Here are two stories, one told by the Buddha, the other by Jesus. Both use the same image—a mustard seed.
First, the Buddha story
A woman had a son, who became ill and died. The woman was so distraught she carried the baby around, refusing to accept what had happened. People in her village urged her to give the child a decent burial. But she refused.
Finally, someone suggested she go see the Buddha. He could perform miracles and could perhaps bring him back to life.
The woman traveled a long way to seek an audience with the great teacher. She told him her story.
“Can you bring my son back to me?” She asked.
The Buddha nodded. There was a process for this, he told her.
“You must take a mustard seed and give it to any family you find that hasn’t lost someone.”
The woman was elated.
She took the mustard seed to the first house she could find. She asked the man at the door if anyone there had died.
“Yes, my wife died, leaving me to care for our children,” he answered.
The woman moved on to another house, where a child had died. She went from one house to another, but each one had a loss—a mother, father, aunt, uncle.
The woman went back home and buried her son. After that, she became a follower of the Buddha.
By meeting others who had lost a loved one, the woman learned she wasn’t alone in her suffering. She was still heartbroken, but she was able to take the first step towards healing.
When I was in my accident, I felt like I was the only person in the world who was suffering. The question in my mind, over and over, was “why me?”
It took me a few years before I began reaching out to friends again. When I did, I was shocked to discover that many of them were going through serious difficulties—cancer, deaths in the family, chronic illness, breakups and more. I hadn’t been the only one at all.
Almost all of us go through loss, pain and suffering at some point in our lives. When we’re in the midst of our own tragedy it’s hard to believe anyone could be suffering the way we are.
It’s normal to feel that way. But we can stay in that place too long and get stuck. Like the woman in the story, we can remind ourselves that others also suffer.
That doesn’t mean our suffering is over. But it does mean we’re ready to grow from the experience. Whenever I read or think of that story, I imagine that as a follower of the Buddha the woman begins to heal and take back control of her life.
I see her mourning her child, but also celebrating his life. Remembering the time she did have with him and the joy that brought her.
Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed
From Matthew 13:31-32:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
The story has been interpreted in many ways. I’m not Christian and claim no understanding of the religion.
But here’s how I see it.
A tiny seed looks like nothing. We don’t see that it’s brimming with potential. So, too, our lives can look small and insignificant.
We might have a low opinion of ourselves, especially if we’re struggling with chronic illness or some other difficult condition. I sometimes feel like nothing but a burden. I feel as if I have nothing to offer the world.
This story reminds us that the smallest beginnings can lead to big things. No matter how little we think of ourselves, we have the potential for greatness.
We can give something of ourselves to others—just as a tree has branches where birds perch. It’s sharing what it has with them.
As he says, even though the mustard seed is the smallest, it yields something huge. We don’t know what we can become until we unleash our potential. The kingdom of heaven in this case could be our own kingdom—the one we create while we’re alive.
Two Parables, One Message
Both of these stories teach us that no matter where we are in life, we can grow. Sometimes that means recognizing that we have to let go of the past. Other times it means realizing that we are more than we think.
It’s natural to hold onto the safe and familiar. Whether we’re grieving the loss of a loved one or our own losses, the temptation is to hold tight and lock down our lives.
But we’re not here to live a small life. If becoming ill has taught me anything it’s that it’s not worth it to hold off on what makes life meaningful.
Of course it’s easy to see ourselves as insignificant. But imagine if the mustard seed decided not to grow, just because it was the smallest? It would never become the tree. The birds would never come. And the new seeds would never come into being, spreading more love across the world.