Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the Deathless State,
yet better is life for a single day
Dhammapada, Verse 114 – Kisagotami Vatthu
Long time ago, there was a lady. She had had a happy life. She grew up as daughter of a rich man and eventually married to a rich young man. She lived happily with her husband and bore him a son.
Then the other side of life caught up with her. Her only son died. He was only a toddler. The lady was overcome with grief. Carrying the little dead body of her son, she went everywhere, asking everyone she met for medicine that would restore her son to life. Of course, no one could help her and people began to think that the poor woman had gone mad. But one wise man thought that he should be of some help to her. So, he said to her, “The Buddha is the person you should approach, he has the medicine you want; go to him.” Thus, she went to the Buddha, told him her story and asked him to give her the medicine that would restore her dead son to life. The Buddha listened compassionately to her story. He then said to her, “lady, go and ask for five mustard seed from a house which has never experienced death.”
Feeling hope for the first time, still carrying her dead child, she went from house to house, asking if perhaps the house is free from death and they could spare five mustard seeds for her. Although everyone was willing to help her and readily provided her with five mustard seeds from their house, she could not find a single family that has not experienced death.
Then, as she went from house to house with her dead son refusing to give up her quest, she started to realise that hers was not the only family that had faced death. As she continued her search, she felt the grip of pain in her heart and her attachment to her son’s body loosened.
At last, she was ready to let go. 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 she accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She left her son’s body in the jungle and returned to the Buddha to pay her respect. She reported that she could find no house where death had not occurred. Then the Buddha said, “death comes to all beings; before their desires are satiated death takes them away.” On hearing this, she fully realised the impermanence of life.
Later, she became a bhikkhuni. One day, early in the morning, she put on her robes and, taking her bowl & outer robe, went into the city for alms. When she returned from her alms round she went to the Grove of the Blind and sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s meditation.
Then Mara the Evil One, a demon, wanting to arouse fear and terror in Kisagotami to ruin her concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:
with your sons killed,
do you sit all alone,
your face in tears?
immersed in the midst of the forest,
are you looking
for a man?
Kindly, she replied to him in verses:
I’ve gotten past
the killing of sons,
have made that the end
to [my search for] men.
I don’t grieve,
I don’t weep —
and I’m not afraid of you,
It’s everywhere destroyed — delight.
The mass of darkness is shattered.
Having defeated the army of death,
Sad and dejected, Mara the Evil One vanished, and she was free to continue her quest for enlightenment.
The Therigatha (or “Verses of the Elder Nuns”) in the Pali Canon recounts a version of the story. The Therigatha is a collection of short poems of early women who were elder nuns. The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE.