Among all the great monks in the Buddha’s retinue, the Venerable Ānanda occupied a unique position, and this in many respects. Ānanda’s unique position had already begun even before his birth. According to tradition, he came to earth, just as the Buddha did, from the Tusita heaven, and was born on the same day as the Buddha and in the same caste, the warrior caste of the royal family of the Sakyans. His father, Amitodana, was the brother of the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana, so the two were cousins, and they grew up together in the Sakyans’ capital city of Kapilavatthu. Amitodana was also the father of Anuruddha, another great disciple, but probably through a different wife.
When he was thirty-seven years old, Ānanda joined the Buddha’s order of monks along with Anuruddha, Devadatta, and many other Sakyan nobles. The Venerable Belaṭṭhasīsa, an arahant, became his teacher and introduced him to the monk’s discipline. Ānanda proved himself a willing and diligent pupil. During his first rains retreat he attained the fruit of stream-entry (Vin II 183). Later, he told his fellow monks that the Venerable Puṇṇa Mantāniputta, an outstanding exponent of the Dhamma, had been of great help to him during his training period. He had taught the Dhamma to the new monks and had given them a profound discourse on the relationship between the five aggregates and the idea “I am” (SN 22:83).
As Ānanda listened to Puṇṇa’s words he penetrated more and more deeply into the impermanence, suffering, and selfless nature of the five aggregates, and with the ripening of insight he made the breakthrough to the path and fruit of stream-entry. Ānanda was always well contented with his life as a monk. He understood the blessings of renunciation and had entered upon the path to liberation, which is a joy to tread in the company of likeminded friends. During the first years of his life as a monk Ānanda was fully occupied with the purification of his own mind; he blended easily into the Sangha and slowly developed more and more resilience and mental strength.
When the Buddha and Ānanda were both fifty-five years of age, the Buddha called a meeting of the monks and declared: “In my twenty years as leader of the Sangha, I have had many different attendants, but none of them has really filled the post perfectly; again and again some wilfulness has become apparent. Now I am fifty-five years old and it is necessary for me to have a trustworthy and reliable attendant.” At once all the noble disciples offered their services, but the Buddha did not accept them. Then the great monks looked at Ānanda, who had held back modestly, and asked him to volunteer. Due to his impeccable behaviour as a monk, Ānanda seemed predestined for the post. When he was asked why he was the only one who had not offered his services, he replied that the Buddha knew best who was suitable to be his attendant. He had so much confidence in the Blessed One that it did not occur to him to express his own wishes, even though he would have liked to become the Master’s attendant.
Then the Buddha declared that Ānanda would be pleasing to him and would be the best choice for the post. Ānanda was in no way proud that the Master had preferred him to the other disciples, but instead asked for eight favours. The first four were negative in character: First, the Master should never pass a gift of robes on to him; second, he should never give him any alms-food which he himself had received; third, having received a dwelling place, he should never give it to him; fourth, he should never include him in any personal invitations (such as an occasion for teaching the Dhamma when a meal would be offered). The other four were positive: If he was invited to a meal, he asked for the right to transfer this invitation to the Buddha; if people came from outlying areas, he asked for the privilege to lead them to the Buddha; if he had any doubts or inquiries about the Dhamma, he asked for the right to have them cleared up at any time; and if the Buddha gave a discourse during his absence, he asked for the privilege to have it repeated to him privately. Ānanda explained that if he did not pose the first four conditions, then people could say that he had accepted the post of attendant only with an eye on the material gains he would enjoy by living so close to the Master.
But if he did not express the other four conditions, then it could rightly be said that he fulfilled the duties of his post without being mindful of his own advancement on the noble path. The Buddha granted him these very reasonable requests, which were quite in accordance with the Dhamma. From then on Ānanda was the constant companion, attendant, and helper of the Blessed One for twenty-five years. In those twenty-five years of service, he continued with the same incessant striving for purification as in the first eighteen years of his monkhood when he was an unknown disciple. He said of himself: Through the full twenty-five years That I have been in higher training, No sensual perception has arisen in me: See the excellence of the Dhamma!
Through the full twenty-five years, That I have been in higher training, No perception of hate has arisen in me: See the excellence of the Dhamma! (Th 1039–40)
The twenty-five years mentioned in this verse refer to the period during which he was the Buddha’s attendant, and not to the whole of his life as a monk. During this period, though he was still a “learner,”1 one in the higher training, no thoughts of lust or hate arose in him; the implication was that his close connection with the Buddha and his devotion to him gave no room for these. Only such a man could fill the post of a constant companion and attendant of the Awakened One.
Ānanda’s praise has been voiced on many occasions in the Pāli Canon. Once, for example, King Pasenadi of Kosala had met the Venerable Ānanda and had inquired from him about the criteria of proper conduct in body, speech, and mind. Ānanda answered the king’s questions with his usual perspicacity, and the king was so delighted that he bestowed upon him a costly garment. Later Ānanda reported his meeting to the Blessed One, who then addressed the entire assembly of monks and said: “It is a gain for King Pasenadi of Kosala, monks, it is fortunate for King Pasenadi of Kosala, that he gained the opportunity to see Ānanda and to offer him service!” (MN 88).
Ānanda was so capable as a teacher of the Dhamma that the Buddha did not hesitate to ask him to take his place when he himself was not feeling fit. This happened among the Buddha’s own relations, the Sakyans, at Kapilavatthu. When the Sakyans were about to open a new rest house, they invited the Buddha and his monks to spend the first night there in order to bestow their blessings upon the place. After the assembly had gathered, the Buddha spoke for much of the night, but then he turned to the Venerable Ānanda and said: “Speak to the Sakyans, Ānanda, about the disciple in higher training who is practicing the path. My back is aching and I need to stretch myself.” Ānanda then proceeded to give a detailed sermon on the entire practice of the trainee, from the basic precepts of morality through to the final knowledge of arahantship. When he had finished the Buddha rose and said: “Excellent, Ānanda, excellent! You have given an excellent talk to the Sakyans on the disciple in higher training.”
On several occasions the Buddha was not present when Ānanda spoke. It was his custom at times to utter a very brief, compressed statement on Dhamma to the monks, and then rise and enter his dwelling as though he were challenging the monks to tease out the meaning of his words on their own. On such occasions the monks would approach a learned elder to explain the Buddha’s enigmatic utterance at length. Usually they would turn to the Venerable Mahākaccāna, the chief expositor of brief statements, but when he was not in residence they would turn to Ānanda, “for the Venerable Ānanda is praised by the Teacher and by his wise companions in the holy life.” Ānanda would then give a full explanation of the Buddha’s brief statement, after which the monks would report his words to the Buddha. Invariably the Buddha would declare: “Ānanda, monks, is wise, one of great understanding. If you had questioned me about this matter, I would have answered in the very same way that Ānanda has answered. That is the meaning, and so you should bear it in mind” (see SN 35:116, 117; AN 10:115).
So great was Ānanda’s mastery of the Dhamma that the Buddha even spoke of him as a living embodiment of the Teaching. Once a lay disciple asked the Buddha how, after he had honoured the Teacher and the Sangha, he could honour the Dhamma—and this in an age before the Dhamma was transcribed in books. The Buddha replied: “If you wish to honour the Dhamma, householder, go and honour Ānanda, the guardian of the Dhamma.” Thereupon the lay disciple invited Ānanda to a meal and gave him a gift of valuable cloth. Ānanda offered this to Sāriputta, who in turn gave it to the Buddha, for he alone was the cause of all bliss (J 296).
Another time, after Ānanda had answered a question of the Buddha and had left, the Buddha told the other monks: “Ānanda is still one on the path of higher training, yet it is not easy to find one who equals him fully in wisdom” (AN 3:78). And shortly before his Parinibbāna, the Master said: “Just as the multitude of nobles, brahmins, ordinary folk, and ascetics find joy in seeing a world monarch, equally joyful are the monks, nuns, male and female disciples about Ānanda. If a party of these goes to see Ānanda, his presence alone gives them joy. When he speaks on the Dhamma to them, there will be joy for them because of his words. And they are still not satisfied when Ānanda reverts to silence” (DN 16).
In view of this abundance of praise, honour, and recognition, mutterings of envy and resentment against Ānanda could have been expected, but this was not the case at all, for Ānanda was a man without enemies. This rare fortune had not come to him by chance but had been enjoyed by him in many previous existences as well. Ānanda had subordinated his life to the Dhamma so completely that fame could not touch him and make him proud. He knew that all that was good in him was due to the influence of the Teaching, and with such an attitude there was no scope in his mind for pride and complacency. One who is not proud has no enemies, and such a one does not meet with envy. If someone turns completely inward and shuns social contact, as Ānanda’s half-brother Anuruddha did, then it is easy to be without enemies. But Ānanda, the intermediary between the Buddha and his many devotees, constantly exposed himself to the malice and resentment of the captious-minded. Thus the sheer fact that he lived without enemies, without rivals, without conflict and tension, borders on a miracle. This quality is truly a measure of Ānanda’s uniqueness.
Although Ānanda did experience justified criticism and was occasionally admonished, that was something entirely different. A friendly reminder, a warning, or even a substantial reproach to change one’s behaviour are aids toward more intense purification. Such criticism, if taken to heart, leads to more inner clarity and higher esteem by others. But the instances in which Ānanda was admonished mostly referred to points of social behaviour or to the minutia of the Vinaya, the monk’s discipline. Hardly ever did they touch on matters of selfpurification and never on his understanding of the Dhamma. The instances were as follows. Once, when the Buddha was suffering from wind in his stomach, Ānanda cooked rice gruel for him, which had been beneficial when he had earlier suffered from this ailment. The Buddha admonished him: “It is not proper for ascetics to prepare meals in the house.” After this incident it was decreed an offense for a monk to cook for himself (Vin I 210–11). Ānanda adhered to this rule from then on, with full insight into its necessity as part of true homelessness.
Once Ānanda went on alms round without his double robe. Fellow monks drew his attention to the rule established by the Buddha that a monk should always wear his three robes when going to the village. Ānanda agreed wholeheartedly and explained that he had simply forgotten it. Since this and the former case concerned a simple disciplinary rule, the matter was thereby settled (Vin I 298). That someone like Ānanda, who had a most extraordinary memory, could also forget something was due to the fact that even a stream-enterer is not yet perfect. The Buddha, however, required of the monks that they pay diligent attention to the small, everyday details of a monk’s life, and that they base their higher spiritual exertions on the foundation of this discipline. This served to eliminate purely intellectual understanding and conceit. A different kind of criticism was levelled at Ānanda in two instances by the Venerable Mahākassapa.
Once Ānanda had asked Kassapa to accompany him to a nunnery in order to give a discourse to the nuns. After initial hesitation, Kassapa had agreed. When the discourse was over, a headstrong nun blamed Kassapa for doing all the talking without letting the wise Ānanda utter a single word. It was, she said, as if a needle peddler had tried to sell his wares in the presence of the needle maker. Ānanda begged Kassapa to forgive her, but Kassapa replied that Ānanda should show restraint, lest the Sangha should initiate an inquiry into his behaviour (SN 16:10). Kassapa intended this reproach to be a reminder to Ānanda that in his zeal for teaching the nuns he had overlooked the danger of personal attachment. This criticism was no doubt of benefit to Ānanda in the future.
The second incident occurred soon after the Buddha’s demise, when thirty disciples of Ānanda had left the Sangha. Kassapa reproached Ānanda for not guarding the young men sufficiently. He had gone on walking tours with them while they were still unrestrained in the senses, immoderate in eating, not devoted to wakefulness. Therefore he was a “trampler of the corn, a spoiler of families, whose followers are breaking away.”
Finally Kassapa said, “This youngster truly does not know his own measure.” To this rather strong reproach, Ānanda only replied that grey hair had grown on his head and yet Kassapa still called him a “youngster.” It may be that in this case Ānanda had overrated his own strength and underrated the worldliness of his pupils. Ānanda did not argue about the objective justification of the censure. After all, he was not yet an arahant and was still subject to some defilements. He only objected to the generalization implied in the criticism. One may, however, assume that an arahant like Kassapa would have known which form of criticism would be most helpful to Ānanda. In any case, Kassapa blamed Ānanda in both instances because of his love for him; there was always an excellent relationship between these two monks. Another monk, Udāyi, once criticized Ānanda in the following way. Ānanda had asked the Blessed One how far his voice would reach in the universe.
The Lord had answered that the Enlightened Ones were immeasurable and could reach farther than a thousandfold world system (with a thousand suns, a thousand heavens, and a thousand Brahma-worlds), even farther than a three-thousandfold world system. They could penetrate all those worlds with their shining splendour and reach all beings living there with their voice. Ānanda was delighted with this description, so all-encompassing and transcending all horizons, and he exclaimed: “How fortunate I am, that I have such an almighty, powerful Master!” Udāyi objected: “What good does it do you, friend Ānanda, that your Master is almighty and powerful?” With these few words a strong reproach was uttered: that Ānanda always looked at the person of the Buddha only and thereby forgot his real benefit, his own enlightenment.
The Buddha immediately took sides with Ānanda, saying: “Not so, Udāyi, not so, Udāyi! Should Ānanda die without being fully liberated, because of the purity of his heart he would be king of the gods seven times or king of the Indian subcontinent seven times. But, Udāyi, Ānanda will experience final liberation in this very life” (AN 3:80). That the Buddha made this prophecy in Ānanda’s presence showed his confidence in him. He knew that his wide knowledge of the Buddha’s Word would not make Ānanda negligent in his practice. This utterance also indicated that the Buddha found it useful to shield Ānanda from reproach—self-inflicted and by others—by consoling him that his effort and striving would result in the highest attainment in this very lifetime. The Tathāgata could make such a declaration only in the case of one who tended to be extremely conscientious rather than too negligent. The only time that the Buddha admonished Ānanda on his own accord was also the most important.
The Buddha had instructed Ānanda to oversee the distribution of cloth for robes to the monks, and Ānanda had accomplished this task very satisfactorily. The Buddha praised him for his circumspection and told the other monks that Ānanda was very skilled in sewing; he was able to make several different kinds of seams. For a good monk it was necessary that he hemmed his robes so that they did not fray at the edges, and one could not accuse him of carelessly handling and wasting the offerings of the laity (Vin I 287).
Later, when the Buddha was residing near his home town, he saw numerous seats prepared in a monastery and asked Ānanda whether many monks lived there. Ānanda confirmed this and added, “It is now time to prepare our robes, Lord.” Ānanda referred here to the Buddha’s instructions that a monk should care for his robes properly. However, Ānanda seemed to have arranged a sort of sewing circle, perhaps to teach his fellow monks the commended art of making seams. This was probably how it came to be a communal evening sewing hour. Ānanda had not considered that this would turn into a homelike conversational hour during which the monks would indulge in frivolous chatter.
Therefore the Buddha gave this very emphatic injunction concerning the danger of mundane gregariousness for a monk: “A monk does not deserve praise who enjoys socializing, who finds joy in fellowship, finds contentment in it, enjoys togetherness, is pleased with it. That such a monk should attain at will the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of solitude, the bliss of tranquillity, the bliss of awakening, in their totality, that is impossible.” Whoever finds his whole happiness in togetherness has no access to the bliss that can only be won in seclusion. Even if such a person attains meditative absorption, that attainment will be fragile, easily shaken and lost. For a person who relishes companionship it will be still more difficult to attain final liberation. Therefore the Buddha ends his admonition with the statement that he cannot find any object of attachment that does not produce suffering because of its inherent impermanence.
This is the universal aspect of the Dhamma. Subsequently the Buddha expounded the path of practice, which he explained solely with reference to Ānanda. Because Ānanda had the faculty of deep meditation, the Buddha did not mention the first seven steps of the Noble Eightfold Path but started with the eighth step, right concentration. He expounded here the highest goal—total voidness of concepts, objects, and names—and stressed that this goal could be attained only by one who strives to master the mind in solitude. Furthermore, he appealed to Ānanda’s love for him as the Master, and emphasized that this love could only be proven if Ānanda followed him into the highest attainment.
One could say that he made use of both approaches, factual and personal, to help Ānanda cut off all remaining worldliness once and for all, and he concluded with this analogy: “Therefore, Ānanda, bear amity towards me, not hostility; long shall that be for your benefit and happiness. I shall not treat you, Ānanda, as the potter treats his unfired pots. Repeatedly admonishing, I shall speak to you, Ānanda, repeatedly testing. He who is sound will stand the test.” This analogy will be easier to understand if one takes a look at the Gandhāra Jātaka (J 406), which tells of a past life of Ānanda. He had been a king who abdicated his throne to become an ascetic, and the Bodhisatta too had done the same.
One day it transpired that the first ascetic—the future Ānanda—had a small store of salt to flavor his food, which went against the ascetic rule of poverty. The Bodhisatta reprimanded him thus: “You have let go of all the riches of your kingdom, but now you have started to store provisions again.” The ascetic became ill-humored because of that. He replied that one must not hurt the other person when reprimanding him; one must not be rough with one’s reproach, as if cutting with a blunt knife. The Bodhisatta replied: “Among friends it isn’t necessary to speak like a potter handling his unfired, i.e., very delicate, pots. A friend can also utter words of blame, because only through repeated exhortation and constant constructive criticism can one give a person the solidity of fired clay.”
Then the ascetic asked the Bodhisatta’s pardon and requested that the Bodhisatta should, out of compassion, always guide him further. The analogy of the clay pots—easily understandable in those days when pottery was a common trade—referred to sensitivity and touchiness. For a potter takes the raw, not quite dry, clay pot gently with both hands lest it should break. Then after firing he would repeatedly test it for flaws such as cracks or splits, and use it only if it is well baked. He would tap it again and again and only a sound one would stand the test. In the same way only a sound person, one with excellent qualities, would reach the path and fruit of arahantship. In that past life the reproach of the Bodhisatta was fruitful and brought Ānanda—the ascetic—to the Brahma realms. So it was also fruitful this time, in their final existence, because Ānanda accepted the criticism happily, was content with it, took it to heart, and followed it until he attained to the total destruction of suffering.
THE BUDDHA’S ATTENDANT
One of the virtues of Ānanda that established his fame was his conduct as the Buddha’s upaṭṭhāka, his personal attendant. The Buddha said of him that he was the best of all attendants, the foremost of all those monks who had ever filled this post (AN 1, chap. 14). The term “attendant” is actually not comprehensive enough to do full justice to the Venerable Ānanda’s position. Such designations as “secretary” or “adjutant” fail to express the most intimate aspects of his attendance, extending to many little items of personal assistance given to the Master, while the term “servant” omits the organizational and directing aspects, implies too great a degree of subordination, and again leaves out the aspect of intimacy. In three of his verses in the Theragāthā (1041–43), Ānanda sums up the way he served the Buddha through the last third of his life: For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One, I served him well with loving deeds Like a shadow that does not depart.
For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One, I served him well with loving speech Like a shadow that does not depart.
For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One, I served him well with loving thoughts Like a shadow that does not depart.
If we look in the world’s literature for examples of a great man’s confidant who accompanied him constantly, nowhere would we find one comparable to Ānanda. His loving attention to the Master over such a long period consisted of the following services: Ānanda brought the Buddha water for washing his face and tooth-wood for cleaning his teeth; he arranged his seat, washed his feet, massaged his back, fanned him, swept his cell, and mended his robes. He slept nearby at night to be always on hand. He accompanied him on his rounds through the monastery (Vin I 294) and after meetings he checked to see whether any monk had left anything behind. He carried the Buddha’s messages (Vin II 125) and called the monks together, even sometimes at midnight (J 148).
When the Buddha was sick, he obtained medicine for him. Once when monks neglected a very sick fellow monk, the Buddha and Ānanda washed him and together carried him to a resting place (Vin I 301–2). In this way Ānanda performed the many daily tasks and cared for the physical well-being of his enlightened cousin like a good mother or a caring wife. But above all, he also had the duties of a good secretary, facilitating the smooth communication between the thousands of monks and the Master. Together with Sāriputta and Moggallāna he tried to sort out, and attend to, the manifold problems of human relationships turning up in a community. In the case of the dispute of the monks of Kosambi (AN 4:241) and in the case of the schism in the Sangha through Devadatta (Ud 5:8 and Vin II 199 ff.)
Ānanda played the important role of clarifying doubts and keeping order. Often he was the gobetween for the monks, arranging for them an audience with the Master, or he brought the Buddha’s words to members of other sects. He refused no one and felt himself to be a bridge rather than a barrier. On several occasions the monks made a great deal of noise, so that the Buddha asked Ānanda about the reason for this. Ānanda was always able to explain it fully and the Buddha then took the appropriate action (MN 67; Ud 3:3; Vin IV 129). The last of these three occasions is significant. On behalf of the Buddha, Ānanda called the large group of noisy monks together, reproached them for their behaviour, and sent them away. Thereupon the group went into solitude and worked so diligently on the purification of their hearts that by the end of the rains retreat all of them had attained to the three true knowledges.
The Master then called them together once more. When they came into the presence of the Awakened One, he dwelt in imperturbable meditation. The monks realized the depth of their master’s meditation, sat down, and entered into the same absorption. After they had thus passed the first four hours of the night—truly the kind of “greeting” fit for holy ones—Ānanda got up and requested the Buddha to greet the monks who had arrived. Because all of them were in imperturbable meditation, no one could hear him. After a further four hours, Ānanda repeated his request. Again total silence answered him. And a third time, at dawn, Ānanda got up, prostrated before the Buddha, put his hands together, and requested a greeting for the monks.
Thereupon the Buddha came out of his meditation and answered Ānanda: “If, Ānanda, you were able to understand our minds, then you would have known that all of us had entered into imperturbable absorption, where words cannot penetrate” (Ud 3:3). This account serves to show the unerring patience Ānanda possessed, as well as his limitations. Such an occurrence may have contributed to Ānanda’s determination to practice meditation again and again, despite his many duties. The traditional texts speak of two occasions when he asked the Buddha for a meditation subject that he could practice in solitude. The Master told him on one occasion to concentrate on the five aggregates (SN 22:158), on the other to contemplate the six sense spheres (SN 35:86).
Among the many things which Ānanda requested from the Buddha for others, the following may be mentioned: When the monks Girimānanda and Phagguna were sick, Ānanda asked the Exalted One to visit them and strengthen them with talk on the Dhamma (AN 10:60, 6:58). It was also Ānanda who asked the Buddha—on Anāthapiṇḍika’s suggestion—to have a shrine erected in the Jetavana monastery (J 479). In these and many other ways Ānanda showed himself to be a solicitous monk who combined maternal and paternal qualities. His ability for organization, negotiation, and arrangements had already been manifested earlier, when—in a past life—he fulfilled a similar function for the king of the devas, Sakka. In the few instances when Ānanda’s past lives in the deva- and Brahma-worlds are mentioned, it always related to those lives in which he held the position of a main helper and adjutant of Sakka; particularly as the heavenly charioteer Mātali (in four cases, J 31, 469, 535, 541), or as a deva such as the heavenly architect Vissakamma (489), or the rain god Pajjunna (75), or the five-crested celestial musician Pañcasikha (450).
Especially worth mentioning is Ānanda’s willingness to sacrifice himself. When Devadatta let loose a wild elephant to kill the Buddha, Ānanda threw himself in front of the Buddha, ready to die himself rather than let the Blessed One be killed or injured. Three times the Buddha asked him to step back, but he did not comply. Only when the Master moved him gently from the spot through supernatural powers could he be dissuaded from his intention to sacrifice himself (J 533). This action of Ānanda spread his fame even further. The Buddha told the other monks that already in four former lives Ānanda had shown himself equally willing to sacrifice himself. Even in the distant past as an animal—as a swan (502, 533, 534) or a gazelle (501)—he had stayed with the Bodhisatta when he had been caught in a trap. In another case the Bodhisatta first sacrificed himself for his monkey mother, then Ānanda (222). And in three other recorded cases, Ānanda—in his former rebirths—saved the life of the Buddha-to-be through his care and skill. These stories amplify the virtues of Ānanda and his age-old association with the Buddha.
THE GUARDIAN OF THE DHAMMA Among the disciples whom the Buddha declared pre-eminent, the Venerable Ānanda had the unique distinction of being pronounced preeminent in five qualities. All the other leading disciples excelled in only one category—or, in the case of two monks, in two—but Ānanda was declared the bhikkhu disciple who was foremost in five categories: 1. of those who had “heard much,” i.e., who had learned much of the Buddha’s discourses (bahussutānaṃ): 2. of those who had a good memory (satimantānaṃ): 3. of those who had mastery over the sequential structure of the teachings (gatimantānaṃ): 4. of those who were steadfast in study, etc. (dhitimantānaṃ): and 5. of the Buddha’s attendants (upaṭṭhakānaṃ). On examination one can see that these five qualities all stem from mindfulness (sati). Mindfulness is power of the mind and power of memory, mastery over recollections and ideas. It is the faculty of using the mind at any time, as one wishes, as its master. In short, mindfulness is circumspection and orderliness, self-restraint, control, and selfdiscipline. In a narrower sense, sati is the ability to remember.
Ānanda had this ability to a phenomenal degree. He could immediately remember everything, even if he had heard it only once. He could repeat discourses of the Buddha flawlessly up to sixty thousand words, without leaving out a single syllable. He was able to recite fifteen thousand four-line stanzas of the Buddha. It may sound incredible to us that anyone could accomplish such a feat. But the reason our own memories are so limited is that we encumber our minds with a hundred thousand useless things which hinder us from becoming master over our memory. The Buddha once said that the only reason one forgets anything is the presence of one or all of the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, lethargy and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt (AN 5:193).
Because Ānanda was one in the higher training, he was able to let go of these hindrances at will and so could concentrate completely on what he heard. Because he did not want anything for himself, he absorbed the discourses without resistance or distortion, arranged them properly, knew what belonged together, recognized within different expressions the common denominator, and like a faithful and skilled registrar could find his way around in the dark corridors of memory.
All these factors enter into the quality of “having heard much.” He who has heard much in this sense has discarded willfulness and has become a vessel of truth. He has heard much truth, and that means that he has erased all untruth in himself. Such a one is “born from the mouth” of the Teacher, is truly trained, because he let himself be shaped by the Teaching of the Enlightened One. Hence he who has heard much is the one who is most humble and a most sincere champion of truth. Everything good which he carries in his mind and upon which he acts, he does not ascribe to his own ability but to the Dhamma, which he has heard from his teacher. Such a person is truly humble. This quality of listening well and training the mind is named as the first of the five specific abilities of Ānanda, and it is recorded that all his disciples, too, were devoted to learning (SN 14:15).
But the Buddha said it would not be easy to find one who equalled Ānanda in this respect (AN 3:78). When Ānanda was asked by Sāriputta as to which monk could lend radiance to the Gosiṅga sāla-tree forest,7 he answered thus: The monk is one who has heard much, who remembers what he has heard, who treasures what he has heard. As to those teachings that are good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end, and transmit word by word and in the right way the completely purified life of holiness: all this he has heard much of, bears in mind, has familiarized himself with by verbal recitation, has examined with his mind, and penetrated thoroughly by view. He speaks on the Dhamma to the four kinds of listeners, in whole and in part and in the right context to bring them to the final eradication of the underlying defilements. (MN 32)
The second quality, sati or mindfulness, in this context means the retention in mind of the discourses heard and their application to one’s own self-inquiry. For the third quality, gati, widely differing renderings have been proposed by translators, but according to the ancient commentary it refers to the capacity to perceive in the mind the internal connection and coherence of a discourse. This Ānanda was able to do because he understood well the meaning and significance of the teaching concerned, with all its implications. Hence, even when his recitation was interrupted by a question, he was able to resume the recital exactly at the point where he had broken off. The fourth quality was his steadfastness (dhiti), his energy and unflagging dedication to the tasks of studying, memorizing, and reciting the Buddha’s words and of personally attending on the Master. The fifth and last quality was that of a perfect attendant, which was described earlier.
These five qualities in unison qualified Ānanda for his special role within the Buddha’s Dispensation, that of the Guardian of the Dhamma (dhammabhaṇḍāgārika). Within a political state the bhaṇḍāgārika is the treasurer, the one responsible for storing, preserving, protecting, and dispensing the national wealth. If the treasurer is inept and irresponsible, the state’s revenue will decline and the nation will plunge into bankruptcy and disaster. If the treasurer is astute, the national wealth will be wisely utilized and the nation will enjoy prosperity and peace.
In the Buddha’s Dispensation the wealth is the teachings, and the health and longevity of the Dispensation, especially after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, required that these teachings be carefully preserved and faithfully transmitted to posterity. The post of treasurer of the Dhamma therefore was of immense importance, so much so that the one who held it, by maintaining intact the Buddha’s Teaching within the world, could rightly call himself “the eye of the entire world”: If one wishes to understand the Dhamma, One should resort to such a one, Who is of great learning, a bearer of Dhamma, A wise disciple of the Buddha.
Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma, The guardian of the Great Seer’s treasure, He is the eye of the entire world, Deserving worship, of great learning. (Th 1030–31)
In selecting Ānanda as the treasurer or guardian of his Dispensation, the Buddha had chosen one whose personal qualities coincided perfectly with the demands of the post. By virtue of his devotion to learning, Ānanda was ideally suited to receive the manifold teachings delivered over a forty-five year period; by virtue of his phenomenal memory, he could retain them in mind exactly as spoken by the Master; by virtue of his sense of order, he could be relied on to preserve them in the correct sequence and to explain them in such a way that the structure of ideas accorded with the Buddha’s intention; and by virtue of his steadfastness, he would so endeavor that the pupils under his charge would receive the teachings fully and be properly trained so that they in turn could pass them on to their own pupils.
Buddhist tradition specifies the number of recitation units (dhammakkhandha), lit. “aggregates of Dhamma”) in the Buddha’s Teaching as eighty-four thousand, and in one verse Ānanda claims to have received them all: I received from the Buddha 82,000, And from the bhikkhus 2,000 more. Thus there are 84,000 units, Teachings that are set in motion. (Th 1024) Because of his key position among the Buddha’s entourage of monks, Ānanda was naturally the focus of much attention, and he had to deal with a great number of people. To all those who came into contact with him, he was a model in his blameless conduct, in his untiring solicitude for the Master and for the community of monks, in his unperturbable friendliness, his patience, and his readiness to help. Some potential conflicts did not even arise in his presence, and those that did arise were mitigated and resolved through his influence.
Ānanda, as a man without enemies, made a strong and deep impact upon others through his exemplary conduct as well as through his instructions. His image, as the Buddha’s faithful companion, left particularly strong traces in the minds of his contemporaries. Ānanda was always master of a situation, and like a king he had a sovereign comprehension of affairs. Therefore, thanks to his circumspection, he could handle and organize whatever occurred in the daily life of the Buddha and the Sangha. Through the extraordinary power of his memory, he was able to learn from his experiences and never repeat the same mistakes, as most people are liable to do again and again due to their weak memory. Hence he could remember people well, though he may have met them only once, and he could therefore deal with them suitably, without leaving the impression that he manipulated them. His circumspection accorded with the facts of a situation so naturally that all reasonable people could only agree with him.
ĀNANDA’S ATTITUDE TOWARD WOMEN
Because of his natural kindliness and compassionate concern, Ānanda was especially solicitous for the welfare of all four classes of disciples, not only monks and laymen, but also nuns and laywomen. Without Ānanda, in fact, there might have been only three kinds of disciples, for he was the one who was instrumental in the founding of the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the order of nuns, as reported in the Vinaya Piṭaka (Vin II 253 ff.; also AN 8:51).
When many nobles of the Sakyan clan had left the household life for the homeless state under their illustrious kinsman, their wives, sisters, and daughters also expressed the desire to live a life of renunciation under the Enlightened One. A number of Sakyan women, under the guidance of the Buddha’s stepmother Mahāpajāpati Gotamī, approached the Buddha and appealed to him to establish a Bhikkhunī Sangha. Three times Mahāpajāpati voiced her request, but three times the Buddha replied: “Do not be eager, Gotamī, to obtain the going forth of women from home into homelessness in the Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata.”
When he had finished his stay in Kapilavatthu, accompanied by the bhikkhus, the Buddha left for Vesālī, a distance of several hundred miles. Mahāpajāpati, along with several other Sakyan women, followed close behind. On arrival she stood outside the gate of the monastery “her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, with tearful face and crying.” When Ānanda saw her in this condition and asked about the reason for her sorrow, she replied that the Master had three times rejected her request for the establishment of an order of nuns.8 Out of compassion Ānanda decided to intercede. He went to the Master and repeated her request three times, but each time the Buddha discouraged him: “Do not be eager, Ānanda, to obtain the going forth of women from home into homelessness in the Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata.” Then Ānanda decided to use an indirect method.
He asked the Master: “Is a woman able to gain the fruit of stream-entry, or of once-returning, or of non-returning, or of arahantship, if she leaves the household life and enters into homelessness in the Dhamma and Discipline of the Tathāgata?” The Buddha affirmed this. Thereupon Ānanda rephrased his request: “If a woman is able to do this, Lord—and moreover Mahāpajāpati Gotamī has rendered great service to the Blessed One: she is his aunt, his governess, and nurse, nourished him with her own milk after his mother died—therefore it would be good if the Blessed One would allow women to leave home for the homeless life in the Dhamma and Discipline of the Tathāgata.” Ānanda here brought forth two arguments. First, he appealed to the fact that a woman in the Order could gain the highest fruit and become an arahant, a goal that can be attained only very rarely in the household life. Second, he brought up the very personal element of the meritorious services that Mahāpajāpati had rendered the Buddha in his childhood, which would be a good reason for him to help his stepmother now to gain final liberation.
In response to these arguments the Buddha agreed to the establishment of an order of nuns, provided certain precautions and rules were followed. One might gain the impression from this account that it needed Ānanda’s clever arguments and keen tenacity to change the Buddha’s mind. But an Awakened One’s mind cannot be changed, because he is always in touch with absolute reality. What happened here was solely the same event which all Buddhas encounter, because all of them have established an order of nuns. The whole incident was not meant to prevent the founding of the female branch of the Order, but only to strengthen by that hesitation the message that this brought great dangers with it. For this reason, the Buddha stipulated eight conditions, which were so selected that only the best women would agree to abide by them. They also served to bring about a separation of the sexes in the Order in the most prudent manner possible.
In spite of this, the Exalted One declared that because of the founding of the order of nuns the Dispensation would last only five hundred years instead of a full thousand years.9 Following the Buddha’s proclamation of the rules and regulations for nuns, Ānanda asked him about the qualities a monk should have to be a teacher of nuns. The Buddha did not reply that he had to be an arahant, but indicated eight practical and concrete qualities, which someone like Ānanda, who was not yet an arahant, could also possess. These eight qualities were, first, the teacher of nuns must be virtuous; second, he must have comprehensive knowledge of the Dhamma; third, he must be well acquainted with the Vinaya, especially the rules for nuns; fourth, he must be a good speaker with a pleasant and fluent delivery, faultless in pronunciation and intelligibly conveying the meaning; fifth, he should be able to teach Dhamma to the nuns in an elevating, stimulating, and encouraging way; sixth, he must always be welcome to the nuns and liked by them—that is, they must be able to respect and esteem him not only when he praises them but especially when there is an occasion for reproach; seventh, he must never have committed sexual misconduct with a nun; eighth, he must have been a fully ordained Buddhist monk for at least twenty years (AN 8:52). Since Ānanda had been instrumental in the founding of the order of nuns, he now also wanted to help them to advance on the noble path. This brought about some difficulties for him.
There were two occasions in which nuns stood up for him without justification against the Venerable Mahākassapa. Both nuns left the Order; they showed thereby that they were no longer able to sustain the necessary impersonal and purely spiritual relationship with their teacher, Ānanda.
Even more extreme was the case of a nun in Kosambi, whose name is not recorded. She sent a messenger to Ānanda, asking him to visit her, as she was sick. In reality she had fallen in love with Ānanda and wanted to seduce him. Ānanda mastered the situation with complete aplomb. In his sermon to her he explained that this body had arisen because of nutrition, craving, and pride. But, he said, one could use these three as means for purification. Supported by nutrition, one could transcend nutrition. Supported by craving, one could transcend craving. Supported by pride, one could transcend pride. The monk consumed such nutriment as would enable him to lead the holy life. He sublimated his craving and was supported by his longing for holiness. And pride spurred him on to reach what others had already attained, namely, the destruction of all defilements. In this way he could, in due course, transcend nutrition, craving, and pride.
But there was a fourth cause for the arising of the body—sexual intercourse— which was an entirely different matter. This had been called the destruction of the bridge to Nibbāna by the Blessed One. In no way could its sublimation be used as a path to holiness. Thereupon the nun got up from her bed, prostrated before Ānanda, confessed her offense, and asked for forgiveness. Ānanda accepted the confession and declared that in the Order it was an advantage to confess one’s faults and to restrain oneself thereafter (AN 4:159). This incident is an excellent example of Ānanda’s great skill in giving a suitable Dhamma discourse on the spur of the moment, in finding the right word at the right time.
Another incident happened with regard to the wives of King Pasenadi. Despite their keen desire to learn the Dhamma, they could not go to the monastery to hear the Buddha preach. As the king’s women they were confined to the harem like birds in a cage, and that was really a disaster for them. They went to the king and asked him to request the Buddha to send a monk to the palace to teach them the Dhamma. The king, having promised, asked his wives which monk they would prefer. They discussed the issue among themselves and unanimously requested the king to ask Ānanda, the Guardian of the Dhamma, to come and teach them. The Blessed One complied with the request presented to him by the king and from then on Ānanda regularly went to teach the Dhamma to the women (Vin IV 157–58). One day during this period one of the crown jewels was stolen. Everything was searched and the women felt very troubled by the situation.
Because of this they were not as attentive and eager to learn as usual. Ānanda asked them the reason and when he heard it, out of compassion he went to the king and advised him to summon all the suspects and give them an opportunity to return the jewel unobtrusively. He should have a tent erected in the courtyard of the palace, put a large pot of water inside, and have everyone enter alone. So it was done, and the jewel thief, alone in the tent, let the jewel drop into the pot. Thereby the king regained his property, the thief went unpunished, and peace reigned once again in the palace. This incident increased Ānanda’s popularity even more and thereby the popularity of the Sakyan monks. The monks also praised Ānanda, as he had restored peace through gentle means (J 92).
Shortly before the Buddha passed away, Ānanda asked him a question concerning women: “How shall we relate to women, Lord?” “Do not look at them.” “But if we see one, Lord?” “Do not address her.” “But if one talks to us?” “Keep to mindfulness and self-control.” (DN 16) This question was posed by Ānanda in view of the imminent demise of the Master, just prior to the preparations for the funeral. This problem must therefore have been an important one for him. He himself did not need an admonition to practice self-control, for he had overcome sensual desire for twenty-five years. But again and again he had seen how the problem of the relationship between the sexes stirred up tumultuous emotions, and he must have known too, from his discussions with the younger monks, how difficult it was to lead the perfectly pure and stainless holy life aimed at the transcendence of sensuality. He may also have had in mind the Buddha’s warning that the Dispensation was endangered through the foundation of the nun’s order and he may have wanted to give his contemporaries—and successors—a last word of the Buddha on this topic.
ĀNANDA AND HIS FELLOW MONKS Of all the monks, the Venerable Sāriputta was Ānanda’s closest friend. There does not seem to have been a close relationship between Ānanda and his half-brother Anuruddha, because the latter preferred solitude while Ānanda was fond of people. Sāriputta was the disciple who most resembled the Master, and with whom he could talk in the same way as with the Buddha. It is remarkable that of all the monks only Sāriputta and Ānanda received honorary titles from the Buddha: Sāriputta was called the marshal of the Dhamma (dhammasenāpati) and Ānanda its guardian or treasurer (dhammabhaṇḍāgārika). One can see their complementary roles in this. Sāriputta, the lion, was the active teacher, Ānanda more the preserver and treasurer.
In certain respects, Ānanda’s methods resembled more those of Mahāmoggallāna, whose inclinations were also motherly and preserving. Ānanda and Sāriputta often worked together as a team. They went twice to visit the sick lay supporter Anāthapiṇḍika (MN 143; SN 55:26) and dealt with the dispute of the monks of Kosambi (AN 4:221). They also had many Dhamma discussions with each other. So close was their friendship that when Sāriputta attained final Nibbāna, Ānanda, even despite all his training in meditation, felt almost as if he had fallen into an abyss: All the quarters have become dim, The teachings are not clear to me; Indeed my noble friend has gone And everything is cast in darkness. (Th 1034) His body felt drained of strength and even the sustenance of the Dhamma seemed to have deserted him at that moment—such was the impact of the death message.
Then the Buddha consoled him. He asked Ānanda to reflect whether Sāriputta had taken from him his own virtue, meditation, wisdom, liberation, or the knowledge of liberation. Ānanda had to agree that these, the only important aspects, had not changed. But, he added, Sāriputta had been such a helpful companion and friend for him and others. Again the Buddha directed the conversation to a higher level by reminding Ānanda of what he, the Buddha, had always taught: that nothing that has arisen can remain forever. The death of Sāriputta was, for the other disciples, like cutting off the main branch of a large tree. But that should only be another reason for relying on oneself, on no one else, and for being one’s own island and refuge (SN 47:13).
Many discussions that Ānanda had with other monks are also recorded. Only a few can be related here. One day the Venerable Vaṅgisa accompanied Ānanda to the king’s palace, where Ānanda was to teach the Dhamma to the women of the harem. Vaṅgisa, it seems, had a strong streak of sensuality in his character, and when he saw the beautiful palace women dressed up in all their finery his heart was flooded with sensual desire. Suddenly he felt the celibate life of a monk, to which he had taken so readily, as oppressive as a lead weight, and thoughts of disrobing and indulging in sensual pleasures played havoc with his mind. As soon as they could speak in private, Vaṅgisa explained his plight to Ānanda and appealed for his help and guidance. As he was the foremost poet in the Sangha he spoke in verse, addressing Ānanda by his clan name, Gotama: I am burning with sensual lust, My mind is all engulfed by fire. Please tell me how to extinguish it, Out of compassion, O Gotama. And Ānanda replied in verse: It is due to an inversion of perception That your mind is engulfed by fire. Turn away from the sign of beauty, The aspect linked to sensual lust.
See constructions as alien, See them as suffering, not as self. Extinguish the mighty fire of lust; Do not burn up again and again.
Develop meditation on the foul, With mind one-pointed, well concentrated; Let your mindfulness dwell upon the body, Be engrossed in disenchantment.
Develop the signless meditation, Discard the tendency to conceit. Then, by breaking through conceit, You will fare with heart at peace. (SN 8:4; see also Th 1223–26)
Ānanda showed Vaṅgisa that he constantly refuelled sensual desire because his perception fastened upon the superficial appearance of feminine charm. The fascination with beauty gave rise to a feeling of deprivation, which manifested as weariness of mind and as a kind of aversion toward the ascetic life. Therefore Vaṅgisa had to contemplate soberly those things that seemed beautiful and desirable. With the scalpel of meditative insight he had to dissect the body and probe beneath its charming exterior in order to see the wretchedness and misery lying within. In this way his lust would fade away and he would be able to stand up, strong and invincible, amid the enticements of worldly enjoyment.
The monk Channa was plagued with doubts about the Dhamma. During the Buddha’s lifetime he had been an obdurate bhikkhu, selfwilled and difficult to train, but after the Master’s Parinibbāna he was filled with a compelling sense of urgency. Though he humbly sought instructions from the other monks, he could not make satisfactory progress. He could understand that the five aggregates are impermanent, but when he tried to contemplate the principle of nonself he came to a standstill, stricken with the fearful thought that Nibbāna would be the destruction of his precious ego. So he came for advice to Ānanda. Ānanda first expressed his joy that Channa had relinquished his obstinacy and was earnestly intent on understanding the Dhamma. Channa was delighted and listened with undivided attention to Ānanda’s exposition of the Buddha’s discourse to Kaccānagotta (SN 12:15) on transcending the extremes of being and non-being. By the end of Ānanda’s explanation, Channa had arrived at the path and fruit of stream-entry. Thereupon he exclaimed how wonderful it was to have such wise friends as teachers. He had at last become securely established in the Dhamma (SN 22:90).
CONVERSATIONS WITH THE BUDDHA
If one also considers as conversations the silent, inner rapport with a Dhamma discourse, then the whole Sutta Piṭaka actually consists of Ānanda’s conversations with the Buddha. He was almost always present when the Buddha gave a discourse, and those few talks that the Blessed One gave when Ānanda was absent he repeated for him afterwards. The Buddha often addressed the Venerable Ānanda with questions on the teachings, which were either meant for Ānanda’s spiritual growth or gave the occasion for a discourse to all the monks present. It is always more stimulating for the listeners when two experts discuss a subject with each other, rather than when only one speaks.
In this way many of the conversations between the Buddha and Ānanda are discourses for the instruction of others. Several times the Buddha created the special occasion for a discourse by smiling when he came to a certain locality. Ānanda knew that a Fully Enlightened One does not smile without cause, and he understood immediately that there was reason for a question. So he asked the Awakened One why he had smiled. Thereupon the Master gave a detailed explanation of an incident in the past, a Jātaka story, which had taken place at that locality.
The conversations in which the Venerable Ānanda took the initiative by asking a question are far more numerous than the ones the Buddha initiated. For instance, Ānanda asked whether there was a fragrance which went against the wind, different from that of flowers and blossoms. The answer was: the fragrance of one who has taken the Triple Refuge and who is virtuous and generous (AN 3:79). Another time Ānanda asked how one could live happily in the Order. The answer was: if one is virtuous oneself but does not blame others for lack of virtue; if one watches oneself but not others; if one does not worry about lack of fame; if one can obtain the four meditative absorptions without difficulty; and finally if one becomes an arahant. So here the first step on the path to holiness is mentioned as not criticizing or watching others, but only making demands on oneself (AN 5:106). Ānanda asked, “What is the purpose and blessing of virtue?” And the Buddha answered, “To be free of self-reproach and feelings of guilt and to enjoy a clear conscience.”
But Ānanda asked further, “What is the purpose and blessing of a clear conscience?” The Buddha replied: “It brings joy in wholesome thoughts and actions, happiness with the progress made, and gives an incentive for further striving.” “And what results from that?” “One experiences exultation in one’s heart, is drawn towards the good and perfect bliss, and from that results deep calm and insight” (AN 10:1). In this way Ānanda inquired about many aspects of the Dhamma. Sometimes Ānanda reported certain views of his to the Buddha so that the Master could either accept them or correct them. For instance, one time he approached the Buddha and said, “It seems to me, Lord, that good friendship is half of the holy life.” Unexpectedly the Buddha disagreed: “Do not speak thus, Ānanda! Noble friendship is more than half the holy life. It is the entire holy life!”
For what would the holy life be like if they had not all come to the Buddha, as their best friend, to be shown the right way? (SN 45:2). The best-known remark of Ānanda must surely be the assertion with which he opens the Mahānidāna Suttanta (Great Discourse on Causation; DN 15): “Dependent origination (paṭicca-samuppāda), Lord, is very profound, but to me it seems as clear as clear can be.” Again the Buddha disagreed: “Not so, Ānanda, not so! This dependent origination is profound and appears profound; it is truly very difficult to penetrate. Because they have not understood and penetrated this one principle, beings are caught on the wheel of birth and death and cannot find the means to freedom.”
And then the Buddha explained to Ānanda dependent origination in its manifold aspects. Once Ānanda saw an archer perform extraordinary feats. He told the Buddha how much this had impressed him—and coming from the warrior caste, Ānanda must have been temperamentally disposed to appreciate such displays of martial skill. The Buddha used this statement to draw an analogy. He said it was more difficult to understand and penetrate the Four Noble Truths than to hit and penetrate with an arrow a hair split seven times (SN 56:45). Another report says that Ānanda once saw the famous brahmin Jāṇussoṇi, a disciple of the Buddha, driving along in his glorious white chariot. He heard the people exclaim that the brahmin’s chariot was the most beautiful of all. Ānanda reported this to the Buddha and asked him how one could describe the best chariot according to the Dhamma. The Buddha explained the vehicle to Nibbāna by means of a detailed simile: Faith and wisdom are the draught-animals, moral shame the brake, intellect the reins, mindfulness the charioteer, virtue the accessories, meditation the axle, energy the wheels, equanimity the balance, renunciation the chassis; the weapons are love, harmlessness, and solitude, and patience is its armour (SN 45:4).
ĀNANDA’S FORMER LIVES
Ānanda’s original aspiration to great discipleship was formed under the Buddha Padumuttara, one hundred thousand aeons in the past.13 The Buddha Padumuttara was the son of King Nanda, who dwelt in the royal city of Haṃsavati. His younger brother was the Crown Prince Sumanakumāra, who reigned over a fiefdom given to him by his father. Once, while the Buddha was dwelling at the capital with a retinue of one hundred thousand monks, Sumanakumāra went at his father’s behest to suppress a rebellion in the border region. When he returned to the capital his father offered him a boon, and the prince choose to conduct the Buddha and his Sangha to his own city and attend on them for the three months of the rains retreat. The prince had been extremely impressed by the Buddha’s personal attendant, a monk named Sumana, and observed him closely during the rainy season. At the end of the three-month period, during which he had provided the Buddha and the Sangha with all their requirements and attended on them with great devotion, he prostrated himself at the Master’s feet and dedicated his merits to the future attainment of the post of personal attendant under a Fully Enlightened One.
The Buddha looked into the future and told him that his aspiration would come to fulfilment during the Dispensation of the Buddha Gotama, one hundred thousand aeons in the future. From that day on, it is said, Sumanakumāra felt as if he were already walking behind the Buddha Gotama carrying his bowl and extra robe. In the Jātaka stories we often find prominent characters identified as earlier incarnations of Ānanda. What is most striking in these tales is Ānanda’s extremely intimate connection with the Bodhisatta, the future Buddha Gotama. Often he is the Bodhisatta’s brother, son, father, assistant, colleague, and friend. The three examples of former lives given here stress his own exertions to perfect his virtue. A complete survey of his former lives would show that he was only seldom a deva or an animal; most often he was a human being.
In this respect he contrasts with Anuruddha, who almost always appears as a deva, and with Devadatta, who appears most often as an animal.
Ānanda and the Bodhisatta were born as cousins among the outcasts or caṇḍālas. Their job was the fumigation of malodorous places. In order to escape the contempt they were held in, they disguised themselves as young brahmins and went to the university at Takkasilā to study. Their deceit was discovered and they were beaten up by their fellow students. A wise and kindly man ordered the students to stop and advised the two caṇḍālas to become ascetics. They followed this advice, in due course died, and as punishment for their deceit, were reborn as animals, as offspring of a doe. They were inseparable and died together by the arrow of a hunter. In the next life they were sea hawks and again died together because of a hunter. With this, their existences below the human level came to an end. Ānanda was born as the son of a king and the Bodhisatta as the son of the royal chaplain.
While Ānanda held the higher position in a worldly sense, the Bodhisatta had more innate abilities; for one thing, he could remember all the above three lives, while Ānanda could only remember his life as a caṇḍāla. At the age of sixteen, the Bodhisatta became a sincerely striving ascetic while Ānanda became king. Later the Bodhisatta visited the king. He praised the happiness of asceticism and explained the unsatisfactoriness of the world of the senses. Ānanda admitted that he realized this but could not let go of his desires, to which he was held fast like an elephant in a swamp. Thereupon the Bodhisatta advised him that even as a king he could practice virtue, for instance, by not levying unjust taxes and by supporting ascetics and priests. But when hot passions arose in him, he should remember his mother: how he had been completely helpless as a baby, and how without his mother’s care he would never have become king. Thereupon Ānanda resolved to become an ascetic, and both attained to the Brahma-world.
The Bodhisatta had been born as a poor laborer and endeavored to keep the Uposatha.14 As the fruit of this he was reborn as a king. Ānanda lived in his kingdom as a poor water-carrier. His whole fortune consisted of a coin which he had hidden under a stone in a certain place. When the people in the city held a festival, the water-carrier’s wife urged him to enjoy himself too and asked him whether he had any money. He said he had one coin but it was twelve miles away. She told him to get it and said she had saved up the same amount. They could buy garlands, incense, and drinks with that. Ānanda set out in spite of the midday heat, happy in the expectation of enjoying the festival. When he passed through the courtyard of the king’s palace he sang a song.
The king saw him and asked the reason for his joyfulness. He answered that he did not notice the heat, as he was being driven by hot desire, and told his story. The king asked how much his treasure amounted to: maybe one hundred thousand pieces? When he finally heard that it was only one coin, he exclaimed that Ānanda should not walk through the heat but that he would give him a similar coin. Ānanda replied that he was very grateful because then he would have two coins. The king then offered him two coins but Ānanda said he would fetch his own coin nevertheless. The king now became excited and raised his offer to millions, to the post of viceroy, but Ānanda would not let go of his coin. Only when the king offered him half his kingdom did he agree.
The kingdom was divided up, and Ānanda was called King One-Coin. One day the two kings went hunting. When they became tired, the Bodhisatta put his head in the lap of his friend and fell asleep. Then the thought came to Ānanda to kill the king and rule the whole kingdom by himself. He was drawing his sword when he remembered how grateful he—a poor yokel—should be to the king, and how wicked it was of him to allow such a wish to arise. He put his sword back in its sheath, but even a second and a third time he was overcome by the same desire. Feeling that this thought might rise in him again and again and could lead him on to very evil deeds, he threw away his sword, woke the king, prostrated before him, and asked his forgiveness. The Bodhisatta forgave him and said he could have the whole kingdom; he himself would be satisfied to serve as viceroy under him. But Ānanda replied that he was finished with his lust for power: he wanted to become an ascetic. He had seen the cause of desire and how it grew, and now he wanted to pull it out by the roots. He went to the Himalayas and practiced meditation. The Bodhisatta remained in the world.
The Bodhisatta was a righteous king of Benares who practiced the royal virtues: he gave alms, followed the precepts, and observed the Uposatha days. Now one of his ministers carried on an intrigue in his harem. When he was caught, the gentle king waived the death penalty, only banishing him and allowing him to take his family and fortune along. The minister then went to live at a neighboring king’s court. He became the king’s confidant and told him he could easily occupy Benares, because its king was much too gentle. But the neighboring king, Ānanda, was suspicious, because he knew well the strength and power of Benares.
The minister advised him to experiment. He should destroy one village of Benares. If any of his men were caught, the king would probably even reward the prisoners. True enough, when the marauders were brought before the Bodhisatta and lamented that they had plundered out of hunger, he gave them money. This served to convince Ānanda of the truth of the treacherous minister’s words, and he marched into Benares. The commander-inchief of the Bodhisatta’s army wanted to defend the kingdom, but the Bodhisatta said that he did not want to be the cause of harm for others. If the other king wanted his kingdom, he should have it. He let Ānanda capture him and put him into prison. There he practiced loving-kindness meditation toward the rapacious King Ānanda, who was struck down by a fever and plagued by a guilty conscience. Ānanda asked the Bodhisatta’s pardon, returned his kingdom to him, and swore to be his ally forever. The Bodhisatta returned to his throne and spoke to his ministers about the virtues and rewards of harmlessness, saying that because he had made peace with the invaders, hundreds were spared death on the battlefield. Then he renounced his throne, became an ascetic, and attained to the Brahma-world. Ānanda, however, remained king.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE BUDDHA
The single most important sutta highlighting Ānanda’s relationship to the Buddha is the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16), the chronicle of the Buddha’s last days and ultimate entrance into Nibbāna.15 These records convey a special mood, the mood of parting, which was especially painful for Ānanda. It is also the first small beginning of the decline of the Dhamma, which will gradually disappear with increased distance from the Buddha’s lifetime until a new Buddha arises. This entire text gives, as it were, voice to the admonition to practice the Dhamma while there is still a chance. It reflects once more Ānanda’s whole character, and therefore we will follow its course, emphasizing those passages in which the spotlight falls on Ānanda.
The first section of the sutta starts at Rājagaha, the capital of the state of Magadha. Devadatta’s attempt to create a schism in the Sangha had failed seven years earlier. King Ajātasattu still reigned in Magadha. King Pasenadi of Kosala had just been overthrown and the Sakyan clan had come to its tragic end in which many of Ānanda’s close relatives were killed. At that time, three famous warrior clans lived north of the river Ganges, near the Himalayas. They were the Koliyas, the Mallas, and the Vajjians, all of whom had retained relative independence from King Ajātasattu. He had the intention of destroying the Vajjians and incorporating their land into his growing empire.
While the Buddha could not prevent the ruin of those Sakyans who had not entered the Order, as they had to pay a kammic debt, he did help the Vajjians and later indirectly also the Mallas. This is the external “political” background of the last years of the Buddha’s life. In detail, this incident happened as follows. King Ajātasattu gave orders to his minister, Vassakāra, to go to the Buddha and announce his intention to enter into battle against the Vajjians. While Vassakāra delivered his message, the Venerable Ānanda was standing behind the Buddha fanning him. The Enlightened One turned to Ānanda and put seven questions to him about the lifestyle and conditions of the Vajjians. In reply to these questions Ānanda declared that the Vajjians often had council meetings and deliberated harmoniously, did not repeal their old laws, followed the advice of their elders, did not rape women, honoured their temples and shrines and did not revoke gifts to religious places, and gave protection and hospitality to all true priests and ascetics.
With these seven qualities, said the Buddha, one could expect prosperity for the Vajjians, not decline. Sometime earlier the Buddha had given them these seven rules. The king’s minister replied that even one of these qualities would be enough to ensure their continued existence as a clan. As long as the Vajjians kept to these seven rules, it would be impossible for the king to conquer them, except through inner dissension or treachery. Vassakāra left with this conviction in mind and reported to the king that it would be useless to start a war against the Vajjians. Indians in those days had so much confidence in the spiritual strength of a people that the hint of moral superiority was sufficient to prevent a war. Only much later, after the demise of the Buddha, was it possible for the king to overrun the Vajjians, and this only because they had meanwhile forsaken their moral integrity. This highly political discussion was used by the Buddha as an occasion to request Ānanda to call all the monks of the area together.
He would give them an exhortation about seven things that would enable the Sangha to flourish: “The bhikkhus should assemble frequently, and should conduct their affairs amicably; they should not make new rules but obey the old ones; they should honour the elders of the Sangha and give heed to their advice; they should resist craving, enjoy solitude, and practice mindfulness at all times, so that like-minded persons would be attracted and those who were already living the holy life would be happy.”
After the Buddha had addressed the monks in this way, he gave them the following terse summary of the Teaching, which recurs many times throughout this narrative: “Such is virtue, such is concentration, such is wisdom. Concentration fortified with virtue brings great benefits and great fruits. Wisdom fortified with concentration brings great benefits and great fruits. The mind fortified with wisdom is liberated from all cankers, namely, from the canker of sensual desire, the canker of desire for becoming, and the canker of ignorance.” After this exhortation, the Buddha commenced his last journey. He always went to places where there were people ready to understand the Dhamma, or where misunderstandings needed to be sorted out, or where brute force could be prevented. On this last journey he went first in the direction of the Ganges River to Nālandā, which later became a famous Buddhist educational centre.
This town was near Sāriputta’s birthplace, and here Sāriputta took leave of the Buddha: he wanted to stay behind and teach the Dhamma to his mother before he attained final Nibbāna.16 When saying farewell, this great disciple voiced once more the Buddha’s praise: “It is clear to me, Lord, that there is no one more distinguished in wisdom than yourself.” Then the Awakened One went with a large company of monks to Vesālī. This town was the capital of the Vajjians, whose virtue he had praised, and from whom he had averted the threat of King Ajātasattu’s attack. At Vesālī he fell ill with a deadly disease, which he suppressed by sheer willpower, as he did not want to die without having assembled the disciples once more. That a Buddha can become ill is due to the imperfection of the body, but that he can master the illness at will is due to his spiritual perfection. Ānanda had been despondent over the Buddha’s illness, so dejected that he could not think properly. He told the Buddha that he had found consolation in the fact that surely the Awakened One would not attain final Nibbāna without having given some regulations about the Order to the monks.
But the Buddha rejected this: “What more does the Sangha expect from me, Ānanda? I have taught the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine. There is nothing that the Tathāgata holds back with the closed fist of a teacher. Whoever thinks that it is he who should lead the Sangha of bhikkhus, or that the Sangha of bhikkhus depends upon him, such a one would have to give last instructions. But the Tathāgata has no such idea, so what instructions should he have to give to the Sangha of bhikkhus?” The Buddha continued: “Now I am almost eighty, Ānanda. I have come to the end of my life, and I can maintain the body only with difficulty, just as one maintains a dilapidated old cart. My body is at ease only when I enter upon and dwell in the signless deliverance of the mind.” But the Master immediately gave Ānanda an antidote for the sadness caused by these words: “So, Ānanda, each of you should be an island unto yourself, dwell with yourself as a refuge and with no other as your refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma your island, dwell with the Dhamma as your refuge and with no other as your refuge.”
The third section of the sutta is located at Vesālī, where the Buddha stayed for the rains retreat. One day, after the rains, he requested Ānanda to take a sitting mat and accompany him to the Cāpāla Shrine in order to pass the day there in meditation. When they were seated the Blessed One looked at the peaceful landscape before him and reminded Ānanda of the many beautiful spots in the vicinity. The reason for this seemingly unmotivated description of the countryside becomes clear later. The Buddha then said: “Anyone who has developed the four roads to psychic power, made them his vehicle and his foundation, could, if he wished, live out the aeon (kappa) or the remainder of the aeon. The Tathāgata has done all that, and he could, if requested, live to the end of this aeon.” But although Ānanda was given such a plain and broad hint, which certainly coincided with his own longing, he did not beg the Buddha to stay alive out of compassion for all beings. Not only once, but a second and third time the Buddha addressed Ānanda in the same way. But each time Ānanda failed to catch the hint; in his confusion his mind had been ensnared by Māra, the Evil One, who still had some degree of power over him.
At this moment Ānanda, who usually was so circumspect, had lost his mindfulness, which previously had happened only in negligible matters. Otherwise our whole aeon would have taken quite a different turn. Could it be that at just that moment Ānanda was so absorbed in the pleasure of being in close companionship with the Buddha that the Master’s hint failed to register on his mind? Was it, perhaps, just his very attachment to the Buddha’s company, reinforced by the enchanting evening hour and the peaceful forest, that prevented him from responding in the way proper to such deep attachment—a response that would have accorded with his deepest wishes for a longer life for the Blessed One? If Māra had not intervened, Ānanda would have asked the Buddha to accept the burden of a prolonged life, and the Buddha would have consented, out of compassion for the world. But Māra, afraid that innumerable beings would have thereby escaped his clutch, hastened to prevent this, and the course of history was sealed.
This scene, so poignant and suggestive, belongs to the mysteries of the Pāli Canon, and one could puzzle about it endlessly. But let us continue the account: The Buddha dismissed Ānanda, who seated himself under a nearby tree and started meditating. Then Māra appeared before the Buddha and reminded him of a promise made forty-five years before, immediately after his Enlightenment. Māra had then requested the Buddha to enter final Nibbāna and not to teach, but the Buddha had replied that he would not die until he had thoroughly trained and instructed the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen and the holy life was well established. Now, however, all that had been accomplished, and Māra had come to remind him that it was time to fulfil his promise. The Buddha replied: “Do not trouble yourself, Evil One. Before long the Parinibbāna of the Tathāgata will come about. Three months from now the Tathāgata will pass utterly away.”
Then the Blessed One, with mindfulness and clear comprehension, relinquished his will to live on. And just as he did so the earth quaked and trembled, and thunder resounded in the heavens; such was the powerful effect on the natural elements when he renounced them as a basis for life. When Ānanda became aware of the earthquake and thunder, he asked the Buddha for their cause. The Buddha replied that there were eight reasons for earthquakes. The first is an occasion when great forces move; the second is when a monk or brahmin possessing supernormal power reaches a certain kind of meditation; the last six are at the conception, birth, Enlightenment, the first teaching of the Dhamma, the relinquishing of the will to live, and the final Nibbāna of a Buddha. One can see from this how deep is the connection between a Buddha—the highest of all beings—and the whole cosmos. The expositions that follow on the eight kinds of assemblies, the eight fields of mastery, and the eight liberations seem to be a digression. It appears to be one of those occasions for a spontaneously arisen discourse.
Scholars speak about insertions into the text because at first there were eight reasons for earthquakes, then three other “eights” were brought in. In reality there is a deeper connection, designed to bring Ānanda from the superficial to the profound and to let him know the quickly approaching death of the Buddha in such a way that it would not disturb him. After the Buddha had helped to direct Ānanda on the path toward enlightenment, he related how he had told Māra forty-five years ago that he would not attain final Nibbāna until the Dhamma was well established. Now Māra had appeared before him and he had told Māra he would live for only another three months. Therefore he had now relinquished the will to live, and that had been the reason for the earthquake. Now, without a moment’s hesitation, Ānanda begged the Awakened One three times to remain for the whole aeon. But the Buddha replied that the appropriate time for this had lapsed.
When Ānanda asked for the third time, the Buddha inquired: “Do you have faith, Ānanda, in the Enlightenment of the Tathāgata?” When Ānanda affirmed this, he asked, “Why then, Ānanda, do you persist against the Tathāgata up to the third time?” Then the Buddha made it clear to Ānanda that he had let the opportunity slip by: “The fault is yours, Ānanda. Here you have failed, inasmuch as you were unable to grasp the plain suggestion given by the Tathāgata and you did not ask him to remain. For if you had done so, Ānanda, twice the Tathāgata might have declined, but the third time he would have consented.” He also reminded Ānanda that not only now, but already fifteen times previously he had told him that he could remain for a whole aeon, but each time Ānanda had remained silent. Finally the Buddha added his admonition on impermanence: “Have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Of that which is arisen, come into being, conditioned, and subject to decay, one cannot bring it about that it will not come to dissolution. Further, it is impossible for a Tathāgata to go back on his word: in three months’ time he shall attain final Nibbāna.”
Thereupon he requested Ānanda to assemble the monks of the area. He addressed the assembly with the exhortation to learn and practice the path to enlightenment which he had so clearly taught throughout his ministry, so “that this holy life may endure long, for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans.” At the end of the discourse he announced that “three months from now the Tathāgata’s Parinibbāna will take place,” and he gave the monks some stanzas for contemplation: My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short. Departing, I shall leave you, relying on myself alone.
Be earnest then, monks, mindful and pure in virtue! With firm resolve guard your own mind!
One who in this Dhamma and Discipline Dwells in constant heedfulness Shall abandon the wandering on in birth And make an end to suffering.
The fourth section of the sutta tells of the Buddha resuming his journey after the rains retreat and declaring that he would not return to Vesālī. On the way he spoke to the monks on the same topics he had expounded earlier. He declared that they had to travel through this long round of rebirths because they had not penetrated four things: a noble one’s virtue, a noble one’s concentration, a noble one’s wisdom, and a noble one’s deliverance. And again, as so often on this last journey, he emphasized concentration fortified by virtue and wisdom fortified by concentration. At the next resting place he explained to the monks how they should act if someone purported to quote his words. One should remember these sentences and look for verification in the Vinaya or confirmation in the suttas. If one could not find them there, then one would have to come to the conclusion that it had been wrongly learned by that person, and one should reject it.
This admonition was extremely important for the faithful transmission of his words and has been the reason why even to this day one can distinguish between the Buddha’s own words and post-canonical or inauthentic texts. After this, the Buddha journeyed to the province of the Mallas, the warrior clan nearest to the Himalayas. It is possible that in the meantime he had also been in Sāvatthī, because it was there that the news of Sāriputta’s death reached him. In the land of the Mallas, the neighbors of the Sakyans, the goldsmith Cunda invited him and the monks for a meal. The chief food item was a dish called sūkaramaddava.
The Buddha asked the goldsmith to serve this dish only to him and to offer the other items to the monks. Then he asked that the remainder of the food be buried, “for I do not see in all this world anyone who could eat it and entirely digest it except the Tathāgata alone.” After the meal the Buddha became ill with a severe attack of dysentery, but he bore this illness with equanimity and was not deterred from continuing on his journey. Along the way he told Ānanda to spread his robe as he was exhausted and wished to rest.
He then asked Ānanda to bring him some water from the nearby stream, but Ānanda said he would prefer to bring water from the river, because the stream had been churned up by many carts. After the Buddha had repeated his request three times, however, the obedient Ānanda went to the stream and saw that in the meantime, through a miracle, the water had become clear. On the way, the Buddha met Pukkusa, a Malla who was a disciple of Ā¿āra Kālāma. The Buddha won Pukkusa’s confidence with an account of his own meditative powers, and Pukkusa took refuge and became a lay disciple, the last one in the Buddha’s lifetime.
Then he presented two sets of golden-hued robes to the Buddha. The Buddha told him to give one to himself and the other to Ānanda. On this occasion Ānanda did not reject the gift. He remarked that the golden hue of the robe appeared almost dull compared to the bright radiance of the Buddha’s skin. The Blessed One then said that there are two occasions when the complexion of the Tathāgata becomes exceptionally clear and bright: on the day of his Enlightenment and on the day of his final Nibbāna. In the last hours of the following night he would attain final Nibbāna. After bathing, the Buddha told Ānanda that no one should reproach the goldsmith Cunda because the Buddha had died after taking a meal from him. There were two offerings in the world that were best: the alms-food after which the Bodhisatta becomes enlightened and the alms-food after which the Buddha attains final Nibbāna. Cunda would gain much merit from his gift: long life, good health, much influence, fame, and a heavenly rebirth.
The fifth chapter starts with the Buddha’s request to Ānanda to accompany him to the region of Kusinārā, to the sāla-tree grove of the Mallas. When they arrived, Ānanda arranged a couch for him, with the head to the north, between two large sāla trees. Although it was not the right season, the trees flowered and sprinkled their blossoms over the body of the Blessed One. And blossoms of the heavenly coral tree fell from the sky, together with heavenly scents, and there was music of the spheres. The Awakened One then said: “It is not thus, Ānanda, that the Tathāgata is venerated and honoured in the highest degree. But whatever bhikkhu or bhikkhunī, layman or laywoman, abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is such a one that venerates and honours the Tathāgata in the highest degree.” Just then, the Venerable Upavāṇa was fanning the Blessed One. When the Buddha requested Upavāṇa to stand aside, Ānanda wanted to know why he was so summarily dismissed.
The Buddha explained that innumerable deities had come from all directions of the world to have a last glance at a Fully Enlightened One, who so seldom can be seen. But since Upavāṇa, an eminent monk, was standing in front of him, they could not see him. Upavāṇa’s spiritual radiance must have been more powerful than the penetrative ability of the gods. Ānanda inquired further into details about the gods and learned that those who were not free from passion were weeping and wailing, but those free from passion were resigned and calm. The Buddha gave Ānanda another directive: “There are four places in the world worthy of veneration, which would inspire a faithful follower—the birthplace of the Buddha (Lumbini), the place of Enlightenment (Buddha Gayā), the place where he taught the Dhamma for the first time (Sarnath), and the place of his Parinibbāna (Kusinārā). Anyone who passes away with confident heart while on pilgrimage to these shrines will attain a heavenly rebirth.”
Seemingly out of context, Ānanda asked the question, already narrated, how one should act toward women. Then he asked how to deal with the body of the Blessed One. Sharp came the reply: “Do not hinder yourselves, Ānanda, in honouring the body of the Tathāgata. Rather, you should strive for your own good. There are wise householders who will render honour to the body of the Tathāgata.” Then Ānanda wanted to know how the laypeople should carry out the funeral ceremony. The Buddha gave detailed instructions about the cremation and the erection of a stūpa. There were four beings worthy of a stūpa: a supreme Buddha, a pacceka-buddha, an arahant disciple, and a world monarch. One who worships there would also attain much merit. Then Ānanda, overpowered by grief, went aside, clasped the door jamb, and wept. He knew he still had to fight and conquer, and the Master, who had so much compassion for him, would soon be no more. What remained as the fruit of his twenty-five years of service? This famous scene is often depicted in Buddhist art and is reminiscent of the weeping Christians beneath the cross.
When the Buddha did not see Ānanda and inquired where he was, he had him summoned and said to him: “Do not sorrow, Ānanda. Have I not told you many times that everything changes and vanishes? How could something that has come into being not be destroyed? For a long time, Ānanda, you have attended on the Tathāgata, gladly, sensitively, sincerely, and without reserve, with deeds, speech, and thoughts of loving-kindness. You have made great merit, Ānanda; keep on striving and soon you will be free from all cankers!” He then told of an incident long ago, in a past life, in which Ānanda had served him and made much worldly merit (J 307).
After the Awakened One had foretold a second time that Ānanda would soon attain arahantship, he turned to the monks and once more proclaimed praise of Ānanda: “All the Buddhas of the past had had such excellent attendants, and all Buddhas of the future will have them too. His skill in dealing with people is admirable. If a company of bhikkhus goes to see Ānanda, they become joyful on seeing him; and if he speaks to them on the Dhamma, they are made joyful by his discourse; and when he becomes silent, they are disappointed. And so it is also with the bhikkhunīs, the laymen, and the laywomen: each assembly taught by Ānanda is always overjoyed and everyone wants to listen to him further. Ānanda has such remarkable, extraordinary popularity, as one otherwise finds only in a world monarch.”
Here too, as so often in the texts, we can find the two complementary ways the Buddha addressed Ānanda: on the one hand, great praise for him and a summons to the monks to appreciate his greatness; on the other, always the reminder to overcome the last defilements. After this praise, Ānanda turned the conversation to another topic. He suggested that it might be better if the Buddha did not die here in the backwoods, but in one of the great capitals, such as Sāvatthī, Rājagaha, Kosambi, or Benares. It is noteworthy that he did not propose the Buddha’s home town of Kapilavatthu, which had just recently been ransacked and almost destroyed by the son of King Pasenadi. So Ānanda did not mention it, just as he did not mention Vesālī, because the Buddha had said that he would not return there. Ānanda thought that the funeral ceremony could be performed better in one of the large cities by the lay followers living there. But the Buddha, lying on his deathbed, explained to him in great detail why Kusinārā was not an unimportant place at all.
The Buddha had lived there a long time ago as the world monarch Mahā Sudassana, and he had left his body there no fewer than six times as a world monarch; this was the seventh and last time. The splendor and magnificence of that kingdom had been destroyed, had disappeared, and vanished. This, indeed, was enough to make one weary of all conditioned things. The Buddha’s discourse about Mahā Sudassana was the last great teaching he gave. Subsequently he let Ānanda summon the Mallas of Kusinārā, so that they could bid farewell to him. At that time, a wanderer named Subhadda was in Kusinārā and heard about the forthcoming Parinibbāna of the Buddha. Reflecting on how rare it was for a Buddha to appear in the world, he wished to have a doubt resolved by him before it was too late. He begged Ānanda to let him approach the Buddha, but Ānanda refused, saying that the Master should not be troubled on his deathbed. Ānanda refused permission three times, out of love for his Master.
But the Buddha, who overheard the conversation, told Ānanda to let the wanderer approach: “He wants to inquire about the Dhamma for the sake of knowledge and not to cause trouble.” Subhadda then posed a question: “All the presentday teachers claim to be enlightened, yet their teachings contradict one another. Which ones are truly enlightened?” The Buddha dismissed the question and said: “Wherever one finds the Noble Eightfold Path, there one can find the true holy life, and there the four fruits of the homeless life can be found. If monks live in the right way, then the world will never be devoid of arahants, of true saints. Over fifty years I have been a monk and have expounded the Dhamma—and apart from adherence to the Dhamma there can be no holy life.” This short discourse was sufficient for Subhadda to realize the Dhamma in its manifold aspects and to go for refuge to the Buddha. When Subhadda asked for admission into the Order, the Buddha told him about the rule according to which wanderers of other sects had to live on probation for four months. Subhadda agreed readily even if he had to wait on probation for four years. Thereupon the Buddha accepted him immediately, making a last exception, and within minutes this very last monk disciple of the Buddha became an arahant.
The sixth section of the sutta begins with the last instructions of the Buddha. First, he advised the monks never to think, after his death, that they no longer had a teacher, “for the Dhamma and Vinaya will be your teacher after I am gone.” Even to this day, the word of the Buddha laid down in the texts is decisive for his followers. Second, after his death the monks should no longer address each other indiscriminately as “friend” (āvuso). The senior monks could address the junior ones as “friend” or by their names, while the junior ones should use “venerable sir” (bhante). This rule affirmed reverence according to seniority in the Order independently of the personal qualities that monks or nuns may have. The third rule gave the monks permission to abolish the lesser and minor rules and all they entailed, according to their own judgment. The fourth and last instruction was to impose the “higher penalty” (brahmadaṇḍa) on the monk Channa. Ānanda asked how that was to be understood, and the Buddha explained that Channa was not to be spoken to or advised or instructed unless he repented.
After these primarily external directions which Ānanda was to fulfil, the Buddha once more turned to the whole assembly of monks and asked them whether they had any doubt or problem concerning the Enlightened One, the content and meaning of the Dhamma, the order of monks, and above all about the path or way of practice. They should express their doubts so that they would not regret it later when the voice of the Teacher had been silenced. But upon being asked three times, the group did not respond. Thereupon Ānanda said it was amazing that not even one monk had any doubts. The Buddha corrected him once again, because Ānanda could not know for sure that really no one had any doubts. It was possible that a monk did not want to voice his doubt or that he was not conscious of it in this last hour. Only with such total knowledge could one speak in this manner. But in reality it was exactly as Ānanda had said.
The Buddha showed in this way the difference between Ānanda’s confidence and his own, the Perfect One’s, insight. The least of the five hundred monks present was a stream-enterer, because the absence of doubt is one of the signs of this attainment. And once more the Master turned to the assembly of monks to give them his final words of farewell: “Now, monks, I declare this to you: It is the nature of all conditioned things to vanish. Strive for the goal with diligence!” After the Exalted One had spoken these last words, he entered into the four jhānas and the formless spheres of meditative absorption, until he attained the stage of cessation of perception and feeling. While the Master was in cessation Ānanda said to Anuruddha: “The Blessed One has attained final Nibbāna, venerable sir.” He no longer addressed him as “friend,” but as a senior monk, although both had been ordained on the same day.
Anuruddha, however, had the divine eye and corrected him: “The Buddha is in the state of cessation, but has not yet passed away.” To recognize this last subtle difference of a state of mind was only possible for an arahant like Anuruddha, who was skilled in clairvoyance. Subsequently the Buddha entered the nine stages of concentration in reverse order, back to the first jhāna. Then he rose again through the four jhānas, and during his absorption in the fourth jhāna he passed away. At the moment his life ended the earth quaked and thunder roared, just as he had predicted. The Brahmā Sahampati, who had induced the Buddha to teach and who himself was a non-returner, spoke a stanza which pointed to the impermanence of even a Buddha’s body. The king of the devas, Sakka, a stream-enterer, spoke a stanza which repeated the famous lines that the Buddha had proclaimed during his own discourse: “Conditions truly are transient.”
Anuruddha gave voice to two serene verses. But Ānanda lamented: Then there was terror, and the hair stood up, when he, The all-accomplished one, the Buddha, passed away .
And all those of the five hundred monks who had not yet attained full liberation from passions lamented like Ānanda. The Venerable Anuruddha, however, consoled them all. He pointed to the immutable law of impermanence and turned their attention to the presence of invisible deities, amongst whom there were also those who lamented and those who were free of passions. Anuruddha passed the rest of the night talking to Ānanda about the Dhamma. In the forty-three years of their lives as homeless ones, not a single conversation about the Dhamma seems to have taken place between these two very dissimilar siblings. But now Anuruddha devoted himself to his younger half-brother, who was so much in need of consolation. Towards morning Anuruddha, who naturally assumed the role of director among the close disciples, asked Ānanda to inform the Mallas of the Buddha’s final Nibbāna.
When Ānanda delivered his message, the Mallas gathered all the requisites for a great funeral ceremony, such as flowers and incense, and went in a procession to the sāla-tree grove. There they paid homage to the body of the Buddha with festive dance, singing, and music, with banners and flags, with flowers and incense, until the seventh day. One may wonder why they thought of festivities at such a time. But why should they grieve? That would have changed nothing. With their dancing and singing they showed respect and veneration for the Master: they exulted that a Buddha had appeared in the world, that they had heard his Dhamma, that he had wandered through India for such a long time teaching the multitudes, and that he had founded the Sangha to preserve the Dhamma. On the seventh day they erected a pyre for the cremation.
When the Mallas wanted to light the funeral pyre, they were unable to do so. Anuruddha explained that the deities were preventing them, because they wanted to wait for the arrival of the Venerable Mahākassapa, who had not been present during the Buddha’s last days and was now on his way to Kusinārā with a group of monks. When Kassapa arrived, together with his company of monks he circumambulated the corpse three times as a last mark of respect toward the Blessed One. Then the funeral pyre ignited by itself, and the corpse burned until only the bones remained; no ashes were to be seen. When the neighboring clans heard the news of the Master’s death, they all sent messengers to ask for relics, so that they could erect stūpas for them.
However, the Mallas requested the relics for themselves, for the Buddha had died on their land. Only when a brahmin urged them not to dispute over the relics of the greatest peacemaker, and suggested that they divide everything into eight parts, did they relent. So it came about that the bones of the Buddha were divided into eight parts. The brahmin asked for the urn, and another clan received the ashes of the coals. In this way ten stūpas were erected as memorials.
AFTER THE BUDDHA’S PARINIBBĀNA
In verse Ānanda expressed his situation after the Master’s passing: My companion has passed away, The Master, too, is gone. There is no friendship now that equals this: Mindfulness directed to the body. The old ones now have passed away, The new ones do not please me much,23 Today I meditate all alone Like a bird gone to its nest. (Th 1035–36) After the funeral ceremonies were over, Ānanda saw only one duty left for himself, namely, to attain total liberation as prophesied to him by the Buddha. Kassapa advised him to live in the forest in the province of Kosala, which was near the Mallas and the Sakyans. But when it became known that the Buddha’s attendant was living in solitude in the forest nearby, he was inundated with visitors.
The lay disciples wanted to be consoled about the death of the Buddha and also about the deaths of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, and of their just and beloved King Pasenadi. All four had died within the year. Day and night, in the village and in the forest, Ānanda had to console the lay disciples and was never alone. Thereupon a deity who lived in the forest, concerned about Ānanda’s spiritual progress, appeared to him and advised him as follows: Having entered the thicket at the foot of a tree, Having placed Nibbāna in your heart, Meditate, Gotama, and be not negligent! What will this hullabaloo do for you? (SN 9:5)
Exhorted by the deity, Ānanda was stirred to a fresh sense of urgency.
In the meantime the Venerable Mahākassapa had decided to call a council of monks to strengthen the Dhamma and the Vinaya. Because of unsafe conditions in the country of Kosala, the council was to take place in Rājagaha under the protection of King Ajātasattu. Five hundred monks were to participate, among whom Ānanda was the only one who was not an arahant. Ānanda knew most of the discourses of the Buddha and therefore was indispensable to the council. When the date set for the council came closer, the Venerable Anuruddha suggested that Ānanda should only be admitted if he could overcome the last cankers and attain arahantship. Anuruddha knew the power of such an incentive, and it had the intended effect.
When Ānanda heard this stern stipulation, he decided to apply every bit of strength he had to realize Nibbāna. He practiced the four foundations of mindfulness throughout the night—sitting and walking, sitting and walking, sitting and walking. In the early hours of the morning, as he was preparing to lie down after a full night of striving, just when he had raised his legs off the ground but had not yet laid his head on the pillow, his mind was released from all cankers. That day the council was to begin, and in the hope that he would succeed a place had been reserved for him. Soon after all the other monks were seated Ānanda arrived through the air by psychic power and sat down in his seat. When Anuruddha and Kassapa saw this, they knew he had reached his goal and expressed their brotherly joy with him. Then they declared the council open. During the council, Kassapa questioned the Keeper of the Discipline, Upāli, about each rule and its origin, so that the Vinaya was laid down first.
The next item on the agenda was the doctrine. Kassapa asked Ānanda first about the longest discourses, which became the Dīgha Nikāya, then about the middle-length ones, which became the Majjhima Nikāya, and then about the other collections.25 After the recitation of the Dhamma and the Vinaya, Ānanda mentioned those matters that the Buddha had left as a legacy with him to settle. He told the assembly that the Master had allowed the minor and lesser rules to be abolished. The senior monks could not agree what was meant by “the minor and lesser rules.” Thereupon Kassapa spoke up: “If now the Sangha starts abolishing rules, laypeople will say that so soon after the passing of the Blessed One we have become lax. Since it is not known which rules were meant, it would be best not to abolish any of them. In that case we shall be sure that we are not acting contrary to the Master’s wishes.” And so it was done.
The elder monks present said it had been a breach of discipline for Ānanda not to ask what was meant by the minor rules, and he should confess this as a wrongdoing. Second, he was accused of having sewn a robe for the Blessed One after having stepped on the cloth. He replied that nothing had been further from his mind than disrespect for the Blessed One. Nevertheless if the venerable ones considered it a wrongdoing, he would acknowledge it as such. Third, he was criticized for allowing the women to salute the remains of the Blessed One first. He replied that at the time of the funeral he had thought this would enable the women to return home before dark and therefore he had allowed them to pay their homage first; but here too he would accept the verdict of his elders.
The fourth accusation that the monks levelled at Ānanda referred to his failure to beg the Blessed One to remain for an aeon. Ānanda defended himself by saying he had been possessed by Māra at the time, and therefore was not responsible for his actions— how could he have otherwise failed to make this request? Ānanda’s behaviour in the face of these accusations was exemplary: he submitted to the judgment of the other elders, although he himself could not see any wrongdoing, a fact that he did not fail to mention. Subsequently Ānanda reported the second instruction that the Buddha had given immediately before his death, namely, imposing the higher penalty on the monk Channa. The assembly requested Ānanda himself to present this decision to Channa. Ānanda objected that Channa was a violent and unruly person. The assembly advised him to take a number of monks along. Leading a large group he journeyed to Kosambi where Channa was living, and he informed him of the last will of the Buddha, that he had been declared “dead in the Order.”
This penalty had been explained by the Buddha to the horse trainer Kesi. He would use it against monks who could not be persuaded to reform their behaviour either through admonition or discipline. Whoever could not be trained in this way would be considered as dead in the Order: he would not be spoken to, whatever he did. When Channa heard this, he became so horrified that he fainted. When he regained his senses, he was deeply ashamed that the Master had proclaimed this penalty against him as his last instruction to the Order. This gave him the impetus to put forth his most strenuous effort and within a short time he became an arahant. So this penalty showed itself to be the Buddha’s last act of compassion for the benefit and happiness of the monk Channa, being effective even after the Buddha’s death. When Channa had become a holy one, he went to Ānanda and begged him for a repeal of the penalty.
Ānanda replied that as soon as he had attained release from the cankers the penalty had ceased to be operative. After the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, the Venerable Mahākassapa, as the most respected disciple, had taken over the guidance of the Order. His status, however, was not that of a “refuge” as the Buddha had been, nor was it that of a patriarch. He was simply the most authoritative and most highly revered of the monks, and he thus functioned, so to say, as the symbol for the observance of the Dhamma and the Discipline. Everyone turned to him for his decisions on all questions regarding the Order. In this way he became the chief elder of the Sangha. After him Ānanda became the second leading elder, the second most venerated holy one, who was designated to look after the Order.
After he had already been a monk for over forty years, he survived the Buddha by another forty years. And after having been the personal attendant of the Buddha for twenty-five years, he became the foremost of the arahants for a similar length of time. At the time of the Second Council, one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, a personal disciple of Ānanda’s was still alive. He was a very old monk named Sabbakāmi, who, it was said, had been in the Order for 120 years (Vin II 303). When Ānanda was 120 years old, he felt that his end was near. He went from Rājagaha on a journey to Vesālī, just as his Master had done. When the king of Magadha and the princes of Vesālī heard that Ānanda would soon attain final Nibbāna, they hurried to him from both directions to bid him farewell. In order to do justice to both sides, Ānanda chose a way to die in keeping with his gentle nature: he raised himself into the air through his supernormal powers and let his body be consumed by the fire element. The relics were divided and stūpas erected. After his passing the elders who compiled the subsequent recension of the canon added three verses to his collection in the Theragāthā:
Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma, The guardian of the Great Seer’s treasure, Ānanda, the eye of the entire world, Has attained final Nibbāna.
Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma, The guardian of the Great Seer’s treasure, Ānanda, the eye of the entire world, Was a dispeller of gloom in the darkness.
The seer who was so retentive, Of keen memory and resolute, The elder sustaining the true Dhamma, Ānanda was a mine of gems.
References: 1. The Great Disciples of The Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker 2. https://suttacentral.net/