Mustard seeds are the smallest seeds of all seeds. They are also very important spice, especially in Indian cuisine. They are popularly known as Rai or Sarson India. Mustard is also a very popular flavor when comes to salads, sauces, hot-dogs, sandwiches, etc. This spice also has taught many life lessons, one of which is the truth of life. The earliest mention of mustard seed is in the time of Gautama Buddha in the popular narrative of Kisa Gotami.
Kisa Gotami and Mustard seed.
Kisa Gotami was the wife of a very wealthy man of Savatthi, which was one of the largest cities during the times of Gautama Buddha. Gotami was so lean that a suffix Kisa was added before her name, and she was known as Kisa Gotami or lean Gotami. Kisa gave birth to a son. When her son barely started to walk he fell and died. Gotami was now grief-stricken with the loss and she wandered places asking for medicines and way to revive her only son. Kisa clasped the child to her hip and roamed for days. Once a wise man saw her and felt compassion for her. So he said to her: ‘I know of a doctor who will help you, go to the Buddha and ask Him for medicine for your child. Kisa visited Buddha and asked him for medicine.
Buddha said, “I will surely help you but for the medicine, I require some mustard seeds from a house where there had been no death”. Kisa overjoyed by this went to every house begging for mustard seeds. Everyone was willing to help her, but when she asked whether death had occurred in the houses she went, everyone said that they had many people they lost. Someone had lost their child, parent, siblings, etc. she could not find a single house where death did not occur. The day went by and she now started to realize that, she was not the only one who had lost someone. Every house had gone through what she is now facing.
Realizing that death is the truth of life, everything that is born has to die. She lost the attachment with the dead body of her son and buried her son in the forest. Kisa then went to Buddha and paid him homage. Buddha said to her “Did you get those mustard seeds, were you able to find a house where death had not occurred?” Kisa replied “ I found that living were few but dead were many” Buddha then Sang the following verse.
“Whoso hath set his heart on sons or flocks and herds.
To worldly pleasures given o’er whose thoughts, —
Even as a torrent sweeps away a sleeping town.
So him the Prince of Death doth take and bear away.”(Verse 287)
Buddha said that before you are able to fulfill all your desires, death come and take you away, just as a flood sweeps a village away, the same way death takes away life.
Gotami realizing the truth of life became a Bhikkhuni, renunciate and followed the way of Buddha and attained Arahatship.
(Book 8, story 14, Dhammapada 114)
In this narrative Mustard seeds play a very important role. Mustard seed is the most finite of things and is easily available. Every house would have mustard seeds for sure as it is an important part of the cuisine. When Buddha asks her to bring mustard seeds from a house where death had not occurred, has a great philosophical message. Death is something that no one can escape, and anyone who is born has to die. No one can escape death. It was very certain that Kisa would find no such house. Here Mustard seeds signify desire, even the smallest desire of size of mustard seeds would not last in front of death. To which later Buddha gives the analogy of flood sweeping the village. The Buddha here insists on curbing the attachment and desire. Not finding the mustard seeds also indicates that there should be not even a single worldly desire of size of mustard seeds. The heart and mind should be only striving for enlightenment. Kisa’s struggle to find mustard seeds is actually the struggle that the soul has to go through to move towards the path of enlightenment. Here Kisa’s son can also symbolically mean bodily consciousness, Just as Kisa when realizes the truth of life she buries her son and moves to become enlightened. The same way, one should bury the bodily consciousness in order to move towards the path of self-realization and attain enlightenment. Once we realize that everything that has been created will certainly be destroyed we automatically are motivated to rise above the bodily consciousness. This Parable really teaches a lot of things.
This parable can also be interpreted in overcoming challenges. The death can be interpreted as challenges, there are bound to be a challenge in life just as death. No easy way ahead. Mustard seeds can signify effort; even the smallest effort put forth can help you overcome challenges. The struggle that Kisa had here means the road towards the overcoming challenges, there are is going to be a roller-coaster ride. The son and burial of the son indicate overcoming of the challenge and then you achieve enlightenment.
There can be as many interpretations of the teaching that Buddha is imparting taking the Analogy of mustard seeds.