The Mustard-Seed Medicine

From Long Ago
A curriculum for middle elementary grades by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper


Find this story in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here.

I find this story a little gruesome (Kisa Gotami carries her dead baby around with her), and even though Fahs has cleaned up the story and “Westernized” it, I’m not sure I care for the idea of denying suffering in this way. Therefore, I have included an alternate story from the Buddhist tradition, “Visakha’s Sorrow,” that I prefer — see below.


SESSION SIX: The Mustard Seed Medicine

I/ Opening

Take attendance.

Light chalice with these words and the associated hand motions: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism: the church of the open mind, the helping hands, and the loving heart.”

Check-in: Go around circle. Each child and adult says his or her name, and then may say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (anyone may pass).

II/ Read the story “The Mustard Seed Medicine.”

Find this story in From Long Ago and Many Lands, available online through Google Books — click here.

I find this story a little gruesome (Kisa Gotami carries her dead baby around with her), and even though Fahs has cleaned up the story and “Westernized” it, I’m not sure I care for the idea of denying suffering in this way. Therefore, I have included an alternate story from the Buddhist tradition, “Visakha’s Sorrow,” that I prefer — see below.

III/ Act out the story.

As usual, begin by asking: “Who are the characters in this story?” There are two main characters in “The Mustard-Seed Medicine”: Buddha and Kisa Gotami. In addition, there are all the neighbors that Kisa Gotami visits. Some children may want to act out the baby who died. [In the alternate story, “Visakha’s Sorrow,” there are two main characters, Buddha and Visakha; you should also have the children act out the other houses where people are grieving.]

Determine where the stage area will be, and the lead teachers sits facing the stage. As usual, the lead teacher reads the story, prompting actors as needed to act out their parts. Depending on the size of the class, some children make take on more than one role.

IV/ Conversation about the story

Sit back down in a group. Go over the story to make sure the children understand it.

Now ask some general questions: “What did you like about the story? Who was your favorite character? Who was your least favorite character?” — or questions you come up with on your own.

Ask some questions specific to the story: “Do you think Buddha gave good advice to Kisa Gotami?” “What advice would you give to Kisa Gotami?” “What do you think is it like to be so very sad?” Or any other open-ended questions you want to ask. Note Fahs has cleaned up this story a bit, and the original is far stranger. I’ve included the original that she worked from — see below.

If you use the alternate story, you may ask much the same kinds of questions: “Do you think Buddha gave good advice to Visakha?” “What advice would you give to Visakha?” “What do you think is it like to be so very sad?” Or any other open-ended questions you want to ask.

Since you’ve been discussing stories week after week, by now the children should be pretty good at it. The children will be interested in thinking about whether either of these stories is really true or not, and that question should lead to some very interesting discussions. Ask them: do you think this story could have been really true? Historically, it probably could have been true, but we don’t have really good records for 2,500 years ago, so we’ll never know for sure (though given the details of the original, we may be inclined to think this story is more likely to be true, although perhaps it did not actually involve the Buddha.). A more important question to ask is: Does this story feel true to you? Is this how people who are very sad actually act? Is this the kind of advice that we should be giving to people who are really sad?

V/ Free play and snack

The usual free play options: “Duck, Duck, Goose,” Lego play, etc.

VII/ Closing circle

Before leaving, have the children hold hands in a circle. Show them how to hold hands: Hold your hands out in front of you with your palms down; now turn your left hand so that your left palm is up; now both your thumbs are pointing right; now hold hands with the person on each side, with your right hand on top of another person’s left hand, and your left hand under another person’s right hand.

When the children are in a circle, ask them what they did today, and prompt them with questions and answers, e.g.: “What did we do today? We heard a story, right? Anyone remember what the story was about? Etc.” You’re not trying to put any one child on the spot, but rather drawing on the wisdom of the group as a whole. If any parents have come to pick up their children, invite them to join the circle (so they can know what it is their children learned about this week).

Say the closing words together — either these words, or others you choose:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Then tell the children how you enjoyed seeing them (if that’s true), and that you look forward to seeing them again next week.


Above: Kisa Gotami and her dead child, as shown on a mural at the Nava Jetavana temple, Jetavana Park, Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo credit: “PhotoDharma” CC BY 2.0.



Visakha’s Sorrow

Once upon a time, the Buddha was staying in the city of Savatthi, in the Eastern Grove. He was staying as a guest in the mansion owned by Visakha. Now Visakha had a granddaughter whom she loved very much; this granddaughter was her darling and her delight. While Buddha was staying in her mansion, Visakha’s granddaughter died after a long illness.

When Visakha heard that her granddaughter had at long last died, it was very early in the morning. Visakha was overwhelmed with grief when she heard the news. Even though it was very early in the morning, she went to see the Buddha.
She approached the Buddha, greeted him politely, and went to sit down at his side.

The Buddha looked at her, and could see she had been crying. He said quietly, “Well, Visakha, what is it that brings you here at a very early hour, with your hands and hair all wet from tears?”

“Forgive me, Buddha, but my granddaughter has just died,” she said. “My granddaughter was my darling and my delight, and that is why I come to you at this early hour with my hands and hair all wet with my tears.”

They sat in silence for a time. Visakha could not stop crying.

The Buddha looked kindly at Visakha. “Would you like to have many grandchildren who were as darling and as delightful as your granddaughter?” he said.

“Oh, yes, I would like to have as many darling grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.”

“But Visakha,” said the Buddha, “how many people die in the city of Savatthi each day?”

“Ten or a dozen people die each day in our city,” she said. “I know my granddaughter is no different from any other human being, and I know she is no different from any of the dozen people who must die each day in our city.”

“So what do you think, Visakha,” said the Buddha sympathetically. “In all the households where someone has died, do you think that in that same household there will also be people whose hands and hair are all wet with tears?”

“Yes,” she said, “wherever someone has died, that will be so.”

“Visakha, if you hold something dear to your heart, then you will have a sorrow,” said the Buddha. “If you hold a hundred people dear, you will have a hundred sorrows. If you hold fifty people dear, you will have fifty sorrows. If you hold twenty people dear, you will have twenty sorrows. If you hold one person dear, you will have one sorrow. But those people who hold nothing dear will have no sorrow; those people will be free from grief, they will be free from passion, and they will be free from despair. Do you wish to be free from grief?”

Visakha nodded.

The Buddha went on. “In this world, whatever grief or sorrow or sadness there may be, exist because we hold on to something too tightly. The only people who are truly happy, the only people who are free from grief, are those who do not try to hold anything too tightly. If you wish to be free from grief and free from passion, you must hold nothing dear that is on this earth.”

That’s the end of the story as it is traditionally told. But here’s what I imagine happened next:

Visakha looked up at the Buddha, and said, “I’m sorry, Buddha, but I can’t do what you ask. I cannot love my granddaughter any less, even if it means that I must be unhappy.”

The Buddha just smiled, and suddenly Visakha understood.

The Buddha was telling her that there is a middle way between having no feelings at all on the one hand, and being utterly overwhelmed by her feelings on the other hand. Right then, she loved her granddaughter so much that that feeling overwhelmed everything else in her heart. She would always love her granddaughter, and that love would never go away, but the day would come when she would have room in her heart for other feelings again. Over time, sadness and grief would loosen their tight hold on her heart; and that knowledge was a comfort to her.



This story comes from the Udana, viii. 8. I used Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, pp. 107-108; and The Udana: or the Solemn Utterances of the Buddha, trans. from the Pali by Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong (Luzac/India Company: London, 1902), pp. 126-127.



From: Buddhist Legends: Translated from the Original Pali Text of the Dhammapada Commentary, Part 2: Translation of Books 3-12; vol. 29 of The Harvard Oriental Series, by Eugene Watson Burlingame (Cambridge, Mass.: Havard University, 1921), pp. 258-260.

Book 8, Story 13, Dhammapada 114

…There came one day to the door of his shop a certain maiden, the daughter of a poverty-stricken house. Her name was Gotami, but by reason of the leanness of her body she was generally known as Kisa Gotami. She came to buy something for herself; but when she saw the merchant, she said to him, “My good sir, most merchants sell such things as clothing and oil and honey and molasses; but you are sitting here selling yellow gold.” “Maiden, where is there any yellow gold?” “Right there where you are sitting.” “Let me have some of it,maiden.” She took a handful of the charcoal and placed it in his hands. No sooner had it touched his hands than presto! it turned into yellow gold.

Then said the merchant to her, “Which is your house, maiden?” Said she, “Such and such, sir.” The merchant, perceiving that she was unmarried, married her to his own son. He then gathered up his wealth (what was previously charcoal turning into yellow gold at his touch), and gave the four hundred millions into her charge. In time she became pregnant, and, after ten lunar months, gave birth to a son. But the child died as soon as he was able to walk.

Now Kisa Gotami had never seen death before. Therefore, when they came to remove the body for burning, she forbade them to do so. Said she to herself, “I will seek medicine for my son.” Placing the dead child on her hip, she went from house to house inquiring, “Know ye aught that will cure my son?” Everyone said to her, “Woman, thou art stark mad that thou goest from house to house seeking medicine for thy dead child.” But she went her way, thinking, “Surely I shall find someone that knoweth medicine for my child.”

Now a certain wise man saw her and thought to himself, “This my daughter hath no doubt borne and lost her first and only child, nor death hath seen before; I must help her.” So he said to her, “Woman, as for me, I know not that wherewith to cure your child; but one there is that knoweth, and him I know.” “Sir, who is it that doth know?” “Woman, the Teacher doth know; go ask him.” “Good sir, I will go ask him.”

So she went to the Teacher, paid obeisance to him, stood at his side, and asked him, “Venerable Sir, is it true, as men say, that thou dost know that wherewith to cure my child?” “Yea, that know I.” “What shall I get?” “A pinch of white mustard seed.” “That will I, Venerable Sir. But in whose house shall I get it?” “In whose house nor son nor daughter nor any other hath yet died.” “Very well, Venerable Sir,” said she, and paid obeisance to him. Then she placed the dead child on her hip, entered the village, stopped at the door of the very first house, and asked, “Have ye here any white mustard seed? [274] They say it will cure my child.” “Yea.” “Well then, give it me.” They brought grains of white mustard seed and gave to her. She asked, “Friends, in the house wherein ye dwell hath son or daughter yet died?” “What sayest thou, woman? As for the living, they be few; only the dead be many.” “Well then, take back your mustard seed; that is no medicine for my child.” So saying, she gave back the mustard seed.

After this manner, going from house to house, she plied her quest. Never a house wherein she found the mustard seed she sought; and when the evening came, she thought, “Ah! ’tis a heavy task I took upon myself. I thought ’twas I alone had lost a child, but in every village the dead are more in number than the living.” The while she thus reflected, hard became the heart the which erewhile was soft with mother’s love. She took the child and in a forest laid him down, and going to the Teacher paid obeisance to him and beside him took her stand.

Said the Teacher, “Didst thou get the single pinch of mustard seed?” “Nay, that did I not, Venerable Sir. In every village the dead are more in number than the living.” Said the Teacher, “Vainly didst thou imagine that thou alone hadst lost a child. But all living beings are subject to an unchanging law, and it is this: The Prince of Death, like to a raging torrent, sweeps away into the sea of ruin all living beings; still are their longings unfulfilled.” And instructing her in the Law, he pronounced the following Stanza,

Whoso hath set his heart on sons or flocks and herds,
To worldly pleasures given o’er whose thoughts, —
Even as a torrent sweeps away a sleeping town,
So him the Prince of Death doth take and bear away.

As the Teacher uttered the last word of the Stanza, Kisa Gotami was established in the Fruit of Conversion. Likewise did many others also obtain the Fruit of Conversion, and the Fruits of the Second and Third Paths. Kisa Gotami requested the Teacher to admit her to the Order; accordingly he sent her to the community of nuns and directed that she be admitted. Afterwards she made her full profession and came to be known as the nun Kisa Gotami.