Monday, February 23, 2009

The Holy Man and the Grieving Mother

Thanks to my friend, Sarah, for the inspiration. This is an adaptation of a Buddhist story.Walking, a holy man came upon a woman lying prone before a holy shrine by the river. Her face was turned to the earth; her body was wracked with sobs. The monk's heart went out to her; he knelt beside her, and took her hand, asking "What is it, woman, causes you to sob so?"

The woman lifted her head to speak, but for a moment was only able to wail. Tears coursed down her cheeks. The monk waited. "I have lost my child," she managed, eventually. "My child was a fine boy, kind to his mother and to every living creature. His cheeks were more red than any sunset; his eyes more deep than any water well. But as he fished on the river bank he slipped into the water and was swept away. He is gone! Gone! Never to return to his mother's arms! My boy! My precious boy!" And she fell back to sobbing.

The holy man continued to hold her hand while she wept. After a time, she quieted and the monk spoke. "I cannot return your son, woman," he said. "But I know a way to ease your suffering." The woman, exhausted and desperate, implored him with her gaze.

The monk continued. "You must go to your village and seek out someone there; a person who is a stranger to grief. If you can find one person that has not suffered as you suffer now, bring him to me I will help you to live as he, without grief or sadness."

The hopeless pall on the woman's face lessened slightly. Surely there were many who had never suffered as she suffered on that day. "I... I will do it," said she. The holy man said that he would await her there, at the shrine by the river. Then he sat, with his begging bowl in his lap and the woman struggled to her feet and set off down the path to her village.

As she walked, the woman's heart rose. Perhaps the holy man did indeed know a way to ease her suffering. She must seek out a person whom tragedy had passed over. Her son was gone forever, but if she could find some respite to the burden of her grief... But as she walked, if ever she paused, the memory of her lost son came rushing back, and she was nearly overcome. And so she made her way back toward the village, alternately hopeful and despairing.

After a time, she came upon a man leading a horse from a field. The man was whispering in the horse's ear, stroking it's muzzle softly. He smiled as he whispered, and his eyes were filled with love for the animal.

"Here is a man content with his work," thought the woman. "Surely, he is untouched by the grief I know. I shall bring him to see my holy man."

But when she spoke to the man with the horse, and told him her tale, the man shook his head. "I am afraid I cannot go to your holy man, woman," he said gently, "for I have known grief. At one time I had a farm with many fine animals and my larders were full to bursting. Every new moon, I would feast the village, laying the best table for miles around. But rumor of my wealth spread too far. One night, bandits came and stole all my animals and burned my farm to the ground." He smiled, sadly. "Now I have this horse, my only companion in the world. We have no place to call home; we wander from village to village, pulling plows and carts for farmers who will hire us. But it is enough for me."

The tale the man with the horse had told her caused the woman to again remember her son and fresh tears streamed down her face. She wished the man well and set off again.

After a time, she came upon an old woman sitting before a hut. The old woman sat with her hands in her lap, gazing out at the ripened fields before her where the peasants were reaping. Her face was deeply furrowed, like the tilled earth in springtime, and her hair was white as river lilies.

"Here is an old woman, sitting by her home, awaiting the return of her children with the harvest's bounty," thought the grieving mother. "Surely this woman knows the peace for which I long. I shall take her to my holy man."

But when she told the old woman her story, the old women shook her head. "I must not go," said she. "I am an old woman. At one time, I was young and strong and beautiful. But now I am too old to work, too old to help my children in the fields. My husband has been gone for years and I am too ugly to find a new one. For a long time I grieved the loss of my husband and my strength and my beauty. But now I sit here during the day and watch the sun play on the fields and I help my daughters cook porridge when they return from their work. And someday soon, I will join my husband."

The grieving mother's heart ached at the old woman's story, imaging how it must have been to lose her husband and to become a burden to her own children. And again, she saw her own son's face as it had been in happier times. Sadly, she thanked the old woman and continued on her way.

At last, she arrived at her village. The people had mostly returned from the fields and the cook fires were crackling happily. The village children were gathered in the yard, laughing and running. The woman saw a strange man among them. A traveler with a painted face and enormous shoes and a beaming smile. The traveler chased the children, now galloping like a horse, now stooping and dragging his hands in the dirt like an ape, causing them to shriek with laughter. For an instance, the woman even forgot her own grief and delighted at the clown's antics.

"At last!" she thought. "Look how he capers without a care in the world, laughing amongst the children. Surely, here is a stranger to grief."

When finally, the children were called to their supper and scampered away to their huts, the clown sat in the shade of a tree and mopped at the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. The grieving mother came and sat beside him.

"Stranger," she said, "I have need of your help. My son was recently drowned in the river and I have been wasting away in grief. But a holy man has promised to teach me peace if I will bring to him one person who has avoided the agony of despair throughout his life. Will you come with me?" But, as she watched the clown's face changed. He brought his kerchief to his eyes and dabbed at them, and he sighed.

"Alas, woman," said he, "I cannot go to your holy man. At one time I had a wife and ten children. I was a wealthy and successful merchant and provided every need for my family. I was the happiest man in all the world. But a ravaging plague swept over my land and took my wife and my children from me. And since that time, I have wandered the land as you see now, clowning with children, laughing, playing the fool. It is what is left to me. But I will not squander it."

The grieving mother bowed her head and kissed the clown on his brow. Then she returned to her hut, set her cooking fire, and cooked rice and vegetables in the way that her son had liked. She took her pot of food and set out along the path.

When she came to the shrine by the river, the holy man was still there with his begging bowl in his lap. He was deep in his prayers and paid her no mind.

Quietly, she sat beside him, uncovered her pot, and spooned the rice and vegetables into his bowl. Sighing, she heard the river sigh in the distance.

1 comment:

Shus li said...

What a wonderful story. I feel better after reading it, reminded of the "first noble truth" of Buddhist teachings, that "life is suffering." Thank you for this story.

Quote: "The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live, you must suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of suffering. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc." Ven S. Dhammika