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.”

footsteps image summer 1998Ananda brought the Buddha water for washing his face and tooth-wood for cleaning his teeth; he arranged his seat, washed his feet, massaged his back, fanned him, swept his cell, and mended his robes. He slept nearby at night to be always on hand. He accompanied him on his rounds through the monastery and after meetings he checked to see whether any monk had left anything behind. He carried the Buddha’s messages and called the monks together, even sometimes at midnight. When the Buddha was sick, he obtained medicine for him. Once when monks neglected a very sick fellow monk, the Buddha and Ananda washed him and together carried him to a resting place.

Ananda also [had a boundless] willingness to sacrifice himself. When Devadatta [another cousin and disciple of the Buddha] let loose a wild elephant to kill the Buddha, Ananda threw himself in front of the Buddha, ready to die himself rather than let the Blessed One be killed or injured. Three times the Buddha asked him to step back, but he did not comply. Only when the Master moved him gently from the spot through supernatural powers could he be dissuaded from his intention to sacrifice himself.

Above all, Ananda had the duties of a good secretary, facilitating the smooth communication between the thousands of monks and the Master. Together with [the disciples] Sariputta and Moggallana he tried to sort out, and attend to, the manifold problems of human relationships that turn up in a community. Ananda played the important role of clarifying doubts and keeping order. Often he was the go-between for the monks, arranging for them an audience with the Master, or he brought the Buddha’s words to members of other sects. He refused no one and felt himself to be a bridge rather than a barrier.

Among the disciples whom the Buddha declared preeminent, the Venerable Ananda had the distinction of being pronounced preeminent in five qualities.

One, of those who had “heard much,” i.e., who had learned much of the Buddha’s discourses (bahussutnam); two, of those who had a good memory (satimantanam); three, of those who had mastery over the sequential structure of the teachings (gatinmantanam); four, of those who were steadfast in study, etc. (dhitimantanam); and five, of the Buddha’s attendants (upatthakanam).

These five qualities all stem from mindfulness (sati). In a narrower sense, sati is the ability to remember. Ananda had this ability to a phenomenal degree. He could immediately remember everything, even if he heard it only once. He could repeat discourses of the Buddha flawlessly up to sixty thousand words, without leaving out a single syllable. He was able to recite fifteen thousand four-line stanzas of the Buddha.

Sati, or mindfulness, in this context, means the retention in mind of the discourses heard and their application to one’s own self-inquiry. For the third quality, gati, widely differing renderings have been proposed by translators, but according to the ancient commentary it refers to the capacity to perceive in the mind the internal connection and coherence of a discourse. This Ananda was able to do because he understood well the meaning and significance of the teaching concerned, with all its implications. Hence, even when his recitation was interrupted by a question, he was able to resume the recital exactly at the point where he had broken off. The fourth quality was his steadfastness (dhiti), his energy and unflagging dedication to the tasks of studying, memorizing, and reciting the Buddha’s words and of personally attending on the Master. The fifth and last quality was that of a perfect attendant.

In selecting Ananda as the treasurer or guardian of his Dispensation, the Buddha had chosen one whose personal qualities coincided perfectly with the demands of the post. By virtue of his devotion to learning, Ananda was ideally suited to receive the manifold teachings delivered over a forty-five-year period; by virtue of his phenomenal memory, he could retain them in mind exactly as spoken by the Master; by virtue of his sense of order, he could be relied on to preserve them in the correct sequence and to explain them in such a way that the structure of ideas accorded with the Buddha’s intention; and by virtue of his steadfastness, he would so endeavor that the pupils under his charge would receive the teachings fully and be properly trained so that they in turn could pass them on to their own pupils.

Buddhist tradition specifies the number of recitation units (dhammakkhanda, lit. “aggregates of the Dhamma”) in the Buddha’s Teaching as eighty-four thousand, and in one verse Ananda claims to have received them all:

I received from the Buddha 82,000,
And from the bhikkhus 2,000 more.
Thus there are 84,000 units,
Teachings that are set in motion.

The Buddha often addressed the Venerable Ananda with questions on the teachings, which were either meant for Ananda’s spiritual growth or gave the occasion for a discourse to all the monks present. In this way many of the conversations between the Buddha and Ananda are discourse for the instruction of others.

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