Special Topics

Buddha’s Teachings on Suffering from Illness

The three phenomena of old age, sickness, and death are the causes and conditions for the Buddha to appear in the world to preach the Dharma. For monastic and lay disciples who are in pain, the Buddha would give corresponding teachings according to different individuals, thereby skillfully and wisely providing practice methods to heal the suffering body and mind.

Buddha is known as the "Great King of Physicians" because he knows well the suffering of patients, the root of the disease and the methods to cure the disease. He also is well versed in curing the disease, so that it will never recur. The Buddha not only heals all living beings' physical ailments, but also cures their mental diseases, thereby helping them achieve the cessation of suffering. 

In the Samyukta Agama (雜阿含經, in Chinese), there are very detailed descriptions about the Buddha's visits to his sick disciples. The Buddha gave the Dharma medicine in response to the illness of his disciples with different karmic capacities. In addition, he taught the corresponding practice methods to resolve their most concerned problems of suffering from Illness, thereby helping them benefit from the Dharma medicine, and thus restoring their physical and mental health.  

Asking about Wellbeing and Extending Loving Care Prior to Giving the Dharma Medicine 

For example, when the Buddha and Shariputra went to visit their monastic or lay disciples who were seriously ill, they would mercifully ask the patients not to get up to greet them, so as not to increase their physical pain. At the same time, they would first kindly ask the patients how they feel physically. Is their pain increasing or alleviating? He would subsequently ask whether they maintain a normal and balanced diet, and so on.    

If the person who suffers from illness is his monastic disciple, the Buddha would first inquire about his physical condition, after which he would immediately ask: "Do you have regrets? Have you violated any precepts?" He would do so in order to understand whether the sick disciple was trapped in the suffering of regret and predicament due to violation of precepts and thus faced the pressure of moral condemnation. This could in turn lead to an obstacle in practice that prevents him from making progress. The Buddha would give the sick disciple the opportunity to repent at the right time, and then teach the appropriate methods of practice. 

Observing truthfully the physical and mental suffering from illness 

The Buddha's teachings on suffering from illness vary across different individuals. In the sutras related to illness in the Samyukta Agama (Volume 47, sutras 1265-1266 and Volume 37, sutras 1023-1038), we can see that those who received the Buddha's teachings can be roughly divided into four categories: 1. the great disciples of the Buddha (such as Mahakasyapa, Maudgalyayana and Aniruddha, etc.); 2. Monks who have studied Buddhism for a period of time but have not yet attained the stage of arhat; 3. Newly ordained monks; 4. lay practitioners who have studied Buddhism for a long time. In general, the Buddha gave more profound teachings to monastic disciples in contrast with beginners or lay disciples, who were given simpler teachings. From the different objects of the teaching, we can see the Buddha's skillfulness in teaching the Dharma according to the learner's aptitude.

For upasakas* who protect and support the Dharma, such as Sudatta Anathapindika, Dharmadiri, Longevity Young Boy, Layman Sarah, etc., since they have accumulated a lot of good karma and merits and have also heard the true Dharma, when they were ill, the Buddha gave teachings mainly to guide them to establish confidence and generate good thoughts. Therefore, the Buddha taught them to practice "four objects of indestructible faith" and "five kinds of mindfulness", or "six kinds of mindfulness* (sad anusmrtayah, in Sanskrit)".

* upasaka: male lay Buddhist practitioners
* six kinds of mindfulness: 1) mindfulness of the Buddha 2) mindfulness of the dharma 3) mindfulness of the sangha 4) mindfulness of moral practice 5) mindfulness of generosity 6) mindfulness of divinity

The "four objects of indestructible faith" include having firm faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and observing the holy precepts with perseverance. The "five kinds of mindfulness" include the "four objects of indestructible faith" plus the mindfulness of generosity; and, finally, the "six kinds of mindfulness" includes "five kinds of mindfulness", plus the mindfulness of divinity. When facing death or the unknown future, ordinary people are often afraid and anxious. Therefore, we can often recall the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and the merits of keeping the holy precepts, knowing that we will not fall into the evil realms because we have the "four objects of indestructible faith", thereby comforting our mind and giving us an ultimate support for our life, as well as enhancing our healing energy.

When the newly ordained monks were ill, the Buddha taught them to thoroughly contemplate the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind). As for the monks who have been studying Buddhism for some time, the Buddha would teach them to contemplate the impermanence of the five aggregates and the truth of suffering and no-self, as well as to truthfully reflect on the reality of life if they still believe that there is a truly existent self. 

Taming the Suffering from Illness with Right Mindfulness and Right Views

When his great enlightened disciples were sick, the Buddha taught them to directly practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Through practicing the mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and dharmas, one can understand that the physical body, feelings of suffering, thoughts, and all phenomena are impermanent, suffering, empty and without self, thereby overcoming pain and sorrow and practicing patience with suffering from illness. In addition, through practicing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment--- namely, mindfulness, investigation of suchness , effort, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity, one can transcend the disturbance of physical pain, using it as an aid to achieve the state of Nirvana. 

When the Buddha himself was seriously ill, how did he overcome the pain using the Dharma medicine? According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (大般涅槃經, in Chinese), when the Buddha was in Vaisali for his last rainy season retreat, he was seriously ill and almost died. The Buddha's healing method is to abide in right views and right mindfulness, practicing diligently without frustration. With wisdom, right mindfulness and unbiased views, the Buddha used illness as an object of observation, thereby taming the suffering that arises from illness. 

Aging, sickness, and death are inevitable phenomena in the world. From the Buddha's teachings on suffering from illness, we can know that illness is the cause and condition for leading us to explore the ultimate reality of life. The practice of Buddhism starts with respecting and believing in the Three Jewels and keeping the Five Precepts, which provides a correct way of life. However, bodily illness not only leads us to contemplate the impermanence of body and mind, the truth of suffering, and the reality of selflessness, but will also point out a clear way to liberate from the suffering of illness. Isn't this a great  opportunity for life awakening?

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: 可馨  
Editing: Keith Brown, YKL