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A Case of Dysentery

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by Sangharakshita

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... is actually a very big thing that they were kind to each other. Their kindness had never failed, had never been found wanting even for a moment on either side. When two people are constant companions, and when the relation between them is of unfailing mutual kindness, you can only say of them that they are friends. Indeed, you can only say that they are spiritual friends, because such unfailing mutual kindness over such a long period of time is possible only on a deeply spiritual basis.

To some, it may seem a little strange that the Buddha and Ananda were friends. It may seem strange, perhaps, that the Buddha should have had a friend. One may wonder whether a Buddha needs a friend. But this depends on one's conception of Enlightenment. In response, I can give only a hint.

The Enlightenment experience is not self-contained in a one-sided way. The Enlightenment experience contains an element of `communication', and contains, therefore, an element of spiritual friendship, even `transcendental friendship', or friendship of the highest conceivable level. This, perhaps, is the significance of the Buddha's having a constant companion. There is surely no question of the Buddha keeping up the `dignity' of a Buddha. Ananda is not a sort of spiritual valet-cum-private-secretary. The fact that he is `in attendance', as the translator has it, represents the fact that there exists within the Enlightenment experience, within the heart of Reality, an element of communication, an element of spiritual friendship, something that found expression in the later history of Buddhist thought as that rather mysterious concept of Sambhogakaya.

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 is a second point to notice here: the Exalted One was going his rounds of the lodgings. In the original, the word for `lodging' is vihara, and that is all that vihara really means. We must not imagine the Buddha going his rounds of a large, palatial, well-furnished monastery. The lodgings in question were probably just clusters of thatched huts scattered over an area of park-land just a few miles outside the city gates.

The Buddha was making his rounds of these lodgings. In other words, he was taking a personal interest in the monks. How were they getting on? What were they doing? How were they passing their time? There was of course no question of them sitting outside their thatched huts reading newspapers, or listening to transistor radios, or watching television. But they might possibly have been up to other things that they should not have been up to. They might have needed some encouragement, some teaching, or even a little ticking-off. The Buddha was seeing things for himself. In this way, he and Ananda 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.' There are a number of points to be noted here. The Buddha goes towards the sick monk, asks him what is wrong with him, and gets very quickly to the heart of the matter. All of these points could be enlarged upon, but perhaps that is not necessary, their significance being sufficiently clear. The main point of this section is contained in the sick monk's last reply to the Buddha: `I am useless to the brethren, Lord: therefore the brethren do not care for me.' This is a very significant statement indeed. It is a shocking, terrible statement. Of course, we have only the bare words of the printed page to go by. We do not know how those words were spoken--and this can of course make a difference. Did the Buddha say `Why is it brother that the brethren do not take care of you?' indignantly, or with concern, or sadly? And did the sick monk reply with dignity, with resignation, with weariness, or with bitterness and anger? We do not know. All we have is the bleak, shocking, statement itself, `I am useless to the brethren, Lord: therefore the brethren do not care for me.' However the words were spoken, they must imply, sadly, that people are interested in you only so long as you are useful to them, only so long as they can get something out of you. It implies that they see you not as a person but as a thing.

To treat a person as a thing is to treat them unethically. And this, apparently, is how the other monks were treating the sick monk. He was not useful to them, and so they were not interested in him. He was left lying in his own excrement. No one took care of him. There was no kindness between the sick monk and the other monks as there was between the Buddha and Ananda. There was no ordinary human friendship--not to speak of spiritual friendship; neither was there any sympathy or sensitivity or awareness.

There could not be, because these are qualities that you can experience only in relation to a person whom you actually see as a person. The other monks did not see the sick monk as a person. To them he was like an old worn out broom, or a broken pot. He was useless to them so they did not care for him.

Only too often we ourselves can behave like this. We often consider people primarily in terms of their usefulness. We do this even within the Spiritual Community. Sometimes we are more interested in someone's talents and capacities--as a bricklayer, accountant, or lecturer--than in what they are in themselves. If you are treated in this way, then, when you are no longer able or willing to employ your talents, you may have the disappointing and disillusioning experience of finding that nobody wants to know you, nobody wants to be `friends' with you any more. We must therefore learn to see persons as persons. There must be kindness between us, there must be spiritual friendship, as there was between the Buddha and Ananda. There must be sympathy, sensitivity, and awareness.

There are two principal aspects to persons treating each other as persons. These are communication and taking delight. These two are of the essence of friendship.

Even in the case of ordinary friendship there is the great benefit and blessing of being able to share our thoughts and feelings with another human being. It has been said that self-disclosure, the making of oneself known to another human being--being known by them and knowing that you are known by them--is essential to human health and happiness. If you are shut up in yourself, without any possibility of communication with another person, you don't stay healthy or happy for long.

In the case of spiritual friendship, we share our experience of the Dhamma itself. We share our enthusiasm, our inspiration, and our understanding. We even share our mistakes. Here, communication takes the form of confession.

The aspect of `taking delight' means that we not only see a person as a person, but also like what we see, enjoy and take delight in what we see, just as we do with a beautiful painting or poem--except that here the painting or poem is alive: the painting can speak to you, and the beautiful poem can answer back! This makes it very exciting and stimulating indeed. Here we see, we like, we love and appreciate a person entirely for their own sake, and not for the sake of anything useful that we can get out of them. This also happens in ordinary friendship to some extent, but it happens to a far greater extent in spiritual friendship--kalyana mitrata. The primary meaning of kalyana is `beautiful'. In spiritual friendship we take delight in the spiritual beauty of our friend: we rejoice in his or her merits.

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.

There are a number of significant points here. The Buddha acts instantly. As a human being he seems to have been of a prompt, decisive, character, not unlike a military commander. At this stage he does not ask anyone how it all happened, but simply sends Ananda off for water. Then, the Buddha and Ananda act together. Ananda does not argue with the Buddha; they don't have a long discussion as to who should pour the water and who should wash the sick man, or who should take him by the head and who should take him by the feet. They act together harmoniously, efficiently, and effectively.

Perhaps more importantly, the Buddha and Ananda accept responsibility for the situation, even though it is not of their making. They do not try to hand the responsibility over to anybody else, but take care of the sick monk themselves, doing whatever needs to be done. They make the sick monk comfortable, and only then does the Buddha call the other monks together: 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.' There are two points here. First, the Buddha looks into the matter. He does not jump to conclusions. He does not immediately assume ...

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