There lived in Savatthi a girl called Gotami, in poor circumstances, belonging to the lowest caste. Because she was very thin and haggard, a real bean-pole, everyone called her the haggard (kisa) Gotami. When one saw her walking around, tall and thin, one could not fathom her inner riches. One could truly say about her:
Her beauty was an inner one
One could not see its spark outside.
She was despondent because due to her poverty and lack of attractiveness, she was unable to find a husband. But one day it suddenly happened that a rich merchant who appreciated her inner wealth and considered that more important than her outer appearance, married her. However, the husband’s family despised her because of her caste, her poverty and her looks. This animosity caused her great unhappiness, especially because of her beloved husband, who found himself in conflict between love for his parents and love for his wife.
But when Kisagotami gave birth to a baby boy, the husband’s whole clan finally accepted her as the mother of the son and heir. Her relief about this changed attitude was immense and a great burden was taken from her. Now she was totally happy and contented. The boy grew up and soon started playing outside, full of energy and joy. However, one day her happiness showed itself to be based on an illusion. Her little son died suddenly. She did not know how to bear this tragedy. Beyond the usual love of a mother for her child, she had been especially attached to this child, because he was the guarantee for her marital bliss and her peace of mind socially as well.
His death made her fear that her husband’s family would despise her again and that they would blame her, saying she was karmically unable to have a son. “Kisagotami must have done some very despicable deeds, to have this happen to her,” people would say. And even her husband might reject her now. All such ideas and imaginings revolved in her mind and a dark cloud descended upon her. She simply refused to accept the fact that the child was dead, and became obsessed with the fantasy that her child was only sick and that she had to get medicine for him.
With the dead child in her arms, she ran away from her home and went from house to house asking for medicine for her little son. At every door she begged: “Please give me some medicine for my child,” but the people replied that medicine would not help any more, the child was dead. But she did not understand what they were saying to her, because in her mind she had resolved that the child was not dead. Others laughed at her without compassion. But amongst the many selfish and unsympathetic people, she also met a wise and kind person who recognized that her mind was deranged because of grief. He advised her to visit the best physician, namely the Buddha of the ten powers, who would know the right remedy.
She immediately followed this advice and ran to Prince Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Monastery, where the Buddha was staying. She arrived in the middle of a discourse being given by the Buddha to a large congregation. Totally despairing and in tears, with the corpse of the child in her arms, she begged the Buddha, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” The Awakened One interrupted his teaching and replied kindly that he knew of a medicine. Hopefully she inquired what that could be.
“Mustard seeds,” the Enlightened One replied, astounding everyone present.
Joyfully, Kisagotami inquired where she should go to obtain them and what kind to get. The Buddha replied that she need only bring a very small quantity from any house where no one had died. She trusted the Blessed One’s words and went to the town. At the first house, she asked whether any mustard seeds were available. “Certainly,” was the reply. “Could I have a few seeds?” she inquired. “Of course,” she was told, and some seeds were brought to her. But then she asked the second question, which she had not deemed quite as important: whether anyone had died in this house. “But of course,” the people told her. And so it went everywhere. In one house someone; had died recently, in another house some time ago. She could not find any house where no one had died. The dead ones are more numerous than the living ones, she was told.
Towards evening she finally realized that not only she was stricken by the death of a loved one, but this was the common human fate. What no words had been able to convey to her, her own experience — going from door to door — made clear to her. She understood the law of existence, the being fettered to the always re-occurring deaths.Later, she joined as nun and attained the Enlighten-hood.
Once, when someone was lamenting the death of his father, the Buddha asked him which father he meant: the father of this life, or the last life, or the one before that. Because if one wanted to grieve, then it would be just as well not only to feel sorrow for the one father.