Wait A Minute! ~ ANANDA'S FAULT

It is October 1995, as I write this, and I am in Germany, staying with an old friend. It is good to see him again; we had not met since 1973, when we were together in Thailand as monks. Of course, we have both changed a lot in the meantime; he is no longer a monk and has a family, but is still the friend I spent good times with all those years ago—kind, gentle, not easily upset—and remains a dedicated Buddhist who thinks often of Dharma. His wife says that he is still very much a monk at heart; fortunately, she is also a Buddhist and shares his devotion, otherwise there would easily be a clash of interests; I have often seen it when either the husband or the wife have an interest in spiritual matters, but their partner does not; it creates quite a space between them and sometimes gives rise to great problems.

Since I’ve been here, he has helped me understand something that puzzled me for years: why the Buddha, who led so many others to Enlightenment, was unable to awaken Ananda. I assumed that with His vast wisdom and ability to perceive the mental level of people, and teach them accordingly, He should have been able to do this. Was I too naïve or idealistic in thinking so? Let us look at it.

Ananda was a first cousin of Prince Siddhartha, of around the same age, and followed him into the monk’s life soon after Siddhartha attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha at the age of 35. He was the Buddha’s favorite disciple and later became His personal attendant. They had a special arrangement between them: when Ananda had undertaken to attend the Buddha, they had agreed upon several things requested by him, one of which was that the Buddha should repeat to him any sermons or teachings that He gave while he was not with Him, so that he could store them away in his very retentive memory. Because of this, it was Ananda who repeated the Buddha’s discourses at the first Sangha Council three months after the Buddha passed away.
Ananda comes across to us as a very warm, kind, self-effacing person, utterly devoted to the Buddha, and the fact that he was later blamed for several things by some of the other monks does not detract from this. One gets the feeling—though it might be wrong, of course—that Ananda was not too popular with some of the monks; there might well have been some jealousy or resentment towards him because he was so close to the Buddha; the things he was blamed for do not, in our eyes, seem blameworthy at all. We cannot be sure how it was, of course, and have only the scriptures to go by, and they were committed to writing only 500 years later; moreover, we do not know how objectively or accurately they were recorded, and must not assume that the recorders were completely without bias; people were human in those days, too.

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon, which tells of the last days and passing away of the Buddha, Ananda is shown asking how to behave towards women. How strange that at this late stage, having been with the Buddha for so long, and privy to all His teachings, Ananda should ask such a naïve question that might be expected from a newly ordained monk but hardly from one of his seniority. Can Ananda really have asked this? And can the Buddha really have told him, first, not to look at women, and then, if seeing them were unavoidable, not to speak to them, and if this, too, could not be avoided, one should be alert and mindful? How strange; how incongruous! Can we seriously entertain the idea that Ananda did not know how to behave towards women? Perhaps he was only asking this question for the sake of young monks? But at this time, when the Buddha was on His death-bed? It would surely have been most inappropriate, and could well be an interpolation. If Ananda really had asked this question, we can imagine the Buddha looking askance at him and thinking: “Oh dear, what a waste of 25 years as my personal attendant!”

The scriptures say that, during His final days, the Buddha told Ananda that His end was near, and hinted that if He were requested to live some years longer, for the sake of sentient beings, it was within His power to do so. But Ananda did not take the hint and so did not make the request (the reason given is that at the time he was under the control of Mara, the Evil One—the Indian equivalent of the Bible’s Satan, but in reality, not apart from one’s own mind!) The Buddha then announced that three months later He would enter Final Nirvana and pass away; it is said that, having made this prediction, it could not be rescinded. Ananda was thereafter held responsible, both by the Buddha Himself and some of the monks, for not asking Him to extend His life. But does it not seem strange that such a wise and compassionate person as the Buddha, who had devoted His whole enlightened life to helping others, should need to be asked to live longer? Why should Ananda be blamed for failing to make such a request? No doubt there are explanations for this, but whether or not they would fit the situation is another matter; many people must have pondered on it over the 25 centuries since then, trying to make sense of it. Like Christians over the Bible, many Buddhists are of the opinion that everything in the Buddhist scriptures must be true simply because it is there; they dare not allow themselves, for a moment, to doubt and question, or to imagine that something might not be as it appears; to them, it would be the translation or interpretation of the scriptures at fault, rather than the scriptures themselves, which must be infallible, of course, just because they are scriptures!

According to the scriptures, at the end, when the Buddha lay on His death-bed in a forest, calm and self-possessed, He noticed that Ananda was not among those surrounding Him, and asked where he was. Someone told Him: “He is over there, Lord, in the sala [preaching hall], with his head against the door-post, weeping and saying: ‘Too soon is the Light of the World going out! Too soon is my beloved master leaving me—He who was so kind to me—and I am still a learner, yet to find my deliverance!’” The Buddha sent someone to call him, and when he came, consoled and comforted him: “Do not weep, Ananda; do not be sad. For have I not told you so many times and in so many ways that all that is near and dear to us will perish? How could it be that this body of mine, having been born, should not die? For so long, Ananda, you have served me faithfully in thought, word and deed. Great good have you gathered, Ananda. Now you must make effort, and soon, you too will be free!” Not long after this, the Buddha passed away, and within three months, Ananda did become Enlightened.

I have pondered on this many times, and failed to understand why the Buddha did not—or could not—lead Ananda to awakening, when He had led people like Kisagotami the bereaved mother, Angulimala the murderer, Sunita the untouchable sweeper, and many others who were not well educated or consciously spiritual.

My friend told me he had also pondered on this matter until it occurred to him that the problem was not from the Buddha’s inability to lead him; He would have led Ananda to awakening if He could, but something prevented Him, something He had often spoken of and identified as one of the main causes of suffering, namely: attachment. Ananda was attached!
But had he not left the luxury and pleasure of a prince to become a monk and follow the Buddha, leading a simple but contented life? How can we imagine him being attached? To what was he attached? He had no personal possessions other than the bare requisites of a monk, and at that age, he certainly had no thought of abandoning the monk’s life and returning to his former life as a prince, to marry and start a family. What he was attached to was the person of the Buddha—so attached that it held him back, all those years, and prevented him from becoming enlightened. During this time he must have seen or known of many others becoming enlightened, while he remained unenlightened, and nothing the Buddha could do or say was able to change this. But we can be sure it was not for want of caring; He loved Ananda as Ananda loved Him, but with the wisdom of Enlightenment instead of attachment. The Buddha did nothing to encourage or increase the attachment of Ananda, but He—the Buddha Himself, who many Buddhists believe had unlimited powers—was unable to lead His beloved disciple to Enlightenment. This illustrates just how strong attachment can be!

But the Buddha had one final teaching to give—we might almost consider it His most powerful initiation—and it had the effect of breaking the attachment of Ananda, namely: His demise! The Buddha had to die and disappear physically in order for Ananda to let go of Him!
We must be able to visualize the scene of the Buddha’s passing away; it is very important for us! Here is this teacher, at the age of 80, old, wrinkled and weather-beaten from the life He had led, but still tremendously dignified, lying dying in a forest. The news had spread like wildfire that He was about to pass away, and His followers, ordained and lay, had come from far and wide to see their beloved master for the last time. Many were grief-stricken as they gathered around Him, but those who had attained Enlightenment through His teachings were restrained and quiet.
Lying on His right side, as was His custom, He showed no sign of His bodily pains, and continued to teach right up to the end. Mindful and with measured words, He said: “The thought may occur to some of you, Ananda, that when I am gone you will no longer have a teacher. But you should not think thus. The Dharma and the Discipline shall be your teacher after I have gone. Therefore, be an island unto yourself; be a lamp unto yourself; be a refuge unto yourself. With the Dharma and the Discipline as your refuge, do not look for a refuge outside of yourself”. His last words were: “All compounded things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence!” And with that, the Buddha passed away.

The Buddha was not a savior but a teacher; He could not save anyone, nor did He claim to be able to, as is clear from His last words. He was able, however, to lead people to Enlightenment, to draw out of them something that was already there, lying dormant, something that is in all of us, just waiting for someone or something to come along and kindle a spark. In some, it is quite easy to do this, while in others it is very hard and almost impossible—almost.

It has been said that only Truth can set us free; our efforts to become free only further entangle us. After the Buddha passed away, Ananda did not try to cut off his attachment; it was more a matter of it falling away when its object was no longer there; and when the attachment fell away, Ananda became Enlightened!

But we are all attached; were we not we would not be here, suffering as we do. We are attached to all sorts of things, from gross material pleasures to lofty spiritual states, with countless other things in between. It’s even possible to be attached to pain and suffering! Someone I know has suffered for many years from a stomach complaint but refuses to submit to the operation—a relatively minor one—that might cure it, because he believes that his ailment and pain is a ‘karmic purification’—sort of ‘penance for his sins’, if you will—and therefore something positive, not realizing that this attitude is what the Buddha condemned as ‘useless self-mortification’, which will never result in Enlightenment. His Way is one of self-help, and is not opposed to surgery or the use of medication.

One of the many things I am attached to—I confess—is my glasses. Years ago, when I tried contact-lenses, I felt naked without them; I was not naked, of course, but I have worn glasses for so many years that I missed them, even though I could see quite well with the contact-lenses. My glasses have become so much a part of me that I can sleep with them on, and have even washed my face with them on, forgetting they were there! So, I am not just physically dependent on them but psychologically addicted, too. It is silly, I know, but that’s how attachment works; it is so subconscious and deep-rooted that we often don’t realize it is there until something like loss makes us aware of it. And it doesn’t go away just by being aware of the trouble it causes or by wishing it gone; it’s more tenacious than to give up like that.
We may try to overcome attachment, but if we are not careful, we may become attached to such effort and more firmly entangled than before. Our effort must be balanced and guided by wisdom; effort without wisdom is maybe worse than no effort at all. Moreover, even rightly guided effort can take us only so far; ultimately, only Enlightenment can cut off attachment, but there is no Enlightenment-button we may press to produce it; we cannot make it arise; that is not within our capacity. But it helps to know that attachment can be broken and come to an end; we have Buddha nature—or the potential for Enlightenment—not for nothing. We can draw nearer to this by cultivating and maintaining an interest in Dharma, by frequently tuning into it and staying tuned, so that the process of inquiry becomes so sustained that it sinks down into the subconscious and continues to go on there even while we are asleep; it is from the subconscious that realization comes; we thus give it a chance to emerge and burn away our delusion.

So, my friend in Germany, I thank you and wish you well in your Dharma-faring! I will remember you fondly!

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