Once upon a time and long, long ago, when Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as the Buddha, Enlightened One, walked the land preaching the Four Noble Truths in small villages under broad-leaved trees in Northern India, a young woman, struggling under the weight of a small boy she bore in her arms, approached him as he sat teaching a circle of men. The boy was her son, and he was dead.
The talk in the circle was quiet and methodical, each man taking his turn with great respect for the authority of the man in the center. If the tingle of ambition made itself felt in the desire to one-up one’s neighbors, it was quietly buried in the bones. The Four Noble Truths were followed by the Eight Fold Path, which left no room for arrogant speech. It was a land of male philosophers, a place of heady delving into the nature of the universe, a society of mind blowing discussion of quantum truths and their implications for mankind. The woman with the dead son, bedraggled with the stink of sorrow oozing out of her pores, had never taken part in such a conversation as the one she was interrupting under that dark-leaved tree, because women in this land were given the task of keeping the bodies of men going while their minds dissected arcane philosophical theories.
So it was a startling intrusion – the woman with the dead boy. More startling for the tears and the snot and the unbraided hair and the knees that would not straighten all the way. More, even, for the sounds coming out of the woman’s mouth – not words, no linear reasoning to be got from this half screech half moan, not loud but deafening to those who were unused to such raw drama. One man – probably the one used to leading because of an election, or maybe just a natural leader – jumped to his feet – he was still young enough to do this in one swift motion – and put his arm out against the creature who did not belong in this group. The arm wasn’t threatening; it was meant instead to protect the Enlightened One from that which was foreign and could possibly swallow the gentle saint who had spent so many years fasting and then so many years begging for scraps off others’ tables.
The arm halted the woman’s approach and a murmur rose from the circle of men. Some yelled at her, “You are disturbing our conversation.” Some asked each other, “Who is she?” No man owned up to owning her. Was she from another village – stranger than a stranger, walking from god knows where with an unclean burden in her arms? The dead are not to be brought into polite company. Once one man realized what it was the woman held, the murmur became almost a roar. But the wandering Teacher held up his right hand and the obedient group fell silent, expectation straightening spines and opening wide eyes that waited for the noble Beggar to set things right.
“What do you want, sister?” asked Gautama. The years of breathing slowly had done their work and calm curiosity won over agitation or surprise. He rose from his seat in the circle and walked to the woman, laying his hand on the arm that held her back so that the protector was reminded who was in charge here and went back to his place. “Sister” was better than “mother” in this group. It awarded sympathetic equality. But she was a mother. Had been a mother. That was the point.
Snot and eyes raised up to gaze at the one who was called holy, who said he had all the answers, who claimed good news for mortals. “My son is dead,” she said, and despite the mess, her voice carried a demand, even a challenge. “Since you are a holy man, since you are loved by the gods, since everyone says you have understanding of the Atman and Brahman, I have come to beg you to bring him back to life.” Despite the knees that all but buckled under the boy’s weight, despite the unkempt hair and unwashed sari, there was little of the beggar confronting the Sage.
Complete silence in the circle now. Was this woman sent by the gods to test this man who called himself a Teacher? Does debating and discussing Life give one the power to control it? Does a lifetime of deep meditation give one power over the gods or at least the fates?
Siddhartha was quiet. His face softened, his shoulders slumped a little. He went back to his seat under the Tree and was silent for long minutes, his eyes closed. Some men sought to emulate this stance – it seemed a noble response to such a display of the lower emotions. But many could not help staring at his soft face, squirms of disappointment rising in their bellies. The woman stood still, a little shocked at this lack of response.
The wind moved some fallen leaves, a cow mooed somewhere. Twilight would come in minutes, and the dark, as it always does, began to descend more quickly. The Tree under which all this was unfolding seemed to hold its breath. How would the Wise One respond? Had all his austerities amounted to nothing? Abandoning his family, abdicating his throne, leaving his lands, breaking his mother’s heart – what had he exchanged it all for? In all our lives there comes a moment when we know, for certain, whether the learning has been enough and of the right kind; whether the path traveled has been true or if it has been a wasted journey. Here, it seemed, was the test of Siddhartha’s decisions since he had driven out of his father’s palace with the faithful Channa.
One more breath, an eternity, and the Buddha’s eyes opened. It was clear that there were tears, and no attempt to brush them away. Even a cow’s face was not so soft as this man’s as the twilight darkened the shadows under the tree. “I will help you,” he said, and the men gasped. Were they to witness a true miracle? Had a god really come down to be with them? “But first, you must do something for me.”
Mothers and sisters know this truth – there is always something to be done before the gifts are given. But what could be too much to ask for such a gift? Hope flared in the woman’s heart and rose into her face and eyes like dawn breaking after the darkest night. “I will do anything,” she said, confidently. “Anything at all.” She would have bowed, but her arms were very full.
“Go back home,” said the Enlightened One. “Come back in three days and bring me a cup of raw rice obtained from a family that has known no death. Then, I will do as you wish.”
If a woman could dance on buckling knees, she would have. If heartbreak could allow singing, she would have sung while she danced. As it was, she left that circle with her chest so much lighter and, as she walked into the darkening road, her stomach rumbled. Hunger, for the first time since her boy had suffered and died so many lifetimes ago.
It took four days instead of the three he asked for, but Siddhartha Gautama did not leave the place. He slept under the tree, washed himself in the river, meditated long hours, and sometimes visited the village temple where he sat quietly and smiled at everyone who came in. He begged for his food, going to one door on a single street each evening. The nights were cool, and he was offered a bed by many householders, but he preferred the base of the tree and his orange cloth for a blanket. And every evening, a crowd of men would gather to listen to him teach, to ask questions about how his new ways met the ways that had always been, and to wait for the great miracle they would witness when the woman came back with her son. The crowds were larger every evening and, on the third evening, even the women joined the circle, sitting in a group on the outside, listening but also playing with their babies and comparing clothes. It was almost a festival. But the Seeker of miracles did not appear.
On the fourth evening, the crowds had fallen away, and the village went on with its chores. Some men, the die hard philosophers, probably bored with pre-dinner routines or some still hungry for what they could not grasp, came to sit with the Wise One. It was a smaller circle and conversation turned a bit dilatory. Dusk was beginning to drop onto the Tree when a figure stood at the rim of the circle – hesitant, careful, her head bowed, her arms empty. Her hair was combed into a bun at the back of her head, her sari was tied in place, her forehead marked. She smelled faintly of coconut oil.
A murmur from the men brought everyone’s attention around, but the Teacher was already on his feet and inviting her to join them. As he sat down, the woman prostrated herself at his feet. His hands touched her shoulders and he said, “Sister, you cannot bow to me. You are the Teacher today. Come, sit with us and tell us your story.”
Women of child-bearing age do not tell their stories to a circle of men, but this was a different circle. His gentle respect made it so. She took a place by his side and tried to bring some words out. Instead, the men had to wait for her tears to run themselves out. They were not used to waiting for women to finish crying and several fidgeted or looked at each other. But the Buddha sat quietly, his eyes closed, waiting, and so they had to, too. At last her sobs quieted and the woman began to speak. Softly, so the men had to lean forward. Slowly, so they had to wait for every word. Many did what they had been taught – breathing in, breathing out, watching their minds go crazy. Others forgot to breathe. Those were early times in the Teaching.
“I was so happy,” she began, “when you told me you would help me. I went home that night with a light in my heart. You are so wise and so gentle, I thought, he will never let me down now that he has promised. It took me almost the whole night to walk home and my husband was angry with me. When I told him that I had seen the great wandering Teacher and our son would live again in three days, he shouted at me that I had gone mad. But I was sure of your promise. Early the next morning, I washed myself and went to the house next door. I took a cup of sugar with me, because I cannot ask for something without giving something in exchange.
The woman next door is a good person. She has three healthy sons and a good husband, so I thought, that’s a house of good luck. A cup of rice from there will surely do the trick. I went in and we spoke for a while. She knew my son had died and it is not our custom to go out so soon after a death. But, as I said, she was a good woman and she let me in to her house. I said to her, I have brought you a cup of sugar. Can I exchange it for a cup of raw rice? She was surprised, most of all because sugar is so much more valuable than rice, and it wasn’t a fair exchange. But she didn’t say anything. She just went in and brought me a cup of rice, and I gave her my cup of sugar. As I was leaving, as if she couldn’t help herself, she asked, “Why do you need the rice? Have you run out?” And I told her my story – how I had come here and asked for your help and how you had told me to bring you a cup of raw rice from a house that has not known death. “Your family is so healthy and prosperous,” I said. “No hint of darkness has fallen over you like it has over our house. So I am taking this rice to the Holy One and he will bring my son back to life.”
“Oh my dear,” my neighbor said. “You should have told me this earlier. Mine is not the rice that will do the trick. Don’t you know? I lost a sister when I was thirteen, many years ago. We were so close, and I loved her as if she was my self. But she got sick and died, and I have mourned her ever since. I still cry at night sometimes, wishing she could be here, wishing she could meet my fine sons and share my life as we were meant to share in everything.”
We had to exchange cups again, and I took my sugar with me, feeling so sad for my friend who had lost her sister. Because my son had been taken so recently, my own wound was fresh, and I cried with her. I will treat her as my sister now, knowing who she mourns.
I went to the house on the other side of our home. There, a woman who is not very nice to the others on the street lives with her husband and only one daughter. We all say that she is always in a bad mood because she has no sons. But I thought, who cares if she is mean to me, I’ll just ask for some rice and leave. So I asked. but this time, she asked “Why do you need it?” right away, and I told her the truth, thinking she would laugh at me. But instead, her eyes became like stones, and she said, “You cannot have rice from this house. It will do you no good.” Her voice was rough and her words came out like little knives. “I lost my parents when I was six years old. It was during the riots, and I was in the kitchen when two men came in and hacked my parents to pieces. They didn’t see me because I hid under a tablecloth. But I watched them and I still can’t forget the sight of my mother’s blood seeping into the floor from her neck, her eyes wide open. Life is cruel and wretched. Get over it.” I could hardly breathe when I heard her story. My mother is safe in the next village, and I depend on her for everything. How would I feel if someone hacked her to pieces? I was so afraid and sad, I almost vomited. “I am so very sorry,” I told my neighbor. “I didn’t realize how strong you are, and how brave, to live with that memory all your life.” And I almost wanted to give her my cup of sugar, because I had nothing else to give, but I didn’t. Even as I left, I have promised myself to become her friend and to protect her from the others when they are mean to her. I was amazed at how much I didn’t know about the people who lived so close to me.
I tell you, I went to sixteen houses in our village. They have started to call me the sugar-rice lady, which is quite funny and makes me laugh. Nobody could give me rice. One woman had just lost her husband. Another was extremely happy because her mother-in-law had just died, but I couldn’t accept her rice either. I met four women who had lost children just like my son. We cried so much. In every house except the house with the dead mother-in-law, I wanted to cry and sometimes I did. But in the house of the women who lost their children, I wept. And they wept with me. So much water flowing out of our eyes, it’s a wonder the village isn’t flooding. I met older women who have carried their grief all their lives, like tumors inside their bellies. I met girls who mourned mothers, fathers, brothers, best friends. Girls who will turn into old women who carry their grief in their bellies. No one, it seems, escapes this fate. It is not only me.
Two days I spent in this way, wandering around like a sadhu with a begging bowl full of sugar. No one would take it. All that sweetness in a bowl could not get me the one thing I wanted.
On the third day, I woke my husband up early. We bathed, and then we bathed the body of our son. I loved him as I bathed his body. I cried as I sang him his favorite songs. Even my husband cried a little. Then we carried him to a priest by the river and there, we consigned him to the flames. It took many hours. As I watched the flames eat my love, I prayed for all the people I had met. Their stories were so fresh inside me, they poured out with my tears, and I asked the gods to keep the lost ones safe, to help us cope as we lived without them.
At the end of that day, we took the ashes that we collected from the pyre and we put them into the flowing river. The priest said, “turn your back on the ashes” and we did. Now my son is gone, and I will have to live without him. Our son has gone, and we will have to live without him. It is very sad.”
The circle of men was completely still. Inside their bodies, their hearts were beating too hard, inside their lungs, breath was clogged with tears. One man spoke into the silence. “Is that it? Is there all there is? No miracle to save the dying?”
The Buddha did not reply. He turned, instead, to the woman who sat beside him. “Is that all?” he asked her.
“Everyone dies,” she said, looking at the man who had asked a question. “And everybody mourns. We all have grief. We live with it and we die with it.”
There was a silence of maybe six breaths as the news sank in. “So what’s the point, Guru?” asked another man, looking at the Gautama, who once again turned to his Sister.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know if there is a point. It’s just sad. But I feel like a new person today. I have met a lot of very good people, and I want to live with them. I want us to take care of each other. I didn’t think I could laugh when I was so sad, but I did, when someone said something that was funny. I didn’t know many people in my village, and I didn’t like some of those I knew. I know almost all of them now, and I like them. I care about them. I want to be their friend. I don’t know if that is a point.”
The silence now was complete, and it wasn’t broken by anything. The sound of the water pump in the village filtered into the quiet, a hand pushing the squeaky handle up and down to the rhythm of the breath. Some voices were heard – a mother calling a child, a child replying. A breeze shushed in the Tree above.
The woman turned to the Gautama and, bringing her hands together near her heart, she said, “I thank you for your wisdom, Teacher.” The Buddha, with his hands together by his heart, responded, “I thank you for your courage and understanding, Dear One.”
The next morning, the Wanderer was gone from the village, making his way to another circle under another Tree with another group of people.
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