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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.

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. In this way, the Buddha was able to heal her obsession and bring her to an acceptance of reality. Kisagotami no longer refused to believe that her child was dead, but understood that death is the destiny of all beings.

Such were the means by which the Buddha could heal grief-stricken people and bring them out of their overpowering delusion, in which the whole world was perceived only in the perspective of their loss. 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.

Another time a grief-stricken person was able to see reality when the Buddha pointed out to him that his son would be reborn and that he was only lamenting for an empty shell.

After Kisagotami had come to her senses, she took the child's lifeless body to the cemetery and returned to the Enlightened One. He asked her whether she had brought any mustard seed. She gratefully explained how she had been cured by the Blessed One. Thereupon the Master spoke the following verse to her:

In flocks and children finding delight,
with a mind clinging — just such a man
death seizes and carries away,
as a great flood, a sleeping village.

Because her mind had matured and she had won insight into reality, it was possible for her to become a stream-winner after hearing the Buddha proclaim just that one verse. She asked for admittance into the Order of Nuns.

After having spent some time as a nun, practicing and studying Dharma, she watched her lamp one evening and compared the restlessly hissing flames with the ups and downs of life and death. Thereupon the Blessed One came to her and again spoke a short verse:

Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the Deathless State,
yet better is life for a single day,
seeing the Deathless State.

When she heard these lines, she was able to shed all fetters and became one of the arahants, the fully Enlightened Ones.

Ninety-two eons ago, in one of her former lives, she had been the wife of a Buddha-to-be, at the time of the Buddha Phussa. During the time of the last Buddha before the Sage of the Sakyas, namely Buddha Kassapa, she had been a King's daughter who became a nun.

In the collection of "Verses of the Elder Nuns" her stanzas can be found, in which she describes the great joy the Buddha imparted to her. Therefore she praises friendship with the Noble and Holy Ones:

The Sage has emphasized and praised
Noble friendship for the world.
If one stays with a Noble Friend,
even a fool will become a wise person.
Stay with them of good heart
for the wisdom of those who stay with them grows.
And while one is staying with them,
from every kind of dukkha one is freed.
Dukkha one should know well,
and how dukkha arises and ceases,
and the Eightfold Path,
and the Four Noble Truths.

The compassion of the Buddha, the most noble friend of all, had saved her from all suffering experienced in this and former lives. She used as her model, the heartrending example of the nun Patacara who had also been afflicted with temporary insanity after the death of not only husband and two sons, but also parents and brothers. Because women's longing for men is so deeply ingrained, the Buddha said, "For a man does the woman strive." From this attachment is born the torture of jealousy, the lack of self-reliance, and the despair of loneliness.

Only when one penetrates a woman's suffering in this way can one realize the full impact of Kisagotami's gratitude towards the Buddha who showed her the way. So she says:

"Woman's state is painful,"
declares the Trainer of tamable men.
"A wife with others is painful
and once having borne a child,
some even cut their throats;
others of delicate constitution
poison take, then pain again;
and then there's the baby obstructing the birth,
killing the mother too."

After she attained to arahantship, she was able to see her past lives and could now say:

Miserable woman, your kin all dead
and limitless dukkha you've known.
So many tears have you shed
in these many thousands of births.

The third part of her verses finalizes her joy in finding liberation and release from all suffering:

Wholly developed by me is
the Eightfold Noble Path going to Deathlessness,
Nirvana realized,
I looked into the Mirror of the Dharma.
With dart removed am I,
the burden laid down, done what was to be done,
The elder nun Kisagotami,
freed in mind and heart, has chanted this.

When Mara,[*] as he had done so often before with other nuns, came to tempt her, to distract her from meditation and asked her whether she was lusting for man now that her child was dead, she immediately replied, discerning the ruse:

* [Mara is traditionally depicted as the "tempter" or "temptation." While here it is made to appear as if "he" were an outer force, the Buddha taught that temptation arises in one's own heart and mind because of one's own defilements.]

Passed is the time of my child's death
and I have fully done with men;
I do not grieve, nor do I weep,
and I'm not afraid of you, friend.
Sensual delight in every way is dead,
for the mass of darkness is destroyed.
Defeating the soldiery of death,
I live free from every taint.

Addressing Mara as "friend," she shows her lack of fear and her equanimity. Grumbling sullenly, Mara disappeared just as before when he had tried in vain to fetter other nuns to the realm of birth and death.

The nun Kisagotami, rising to holiness from lowliest birth, was praised by the Buddha as amongst the seventy-five greatest nuns.[*]

* [She was pre-eminent in ascetic habits and was wont to wear garments of rough fibers.]

© 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. © 1994 Access to Insight edition.Courtesy of Hellmuth Hecker, the author, and Sister Khema who translated from German. For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.



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