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.”

Sometimes Ananda reported certain views of his to the Buddha so that the Master could either accept them or correct them. Once he approached the Buddha and said, “It seems to me, Lord, that good friendship is half of the holy life.” Unexpectedly, the Buddha disagreed: “Do not speak thus, Ananda! Noble friendship is more than half the holy life. It is the entire holy life!” For what would the holy life be like if they had not all come to the Buddha, as their best friend, to be shown the right way?

Once Ananda saw an archer perform extraordinary feats. He told the Buddha how much this had impressed him - and coming from the warrior caste, Ananda must have been temperamentally disposed to appreciate such displays of martial skill. The Buddha used this statement to draw an analogy. He said it was more difficult to understand and penetrate the Four Noble Truths than to hit and penetrate with an arrow a hair split seven times.

Another [sutra] says that Ananda once saw the famous brahmin Janussoni, a disciple of the Buddha, driving along in his glorious white chariot. He heard the people exclaim that the brahmin’s chariot was the most beautiful of all. Ananda reported this to the Buddha and asked him how one could describe the best chariot according to the Dhamma. The Buddha explained the vehicle to Nibbana by means of a detailed simile:

Faith and wisdom are the draught-animals, moral shame the break, intellect the reins, mindfulness the charioteer, virtue the accessories, meditation the axle, energy the wheels, equanimity the balance, renunciation the chassis; the weapons are love, harmlessness, and solitude, and patience is its armor.

When Ananda was 120 years old, he felt that his end was near. He went from Rajagaha on a journey to Vesali, just as his Master had done. When the king of Magadha and the princes of Vesali heard that Ananda would soon attain final Nibbana, they hurried to him from both directions to bid him farewell. In order to do justice to both sides, Ananda chose a way to die in keeping with his gentle nature: he raised himself into the air through his supernormal powers and let his body be consumed by the fire element. The relics were divided and stupas erected.

After his passing the elders who compiled the subsequent recension of the canon added three verses to his collection in the Theragatha.

Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma,
The guardian of the Great Seer’s Treasure,
Ananda, the eye of the entire world,
Has attained final Nibbana.

Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma,
The guardian of the Great Seer’s Treasure,
Ananda, the eye of the entire world,
Was a dispeller of gloom in the darkness.

The seer who was so retentive,
Of keen memory and resolute,
The elder sustaining the true Dhamma,
Ananda was a mine of gems.

Excerpted from Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Loves, Their Works, Their Legacy, by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker, edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi, reprinted courtesy of Wisdom Publications.

Image 1: The Buddha surrounded by his disciples in an eighteenth-century Tibetan thangka; Ananda stands at the bottom right. Image through the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation/Courtesy of Moke Mokotoff

Image 2: Ananda, in detail from the thangka in the previous image

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