Over the Edge with Kisa Gotami – Part 1
by Dan Nussbaum
Let’s start with an image from an early Buddhist story. A thin young woman holds the corpse of her child. No one can make her let go of her dead boy. She begs each person she encounters to give her some potion to bring him back to life. I imagine her lifting up the lifeless body up for all to see, its head drooping to one side. The people she meets recoil. She’s mad.
This image comes from the story of Kisa Gotami who later on will be told by the Buddha that he can give her help if she brings him a mustard seed from a house that has never known death. Kisa Gotami finds out that death has visited every house. An understanding of impermanence brings her back to her senses. At last she’s able to put down the body and bury her child.
An anthology could be made of the many versions of this story that can be found online. I appreciate the way that writers have made it personal, imagining details that aren’t in the canonical version, changing others. We hear the child is an infant and a year-and-a-half and old enough to run around by himself; that she carries the body as she goes door-or-door and that Buddha has her leave the corpse with him before she goes on her quest; that people in the town scorned her and that they offered her kindness. If you’re interested in how texts change, a search online offers up a lot to savor.
Most interpretations of this tale say that Gotami comes to know the pervasiveness of suffering, that everything born must die. And certainly her story is about coming to terms with grief. But that phrase - coming to terms with grief – sounds flat, which goes along with my feeling that most readings could go deeper.
One writer sees it this way:
The story of the Mustard Seed is well known in all Buddhist Sects. It is a monument to the idea of practice in the face of loss and suffering. The Four Noble Truths have as their base the idea that change is constant, and that we will always lose everything we are attached to. The Mustard Seed story illustrates this well. Through the suffering of Kisa Gotami we are reminded of our own, and how we are all connected in that suffering. All who live suffer.
I did come across one breath-grabbing exception to the conventional: http://tinyurl.com/a9hzecb. In an essay about her anguish after giving birth to a stillborn baby, the writer Angie Yingst plunges so far into the Kisa Gotami story that we see her differently as she comes out the other side. It’s writing that shows us how immersed reading changed her at the same time it’s writing that offers us the chance to change by reading it.
Mothers do go mad with grief. Annie Yingst tells us she went to the brink. The image of Kisa Gotami shows someone over the edge. Yet what’s usually presented as Gotami’s insight doesn’t come up to the intensity of her struggle to reach it. Everyone dies? Is that it? Did we really need a Buddha who only comes along once in an aeon to tell us that?
In a later post I will suggest another reading of the story which stays with the desperation of Kisa Gotami clutching the corpse of her child.