Special Topics

Taking illness as teacher and learning to live well with illness

Everyone has had the experience of being sick. Most people think that being sick is a highly unpleasant experience. However, some people take illness as a teacher, through knowing suffering, experiencing suffering, not mistaking illness for suffering, and, thus, seizing the present moment and living well.

"Why did I get this disease?"; "I have entered and left the hospital so many times, when will I recover?" ; "I am old and sick-- I feel like there is no hope left anymore"… Taking a walk along the ward and the clinic, the doubts of the patients and their family members show their fear and anxiety about the unknown, as well as revealing the inevitable part played in life by the suffering of illness.

Everyone has had the experience of being sick. For most people, illness is very tormenting and painful, especially when patients have to lie in bed for a long time and enter and leave the hospital multiple times, which will in turn make them feel depressed and demoralized. However, some diseases eventually lead to death. The anxiety, distress, anguish, and exasperation that accompany illness will lead patients to become overburdened by the suffering of illness, with no escape.

Open your heart

"Anyone can get sick. As long as you have a physical body, you will experience old age, sickness, and death; therefore, even the Buddha is no exception. The difference is that: although enlightened beings, accomplished masters and great practitioners become sick, they know how to use methods to keep their minds calm." Venerable Chang Jian, director of Dharma Drum Mountain Department of Social Care who often goes in and out of hospitals to extend loving care to patients and their family members, observed that, when getting sick, most people are either anxious to get rid of their pain and suffering, or, conversely, become "professional patients", whose lives are only about illness and medicine. "In fact, illness is "pain", rather than suffering. Some patients do not understand the nature of life, so they are very helpless and reluctant to accept the fact that they are sick. As a result, they experience suffering. As long as they are willing to open their hearts and change their mindset, they can separate their illness from suffering.”

"The body and mind affect each other. The more we care about our physical pain, the stronger our mental suffering. If we just look at our physical pain and become aware of it, without trying to escape it or have expectations, we can better accept all kinds of unexpected situations." Venerable Chang Kuan, Master Sheng Yen's former attendant who accompanied him to enter and leave the hospital for a long time, also observed that, from waiting for diagnosis to starting treatment to facing death etc., the patient's mood will inevitably fluctuate with the condition. However, there is no need to scare oneself. One should face the illness with an ordinary mind and learn from Master Sheng Yen's attitude towards illness: "Leave your illness to the doctor, and your life to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (or to your own beliefs). In doing so, you'll be a healthy person with nothing to worry about."

Illness as an opportunity to practice

Although we know the concepts, if we don't make good use of the methods, pain of illness will increase our fear and panic when it does occasionally occur. In the Samyukta Agama, we can see that when the Buddha visited his sick disciples, they confided to him: "I suffer extreme physical pain that is hard to bear"; "now my sufferings only increase but never subside." Those who are seriously ill are especially worried about where they will go after death. In light of this, the Buddha would ask his disciples detailed questions about their physical and mental condition and illness symptoms, as well as suggest corresponding practice methods.

For example, the Buddha encouraged Sudatta Anathapindika, an old lay practitioner who had been studying Buddhism for many years, to use "four objects of indestructible faith" and "six kinds of mindfulness (sad anusmrtayah, in Sanskrit)" to strengthen his faith in Buddhism and to eliminate fear of facing death and rebirth in the lower realms, in the event that his pain increased but did not alleviate. If the patient is a newly ordained monk who is attached to the five aggregates as a real self, the Buddha would urge him to contemplate the impermanence of the five aggregates and no-self. As for those disciples who have already attained enlightenment, such as Mahakassapa and Sariputra, the Buddha would ask them to continue practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and Four Foundations of Mindfulness when they were sick, so that they can calm their body and mind. When the Buddha had his last rainy season retreat at the age of 80, he suffered from severe dysentery which was so painful that it was almost fatal at that time. The Buddha himself also practiced the right views and right mindfulness to subdue the bondage of his illness.
From the Buddhist point of view, having illness is a great opportunity to rest and practice the Dharma. Being sick is a warning sign from our body, reminding us that we should let our body rest well. When lying on a hospital bed, we can practice the Buddha's teachings and learn the Buddha's wisdom in dealing with sickness.

A lesson about "suffering"

More than two thousand years ago, Prince Siddhartha went out of the city gate four times and saw, respectively, the phenomenon of birth, old age, sickness and death. He then left his home to practice, seeking a way and methods of liberation from suffering. In order to provide the ultimate solution to these four problems of life, Tathagata appeared in the world. From these four problems of life, we can also see that wherever suffering arises, liberation can also be attained.

Extended Reading:

Taking illness as teacher and learning to live well with illness

Buddha's Teachings on Suffering from Illness

Practicing the Dharma While Ill

Q1: Why am I getting this illness?

Q2: I've been in and out of the hospital so many times. When will I recover?

Q3: Why do some infants get sick immediately after birth? How does Buddhism view this?

Q4: What can be done if someone is sick in bed for a very long time and feels hopeless about life?

Q5: I have recited the Buddha's name, practiced generosity, and performed good deeds, so why do I still get sick?

Q6: When a family member of mine is suffering from an illness, what can I do to alleviate his fear and pain?

Q7: If the body is in unbearable pain, isn't reciting Buddha's name an additional burden?

Q8: My health is deteriorating, and I feel like there is not much time left for me. How should I prepare myself for death?


Resource: Issue 380 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 380 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation (Photos painted by 劉建志)
Translation: 麗萍
Editing: Keith Brown, YKL