Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tiny Seed. Huge Lesson.

Jack and I traveled to my friend Janet's lake house last weekend. Her house is the perfect retreat, and the cool breeze coming off Watts Bar Dam is welcome relief from the south's thick, humidity. This trip; however, was made more poignant because it was an anniversary of sorts. A year ago I drove to Janet's lake house to ponder a very difficult decision that would change the course of many lives. As Jack and I made the four-hour drive last June, I had no idea what would transpire in the months to come, and had I known, I probably wouldn't have left the comfort of her pleasant home.
Sunset at Watts Bar Dam.
   This year, the drive zipped by. Jack and I sang to OutKast and David Bowie tunes and talked about Pokemon. Then he played his new Lego Harry Potter Nintendo game on his DSi while I listened to the news on NPR. In Chattanooga, weekend traffic slowed our pace and Jack grew restless. "How much longer, Mom?" he asked. "Do you want me to tell you a story?" I offered. "I heard this story called The Mustard Seed and I wanted to share it with you."
   The Mustard Seed is a Buddhist parable. (Apparently, Buddha—like Jesus—sometimes imparted his wisdom in parable form.) Jack picked up on the I've-got-an-important-lesson-to-impart-to-you tone in my voice. "Um, not now, Mom," he said. "Maybe later." He refocused on his DSi, where Harry Potter's battle against Lord Voldemort continued. By the time we wound our way through traffic, down Lookout Mountain and were speeding north up Interstate 40, we'd both forgotten about the story.
   The weather on the lake was ideal. Hot, but with those temporal breezes that make the warm sun bearable. Janet's two children played with Jack in the water near the dock most of the day and after dinner, they snuggled together, creating a fort in the upstairs loft. Around ten pm they finally exhausted themselves and their laughter grew quiet.
    I was just falling asleep when I heard a rumble outside. A storm was moving in, cooling the air and bringing much-needed rain. Then a glint of lightning flashed across the starless sky. The trees began to sway their leafy finery and, at last, heavy raindrops pinged the tin roof of the cabin. I snuggled in the soft sheets of the comfortable guest bed and listened for the inevitable: Jack padding downstairs, seeking comfort from the storm. He's old enough, of course, to not be afraid of a clap of thunder or a lightning bolt, but inclement weather provides an excuse to return to a time when he needed me more. I know the days are numbered when I can count on him to seek me out when thunder rumbles, and I thanked the stormy night for giving me this sweet gift.
   I closed my eyes and was just dozing off when I heard Jack say another soon-to-be-extinct phrase: "Mom? Will you tell me a story?"
   "A story?" I said. "What kind of story?"
   "The story you were going to tell me in the car," he answered.
    I smiled and set aside my own desire for sleep. Then I remembered that the story of The Mustard Seed was not exactly a comforting bedtime tale, but I was too drowsy to think up another tale.
   "More than two thousand years ago, in the time of Buddha, mustard was a very popular spice. It wasn't like the bright yellow stuff we put on hot dogs."
   "I hate hot dogs," Jack interrupted. "And I don't like mustard."
   "I know, I know," I said, "But many people do like it, and the point is that at that time two thousand years ago, everyone used mustard like we use salt and pepper, okay?"
   I felt Jack nod his head.
   "I'm telling you this because it's important to understand that everyone, rich or poor, at this period of time in India had mustard seeds into their homes, just as everyone has salt today," I continued. "So at this time, in a small village in India, a young mother was mourning the loss of her daughter. She was inconsolable because she loved the child so very much and she could not bear the pain. For months the mother sobbed, until one day, a neighbor took pity on her and told her a secret. 'You should seek out the Buddha,' the neighbor told her. 'Can he return my child to me?' the young mother asked. The neighbor looked at the woman and smiled. 'It is said that he knows the secret to end suffering.'
   So the young mother wiped the tears from her eyes and rushed off to find the Buddha. For the first time in months, she was filled with hope that she might be relieved from her despair. Why had she not thought of this before? Surely this wise, holy man could bring her child back to her. For days she traveled and finally she came to the village where the Buddha resided. Upon seeing him, she prostrated before him."
   "She pro-what?!" asked Jack. Well, at least I knew he was listening.
   "Prostrated. She knelt down before the Buddha as a sign of respect, and touched her forehead to the ground."
   "Oooh," said Jack. "Keep going. What happened next?"
   "Well, the young mother poured out her sorrow to the Buddha, explaining that her only child had passed from this life and she could not go on without her. The Buddha listened and nodded. 'Please, Master Buddha, it is said you know the way to end my suffering,' she said. 'Please help me! Can you bring my daughter back to me?' The Buddha smiled his beatific smile and took her hands in his, looking into her eyes. 'I can help you,' he said finally. 'But you must do exactly as I ask.' The mother agreed at once to follow the Buddha's instruction without question.
  'Very well,' said the Buddha. 'You must go to every single home in this village, and gather a single mustard seed from all those households who have not known death and experienced it's pain and loss. Bring me one mustard seed and I will restore your happiness.' 'Of course!' said the young mother. 'I will begin right away and return with what you request.' She clapped her hands thinking of how easy it would be to find a single mustard seed among all these homes in this large village. Surely it would not be long before she was reunited with her daughter, happy again. And so she set off, going from house to house, asking everyone she met if they had experienced the pain and loss of death.
   She knocked on dozens of doors that first day, and the answer was always the same. Some had lost a mother or father or grandfather or sibling. Others had lost a friend or cousin. Each day, the young mother continued on her task, and as the weeks went by, she had still not collected a single, tiny mustard seed. She went to grand homes and modest shacks, but the answer was always the same. No one she met could tell her that he or she had not known the pain of loss. On she continued, rising early each day and continuing until dark, walking from household to household asking the same question, and receiving the same answer, never collecting a mustard seed. After twelve months, she had visited each and every home and still she was empty handed. But in the process something miraculous happened. As she talked with mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles about their losses, she felt the sharp pain of her despair lessen. Often she found herself comforting the people with whom she spoke, sharing the story of her own precious loss. Finally, she returned to the Buddha.
   'Have you brought me a mustard seed?' he asked. 'No, Lord Buddha,' the young mother said. 'I have been to every home in this village and not one household has been spared the suffering of loss. I return to you with empty hands.' The Buddha looked into the woman's dry, clear eyes and smiled. 'What have you found?" he asked. 'Death touches all,' she said. 'But life continues on.' And with that realization, the young mother felt a sense of peace and resilience. She returned to her own home empty handed, but with heart full. By setting aside her own pain and considering the suffering of others, she found her cure: loving-kindness and compassion...'
   As my voice trailed off, I heard Jack's gentle, even breathing. The thunder had subsided, and the downpour, gentled. I closed my eyes to find sleep, but before I could drift off, Jack stirred. "That was a good story, Mom," he whispered.
   Over the past twelve months, I've often looked for the simple solution, the simple fix to my problems. And like the mother in Buddha's parable, in seeking the answer, I've found solace. The quest has been enough to get me through.


  1. Once again a terrific story and read Brigid. Thank you for always sharing from your heart ❤️

    1. Thank you, Greg! I'm glad I wrote that story five years ago because I wouldn't have recalled all the detail around that trip. It's like a time capsule. Jack is 14 now and will be in 9th grade in August!

    2. Time does heal, and suffering is not unique. Sometimes sleeping on something (for me) gets me to the other side of the fret.