A Case of Diarrhea

It is clear from the suttas that the most noticeable feature of the Buddha’s personality was his warmth and compassion. This compassion was not just something the Buddha felt for others or that they felt in his presence, it was also the motive for much of what he said and did. He visited and comforted the sick ‘out of compassion’ (A.III,378), he taught the Dhamma ‘out of compassion’ (AIII,167). On one occasion he went into the forest looking for a serial killer because he had pity for the murderer’s potential victims and also for the murderer himself. The Buddha’s compassion seemed to transcend even the bounds of time. He is described sometimes as doing or refraining from doing certain things ‘out of compassion for coming generations’ (M.I,23). Once he said that his very reason for being was ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit and the happiness of gods and humans’ (A.II,146).

The story of the Buddha and the sick monk is further evidence that the Buddha’s kindness and compassion was not just a sentiment but an active force expressing itself in behavior that made a positive difference to peoples’ lives. ‘At that time a certain monk was suffering from diarrhea and lay where he had fallen in his own filth. The Lord and Ananda were visiting the lodgings, they came to where the sick monk lay and the Lord asked him “Monk, what is wrong with you”? “I have diarrhea Lord.” “Is there no one to look after you”? “No Lord”. “Then why is it that the other monks do not look after you”? “It is because I am of no use to them, Lord.” Then the Lord said to Ananda, “Go and fetch some water and we will wash this monk.” So Ananda brought water and the Lord poured it out while Ananda washed the monk all over. Then taking the monk by the head and feet the Lord and Ananda together carried him and laid him on a bed. Later, the Lord called the other monks together and asked them “Why, monks did you not look after that sick monk”? “Because he was of no use to us, Lord.” Then the Lord said, “Monks, you have no mother and father to look after you. If you do not look after each other, who will? He who would nurse me, let him nurse the sick”.’ (Vin.IV, 301)

This is well known incident in the life of the Buddha – at least today. But looking through the literature produced in Theravadin cultures over the last 2000 years – poems, biographies of the Buddha, anthologies of stories, hagiographies, guides to the monastic life, cosmological works etc. – I have been able to find only a single reference to it. I am very familiar with the sculpture and wall paintings of Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka which illustrate the life of the Buddha, but I have never seen this incident depicted. Mingun Sayadaw’s monumental 2700 page biography of the Buddha mentions almost every conceivable incident in his life – but not this one. The only occurrence of this story that I know of in the traditional literature, sculpture or painting of Theravadin lands is in the Saddhammopayana, a 10th century poem from Sri Lanka. Verses 557 to 560 eulogize the Buddha’s compassion in nursing the sick monk and urge the reader to follow his example. The poem even talks about protecting the helpless (v. 307) rather than just helping monks and giving to others simply for the joy of giving (v. 324) rather than the usual calculating Theravadin notion of giving in order to get merit. These few words of heartfelt and practical kindness make the Saddhammopayana almost unique in the literature of Theravadin lands. [1]

There must be an explanation for this anomaly and one does not have to look far to find it. According to scholars, the Saddhammopayana was composed by a monk of the Abhayagirivasins, a sect that the Theravadins derided as heretics and dismissed as Mahayanists. So although the Saddhammopayana draws on material from the Pali Tipitaka, it is not a Theravadin work. Why has the wonderful story of the Buddha and the sick monk – so human, so indicative of loving-kindness and compassion, so worthy of being held up as an example to be emulated – received almost no attention in Theravada?

Notes

  1. Alaungsithu’s beautiful Shwegugyi Hymn written in 1131 and the prayer composed by a lady of the court of King Narasihapati in 1266 would be two very rare examples of Theravadin literature expressing genuine unselfish concern and love for others. Predictably, both works remain in obscurity. Luce is probably right in suggesting that they both reflect the ‘lingering influence of Mahayana.’ [back]