Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!
Published: 2014-01-28 — Updated: 2018-07-15
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The Buddha was always accompanied by an attendant whose job it was to run messages for him, prepare his seat and to attend to his personal needs. For the first twenty years of his ministry, he had several attendants, Nagasamala, Upavana, Nagita, Cunda, Radha and others, but none of them proved to be suitable. One day, when he decided to replace his present attendant, he called all the monks together and addressed them: “I am now getting old and wish to have someone as a permanent attendant who will obey my wishes in every way. Which of you would like to be my attendant?” All the monks enthusiastically offered their services, except Ananda, who modestly sat at the back in silence. Later, when asked why he had not volunteered he replied that the Buddha knew best who to pick.
When the Buddha indicated that he
would like Ananda to be his personal attendant, Ananda said he
would accept the position, but only on several conditions. The
first four conditions were that the Buddha should never give him
any of the food that he received, nor any of the robes, that he
should not be given any special accommodation, and that he would
not have to accompany the Buddha when he accepted invitations
to people’s homes. Ananda insisted on these four conditions because
he did not want people to think that he was serving the Buddha
out of desire for material gain. The last four conditions were
related to Ananda’s desire to help in the promotion of the Dharma.
These conditions were: that if he was invited to a meal, he could
transfer the invitation to the Buddha; that if people came from
outlying areas to see the Buddha, he would have the privilege
of introducing them; that if he had any doubts about the Dharma,
he should be able to talk to the Buddha about them at any time
and that if the Buddha gave a discourse in his absence, he would
later repeat it in his presence. The Buddha smilingly accepted
these conditions and thus began a relationship between the two
men that was to last for the next twenty—five years.
Ananda was born in Kapilavatthu and was the Buddha’s cousin, being
the son of Amitodana, the brother of the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana.
It was during the Buddha’s first trip back to Kapilavatthu after
his enlightenment that Ananda, along with his brother Anuruddha
and his cousin Devadatta, became a monk. He proved to be a willing
and diligent student and within a year he became a Stream—Winner.
The monk’s life gave Ananda great happiness and his quiet, unassuming
nature meant that he was little noticed by the others until he
was selected to be the Buddha’s personal attendant.
people develop the qualities that lead to enlightenment through
meditation or study, Ananda did it through the love and concern
he had for others. Just before the Buddha attained final Nirvana,
Ananda began to cry, saying to himself: “Alas, I am still
a learner with much still to do. And the teacher is passing away,
he who was so compassionate to me.” The Buddha called Ananda
into his presence and reassured him that he had developed his
mind to a very high degree through his selflessness and love and
that if he made just a bit more effort he too would attain enlightenment.
Ananda, do not weep and cry. Have I not already told that all
things that are pleasant and delightful are also changeable,
subject to separateness and impermanence? So how could they
not pass away? Ananda, for a long time you have been in my presence,
showing loving—kindness with body, speech and mind, helpfully,
blessedly, whole—heartedly, and unstingily. You have made much
merit, Ananda. Make an effort and very soon you will be free
from the defilements.”[N1]
Ananda’s selflessness expressed itself in three ways — through
his service to the Buddha, through his unstinting kindness to
his fellow disciples, both ordained and lay, and also to future
generations through the crucial role he had to play in the preservation
and transmission of the Dharma.
As the Buddha’s personal attendant Ananda strived to free the
Buddha from as many mundane activities as possible so he could
concentrate on teaching the Dharma and helping people. To that
end, he washed and mended the Buddha’s robe, tidied his living
quarters, washed his feet, massaged his back and when he was meditating
or talking, stood behind him keeping him cool with a fan.
near the Buddha so as to always be at hand and accompanied him
when he did his round of the monasteries. He would call monks
whom the Buddha wished to see and kept people away when the Buddha
wished to rest or to be alone. In his role as servant, secretary,
go—between and confidant, Ananda was always patient, tireless
and unobtrusive, usually anticipating the Buddha’s needs.
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Although Ananda’s main job was to take care of the Buddha’s needs,
he always had time to be of service to others as well. He would
often give talks on Dharma and indeed such a skilful teacher was
he that sometimes the Buddha would ask him to give a talk in his
place, or finish a talk that he had begun.[ N2
] We are told that when the Buddha would have his afternoon
rests, Ananda would take advantage of the spare time to go and
visit those who were sick, to talk to them, cheer them up or try
to get medicine for them. Once he heard of a very poor family
struggling to bring up two young sons. Knowing that the boys faced
a very grim future and feeling that something had to be done to
help them, Ananda got permission from the Buddha to ordain them,
thus giving them a chance in life.[ N3
Life in the Sangha was not always easy for nuns. Most monks kept
away from them, not wanting to be tempted. Some even discriminated
against them. Ananda, on the other hand, was always ready to help
them. It was he who encouraged the Buddha to ordain the first
nuns, he was always ready to give Dharma talks to nuns and laywomen
and encourage them in their practice, and they in turn often sought
him out because of his sympathy for them.[ N4
The Buddha once said that of all his disciples, Ananda was pre—eminent
of those who had heard much Dharma, who had a good memory, who
had mastered the sequential order of what he had remembered and
who was energetic.[ N5
] The Buddha could not write, indeed, although writing
was known at the time, it was little used.
Both during his life
and for several centuries after his final Nirvana, his words were
committed to memory and transmitted from one person to another.
Ananda’s highly developed memory, plus the fact that he was constantly
at the Buddha’s side, meant that he, more than any other person,
was responsible for preserving and transmitting the Buddha’s teachings.
By this, it is not meant that Ananda remembered the Buddha’s words
verbatim — this would have been neither possible nor necessary,
as understanding the Dharma is not dependent on the arrangement
of words and sentences but on the comprehension of the meaning
of the words. Rather, Ananda remembered the gist of what the Buddha
had said, to whom he said it, particularly important or prominent
phrases, similes or parables that were used and also the sequence
in which all the ideas were presented. Ananda would repeat what
he had heard and remembered to others and gradually a large body
of oral teachings developed. This meant that people far from the
Buddha’s presence could hear his teachings without the aid of
books or the necessity of having to travel long distances.
After the Buddha’s final Nirvana five hundred enlightened monks
convened a Council at Rajagaha for the purpose of collecting all
the Buddha’s teachings and committing them to memory so they could
be handed down to future generations. Because he knew so much
Dharma it was essential that Ananda be present, but he was not
yet enlightened. Now that he no longer had to look after the Buddha’s
needs, he had more time to meditate and so he began to practise
with exceptional diligence, hoping that he could attain enlightenment
before the Council started.
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As the time for the Council’s commencement
got closer, he practised harder and harder. During the evening
before the Council he sat meditating, convinced that he would
not be able to attain enlightenment by the next morning. So he
gave up and decided to lie down and sleep. As his head touched
the pillow he became enlightened. Ananda was warmly welcomed at
the Council the next day and over the following months he recited
thousands of discourses that he had heard, commencing each recitation
with the words: “Thus have I heard” (Evam me sutam). Because
of his enormous contributions to the preservation of the Dharma,
Ananda was sometimes known as: “The Keeper of the Dharma Store”
Because of his qualities of kindness,
patience and helpfulness, Ananda was one of those rare people
who seemed to be able to get along with everybody and whom everybody
liked. Just before his final Nirvana, the Buddha praised Ananda
in the company of the monks by thanking him for his years of loyal
and loving friendship and service. “Monks, all those who
were fully enlightened Buddhas in the past had a chief attendant
like Ananda, as will all those who will be fully enlightened Buddhas
in the future. Ananda is wise. He knows when it is the right time
for monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen, kings, ministers, the leaders
of other sects or their pupils to come and see me. Ananda has
four remarkable and wonderful qualities. What four? If a company
of monks comes to see Ananda, they are pleased at the sight of
him, and when he teaches Dharma to them they are pleased, and
when he finishes they are disappointed. And it is the same for
nuns, laymen and laywomen.” [ N6 ]
It is not known when or where Ananda passed away but, according
to tradition, he lived to a ripe old age. When Fa Hien, the famous
Chinese pilgrim, visited India in the 5th century CE, he reported
seeing a stupa containing Ananda’s ashes, and that nuns in particular
had high regard for his memory.