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The Buddha, illness and practice

It doesn’t appear that the Buddha had to deal with a pandemic of the kind we are currently experiencing.  2,500 years ago the world was a much smaller place with a much smaller world population of around 30 million, half the current population of the UK.  So I would imagine that social distancing was easier to maintain.  However, illness was a big issue for the people of the Buddha’s time and, without our modern medicine, living with illness was a big part of people’s lives.  From the life story of the Buddha, an ‘ill person’ is said to be one of the 4 sights that set the Buddha onto the path to seek Enlightenment.  The Buddha uses illness as an example of Dukkha to describe the first of the Four Truths to his disciples.

The Buddha often used sickness in his teaching because it was an experience that all could directly relate to.

There are several Gilana Suttas that form the Buddha’s teachings. ‘Gilana‘ meaning a sick person or patient.   In one of them, from the Anguttara Nikaya, he draws an analogy between types of sick people and types of people who might be taught the Dhamma, concluding that we should care for all sick people and also teach the Dhamma to all people.

In another teaching, from the Samyutta Nikaya (35:74), the Buddha doesn’t shy away from those that are sick when he visits a new disciple who is very sick and not going to get better.  The Buddha can’t cure his illness but he gives him an individual teaching of such effect that the sick disciple is Awakened.

Personally speaking, illness can have a big effect on our lives, disrupting our plans for the future and sometimes stopping us in our tracks.  It can change our consciousness, the way we think and the way we perceive the world around us.  This pandemic has stopped our modern world, stopped the wrong view that we have mastery over the universe.  To realise how fragile our life is and that it can be disrupted, or even end, at any point is a lesson the Buddha has been trying to teach people for thousands of years.  This life we have is a great gift, not from a God, but from the conjoining of the events that create the conditions for our existence from, as the Buddha would say ‘Pratītya-samutpāda’ or, as we might say, ‘conditioned co-production’.

The conditions for our good health are unstable.   We must make best use of our health whilst we can and use every opportunity to practise the Dhamma that is available to us.  We can see this time of social isolation as a burden, a problem, an inconvenience or we can see it as an opportunity to be used in our spiritual journey.  The world around us has become, briefly, a quieter, cleaner and less busy place.  If you are at home on your own then you can quietly get on with your practice.  If your house is full of family then enjoy their company, however difficult in practice that may be, as it is all good Bodhisattva training.  If the house is full then maybe take your hour’s exercise out of the house as mindful walking, being fully and quietly present in that activity.

The time we have to practise is precious, use it well.


Chair of Ipswich Buddhist Centre

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