Patacara’s tragedy

Easily one of the saddest stories in the Buddhist texts, if not the saddest, the story of Patacara:

“Pregnant with her second child, Patacara was returning to her parents’ home, along with her husband and small firstborn child, to give birth. 

Along the way, a great storm blew up, and she asked her husband to provide shelter for the family. As he was cutting grass and sticks to build a shelter, a snake bit him and he died of the poison. Unsheltered, and wondering at her husband’s long absence, Patacara gave birth and had to spend the night sheltering both her children against the rain and wind with nothing more than her body. The next morning, she found her husband dead. 

Distraught, she decided to return to her parents’ home. However, a river — swollen from the rain of the previous night — ran across her way. Unable to carry both children across the river, she left her first-born on the near bank and waded through the raging current carrying her baby. Placing the baby on the far bank, she turned back to fetch her first-born. A hawk, seeing the baby, took it for a piece of flesh, and swooped down on it. 

Seeing this, Patacara raised her hands and tried to chase it away, but to no avail: The hawk picked up the baby and carried it off. Meanwhile, her first-born — seeing his mother raising her hands — took it for a signal to cross the river. As he jumped into the raging current, he was carried off to his death. 

Overwhelmed with grief, Patacara returned to her parents’ home, only to learn that it had burned down from a lightning strike in the previous night’s storm. Her parents and brother were at that moment being cremated on a single pyre. At this point, she went mad and began wandering around half-naked. Only on coming into the Buddha’s presence did she recover her senses. He taught her the Dhamma, and eventually she ordained and became an arahant.”

This heart wrenching story was very likely based on true events, but we’re given a happy ending of sorts. Patacara is alone, and mad, suffering intensely. She has lost everything. But then she gains everything – she becomes an arahant under Buddha’s guidance and finds the joy of enlightenment. 

Kisa Gotami’s Child


This is a sad story from the Pali canon, which contains much wisdom about acceptance, and the universality of suffering:

“Kisa Gotami was the wife of a wealthy man of Savatthi. She had only one child. When her son was old enough to start running about, he caught a disease and died. Kisa Gotami was greatly saddened. Unable to accept that her son was dead and could not be brought back to life again, she took him in her arms and went about asking for medicine to cure him. Everyone she encountered thought that she had lost her mind. Finally, an old man told her that if there was anyone who could help her, it would be the Buddha.

In her distress, Kisa Gotami brought the body of her son to the Buddha and asked him for a medicine that would bring back his life. The Buddha answered: “I shall cure him if you can bring me some white mustard seeds from a house where no one has died”.

Carrying her dead son, she went from door to door, asking at each house. At each house the reply was always that someone had died there. At last the truth struck her, “No house is free from death”. She laid the body of her child in the wood and returned to the Buddha, who comforted her and preached to her the truth. She was awakened and entered the first stage of Arhatship. Eventually, she became an Arhat.”

Bowl Of Oil

In India there was once a king who believed in a non-Buddhist religion which taught many kinds of bitter practices … some spread ashes on their bodies, and some slept on beds of nails. They cultivated all kinds of ascetic practices. Meanwhile, the Bhikshus who cultivated the Buddhadharma had it ‘easy,’ because they didn’t cultivate that way. Now, the king of that country said to the Buddha’s disciples, ‘It’s my belief that the ascetic practices which these non-Buddhists cultivate still don’t enable them to end their afflictions. How much the less must you Bhikshus, who are so casual, be able to sever the affliction of your thoughts of sexual desire.’

One of the Dharma Masters answered the king this way: ‘Suppose you take a man from jail who had been sentenced to execution, and you say to him ‘Take this bowl of oil and carry it in your two hands as you walk down the highway. If you don’t spill a single drop, I’ll release you when you return.’ Then, suppose you send some beautiful women musicians out on the highway to sing and play their instruments where the sentenced man is walking with his bowl of oil. If he should spill any oil, of course, you’ll execute him. But if he should come back without spilling a single drop, what do you suppose he will answer if you ask him what he’s seen on the road?”

The king of country did just that: he took a man destined to be executed and said to him, ‘Today you should be executed but I’m going to give you an opportunity to save your life. How? I’ll give you a bowl of oil to carry in your two hands as you take a walk on the highway. If you can do it without spilling a single drop, I’ll spare your life. Go try it.’ The sentenced man did as he was told. He went out on the highway, and when he returned he had not spilled one drop. Then the king asked him, ‘What did you see out on the highway?’ The sentenced man said, ‘I didn’t see a single thing. All I did was watch the oil to keep it from spilling. I didn’t see anything else or hear anything at all.’

So, the king asked the Dharma Master, ‘Well, what is the principle here?’ The Dharma Master answered, ‘The sentenced man was like the novice who has left the home life. Both see the question of Birth and Death as too important to waste time on thoughts of sexual desire.’

– Master Hsuan Hua, Huiyang Chan School.

Chickens don’t know

We live like a chicken who doesn’t know what’s going on. In the morning it takes its baby chicks out to scratch for food. In the evening, it goes back to sleep in the coop. The next morning it goes out to look for food again. Its owner scatters rice for it to eat every day, but it doesn’t know why its owner is feeding it. The chicken and its owner are thinking in very different ways.

The owner is thinking, “How much does the chicken weigh?” The chicken, though, is engrossed in the food. When the owner picks it up to heft its weight, it thinks the owner is showing affection.

We too don’t know what’s going on: where we come from, how many more years we’ll live, where we’ll go, who will take us there. We don’t know this at all.

The King of Death is like the owner of the chicken. We don’t know when he’ll catch up with us, for we’re engrossed — engrossed in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas. We have no sense that we’re growing older. We have no sense of enough.

– Ajahn Chah, Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition.