So many of the messages we hear these days are based in a severe lack of trust. They are intended to arouse suspicion and fear, and to rally the spending of vast resources on fighting and defending against future fights. Stated in this manner, it may be obvious that this state of affairs is not optimal. Yet how to develop trust?
The story of the Buddha's teaching for Kisa Gotami is one which speaks to just this question. Her story is recorded in the "Theri Gatha," the stories of the foremost nuns, women Arhats, of the Buddha's time. It is a compendium of their "gatha" or teaching verses.
The young woman Gotami lived in Savatti, and she was of the lowest caste. She was very poor and thin, and thus came to be called Kisa or "haggard" Gotami. It happened that she and a wealthy merchant fell in love and were married. Their relationship was a joy, but the man's parents hated Kisa Gotami because she of her impoverished state.
Eventually they conceived a child together, and Kisa Gotami gave birth to a boy. Then the in-laws were happy with her, and respected her as the mother of their son's heir.The story that is recorded says that she "felt a great burden was lifted" when her husband's family began to treat her more kindly.
However, the baby boy died very suddenly, and Kisa Gotami was overcome with grief. She felt not only the grief of a parent losing a child, but also was filled with fear at what her in laws and her husband would do and say to her. So she simply refused to accept that the child had died.
Carrying the child's body from house to house, she went around asking for medicine for the baby. This kind of absolute denial could be viewed as a form of mental illness, and many people scorned her or simply tried to ignore her. Some simply said that medicine would not help a dead baby. However, one person showed compassion for her. Although we don't know this person's name, they did a wonderful and powerful thing for Gotami, and for all of us who hear this teaching today. This person suggested that Kisa Gotami go visit "the ultimate physician," Shakyamuni Buddha. He would be able to help her.
So Kisa Gotami, still carrying the child, set out for the Jeta Grove where the Buddha was staying and teaching, at Anathapindika's monastery. He was giving a discourse when she arrived, but she interrupted saying, "Please give me medicine for my child." The Buddha replied, "I know of a medicine." Then he instructed her to obtain a small number of mustard seeds from any household in which there had not been a death.
Kisa Gotami set off again and, arriving at the first house, asked whether they had mustard seeds and whether she could have a few of them. The people said, yes, of course they had the seeds and would be willing to give her some. Then Kisa Gotami asked whether there had been a death in this family's household, thinking that this was the less significant of the two conditions the Buddha had set. The family replied, yes, of course, there had been many deaths in their family over time. So Gotami said she could not accept the seeds from them, and would go on to another family. Diligently she went from house to house, until she finally realized that there was no family in which there had not been a death. Everyone had experienced losses; there would be no mustard seeds for the Buddha. At last, she realized that death is a part of our shared human experience, and that her own child had died. She took care of the child's body, and returned to the Buddha to become a nun and eventually a fully realized teacher.