Preposterous Universe

Thursday, June 09, 2005
Grief and truth

An interesting story from Killing the Buddha, linked yesterday at 3quarksdaily.

A famous Buddhist story tells of Kisa Gotami, a young mother from the Buddha’s clan whose baby boy died suddenly. Grief-stricken, she carried his corpse with her everywhere, wailing and wondering aloud why her child had left her. People pitied her, and eventually she was told to go to the Buddha for advice. When she reached his retreat, she demanded that the Buddha bring her boy back to life. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buddha agreed to do so, but first asked Gotami to do something. “Anything, anything,” she cried in desperate hope. The Buddha told her to go into the village and bring back a mustard seed from a house which had never known death.

Kisa Gotami went from house to house, still clutching the limp body of her child, asking for mustard seeds. People readily agreed to give her one, but when she asked if anyone had died in the house, every time the occupants nodded sadly. In each house there had been some sort of loss—a father, a sister, an aunt, a baby. As Gotami made her way through the village, she gradually began to understand that death was an absolute fact of existence, that no one escaped it, not in the meanest hut or in the palace itself. Finally, she took her child’s body to the charnel ground and left it, returning to the Buddha to be ordained as a nun. Realizing that the Buddha never meant to resurrect her boy but was teaching her a more important religious lesson, she released her attachment and with newfound wisdom, committed herself to a life of spiritual awakening.

It's a good story, although not without the usual shortcomings of the Buddhist-parable genre. For one thing, the protagonist is rather literal-minded; how many homes did she really have to visit before figuring out that death was universal? Also, "kill-the-Buddha" exhortations notwithstanding, these stories inevitably end up portraying the Buddha as a smugly wise man surrounded by rather simple folk (much like physicists's stories about Feynman).

Still, I like the story and its moral. But then, a little twist:

I’ve read or been told this story dozens of times. Before, I always marveled at the truth of this tale, its brave acceptance of the way of things, the contrast between Jesus’ improbable miracles and the Buddha’s humble demonstration of a spiritual fact more important than the healing of flesh. I’ve told this story more times that I can recall, confident in its correctness and value. But then Grandmother died, and without my knowing it, the story completely changed. The first time I read about Kisa Gotami again after Grandmother’s death, I immediately thought, “If Buddha had played a trick like that on me, I would’ve torn his goddamn head off.”

The truth is, I’d much rather have Grandmother back than to acquire some sort of spiritual insight. I’d eagerly trade in all my books and statues, my altar, and all the teachings I’ve attended and blessings I’ve received. If Jesus had been around handing out resurrections, I would’ve surely picked him over do-nothing, it’s-a-learning-experience Buddha. Hard-won religious understanding is a very poor substitute for the love and support of someone close to you. But whether or not it takes second place, it’s all you end up with. Everyone is going to die on you, until the day that you die on whoever is left. So learning from the worst, immutable parts of life, or just continuing to revolve in painful ignorance, is the only choice we get. Buddha’s story may have a disappointing punch-line, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.

That's exactly right, isn't it? In the midst of great grief, the overpowering sorrow that comes with an unexpected loss, you aren't in any mood for pious teachings about inevitability and acceptance -- you want a miraculous escape, a for-real deus ex machina. Nevertheless, the miracles aren't forthcoming. Wishing for them is both perfectly understandable, and ultimately fruitless.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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