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A Case of Dysentery

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 152: A Case of Dysentery - Edited Version

I am aware that the title of this talk is not like any of my previous titles. It is something of a change from the `spiritual this', and the `transcendental that', or the `creative something else'. Perhaps it will raise a few eyebrows. Perhaps people will think that there has been a dreadful printing mistake or a deplorable lapse of good taste. Others might think that the title is meant to be symbolic or mythic. But there is nothing symbolic about it at all. My theme really is a case of dysentery--in the literal sense.

This is no ordinary case of dysentery, however. This particular case of dysentery is quite an important one, though not from a medical point of view. The case in question took place some two-thousand-five-hundred years ago, and we know about it because it is mentioned in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Theravada Pali Canon: Now at that time a certain brother was suffering from dysentery and lay where he had fallen down in his own excrements.

And the Exalted One was going His rounds of the lodgings, with the venerable Ananda in attendance, and came to the lodging of that brother.

Now the Exalted One saw that brother lying where he had fallen in his own excrements, and seeing him He went towards him, came to him, and said: `Brother, what ails you?' `I have dysentery, Lord.' `But is there anyone taking care of you, brother?' `No, Lord.' `Why is it, brother, that the brethren do not take care of you?' `I am useless to the brethren, Lord: therefore the brethren do not care for me.' Then the Exalted One said to the venerable Ananda: `Go you, Ananda, and fetch water. We will wash this brother.' `Yes, Lord,' replied the venerable Ananda to the Exalted One. When he had fetched the water, the Exalted One poured it out, while the venerable Ananda washed that brother all over. Then the Exalted One taking him by the head and the venerable Ananda taking him by the feet, together they laid him on the bed.

Then the Exalted One, in this connexion and on this occasion, gathered the Order of Brethren together, and questioned the brethren, saying: `Brethren, is there in such and such a lodging a brother who is sick?' `There is, Lord.' `And what ails that brother?' `Lord, that brother has dysentery.' `But, brethren, is there anyone taking care of him?' `No, Lord.' `Why not? Why do not the brethren take care of him?' `That brother is useless to the brethren, Lord. That is why the brethren do not take care of him.' `Brethren, ye have no mother and no father to take care of you. If ye will not take care of each other, who else, I ask, will do so? Brethren, he who would wait on me, let him wait on the sick.

If he have a teacher, let his teacher take care of him, so long as he is alive, and wait for his recovery. If he have a tutor or a lodger, a disciple or a fellow-lodger or a fellow-disciple, such should take care of him and await his recovery. If no one take care of him, it shall be reckoned an offence.'<Some Sayings of the Buddha p.126-8> This passage deals with a significant episode in the collective life of the early Buddhist spiritual community. And, as I am sure you have realized, it deals with the kind of situation which might arise in the collective life of our own order, two-thousand-five-hundred years later, despite the lapse of time and despite the vast cultural differences. In this episode we are able to see how the Buddha responded to a situation of this sort, what advice he gave, what action he took, and so on. The episode is concerned with much more than the treatment of a sick monk; it is concerned with a number of principles of fundamental importance--some of them only apparently peripheral to the main issue.

The passage begins rather dramatically: Now at that time a certain brother was suffering from dysentery and lay where he had fallen down in his own excrements.

This is a dreadful picture! Here is a brother, a bhikkhu--we are not told whether he is old or young, we are not even given his name--who is suffering from dysentery. It must be a really serious attack because he has fallen to the ground and is lying in his own excrement. Apparently he is too weak to get up. And he is on his own. There is nobody near, nobody within call, no one to help, no one to give him a drink of water. His condition is very pitiable.

The Exalted One was going His rounds of the lodgings, with the venerable Ananda in attendance, and came to the lodging of that brother.

There are two points to notice here. The Buddha was going his rounds of the lodgings, and Ananda was in attendance. Ananda was the Buddha's cousin. He had known the Buddha--and the Buddha had known him--all his life. They had played together as boys, they had fought together, they had tumbled about together in the dust, they had practised archery together, and, years later, after the Buddha had gained Enlightenment, Ananda too went forth from home into the homeless life. He became a disciple of the Buddha and advanced steadily on the spiritual path. We know further that Ananda was the Buddha's constant companion for the last twenty years of his life. Ananda is usually described as the Buddha's `attendant'. But why should the Buddha have needed a personal attendant? The traditional explanations do not seem very adequate. It is simply suggested that the Buddha needed someone to wash his robe, arrange his interviews, and carry messages for him. Ananda did indeed do all these things, as well as many others. It is also said by the tradition that it was simply the `custom' for a Buddha to have a personal attendant. Buddhas had always had personal attendants, and that was that--just as they had always had a particular tree under which they gained Enlightenment, or a particular horse, or a particular charioteer, or two particular chief disciples, and so on. Thus Ananda was the personal attendant of Gautama the Buddha. This is the traditional explanation; but it is not good enough, it does not go deep enough.

Ananda was not the first of these so-called personal attendants. There was, for example, Meghiya, whom we encounter in the Udana. Meghiya was the Buddha's personal attendant for a while. He was not a very satisfactory one because he went off on his own one day when he should have stayed with the Buddha--with rather disastrous consequences for himself.

Although the Buddha had had some difficulty in finding a satisfactory personal attendant, Ananda was by no means in a hurry to take on the task. It is as though he realized that it would be no easy matter to be the constant companion of an Enlightened one. Ananda had made steady progress in the spiritual life. He was certainly a `Stream Entrant', he was irreversible from full Enlightenment. But he was not a Buddha. And even for someone like Ananda, even for a Stream Entrant, even for someone who had grown up with the Buddha, it was a rather awe-inspiring prospect to be the Buddha's constant companion, to be with him, by day and by night, in rain and in sun, year in and year out. Ananda therefore thought the matter over very carefully. He had seen some previous attendants come somewhat to grief, and was reluctant to give the Buddha any further trouble.

In the end, however, Ananda decided to accept the challenge, but laid down certain conditions, of which a couple are relevant here. One of these was that he should not be given any share in the various offerings and invitations that were given to the Buddha. He argued that, if people saw him benefiting from the offerings that were made to the Buddha--all the new robes and so on, then they might think that he was acting as the Buddha's companion just for the sake of what he could get out of it. He also realized that there would be times when he might have to be away from the Buddha, running errands, taking messages, and so on. While he was away, someone might come to see the Buddha and ask for a teaching. In consequence, the Buddha might give a discourse, might even give an important teaching, in his absence.

So another condition he laid down was that the Buddha should repeat whatever teaching he had given during his absence.

The Buddha accepted these conditions, and Ananda became his constant companion for twenty years. How successful this arrangement was can be seen from an incident that occurred shortly before the Buddha's Parinibbana, his final passing away. Ananda was very deeply upset by the prospect of losing the Buddha.

Apparently he stood leaning against the door, weeping. As he wept, he said: `Alas, I am still a pupil with much to be done, and my Master will be passing utterly away, he who was so kind to me.' This was Ananda's impression of the Buddha after twenty years of constant, day to day, companionship. He did not say that the Buddha was wise, or energetic, but that the Buddha was kind.

Fortunately, we also know about the Buddha's impression of Ananda. For when he was told that Ananda was weeping outside, he sent for him and spoke the following words of encouragement: `For many a long day, Ananda, the Tathagata has been waited on by you with kindly body-service, that is profitable, ease-giving, undivided, and unstinted; waited on with kindly service of speech, that is profitable, ease-giving, undivided, and unstinted; with kindly service of thought, that is profitable, ease-giving, undivided, and unstinted.'<Ibid. p.349> Thus the Buddha's predominant impression of Ananda was that he too was kind, that Ananda had served him with kindness of body, speech, and mind, that he had kept nothing back, that he had given himself totally. The relation between the Buddha and Ananda was essentially one of mutual kindness, even though the Buddha was spiritually by far the more developed of the two.

This may seem like a very small thing. But if we reflect we shall realize that it ...

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