Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seeds

Kenneth Leong
3 min readFeb 22, 2024

Of the many vivid stories recorded in Buddhist literature, the story of Kisa Gotami has to be one of the most touching. It is also very educational. It is a good lesson on the Buddhist approach to healing.

In the story, Kisa Gotami was a young woman who was happily married to a wealthy merchant. Tragedy struck, however, when her only son was one-year-old. He fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gotami was so grief-stricken that she went mad. Weeping and groaning, she took the corpse of her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house begging the townspeople to show her a way to bring her son back to life.

Finally she came across a kindly old man who advised her to go and see the Buddha himself.

When Gotami saw the Buddha and told him what happened, Buddha listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, “Kisa Gotami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death.”

Kisa Gotami was filled with hope, and diligently went door-to-door to find such a household. But she could not find any household which had not experienced death. Finally, at the end of the day, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Gotami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she stopped her grieving. She buried her child and later returned to the Buddha to join the sangha.

According to the tradition, Kisa Gotami became an arahant. The Pali Canon recorded an encounter between Mara, the evil one, and Kisa Gotami (SN 5.3). It goes as follows:

Then Mara the Evil One, wanting to arouse fear, horripilation, & terror in her, wanting to make her fall away from concentration, approached her & addressed her in verse:

Why,

with your sons killed,

do you sit all alone,

your face in tears?

All alone,

immersed in the midst of the forest,

are you looking

for a man?

Then the thought occurred to Kisa Gotami the nun: “This is Mara the Evil One, who has…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human