Kisagotami’s story is the story of every mother who loses a child, the story of every human being who knows in their heart that to love, cherish and care for another is to risk heartache and loss. As women we hold in our lives a timeless human dilemma – to know how to love, wholeheartedly and deeply and to know how to lose that which we love with compassion and wisdom.
The Buddha did not admonish Kisagotami for her grief and distress, nor did he lecture her on the inarguable laws of impermanence. Instead he sent her into the village to find even one person who did not know the barren landscape of grief, the deep painfulness of being separated from those we hold most dear. Every home she went to, every person she spoke to could only reveal to her how vast is the landscape of loss.
Each of us holds within us our personal story and a universal story. Our personal story born of all that we have experienced and felt in this life is unique to us. Our families, our joys and sorrows, our values, aspirations and hopes, our disappointments, the countless events of our lives have shaped who we are and how we see in ways that no single other human being can know as we know it. Yet our personal story holds within the story of all human beings who long for peace, love, freedom and to find a way to live their life with inner authority and wakefulness. The language of fear and trust, sorrow and joy, heartache and love is a universal language that transcends all boundaries of ‘I’ and ‘you’, us and them.
Knowing that all mothers could experience just the same pain as Kisagotami did not diminish her grief, but she came to understand she was not alone and she began to be able to accept and embrace that which had felt so deeply unacceptable and impossible. Acknowledging this she embarked upon a path of seeking an unshakeable inner freedom.
So much of the path of liberation is woven into the story of Kisagotami. Some of the most profound insights that liberate our hearts from struggle are found with the most deeply challenging moments of our lives. When our worlds crumble, our certainties dissolve we face a choice – to turn toward those moments with compassion or to flee. Our own experience tells us again and again that flight will almost certainly ensure we find no healing or freedom.
Impermanence is the law that governs all experience. We live with our feet on shifting sands when all could crumble in a moment. Loss, death, separation reveal to us so poignantly that as long as we are misaligned with this core truth we will live in a state of argument and contention with our lives. To embrace this truth wholeheartedly, deeply, unshakably will not save us from grief and sorrow but perhaps teach us to embrace the moments of deepest pain in our lives without dispute. I do not imagine that Kisagotamis embracing of a nun’s life meant an end to her grieving. The memory of her son would live in her heart and very bones but perhaps the pain could be borne.
The Buddhas teachings of impermanence and equanimity show us how to live in this world of change and uncertainty without being shattered. None of us can control the world of conditions that are intrinsically unstable and unreliable. We can learn to cultivate an inner poise that allows us to be a conscious participant in this life without our hearts being hostage to conditions. There are a few lines from a Sri Lankan text on equanimity that say:
Life is a play of joy and sorrow
May I remain unshaken by life’s rise and fall
I care for you deeply
But sadly, I cannot protect you from distress.
The places we love and care most deeply are for us also the places we are asked to cultivate the greatest equanimity, insight and compassion.