All of us know first- hand of impermanence through our own experiences. As Buddhists, we learn to trust our experiences as the most direct information about change that we have. When we actually understand the deeper universal nature of impermanence, insight arises and our relationship to change has less suffering and as a consequence propels us toward enlightenment. Here is a traditional story from the Buddha Parables translated by E. W. Burlingame.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
Gotami was her family name, but because she tired easily, she was called Kisa Gotami or Frail Gotami. She was reborn at Savatthi in a poverty-stricken house. When she grew up, she married, going to the house of her husband’s family to live. There, because she was the daughter of a poverty-stricken house, they treated her with contempt. After a time, she gave birth to a son. Then they accorded her respect.
But when that boy of hers was old enough to play and run hither and about, he died. Sorrow sprang up within her. Thought she: Since the birth of my son, I, who was once denied honor and respect in this very house, have received respect. These folk may even seek to cast my son away. Taking her son on her hip, she went about from one house door to another, saying: “Give me medicine for my son!”
Whenever people encountered her, they said: “Where did you ever meet with medicine for the dead?” So saying, they clapped their hands and laughed in derision. She had not the slightest idea what they meant.
Now a certain wise man saw her and thought: This woman must have been driven out of her mind by sorrow for her son. But medicine for her, no one else is likely to know—the Sage of the Ten Forces alone is likely to know. Said he: “Woman, as for medicine for your son—there is no one else who knows—the Sage of the Ten Forces, the foremost individual in the world of men and the worlds of the gods, resides at a neighboring monastery. Go to him and ask.”
The man speaks the truth, thought she. Taking her son on her hip, she took her stand in the outer circle of the congregation around the seated Buddha and said: “O Exalted One, give me medicine for my son!”
The Teacher, seeing that she was ripe for understanding, said: “You did well, Gotami, in coming hither for medicine. Go enter the city, make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in whatever house no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of mustard seed.”
“Very well, reverend sir,” said she. Delighted in heart, she entered within the city, and at the very first house said: “The Sage of the Ten Forces bids me fetch tiny grains of mustard seed for medicine for my son. Give me tiny grains of mustard seed.”
“Alas! Gotami,” said they, and brought and gave to her. “This particular seed I cannot take. In this house someone has died!”
“What say you, Gotami! Here it is impossible to count the dead!”
“Well then, enough! I’ll not take it. The Sage of the Ten Forces did not tell me to take mustard seed from a house where anyone has ever died.”
In this same way, she went to the second house, and to the third and fourth. Finally she understood: In the entire city this must be the way! The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have seen!
Overcome with emotion, she went outside of the city, carried her son to the burning-ground, and holding him in her arms, said:
“Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground. Then she uttered the following stanza:
No village law, no law of market town,
No law of a single house is this—
Of all the world and all the worlds of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.
From Teaching of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield