Buddha, Nietzsche and Grief

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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Many moons ago I wrote a post about how philosophy became my primary grief support when I was in college.  Weird, I know.  But when you are 19 years old, seeking grief support isn’t exactly on the top of the to-do list (or it certainly wasn’t for me). Yet, despite the hundreds of articles here on the blog about grief, it occurred to me recently that I have spent very little time talking about how philosophy shaped my grief and, in many ways, floated me through some of my darkest days.

I could fill volumes on my experience with grief and philosophy... So, now that I am feeling inspired to write about it, I am struggling with where to even begin. I'll start with what got me thinking about this recently: I was talking to a grieving mom last week and she somewhat sheepishly shared that one of the few things she found comfort in was thinking about other parents who had also lost children. She said she had often found comfort thinking that every person goes through the death of a loved one in some way, at some point. Though these thoughts brought her consolation, she expressed feeling horrible just admitting it out loud, feeling guilty that she could possibly find solace in the suffering of others.

All at once it brought back a Buddhist story that had brought me much comfort in the early days of my grief, one that I hadn’t thought of in approximately forever.  I have dug around online and I have sifted through all of my Buddhist philosophy books from college (which I of course still own, because I am a book hoarder)... but couldn’t seem to dig up the translation I first read.  But I found this translation, which seems close, from Buddhism: A Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Kisagotami [Kisa Gotami] is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died. The young girl, in her love for it, carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it.

But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking "She does not understand," said to her, "My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has."

"O tell me who that is," said Kisagotami.

"The Buddha can give you medicine. Go to him," was the answer.

She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him said, "Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?"

"Yes, I know of some," said the teacher.

Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want.

"I want some mustard seed," he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, "You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died."

"Very good," she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.

The people said, "Here is mustard seed, take it."

But when she asked, "In my friend's house has any son died, or husband, or a parent or slave?" they answered, "Lady, what is this that you say? The living are few, but the dead are many."

Then she went to other houses, but one said, "I have lost a son"; another, "We have lost our parents"; another, "I have lost my slave."

At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage.

He said to her, "Have you the mustard seed?"

"My lord," she replied, "I have not. The people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many."

Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system -- the impermanence of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first path.

I wrote a draft of this post earlier this week sharing all my memories of what this parable meant to me then and what it means to me now (which has changed radically). Then I deleted it. I suppose because what I think is so amazing about the parables and thought-experiments of philosophy and religion is that they bring us each different things, in different ways, and at different times. As I reread the post I had written, I realized I was far less interested in my thoughts about the parable (and how that has evolved over time) and far more interested in what others' thoughts are. So today, I am going to take a cue from the WYG Book Club and ask what you found in the parable:

Did you love it or hate it?

Did you find comfort or upset?

Or did you find nothing at all?  

Leave a comment with your thoughts. I’ll share my thoughts in the discussion too. Promise.

Not feeling the Mustard Seed story?  No worries, once I started thinking about this, the floodgates opened of other philosophical texts I connected with in my grief. I am going to restrain myself to only sharing one more for now.  No promises about how many more I will share in the future.

This one comes from a totally different school of philosophical thought, and takes the form not of a parable but more of a thought experiment. In a number of his works, Friedrich Nietzsche shared variations of the same concept: eternal return. What he intended in discussing this concept is still debated by theorists, but luckily we are all free to read and take from it what we like. Here is one variation of the thought-experiment, the one I first read and that had a deep impact on how 19-year-old-me conceptualized my life and my grief. This comes from Nietzsche's The Gay Science.

"What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"

As you probably guessed, this is where the first draft of this post included thoughts and reflections about the impact this concept had on me at the time, as well as my thoughts now. Instead, I am leaving it to all of you to keep this post going by leaving a comment with your thoughts, whatever they are (even if it is to say you think philosophy is just a bunch of useless hooey that has nothing to do with grief at all).

What are you waiting for? Comment away...

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9 Comments on "Buddha, Nietzsche and Grief"

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  1. Kate  May 18, 2020 at 2:09 pm Reply

    When I was a kid, after church on Sundays my mom would read a religious story to me and my siblings. Oftentimes it would be a parable from one of the Gospels, and sometimes it would be from one of our collections of Buddhist wisdom stories, retold for children. My mom read the Parable of the Mustard Seed to us many times throughout my childhood; it is one of the formative pieces of wisdom in my life. The story of the grieving mother became even more relevant when my brother died when I was six, and over time it has helped me integrate my loss as a universal component of the human experience. I am so thankful for my brother’s life, short as it was, for itself, and also because my grief teaches me something about what it means to be human, just like it does for Kisagotami.

  2. Regina Maria  July 16, 2016 at 2:51 am Reply

    It would be terrible to live again and again(Nietsch)same circuntances and could Not repair mistakes. Mainly when you where mesmerized by lies of greedy “doctors” who induced a desnecessary surgery abd after 17 days of terrible suffering left my husband wifh no oxigen 5 minutes and 25 minutes more and killed him. Impossible to forget his anguish face! Just wishing these doctors to suffer not the same but all the worst! Oh God or oh God if we could retrocede in time and take another door. No shame to admit that others disgraces give me some .To endure HIS death would be more bearable …..??? if I didn’t think that he could be here!!!
    Absolut despair!

  3. Lisa  October 28, 2015 at 10:51 pm Reply

    I suppose if Nietzsche was right about returning to this life eternally I would chose to be as positive as possible… I am currently 19 and grieving which is why this caught my eye to begin with… Thanks

  4. Darlene Walker  October 25, 2015 at 5:46 pm Reply

    On the Mustard Seed Parable. This parable opens me up to how I feel every time someone I know or indirectly know experiences the death of a loved one. I feel like they are wrapped in the loving arms of so many other people who have experienced grief. I always share your blog along with my own in hopes that they will know our community. We are not alone. This is so important for the newly bereaved to realize during their time of the “early gray fog”. Thank you for being here and sharing your thoughts.

  5. Mark Liebenow  October 25, 2015 at 5:06 pm Reply

    Mustard Seed Parable. I take comfort in knowing that other people know grief, because that means I am part of a community and not alone in my struggles. I have not caused their grief, nor do I celebrate their inclusion in this group. But I am so grateful for their presence on this journey. What I celebrate is the sharing of our journeys with each other.

  6. Angela Bean  October 25, 2015 at 3:29 pm Reply

    Beautiful post. Seven years for the most recent profound loss and the other over fifty when I lost my mother as a seven year old. I have thought about the idea of losing someone very much recently, but that’s another topic. The reminder of the first noble truth is powerful. We all suffer and you’ve done a wonderful job with the mustard seed illustration. I liked hearing that the way it helps you understand is different now than when you were 19 I want to hear more about that later if you are inclined to write about it again For me, the notion of common sharing of suffering (loss)is fused with the gift of gratitude. The joy of connection is a salve for the pain of grief and that brings gratitude. i have spent years thinking about the difficulties of my relationship after my spouse died and only recently about the genesis of love in that relationship. Yes, i felt some of the acute pain of missing when I opened up to the shared experience of togetherness we felt and yes, it was one of the obstacles to remembering my fear of this pain, but it was good hurt and now I am ready to accept the memories. The pain of remembered happiness has been eased by having developed the muscle weight of impermanence. Thank you for writing and posting. Angie

  7. Yam Kahol  October 24, 2015 at 7:05 pm Reply

    There are moments in the grief journey where you absorb realisations which make you have clarity about life. Unfortunately everyone will have their moment and experience of loss, so that there will be no suitable mustard seeds. This realisation doesn’t bring me comfort, but it does make me open to letting go of those instances when friends don’t get me, those times when friends say the wrong things, or just think I have or should have moved on already. I don’t blame them because I just think their time will come when they will realise themselves in their own experience just what it is like to have a major loss in their life. And they just don’t know, yet.

    One of my profound realisations though, which is the basis of moving me forward, is that just as there is no life without death, there is no love without loss. To me that is beautiful. LOVE is wonderful and its loss is inevitable. One can’t exist without the other.

    In the darkness, we find light.

  8. Kay  October 24, 2015 at 9:53 am Reply

    I had just recently remembered and written about the mustard seed story and its impact on me early in my grief at the death of my teenaged daughter. I appreciated your translation because it added much more detail to my own thoughts to it. I heard the story at a retreat a few years before I went to a writing toward healing workshop for bereaved mothers. That one-day session led to a writing group that still meets and writes together 13 years later and a book, Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers. Buddha and the mustard seed has a different meaning for me in this part of my own grief journey: finding company and comfort among bereaved parents and offering that company and comfort forward to others is part of grief therapy too. (https://fartheralongbook.com/2015/09/22/grief-therapy-two-sometimes-it-is-not-where-you-expect-it-to-be-or-i-am-part-of-all-i-have-met-and-then-some/) Thank you for sharing your reflection on these two pieces.

  9. Marjorie  October 23, 2015 at 10:47 pm Reply


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