The Buddha and the Mustard Seed

When I lost a baby in an ectopic pregnancy, it was a sad and scary time for my 5-year-old. Just a couple of weeks earlier, we had been happily making up songs about the new baby we would be welcoming into our family. But then her mommy spent three days in the hospital for surgery. When I came home, I had to tell my daughter that our baby was not going to be born, and I was too sore to take her on my lap and comfort her.

We could still snuggle, though, and a few days later, as we cuddled on the sofa, I impulsively asked her, "Have I ever told you the story of Buddha and the mustard seed?"

When she shook her head, I told her, "Once there was a great teacher called Buddha. Some people thought he could do magic. One morning, a mother came to him carrying the body of her dead child. She said, "I've heard that you can do miracles. Will you bring my child back to life? My heart is broken without him."

He answered, "If you can bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one has died, bring it back to me at the end of the day, and I will use it to revive your child."

Then I said to my daughter, "We can act out the story of what happened then. Knock on the wall, and I'll pretend to open the door, and you be the mother asking me for the mustard seed."

She knocked. With a door-opening gesture, I said, "Yes?" She explained, "If I can bring the Buddha a mustard seed from a house where no one has died, he will use it to bring my baby back to life." I answered, "I'm sorry. I wish I could help you, but my grandfather died just last week. He was very old and it was time, but we miss him anyway."

I said, "Now let's try another house." This time, the story I told was that, just a month before, my husband had been run over by an ox cart, and my family didn't know what we would do. I told her that the two women talked for a while, comforting each other.

We imagined a few more visits. At one, the man who answered the door commented, "You've been walking a long time. You look tired and thirsty. Would you like to come to rest and have a drink of water?"

Eventually, I ended the story, "At the end of the day, the woman went back to Buddha and said, 'Now I understand,' and he helped her bury her baby."

Each day for the next few days, we reenacted the story, sometimes making up different incidents in the lives of the people we visited. Then one day, my daughter said, "You be the mommy, and knock at my door."

So I did, and when I told her my story, she answered, "I can't give you a mustard seed, because we were going to have a baby, but the baby died. But my mommy and daddy are going to try and have another baby, maybe you could, too."

"That's a good idea," I said. "Thank you for telling me that." And we hugged.

As it turned out, I never did have another baby. But my daughter had learned valuable lessons about creating meaning from painful experiences. She learned that we are not alone with our problems, and there is comfort in knowing that. She learned how people in pain and need can comfort each other by giving each other compassion and support. She built a network of friends who were like brothers and sisters. Some of them even call me "Ma." That's a lot of emotional nourishment from one little mustard seed!

—Molleen Matsumura

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