In “The Story of Kisagotami,” a young mother wanders from house to house, clutching the dead body of her son. Dazed by grief, her son’s death does not fully register: Kisagotami drifts from one townsperson to another, pathetically asking if anyone has a medicine to help revive her boy. Her neighbors fear she has lost her mind. One wise man understands her suffering and advises her to seek medicine from a doctor named Gautama. Kisagotami rushes to Gautama and begs for the medicine that will help her child. Gautama – another name for the Exalted Buddha – answers that he does indeed know of some medicine, and sends Kisagotami on a mission to retrieve it.
Despite the seeming impossibility of Gautama’s claim in this story, anyone who has also read the “Questions of Milinda” is able to hope for a miracle medicine, having learned of the profoundly powerful “Medicine-Shop of the Buddha.” In Buddha’s shop, there are medicines that promise to deliver truth-seekers from all sorrow. These medicines are the Four Noble Truths that “free the world of men and the Worlds of the Gods from the Poison of the Depravities.” As the Reverend Nagasena tells King Menander in “The Questions of Milinda,” the four medicines are the truth of Suffering, the truth of the Origin of Suffering, the truth regarding the Cessation of Suffering, and the truth of the Way to the Cessation of Suffering.
But how are these medicines able to perform such miraculous healing? Will they help Kisagotami? Could they also help us? We can come by this understanding if we apply the Four Noble Truths to a third Buddhist story (the one given as an example in this assignment).
“The Composition of the Body” outlines the four elements that make up the human form. The earthy, watery, fiery and windy elements each do their part to shape the body and hold it together, and in so doing, create illusions that result in a great deal of suffering. This mass of simple elements “masquerades in many different disguises, such as the various members and organs of women and men.” They make the body appear tall, short, thin, heavy, strong or weak; yet in reality the body is nothing more than a fragile, temporary machine. To the unenlightened person, this “Deceptive Machine” is mistakenly seen as black or white, young or old, beautiful or ugly. Innumerable wrong views spring from this deception, resulting in the suffering of lust, jealousy, fear, hatred, etc. These wrong views poison every aspect of human existence, including action, language and livelihood.
This story of the composition of the body and its effects on the human perception of reality proves the first two of the Four Noble Truths found in Buddha’s Medicine-Shop: that there is suffering, and that suffering has a traceable origin. An understanding of these Truths places the seeker of wisdom within reach of the final two Noble Truths: that suffering can be eliminated, and that there is a necessary approach to that elimination. We can extinguish the cause of suffering by recognizing and remembering the underlying, universally-identical compositions of our bodies, and the universal delusions we are all susceptible to. By seeing beyond the Deceptive Machine, we begin ridding ourselves of wrong views, which is the first step on what is known as the “Noble Eight-Fold Path.” This change in perception naturally leads to changes in our actions and speech, and the practice of this enlightened outlook goes on to alter the way we work, think and even the way we view the bodies that earlier deceived us. These changes in our wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline are the path to salvation.
The poignant story of Kisagotami exemplifies how the Four Noble Truths work to change an individual soul. She embarks on the path to salvation when she begins the mission to find her son’s medicine. Gautama has instructed her to fetch a handful of mustard seed, but specifies that this seed must be taken from a house “where no son, husband, parent or slave has died.” The young mother wanders again from house to house, explaining her mission, but no one is able to help her: one man has lost his parents, an old woman has lost her husband, and another man has lost his slave. Every person she encounters has been touched by the heartache of death. Finally, Kisagotami comprehends the impermanence of life and her link to all of humanity. Spiritually healed by the medicine of Buddha’s doctrine, she embraces the Four Noble Truths inherent in the grief of loss, and lets go of her sorrow.