VII. On Facing Bereavement . . .

Afternoon Cemetery VisitLet us now consider the cases of two persons who were overpowered with grief at the bereavement they had to suffer. First let us consider the case of Patacara. She lost her husband who was bitten by a snake. She was too weak to cross a river with both her children — a new born babe and a child about one year old. So she left the elder child on the bank and waded through the water with her new-born babe with the greatest difficulty. Having reached the thither shore and having left the new-born babe there, she was returning through the water to reach the elder child.

She had hardly reached mid-stream when a hawk swooped down on the new-born babe and carried it away thinking it to be a piece of flesh. When Patacara seeing this cried out in frantic grief raising both her hands, the elder child on the other bank thinking that his mother was calling him, ran into the river and was drowned. Alone, weeping and lamenting, she was proceeding now to her parental home whither she had intended going with her husband and her two children, when one by one these calamities occurred.

As she was proceeding she met a man returning from her home town and inquired from him about her parents and her brother. This man gave the dismal news that owing to a severe storm the previous day, her parental house had come down, destroying both her father and her mother and also her brother. As he spoke he pointed to some smoke rising into the air far away and said, “That is the smoke rising from the one funeral pyre in which are burning the bodies of your father, mother and brother.” Completely distracted with grief, she ran about like a mad woman regardless of her falling garments. Agony was gnawing at her heart, agony of the most excruciating type. Advised to go to the Buddha, she went and explained her plight.

What did the Buddha tell her? “Patacara, be no more troubled. This is not the first time thou hast wept over the loss of a husband. This is not the first time thou hast wept over the loss of parents and of brothers. Just as today, so also through this round of existence thou hast wept over the loss of so many countless husbands, countless sons, countless parents and countless brothers, that the tears thou has shed are more abundant than the waters of the four oceans.” As the Buddha spoke these words of wisdom and consolation, Patacara’s grief grew less and less intense and finally, not only did her grief leave her altogether, but when the Buddha preached to her and concluded his discourse, Patacara reached the stage of stream-entry (sotapatti), the first stage of sainthood.

Now what is it that contributed to the removal of grief from the mind of Patacara? It is the keen realization of the universality of death.

Patacara realized that she had lived innumerable lives, that she had suffered bereavement innumerable times, and that death is something which is always occurring.

While Patacara realized the universality of death by reference to her own numerous bereavements in the past, Kisagotami realized it by reference to the numerous bereavements occurring to others around her in this life itself. When her only child died, her grief was so great that she clung to the dead body, not allowing any one to cremate it. This was the first bereavement she had ever experienced. With the dead child firmly held to her body she went from house to house inquiring for some medicine that would bring back life to her child. She was directed to the Buddha who asked her to procure a pinch of white mustard seed, but it should be from a house where no death had taken place. She then went in search of this supposed cure for her child which she thought was easy to obtain.

At the very first house she asked for it but when she inquired whether any death had taken place under that roof she received the reply, “What sayest thou, woman? As for the living, they be few, as for the dead they be many.” She then went to the next house. There also she came to know that death had made its visit to that house as well. She went to many houses and in all of them she was told of some father who had died or of some son who had died or of some other relative or friend who had died. When evening came she was tired of her hopeless task. She heard the word “death” echoing from every house. She realized the universality of death. She buried the dead child in the forest, then went back to the Buddha and said, “I thought it was I only who suffered bereavement. I find it in every house. I find that in every village the dead are more in number than the living.” Not only was Kisagotami cured of her grief, but at the end of the discourse which the Buddha delivered to her, she too attained the stage of stream-entry (sotapatti).

Let us now contrast the cases of Patacara and Kisagotami with that of the ignorant rustic farmer the Bodhisatta was in a former life as mentioned in the Uraga Jataka. Rustic though he was, he practiced mindfulness on death to perfection. He had trained himself to think every now and then “Death can at any moment come to us.” This is something on which the majority of us refuse to do any thinking at all. Not only did he make it a habit to think so, but he even saw to it that all members of his household did the same. One day while he was working with his son in the field, the latter was stung by a snake and died on the spot. The father was not one bit perturbed. He just carried the body to the foot of a tree, covered it with a cloak, neither weeping nor lamenting, and resumed his plowing unconcerned.

Later he sent word home, through a passer-by, to send up one parcel of food instead of two for the mid-day meal and to come with perfumes and flowers. When the message was received, his wife knew what it meant but she too did not give way to expressions of grief; neither did her daughter nor her daughter-in-law nor the maid-servant. As requested they all went with perfumes and flowers to the field, and a most simple cremation took place, with no one weeping.

Sakka the chief of gods came down to earth and proceeding to the place where a body was burning upon a pile of firewood, inquired from those standing around whether they were roasting the flesh of some animal. When they replied, “It is no enemy but our own son.” “Then he could not have been a son dear to you,” said Sakka. “He was a very dear son,” replied the father. “Then,” asked Sakka, “why do you not weep?” The father in reply uttered this stanza:

“Man quits his mortal frame, when joy in life is past. Even as a snake is wont its worn out slough to cast. No friends’ lament can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.”

Similar questions were asked from the dead son’s mother who replied thus:

“Uncalled he hither came, unbidden soon to go. Even as he came he went, what cause is here for woe? No friends’ lament can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.”

“Sisters surely are loving to their brothers. Why do you not weep?” asked Sakka of the dead man’s sister. She replied:

“Though I should fast and weep, how would it profit me? My kith and kin alas would more unhappy be. No friends’ lament can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.”

Sakka then asked the dead man’s wife why she did not weep. She replied thus:

“As children cry in vain to grasp the moon above, So mortals idly mourn the loss of those they love. No friends’ lament can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.”

Lastly Sakka asked the maid-servant why she did not weep, especially as she had stated that the master was never cruel to her but was most considerate and kind and treated her like a foster child. This was her reply:

“A broken pot of earth, ah, who can piece again? So too, to mourn the dead is nought but labor vain. No friends’ lament can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.”

Publisher’s note

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You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge and, in the case of reprinting, only in quantities of no more than 50 copies; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. The Wheel Publication No. 102/103 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1982). Transcribed from the print edition in 1994 by David Savage and Malcolm Rothman under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society. Last revised for Access to Insight on 6 June 2010.

Source: “Buddhist Reflections on Death”, by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 6 June 2010, .

Minor edits regarding (1) gender and (2) adding of seven sub-headings were made by Alexander Peck.