By MARLIN JESCHKE
According to early Buddhist literature, the Buddha spent the last 20 years of his life in or near the city of Savatthi (now Sravasti, India), and two stories come from this time and place that show how he brought enlightenment to ordinary people.
One person was a young mother called Kisa Gotami, whose little boy had died. Out of a mixture of grief, ignorance, desperation and hope, she said, “I will seek medicine for my son.”
With her dead child on her hip she went from house to house asking, “Do you know anything that will cure my son?”
Everyone said to her, “Woman, you are stark mad that you go from house to house seeking medicine for your dead child.”
But she persisted, thinking, “Surely I shall find someone who knows medicine for my child.”
A certain wise man saw her and thought to himself, “This young woman has no doubt borne and lost her first and only child, nor has she seen death before. I must help her.”
So he said to her, “Woman, I myself do not know how to cure your child, but I know of one who has this knowledge,” and directed her to the Buddha.
She approached the Buddha and asked, “Is it true … that you know how to cure my child?”
“Yes,” he answered, and instructed her to find a white mustard seed, but from a house where no one had yet died. So she went from house to house, but found no house that had not been visited by death.
With that the truth came to her. Death is part of human existence, and with that realization she broke free of attachment and achieved peace of mind.
Early Buddhist literature tells a similar story of another person the Buddha helped, a grandmother in the city of Savatthi who was weeping over the loss of her grandchild.
The Buddha asked her, “Would you like to have as many grandchildren as there are people in the city of Savatthi?”
“Yes,” she answered out of her capacious grandmotherly heart.
“Then,” said the Buddha, “you would have to weep over the loss of a grandchild every day, because there is a child dying every day in the city of Savatthi.”
This grandmother too saw the light, says the Buddhist record. She recognized the realities of human existence and was freed from clinging and attachment, finding peace of mind.
To help them find freedom from attachment early Buddhist monks sometimes engaged in what to us seems like a rather gruesome meditation. Monks seated themselves near a charnel ground (a place for cremation of the dead) in order to gain an unvarnished view of bodily existence. Monks were invited to itemize to themselves what makes up a human body: bones, urine, blood, tears, saliva, intestines, sinews, snot, bile, skin — all this to cure them of romantic views of the human person and the attractions and attachments that could lead to.
The story is told that one time the Buddha was approached by somebody looking for another person with whom the individual had lost contact. Had he seen someone passing by? the Buddha was asked.
Yes, he said, he had seen a bag of bones passing by somewhere.
Some forms of Buddhist meditation have never appealed to Westerners, but, like modern psychology, Buddhism recognized that human beings don’t need to be the victims of everything that bombards the human senses. People can choose what to look at, listen to, and think about and thereby free themselves from the control of obsessions and passions.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. He taught at the college for 33 years. In 1968-69, he received a fellowship in Asian Religions to study Islam and Buddhism, spending five months at the Center for the Study of Religions and Harvard Divinity School and then five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East, and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) and Japan. He is also the author of several books.