The Human Condition and the Mustard Seed

Buddhist legend has it that a very rich man one day discovered that all his gold has turned into ashes. This caused him great grief, so much so, that he took to his bed and refused all food.

Rabbit in White Wine and Mustard Sauce

A friend, learning of his grief, visited the rich man. “You have not used your wealth very well”, the friend said. “When you hoarded it, it was no better than ashes. Go to the market and pretend to sell the ashes”. The rich man followed his advice and offered his ashes for sale.

Some time later, a very poor, orphaned young girl named Kisa Gotami, saw the rich man with his ashes and asked: “why do you offer all these gold and silver for sale?”. The rich man asked her to hand him some of the gold and silver. When she touched the ashes, they turned to gold again.

The rich man recognized that Kisa Gotami had the mental eye of spiritual knowledge and thus, could see the real worth of things: “With many, gold is no better than ashes, but with Kisa Gotami ashes become pure gold”.

Kisa Gotami married the rich man’s son and together they had only one boy.

Shortly after, the son died, and struck with grief Kisa Gotami carried the dead son to the neighbours begging them for medicine to heal the dead child. Only one man responded to her request: “I cannot help you but I know someone who can. Go to Sayamuni, the Buddha”.

When she asked the Buddha for medicine to cure her dead child, he replied that she should bring him a handful of mustard seeds. These seeds had to obtained one by one from houses where no one had lost a child, husband or wife, parent, or friend. Tried as she may, she could not find one house that had been spared death.

Weary and hopeless she sat down and watched the lights of the city being switched on and off again. She recognized that they were no different from the lives of people. And so she realized, death is common to all, and that grief is selfish. For, said the Buddha, “Not from weeping nor from grieving will any one obtain peace of mind; on the contrary, his pain will be the greater and his body will suffer. He will make himself sick and pale, yet the dead are not saved by his lamentation. People pass away, and their fate after death will be according to their deeds. […] He who seeks peace should draw out the arrow of lamentation, and complaint, and grief. He who has drawn out the arrow and has become composed will obtain peace of mind; he who has overcome all sorrow will become free from sorrow, and be blessed.”

This story is accidentally also one of the earliest references to mustard and was recorded in India during the 5th century BCE.

Mustards come from a variety of plants in the genera Brassica (which includes cabbages, cauliflower, rapeseed and turnips) and Sinapis. Mustard seeds could be white/yellow (Sinapis alba), brown (Brassica juncea) or black (Brassica nigra). Of the three the black variety has most heat.

The Romans were probably the first to make mustard as a condiment by mixing ground mustard seeds and unfermented grape juice (called “must”) to make mustum ardens or “burning must”. Dijon in France became an important centre for making mustard during the 13th century. In 1777 Maurice Grey, a famous mustard maker with a unique mustard recipe containing white wine and Auguste Poupon his financial backer established a partnership, Grey-Poupon, that today is still one of the most established brands of mustard producers. No wonder Dijon is considered the mustard capital of the world.

Pope John XXIII apparently loved mustard so much that he established the office “First Mustard Maker to the Pope” and promptly appointed his nephew to the position. Clearly the nephew was not going to cut the mustard as cardinal.

In 1866, Jeremiah Colman, founder of Colman’s Mustard of England, was appointed as mustard-maker to Queen Victoria.

Making your own mustard at home is very easy. Take 2 tablespoons of yellow mustard seeds and grind them very fine. Mix with ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder. Add 2 tablespoons of ware and stir through. Cover with plastic wrap and let it stand overnight. It is important that the mixture is allowed to stand overnight because mustard seeds and powder has no heat or pungency in dry form. These develop only when liquid is added. Once the mustard mixture have rested, add 2 tablespoons white wine, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, ¼ teaspoon salt and a small pinch of ground turmeric to the bowl. Blend the mixture into a smooth puree.

I did spend quit a few hours in a local hospital’s casualty ward these past few weeks.  I had no choice but to observe the human condition up close and personal. It was a never-ending stream of injuries, accidents, violence, death, pain and misery. One tearful young mother brought her severely asthmatic baby. The fact that everyone dropped everything to help the baby made me think that it must be very serious and maybe not long before it might be too late.

When I left she was still sitting alone in the corner overcome by fear and grief. I could not help but think of Kisa Gotami, the Buddha and the story of the mustard seed.

This week’s recipe is an ode to the classic French combination of mustard, white wine and cream. If you can’t find rabbit, use chicken instead, and adjust the cooking time. Bon Appetit. May you find peace and see things for what they are.

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