one must take to achieve nirvana.

The term buddha, which translates to “enlightened one,” is simply the first person to have achieved nirvana in an era. The Buddha that Buddhism is based upon thus did not become known as Buddha until after he achieved nirvana, and many believe is not the first buddha to have existed. After the buddha of each era achieves nirvana, all others who achieve nirvana after in the same era are referred to as arahants.

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.

Kisa Gotami
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.

Reflections on The Parable of the Mustard Seed

What can we take away from this parable? Losing a child or any dear loved one to death is a tragedy no one wants to face. When faced with such painful loss, we can feel like Kisa, with grief so unbearable that we wish for anything to make the death not be real.

But as Kisa learned when she could not collect a single mustard seed, death is universal. Nearly everyone at some point in their life loses a loved one to death. This is part of the impermanence of things that Buddhism speaks of.

Despite the fact that nearly all of us experience the loss of loves ones, this does not make the pain of these losses any easier to bear. How do we cope? It is different for everyone, but we typically find ways to carry on. For Kisa, it was her epiphany that she came to through the Buddha’s lesson that helped her cope.

It is one story among countless throughout human existence of how a person has suffered great loss and yet learned in their own way to move forward. Grief can often leave a person feeling isolated, confused, and as if they will never be able to cope. But reading stories like Kisa’s show that even long, long ago, others have felt the same way, and yet they found a way through. For the griever, it is a reminder that you are never truly alone in your experience.

About the Author:

Hilary DockrayHilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She is expecting her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.

Just a few of the links that I used to research where you can also learn more about Buddhism, Buddha, and The Parable of the Mustard Seed:





Parable of the Mustard Seed



3 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Parable of the Mustard Seed”

  1. Beautiful parable about death. I like George Harrison’s sentiment in All Things Must Pass.

  2. Pingback: Will I ever feel whole again? Coping with grief - Dalia's Blog

  3. Pingback: Just a "STUG" | Washington Therapist | Mike Pecosh

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