The Healing Power of Stories

The songs on Ghosteen, the beautiful 2019 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteenrepresent oblique responses to the accidental death in 2015 of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur. Cave sings of the power of imagination (‘The bright horses have broken free’) and of consoling visions (‘A spiral of children climbs up to the sun’). Then, on the last song, ‘Hollywood’, he re-tells the old Buddhist story of the grief-stricken Kisagotami:[1]

Kisa had a baby but the baby died
Goes to the villagers says my baby’s sick
Villagers shake their heads and say to her
Better bury your baby in the forest quick

It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind

Kisa went to the mountain and asked the Buddha
My baby’s sick! Buddha said, don’t cry
Go to each house and collect a mustard seed
But only from a house where no one’s died

Kisa went to each house in the village
My baby’s getting sicker, poor Kisa cried
But Kisa never collected one mustard seed
Because in every house someone had died

Kisa sat down in the old village square
She hugged her baby and  cried and cried
She said everybody is always losing somebody
Then walked into the forest and buried her child

He sings in an unsteady falsetto voice, which simultaneously increases the emotional intensity of the words and distances himself from those words. This is as close as he wants to get to singing about the death of a child, and by singing about it in this way, he sings for every grieving parent.

The story of Kisagotami speaks to the human condition. Before the availability of modern medicine, the death of children was more common, but no less tragic or difficult. The story as Nick Cave re-tells it is found in the 5th c. Pāli commentary on the collection of stanzas of early Buddhist nuns, the Therīgāthā:[2]

[Kisagotamī] was reborn in a poor family in Sāvatthi… Her name was Gotamī, but she was called ‘Skinny Gotamī’ because of her thin (kisa) body. Her husband’s family despised her because she was the daughter of a poor family, but after she gave birth to a son, they respected her because they had gained a child. But while he was running about and playing with his toys, that son of hers died, and she went mad with grief.

She thought to herself, ‘Having previously been disrespected, I got some esteem after the time my son was born; now they are trying to throw my son out.’ Because she was mad with grief, she wandered the city carrying the dead body on her hip, at the door of each house demanding, ‘give me medicine for my son!’ People scolded her, saying, ‘Where would we get such medicine?’ She did not understand what they were saying. Then a certain wise person thought, ‘She has become insane because of grief for her son. [The Buddha,] the ten-powered one, will know of a medicine for her,’ and told her, ‘Lady, go to the fully and completely awakened one, and ask about medicine for your son.’

Going to the monastery after the teacher’s Dharma-discourse, she said to him, ‘Blessed One, give me medicine for my son.’ Seeing her condition, he told her, ‘Go to the city, and when you’re there, bring a mustard seed from a house in which no-one has died.’ Saying, ‘Certainly, good sir,’ she went to the city with a contented heart, and at the very first house she said, ‘The teacher has asked me to bring a mustard seed for my son’s medicine; if no-one has died in this house, please give me a mustard seed.’ The reply came, ‘Who can count up those who have died here?’ Going to a second and third house, she was told, ‘What good could a mustard seed do for you?’

By the power of the Buddha, her madness left her and she was re-established in her natural mind. She thought, ‘This will be the invariable rule in the entire city; it was foreseen by the Blessed one out of a sympathetic concern for my well-being.’ Attaining emotional clarity, she took her son outside [the city], left him in the cemetery, then spoke this stanza:[3]

It’s not the nature of the village, nor the town,
Nor is this the nature of one family alone:
It is actually the nature of this whole world,
Together with its gods, namely, impermanence.

Having spoken in this way, she went into the teacher’s presence. Then the teacher said to her, ‘Gotamī, have you got the mustard seed?’ ‘Good sir, the business with the mustard seed is finished. But please help me,’ she said. Then the teacher spoke this stanza to her:[4]

Like the great flood that carries off
the sleeping village, so death steals away
someone intoxicated with children and cows,
whose mind has become transfixed.

At the conclusion of the stanza, just as she stood there, she was established in the fruit of stream-entry and asked the teacher for the going-forth.

Kollwitz-Mother-dead-childIn this story, Kisagotamī is represented as a young mother who becomes insane after the death of her infant son. The commentary supplies a cause, in that Kisagotami had been treated badly by her husband’s family until she gave birth, so this his death would make her fear once more for her status. The Buddha appears as a wise teacher, whose skilful means leads not just to Kisagotami being able to accept her baby’s death, but to her conversion to the Buddha’s teaching. Indeed, the reason the commentary tells the story of Kisagotami is to provide a background for the stanzas attributed to her in a much older text, the Therīgāthā, the stanzas of the women elders.[5] The source of the Kisagotamī story is instead found in a text called the Apadāna, a collection of verses dating from around the 2nd c. bce, about the previous and present lives of the Buddha and his disciples:[6]

And now, in [my] final rebirth,
I’m born in a millionaire’s clan,
poor, without wealth, unprosperous,
[but] married into a rich clan.

Except [my] husband, the others
are pointing at me [saying,] “Poor!”
But after I became with child,
then I was loved by all of them.

When that lucky young boy [of mine,]
tender-bodied, comfortable,
as dear to me as [my] own breath,
then fell into Yama’s power,

grief-struck, voicing [my] misery,
teary-eyed, [my] mouth crying out,
carrying [that young boy’s] dead corpse,
I’m going around lamenting.

Then examined by one [doctor,]
approaching the Best Physician,
I said, “give [me] a medicine
to bring [my] son back to life, Sir.”

The Victor, Skilled in Crafty Speech,
said, “bring [me] a white mustard seed,
[collected] in whichever home
where [people] dying is not known.”

Then having gone to Śrāvasti,
not encountering such a house,
where [could I get] a white mustard seed?
Whereupon I gained mindfulness.

Throwing away [my baby’s] corpse,
I went up to the World’s Leader.
Having seen me from a distance
the Sweet-Voiced One [then] said [to me].

“Better than a hundred years’ life,
not seeing [how things] rise [and] fall,
is living for a single day,
seeing [things] rising [and] falling.

Not the condition of the village, or the town,
and also not the condition of one clan.
This is the condition of the entire world
with its gods: the impermanence of [all] that is.”

Upon hearing those [two] verses,
I purified [my] “Dhamma eye,”
then learned in the great Teaching,
I went forth into homelessness.

The episode of the mustard seed is there in this earlier version, but the story is more about conversion. This suggests that the full version of Kisagotamī’s story, the one that has been re-told by Nick Cave, emerged only in the time of the commentaries. But this shouldn’t surprise us. The Buddha of the earlier Pāli discourses is actually not very sympathetic to bereaved parents. Here is his response to a father, crazed with grief:[7]

‘Householder, you appear not to be in your right mind; you look like someone who has lost his sanity.’

‘Lord, there is every reason for me to have lost my sanity, for my beloved, precious only son has died, and because of his death I have no care for work or food. Going to the cremation ground, I cry out, “Where is my son? O, where is my only son?”’

‘That is how it is, householder, that is how it is. For grief, sorrow, pain, misery and despair are born of love, brought forth by love.’

The Buddha is not much of a psychotherapist here. He points the grieving parent towards insight into the human situation; but such bluntness is not always successful. By contrast, the story of Kisagotamī shows a much more sympathetic attitude. It would seem that the story of Kisagotamī and the mustard seed developed gradually in the centuries after the Buddha’s death, as compassionate Buddhist teachers, coming into contact with grieving parents, wove a new story behind the verses preserved about the elder nun, Kisagotamī. She became the model of an unfortunate wife and miserable mother. The figure of the Buddha became that of a wise psychotherapist.

And so Nick Cave became an heir of this old story, re-telling it because it speaks to his condition. This shows the healing power of stories, and how they continue to live because they continue to speak to us. It’s not even necessary to say that the story of Kisagotamī is a Buddhist story, so much as a story that lives in a Buddhist context. But then again, perhaps it is the Buddha’s emphasis on turning to face the suffering and disappointment of the human condition, with mindfulness and compassion, that has given this story its setting, down through the years.

[1] All lyrics from

[2] My translation of the Therīgāthā Atthakathā, pp.169–70 in the PTS edition.

[3] This stanza is from the Apadāna, v.720 (i.e. v.28 of Kisagotamī’s stanzas).

[4] This stanza is from the Dhammapada, v.287.

[5] Some of the biographical stanzas attributed to Kisagotamī appear to be displaced from those of Paṭācārā. The textual problems are discussed by Alice Collett (2016), Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns, Oxford University Press, pp.12–17.

[6] The translation that follows is from Jonathan Walters has translated the entire Apadāna and created a user-friendly website to share his many years of work. Sādhu!

[7] This conversation is from the Piyajātika Sutta, ‘Born of Love’, Majjhima Nikāya 87. Other discourses at Udāna 2.7 and 8.8, record similar responses of the Buddha to parental grief.