Insights on Illness

Demonic Hordes

I remem­ber read­ing a book by Ajahn Bud­dhadāsa in which he describes phys­i­cal ill­ness as a ‘nimitta’—a ‘sign,’ ‘sym­bol,’ or ‘omen’—of death. I find this an accu­rate descrip­tion, for I have noticed that even with seem­ing­ly innocu­ous phenomena—say a small bump under the skin or a mild but unusu­al headache—that my mind fre­quent­ly brings up the ques­tion: ‘Is this a sign of some­thing seri­ous and is this the begin­ning of the end?’ Both sick­ness and death are ‘divine mes­sen­gers’ (deva-dūta): they help wake us up to the inescapable nature of things. Accord­ing to Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s state­ment above, sick­ness is the ser­vant of death.

Fol­low­ing are some teach­ings by the Bud­dha on phys­i­cal illness:


Āro­gya-paramā lāb­hā, san­tuṭṭhī para­maṃ dhanaṃ.

Health is the great­est good for­tune. Con­tent­ment is the great­est wealth.

 (Dh. verse 204)


There are to be seen beings who can assert free­dom from suf­fer­ing from bod­i­ly dis­ease for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, ten, twen­ty, thir­ty, forty, fifty years; who can assert free­dom from bod­i­ly dis­ease for even a hun­dred years. But, those beings are hard to find in the world who can assert to be with­out ill­ness of the mind, with the excep­tion of one who is free from men­tal impurity.

(A. II. 143–4)

(See the sec­tion on ‘Attrib­ut­es of an Ara­hant’ in the book on Awak­ened Beings by Ajahn Payutto.)


On one occa­sion, when he was stay­ing near Vesālī at the Gabled Hall in Mahā­vana, the Blessed One, aris­ing from seclu­sion in the evening, vis­it­ed the monks’ infir­mary. There he saw a weak and ail­ing monk, and sat down beside him on a seat made ready.

And when he was seat­ed, the Blessed One addressed the monks, say­ing: ‘Monks, if five things do not for­sake some­one who is weak and ail­ing, for him this may be expect­ed: before long, by real­iz­ing for him­self with direct knowl­edge, he will here and now enter upon and abide in the deliv­er­ance of mind and deliv­er­ance by wis­dom that are taint­less with the destruc­tion of the taints. What five?

Here, a monk abides dis­cern­ing the unat­trac­tive­ness of the body; he regards the dis­agree­able nature of food; he regards how noth­ing in the world offers sat­is­fac­tion; he dis­cerns imper­ma­nence in all con­di­tioned things; and the per­cep­tion of death is clear­ly estab­lished in his mind.’

(A. III. 142–3)


At one time the Bud­dha vis­it­ed a new­ly ordained monk who was suf­fer­ing from an illness:

The Blessed One sat down and said to that monk: ‘I hope you are bear­ing up, I hope you are get­ting bet­ter. I hope that your painful sen­sa­tions are sub­sid­ing and not increas­ing, and that their sub­sid­ing, not their increase, is to be discerned.’

Ven­er­a­ble sir, I am not bear­ing up, I am not get­ting bet­ter. Strong painful feel­ings are increas­ing in me, not sub­sid­ing, and their increase, not their sub­sid­ing, is to be discerned….

Ven­er­a­ble sir, I under­stand the Dham­ma to have been taught by the Blessed One for the sake of the fad­ing away of lust.’

Good, good, bhikkhu! It is good that you under­stand the Dham­ma to have been taught by me for the sake of the fad­ing away of lust. For the Dham­ma is taught by me for the sake of the fad­ing away of lust.

What do you think, bhikkhu, is the eye per­ma­nent or impermanent?’—‘Impermanent, ven­er­a­ble sir.’ … ‘Is the ear … the nose … the body … the mind per­ma­nent or impermanent?’—‘Impermanent, ven­er­a­ble sir.’—‘Is what is imper­ma­nent ease­ful or stressful?’—‘Stressful, ven­er­a­ble sir.’—‘Is what is imper­ma­nent, stress­ful, and sub­ject to change fit to be regard­ed thus: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self”?’—‘No, ven­er­a­ble sir.’

See­ing thus, bhikkhu, the instruct­ed noble dis­ci­ple expe­ri­ences dis­en­chant­ment towards the eye … dis­en­chant­ment towards the mind. Expe­ri­enc­ing dis­en­chant­ment, he becomes dis­pas­sion­ate. Through dis­pas­sion [his mind] is lib­er­at­ed. When it is lib­er­at­ed there comes the knowl­edge: “It is lib­er­at­ed.” He under­stands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.”’

This is what the Blessed One said. Elat­ed, that bhikkhu delight­ed in the Blessed One’s state­ment. And while this dis­course was being spo­ken, there arose in that bhikkhu the dust-free, stain­less vision of the Dham­ma: ‘What­ev­er is sub­ject to orig­i­na­tion is all sub­ject to cessation.’

(S. IV. 46–7)


If you can be mind­ful when you are sick you will learn some­thing very deep and mean­ing­ful. You will see how lone­ly you are and how mean­ing­less every­thing is.

Sayā­daw U Jotika


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