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A Case of Dysentery

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by Sangharakshita

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... that the other monks are guilty of deliberate neglect. He first ascertains the facts of the case, giving the other monks an opportunity to explain, even to defend themselves. He gives them an opportunity to confess--and that is what they do.

This is an important lesson. So often we jump to conclusions; we assume that someone is guilty before we have ascertained all the facts. When we don't get a reply to a letter we assume that the person to whom we have written has not replied and conclude that he is not being a good friend. We then write a second, angry, letter. But surely we should first ascertain that our friend did actually receive the letter. And we should make sure that he has not in fact replied. Only then should we adopt whatever course seems appropriate.

This is just what the Buddha did, with the result that the monks confessed their mistake. I say that they confessed, but one does rather get the impression from this passage that they did not realize that there was anything wrong with their behaviour. If this was the case, then they must have had a very inadequate conception of the spiritual life, of the spiritual community, and of spiritual friendship. Be that as it may, once they had confessed, the Buddha could exhort them thus: `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.

Here, the Buddha is laying down an important set of principles. He is asserting an absolute discontinuity between the biological family and the `spiritual family', between the `group' and the `spiritual community'. Once you enter the spiritual community you no longer belong to the group, and you no longer rely upon it. The Buddha does not mean that your mother and father are dead in the literal sense. He means that spiritually speaking they no longer exist. In other words, they no longer exist as your mother and father. You can therefore no longer depend upon them to take care of you, no longer take refuge in them.

This is what is meant by the `Going Forth'. It is a going forth `from home into homelessness'. You go forth from the group to the spiritual community. Spiritually speaking, the group no longer exists. And since it no longer exists, you no longer rely on it or take refuge in it.

Once you enter the spiritual community, only the spiritual community exists. You take refuge solely in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. You rely only on other members of the spiritual community, and that means that other members of the spiritual community rely on you. You rely on one another, take care of one another, encourage one another, and inspire one another.

All of this certainly applies to our own spiritual community, the Western Buddhist Order. We have in fact no mother and no father to take care of us. What was formerly done by our family must now be done by our spiritual friends--indeed more must be done by our spiritual friends.

But suppose it is not done? Suppose someone is ill, or depressed, or experiencing psychological difficulties, or not finding the spiritual life very enjoyable. If that person is left, as the sick monk was left, he may drift back to the group, back to the family, back to mother, wife, or girlfriend. He may go in search of comfort and consolation elsewhere.

It is important that as members of the spiritual community we realize that we have no true refuge except one another, no friends except one another--that is, no real friends except spiritual friends. From the group we can expect absolutely nothing--nor should we. We belong absolutely to the spiritual community, belong absolutely to one another. We should be prepared, therefore, to live and die for one another--otherwise we have not really gone for Refuge. Our future is with one another; we are one another's future; we have no future apart from one another.

The Buddha says, `If ye will not take care of each other, who else, I ask, will do so?' If Order members do not love one another, who else will love them? If Order members do not inspire one another, who else will inspire them? If Order members cannot be happy with one another, who else can they be happy with? If they cannot come together with one another, who else can they come together with? Perhaps we should enjoy one another's company more, appreciate one another more, value one another more.

The Buddha certainly valued the brethren highly. He says, `Brethren, he who would wait on me, let him wait on the sick.' The Buddha is not being mystical or metaphysical here: he is dealing with the realities of life in the spiritual community. By `the sick', he means sick brethren--fellow members of the spiritual community. If one wants to wait upon the Buddha, one should wait upon them. Thus the Buddha in a sense equates members of the spiritual community with himself. It would hardly be possible to value them more highly than that.

`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.' Thus all conceivable relationships within the spiritual community are covered.

Teacher should take care of pupil, and pupil of teacher; fellow disciple should take care of fellow disciple; occupants of the same vihara (the same residential spiritual community) should take care of one another.

In sickness and in health there should be unfailing kindness and spiritual friendship between them.

`If no one take care of him, it shall be reckoned an offence'. Here, `offence' means an unskilful action that needs to be confessed. The responsibility for the care of each member rests on the entire spiritual community. Ultimately, all are responsible for each, and each is responsible for all to the extent of his strength. Otherwise there can be no spiritual community.

By now it should be clear that this story is not just about a sick monk being neglected by the brethren. It is not just a simple case of diarrhoea. It is a case of unfailing mutual kindness, a case of personal interest, a case of harmonious and effective action, a case of treating persons as persons, a case of communication and taking delight, a case of recognizing the absolute discontinuity between the group and the spiritual community. Above all it is a case of mutual responsibility and mutual spiritual friendship. Is is not a case of something that happened in the past, two-thousand-five-hundred years ago; it is a case of something that is happening now, in the present, and something that will happen in the future. It is not a case of something that concerned the ancient brethren; it is something that concerns their modern successors, ourselves.

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