Visakha’s Sorrow

Another children’s story from a work-in-progress of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Udana, viii.8. I used Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, pp. 107-108; as well as The Udana: or the Solemn Utterances of the Buddha, trans. from the Pali by Dawsonne Melanchthon Strong (Luzac/ India Company: London, 1902), pp. 126-127. I’m not sure what I think about this story; not sure I much like it. But it does seem to get at something central to Buddhism. (Update: a few typos fixed.)

Once upon a time, the Buddha was staying in the city of Savatthi, in the Eastern Grove. He was staying as a guest in the mansion owned by Visakha. Now Visakha had a granddaughter whom she loved very much; this granddaughter was her darling and her delight. While Buddha was staying in her mansion, Visakha’s granddaughter died after a long illness. When Visakha heard that her granddaughter had at long last died, it was very early in the morning. Visakha was overwhelmed with grief when she heard the news. Even though it was very early in the morning, she went to see the Buddha.

She approached the Buddha, greeted him politely, and went to sit down at his side. The Buddha looked at her, and could see she had been crying. He said quietly, “Well, Visakha, what is it that brings you here at a very early hour, with your hands and hair all wet from tears?”

“Forgive me, Buddha, but my granddaughter has just died,” she said. “My granddaughter was my darling and my delight, and that is why I come to you at this early hour with my hands and hair all wet with my tears.”

The Buddha looked kindly at Visakha. “Would you like to have many grandchildren who were as darling and as delightful as your granddaughter?” he said.

“Oh, yes, I would like to have as many darling grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.”

“But Visakha,” said the Buddha, “how many people die in the city of Savatthi each day?”

“Ten or a dozen people die each day in our city,” she said. “I know my gradnddaughter is no different from any other human being, and I know she is no different from any of the dozen people who must die each day in our city.”

“So what do you think, Visakha,” said the Buddha sympathetically. “In all the households where someone has died, do you think that in that same household there will also be people whose hands and hair are all wet with tears?”

“Yes,” she said, “wherever someone has died, that will be so.”

“Visakha, if you hold something dear to your heart, then you will have a sorrow,” said the Buddha. “If you hold a hundred people dear, you will have a hundred sorrows. If you hold fifty people dear, you will have fifty sorrows. If you hold twenty people dear, you will have twenty sorrows. If you hold one person dear, you will have one sorrow. But those people who hold nothing dear will have no sorrow; those people will be free from grief, they will be free from passion, and they will be free from despair. Do you wish to be free from grief?”

Visakha nodded.

The Buddha went on. “In this world, whatever grief or sorrow or sadness there may be, exist because we hold on to something too tightly. The only people who are truly happy, the only people who are free from grief, are those who do not try to hold anything too tighly. If you wish to be free from grief and free from passion, you must hold nothing dear that is on this earth.”

That’s the end of the story as it is traditionally told. But here’s what I imagine happens next:

Visakha looks up at the Buddha, and says, “I’m sorry, Buddha, but I can’t do what you ask. I cannot love my granddaughter any less, even if it means that I must be unhappy.”

The Buddha just smiled, and suddenly Visakha understood. The Buddha was telling her that there is a middle way between having no feelings at all on the one hand, and being utterly overwhelmed by her feelings on the other hand. Right now, she loved her granddaughter so much that that feeling overwhelmed everything else in her heart. She would always love her granddaughter, and that love would never go away. Right now, she was overwhelmed with grief, but over time sadness and grief would loosen their tight hold on her heart; and that knowledge was a comfort to her now.

In Strong’s translation, the story ends with this quatrain spoken by the Buddha:

“Whatsoever of sorrow, lamentation and pain is in the world,
“All this arises from clinging, where clinging is not, these are not.
“Therefore happy and sorrowless are those who cling not to any thing in the world.
“Set not your affections on things on earth.”

Which is a pretty cold-blooded way to end the story. But that’s the way it is.