When the Buddha tended to a dying monk, he demonstrated how to live, how to die, how to care for others. Vanessa Sasson offers her retelling of that poignant story.
He grabbed the edge of his robe to cover his nose. What was that smell? He tried to see through the darkness, but the door they’d used to enter the hut had slammed shut behind them. There was no light. This kind of smell is sure to be sickness, Ananda worried to himself. They should leave immediately.
“Bhante, we should not be here,” Ananda pleaded. “This is unsafe.” His imagination was running rampant. Anything could be hiding in the darkness. They were, after all, deep inside the forest, where spirits and demons and wild animals lurked.
“Please, Bhante. I will not forgive myself if any harm comes to you.”
Ananda tried to steer the Buddha away from the rot that was festering. The Buddha, however, stayed where he was.
“We have come precisely for this,” the Buddha replied. “We are here for him.”
The Buddha walked to the other side of the small hut and pushed open the window shutters, flooding the space with light and fresh forest air. The room was visible now.
It was spare in its contents: a few dishes, a pile of rag robes heaped in the corner, and a straw mat on the ground covered by a worn blanket. Flies buzzed all around.
Then something beneath the blanket moved. Ananda recoiled; the Buddha, however, did not flinch. The Buddha got down on his knees and pulled back the blanket. There, before them, was a monk too weak to move the blanket himself.
Ananda dropped the edge of the robe he was holding over his face and lowered himself beside his teacher. The revulsion he’d felt a moment earlier was now beside the point.
The monk was rasping. His brow was wet with perspiration, his skin was yellow, his cheeks so very sunken. He bore the remains of a once shaved head, but the hair was growing back in dirty patches.
“How could his brothers leave him like this?” Ananda exclaimed. “Huts are scattered throughout this area. He’s not alone in this forest. The other monks must know he’s sick. Why aren’t they taking care of him?”
Ananda was beside himself.
“We will visit with the others in due time,” the Buddha replied. “Right now, we must tend to him.”
Ananda tried to fathom the suffering he was staring at. He wanted to run out the door and scold the others, wherever they were. He could hear the words of accusation already forming in his mind. He would lecture them, reprimand them for what they’d done.
But the Buddha was right. It was not the time.
“Brother, are you awake?” the Buddha asked. “Can you hear me?”
The monk shook his head.
“Try to open your eyes.”
The monk peeled open one of his eyes. He looked at the Buddha, seeing him, yet not quite seeing him.
“We are here to take care of you,” the Buddha explained.
The monk examined the two men sitting beside him.
His breath was foul. Flies kept hovering, feasting on his filth. The monk turned his face away.
Ananda needed to do something. Whenever he was uncomfortable, he responded with busy hands. He collected the dirty robes, the small scraps of rags strewn about, and the bowls that were overflowing with vomit.
“I’ll be back soon,” Ananda said. No explanation was required.
A small river bubbled nearby, the water crisp and fresh. Ananda hiked up his robe and waded in, aiming for a shallow, muddy bank. There, he dunked all the cloths into the water and scrubbed each one with handfuls of sloppy grey mud. He rinsed out the mud, squeezed out the water, and then muddied the cloths again, just as his mother had taught him when he was a child.
Rinse, muddy, repeat. Rinse, muddy, repeat. Over and over again.
When the stench was gone, Ananda wrung out each cloth and slapped it against the rocks a few times. He washed the dishes after that and filled one of the bowls with clean water. He returned to the hut. This time, despite the stench, he did not cover his nose.
The Buddha was sitting cross-legged on the ground, speaking to the monk softly, words flowing out of him like water flowing over rocks. Softening the surface, removing debris. Ananda watched in mesmerized silence, the dishes still in his hands, the cloths still flung over his shoulder. It was then that Ananda noticed, perhaps for the first time, the wrinkles crinkling his teacher’s face.
When had the Buddha aged?
“Shall we begin the washing?” the Buddha asked.
The monk was a portrait of anguish.
“Can’t you leave me alone?”
Ananda busied himself again. He put down the dishes and clean cloths and went back out in search of a rock that would keep the front door from slamming shut. The air would circulate with openings on either end.
“You cannot stay this way, brother,” the Buddha said, as Ananda lodged a rock against the door.
The man did not reply.
“What if we just wash your face and clean your hair?” Ananda suggested. “We can give you some water to rinse your mouth.”
The man shook his head again.
“I can take care of myself.”
No, you can’t, Ananda was tempted to reply. But he withheld. He could see the humiliation the monk was trying to hide. He was lying in his own filth, abandoned by his brothers for reasons Ananda could not fathom. Perhaps he’d pushed them away. Or maybe they’d never come.
“Why are you even here?” the monk barked, seemingly infuriated by their continued presence in his hut.
“Does it matter?” the Buddha replied. “The simple fact is that we are here. And you need our help.”
Ananda could see a sharp reply forming at the edge of the monk’s mind. He was a fighter, ready with what must have been a lifetime of habit. He obviously wanted to argue them both right out the door.
But he was tired. No arrows in his quiver left to launch.
“Just let me die in peace,” he said as he turned his head away again.
He was a fighter who had given up the fight.
The Buddha and Ananda sat quietly for a while, giving him time to grow accustomed to their presence. Hoping time might soften the blow. Ananda closed his eyes and followed his breath the way the Buddha had taught him. One breath going in, one breath coming out. He felt a light breeze caress his cheek. Air was coming into the hut through the window, going out through the door.
And then the monk peered at the two men sitting by his mat. “You really don’t mind?” he whispered with obvious incredulity.
The Buddha smiled lightly.
“We do not.”
Ananda brought the bowl of water and the first of the clean cloths. He watched as his teacher dipped the cloth in the water and wiped the man’s brow. The Buddha then worked around the eyes, cleaning the corners with tender attention. He wiped the mouth and around the ears, handing the cloth to Ananda regularly to rinse it out. The two men worked in quiet unison. They gave the monk water to rinse his mouth.
When they were done with his face, they moved to his head, picking out lice with their nails. After each find, the Buddha ran his fingers through the monk’s prickly growth, squinting with his aging eyes, looking for more. When they were sure they’d caught all the lice, they rinsed the monk’s scalp and covered it with a handful of mud that Ananda had brought from the river. River mud had many curative properties, his mother had taught him. It would help heal the scabs.
After rinsing away the mud, Ananda pulled out a small vial of almond oil from his traveling pouch and poured a few drops onto the monk’s scalp. Almond oil was a treasured ingredient; he never traveled without it.
“Let us wash the rest of you,” Ananda offered as he massaged the monk’s head. “You’ll feel better.”
The monk was calmer than before, the head massage working its familiar magic. But at the suggestion of going one step further, panic returned.
“Please, no more,” he said as he covered his face with one of his hands. “I lost control of my bowels days ago. You have to go.”
Ananda looked to the Buddha. He never knew how to face such debilitating pain. He wanted to make his teacher proud. He wanted to be capable of holding the sorrow of another, but he never managed. Ananda always absorbed suffering instead, becoming part of it, eventually drowning alongside the person he was there to help.
“I’ve never known myself like this,” the monk added, his hand still covering his face. “I pushed all the others away.”
So, the other monks had tried to help, Ananda realized. They should have tried again instead of accepting his refusal.
“It can be difficult to let others do what we have always done ourselves,” the Buddha replied. “Yet it’s a lesson we must all eventually learn.”
“Why don’t we wash your outer limbs?” Ananda suggested. “We can start that way. You don’t have to feel embarrassed about that.”
The monk kept his face shielded, but he nodded, ever so lightly. Permission granted.
They lifted his hand from his face, rinsed the arm, muddied it, and rinsed it again. Next, they applied oil to help hydrate the cracks, massaging gently, reinvigorating the body beneath the skin. When they were done, they placed the arm beneath the blanket and moved to the next. One arm, then the next, one foot, then the other. They even cleaned under the nails.
Every once in a while, Ananda stopped what he was doing and looked up from his work, marveling at the moment. He was in a forest hut with his teacher, caring for another. His teacher was sitting beside him on the floor. He who’d once been the crown prince of a great kingdom, who’d once dressed in delicate robes, tended to by dozens of servants in every possible way. The crown prince had never sat on the floor. He’d certainly never washed another’s feet with his hands. People would travel for days in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Buddha. They begged to touch his feet with their heads.
But here he was sitting on the floor, holding the filthy feet of another on his lap. He scraped off dried bits of excrement with his nails, scrubbed and washed another with his delicate hands. This was the Buddha, the most illustrious being Ananda could imagine. Do not forget this day, he kept telling himself. Of all the teachings Ananda had received, this one was by far the most profound.
The arms and legs were clean. Oil had been applied. The monk looked better. He no longer covered his face with his hand.
“Brother, we must lift the blanket and clean the rest now,” the Buddha explained. “I know this is not easy for you, but it’s important that you are clean everywhere.”
The man, who’d been less tense a moment earlier, now looked afraid. He clutched at his blanket with both hands. “Please don’t,” he begged. “It’s awful under there. Just leave me alone now. You’ve done enough, whoever you are.”
They were strangers to him, Ananda realized. The monk did not recognize his teacher.
“You must not be so proud,” the Buddha replied. “This body is nothing more than a double-end bag. Food goes in, excrement goes out. We are all the same. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“The filth is everywhere,” the monk cried with eyes clenched. “It’s not supposed to be like this. You have to go!”
“You give this body too much importance,” the Buddha continued. “This bag that we carry throughout our lives is just a collection of impermanent parts. As a body, it has functions to fulfill, but it cannot fulfill those functions forever. Your body is destined to come undone. How can it be any other way?”
The man, still clutching the blanket, turned his head away.
“You are suffering from the most ordinary illness, brother. You have dysentery. You will soon die of this illness. I will one day die of this illness, too.”
Ananda was wringing out one of the cloths in a bowl. He stopped and stared at his teacher with unconcealed surprise. He would die of dysentery? The Buddha? Surely the Buddha would be spared that.
The Buddha did not look in Ananda’s direction. He kept his eyes carefully focused on his ward. The Buddha saw things the rest of them had barely begun to understand. Ananda had thirty-six thousand questions, and yet he knew not to ask any one of them. If the Buddha said he would die of dysentery, then it must be so.
But when? Ananda did not want to lose his teacher. He could not imagine life without him as his guide.
The body is just a double-end bag, he reminded himself, even the Buddha’s body. No one lasts forever. We will all one day come undone.
“You have an opportunity in this very moment to develop insight,” the Buddha counseled. “So, take the opportunity. You don’t have much time left to learn.”
The monk turned toward the Buddha. Was he beginning to recognize who had been washing his feet?
He took in a deep breath. Then he closed his eyes and nodded his assent, holding his breath.
Ananda went back to the river to rinse out the cloths and carry up more fresh water for the last part of the process. He tried not to think about all the fears that were swirling in his mind. He did not want the Buddha to die. He did not like impermanence. He never had.
When Ananda returned, they got to work. The straw mat was soiled and needed to be discarded. They maneuvered the monk’s body gently and pulled the mat out from under him. They removed the blanket as well, which was filthy, and tossed both outside.
The monk covered his face with his hands again, shielding his eyes in the hopes that it might shield the rest of him as he lay naked on the floor. The Buddha touched the monk’s head and whispered a blessing. He promised that everything would be all right.
Dry excrement was stuck all along his inner thighs and everywhere in between. Vomit was caked to his chest. The Buddha and Ananda worked through it all, never speaking, never hurrying, taking their time. This is what happens to a double-end bag, Ananda recited to himself. This is what happens when a body begins to come undone. They washed every inch of him the way a mother washes her child.
As they neared the end of their work, and his body had been wiped clean, Ananda removed his own outer robe and draped it gently over the monk. The Buddha took the monk’s hands away from his face and laid them down by either side of him. The monk had been crying, but they were not tears of anguish anymore.
“It is so hard to let go,” the monk admitted.
“It is, indeed,” the Buddha replied. “But that is the practice. Nothing more than that.”