So Hither And So Hence

The way of which men come we cannot know;
Nor can we see the path by which they go.
Why mourn then for him who came to you,
Lamenting through the tears?…
Weep not, for such is the life of man.
Unasked he came and unbidden he went.
Ask yourself again whence came your child
To live on earth this little time?
By one way come and by another gone,
As human to die, and pass to other births — So hither and so hence — why should you weep?

– Poem attributed to Bhikkhuni Patacara, taken from a speech given by her to a group of women who were struggling with the loss of children.

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.