The Life of Ananda, Guardian of the Dhamma

Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker

Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, was renowned among the great disciples for his zealous devotion and for preserving the teachings intact. He served the Buddha loyally for twenty-five years, accepting no privilege, and was designated best in learning, memory, goodness and resolution. He pressed the Buddha to found an order of nuns and undertook their instruction. Famous for his gentleness, humility and extraordinary memory, Ananda retained the Buddha’s discourses by heart and his telling of them formed the basis of the Sutra (sutta) Pitaka, literally “the basket of teachings,” a major part of the Pali canon. The phrase “Thus have I heard,” which opens each sutra or teaching, signals that what follows is considered to be a text recited by Ananda at the first council following the Buddha’s death. In an excerpt from Great Disciples of the Buddha, writer and translator Hellmuth Hecker describes the life and work of the monk known as the “vessel of truth.”

Of all the great monks in the Buddha’s retinue, the Venerable Ananda occupied a unique position. He was born on the same day as the Buddha and in the same caste, the warrior caste of the royal family of the Sakyans. His father, Amitodana, was the brother of the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana, so the two were cousins and grew up together in the Sakyans’ capital city of Kapilavatthu.

When he was thirty-seven years old, Ananda joined the Buddha’s order of monks, proving himself a willing and diligent pupil. During his first rains retreat he attained the fruit of stream-entry. During the first years of his life as a monk Ananda was fully occupied with the purification of his own mind; he blended easily into the Sangha and slowly developed more and more resilience and mental strength.

When the Buddha and Ananda were both fifty-five years of age, the Buddha called a meeting of the monks and declared: “In my twenty years as leader of the Sangha, I have had many different attendants, but none of them has really filled the post perfectly; again and again some willfulness has become apparent. Now I am fifty-five years old and it is necessary for me to have a trustworthy and reliable attendant.” At once all the noble disciples offered their services, but the Buddha did not accept them. Then the great monks looked at Ananda, who had held back modestly, and asked him to volunteer.

footsteps image summer 1998

When he was asked why he was the only one who had not offered his services, he replied that the Buddha knew best who was suitable to be his attendant. He had so much confidence in the Blessed One that it did not occur to him to express his own wishes. Then the Buddha declared that Ananda would be pleasing to him and would be the best choice for the post. Ananda was in no way proud that the Master had preferred him to the other disciples, but instead asked for eight favors.

The first four were negative in character: First, the master should never pass a gift of robes on to him; second, he should never give him any alms food which he himself had received; third, having received a dwelling place, he should never give it to him; fourth, he should never include him in any personal invitations (such as an occasion for teaching where a meal would be offered). The other four were positive: If he was invited to a meal, he asked for the right to transfer this invitation to the Buddha; if people came from outlying areas, he asked for the privilege of leading them to the Buddha; if he had any doubts or inquiries about the Dhamma, he asked for the right to have them cleared up at any time; and if the Buddha gave a discourse during his absence, he asked for the privilege of having it repeated to him privately. Ananda explained that if he did not pose the first four conditions, then people would say that he had accepted the post of attendant only with an eye on the material gains he would enjoy by living so close to the Master. But if he did not express the other four conditions, then it could rightly be said that he fulfilled the duties of his post without being mindful of his own advancement on the noble path.

The Buddha granted him these very reasonable requests, which were quite in accordance with the Dhamma. From then on Ananda was the constant companion, attendant, and helper of the Blessed One for twenty-five years.

So great was Ananda’s mastery of the Dhamma that the Buddha even spoke of him as a living embodiment of the Teaching. Once a lay disciple asked the Buddha how, after he had honored the Teacher and the Sangha, he could honor the Dhamma - and this in an age before the Dhamma was transcribed in books. The Buddha replied, “If you wish to honor the Dhamma, householder, go and honor Ananda, the guardian of the Dhamma.”

One of the virtues of Ananda that established his fame was his conduct as the Buddha’s upatthaka, his personal attendant. The Buddha said of him that he was the best of all attendants, the foremost of all those monks who had ever filled this post.

In three of his verses in the Theragatha, Ananda sums up the way he served the Buddha through the last third of his life:

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him well with loving deeds
Like a shadow that does not depart.

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him with loving speech
Like a shadow that does not depart.

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him well with loving thoughts
Like a shadow that does not depart.

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