Gotami grew up in poor circumstances. Her family was impoverished. She was skinny and haggard (kisā) and so took on the name ‘Kisāgotami’. As a result of these circumstances, it was hard for Kisāgotami to find a husband. She felt a deep sense of dejection because of this.
One day a rich merchant took Kisāgotami as his wife. He appreciated her inner riches and looked beyond her impoverished external circumstances. But his family could not do the same. They looked upon Kisāgotami contemptuously, which caused much strain for the married couple.
All of this changed when Kisāgotami gave birth to a boy. She was now the mother of the heir to the family. She was no longer looked upon contemptuously. Her love for her son was bound up with the sense of self-worth he gave her. She no longer felt dejected. In her son she had found a relief from her suffering.
This relief, however, was temporary. One day her son fell ill and died. Not only did the grief of losing one’s child fall upon Kisāgotami, but the threat of rejection from her family and husband loomed large in her mind. They might blame her or her kammic background for the death of her son. She would be cast back down into the impoverished circumstances from which she came.
All of this was too much for Kisāgotami. Refusing to accept what happened, she made herself believe that her son was merely ill and would recover with the proper medicine. She put the dead child in her arms. Wandering from home to home, she looked for the medicine that would save her son.
Many scorned and mocked her. She was carrying her dead child, but she believed he was only ill. Surely she had gone mad. She refused to believe what others told her and carried on with her dead son in her arms. If only she could find the medicine, all of this suffering would go away.
One wise person saw that Kisāgotami was ill and knew of an accomplished ascetic, the best physician, who could help her. He sent Kisāgotami to see the Buddha. Rushing to see the Awakened One with the dead child in her arms, she went up to him and said, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” He replied kindly, “Mustard seeds.”
The Buddha told her that she would need to procure the mustard seeds herself from a home in which no one had ever died. She quickly went to the first home she could find and asked for mustard seeds. After being given the mustard seeds she then asked if someone had died in the home. The reply: “Of course.” She gave back the seeds and went to the next house. But no matter what home she went to, someone had died in that home. Sometimes the death was recent. Sometimes it was a while ago. But every house had death in it.
By evening the medicine had taken effect on Kisāgotami. She realized deeply that everyone had been affected by death, that death was the common fate of human beings. She came to accept the reality before her. Her child was dead. She too would die. Impermanence surrounds us! She buried her child in the cemetery and returned to the Buddha.
The Buddha asked her if she had procured the mustard seeds. Kisāgotami replied, “Done, venerable sir, is the business of the mustard seeds. Only grant me a refuge.” The Buddha responded with the following verse: “When a person’s mind is deeply attached, // Infatuated with sons and cattle, // Death grabs him and carries him away // As a flood does a sleeping village.” Hearing this verse, Kisāgotami gained direct insight into the Dharma and became a stream-enterer. She was ordained as a bhikkhuni and soon became an arahant. The Buddha praised her as the foremost nun among those who wore coarse garments.
(Note: This story about Kisāgotami and the mustard seed can be found in Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, pp. 273 – 78.)