We should look after those who are sick and inquire about their troubles. You will reap what you sow; your fields will grow what you have planted in them.
— Jataka Nidana
The Inevitability of Sickness
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism states that life is unsatisfactory. A large part of this truth rests on the fact that no one can escape sickness, old age and death. The certainty of sickness causes suffering and yet it also stimulates us to seek liberation in the Dharma. In this samsaric world good can be seen in the bad and bad can be seen in the good; everything is mixed. If we look always toward the bad, our eyes will fill with darkness and fear. If we look often toward the good, however, we will gradually begin to elevate ourselves above the claws of duality.
Sickness is one of the Eight Sufferings. Sickness follows health and health follows sickness. We all must be prepared to die. The decline of the physical form is inevitable. While we are healthy, therefore, it is important that we use our time in such a way that we bring maximum benefit to others. Appreciation of the inevitability of sickness is an excellent stimulant of compassion. We only have a little time to grow and express ourselves. Cherish your time with others; encourage them, be a positive influence on them if you can.
The Jataka Nidana says, “Of all forms of suffering, sickness is the worst. Of all good deeds, helping those who are sick is the best.”
It is important to help people who are sick because when we become sick our bodies are weakened and this leads to a decline of will power or inner resolve. People who are sick are more prone than others to depression, anxiety and other forms of emotional tribulation. These are the times when people are most in need of other people. They need our encouragement, our warmth and our kindness more than at any other time.
How to Care for the Sick
Not only will all of us experience sickness in this life, but all of us also will be in a position at some time in our lives to help someone else who is sick. There is a natural tendency sometimes to want to turn away from people who are sick. This tendency, for the most part, is born from ignorance of knowing what to do for them. When we are in a position to care for someone who is sick. it is important that we act wisely. If we ourselves are confused about what we are doing, we may bring more harm than good to the situation.
The Ekottarika Agama mentions five important points on which we should base our care of the sick:
Be sure the person is seeing a competent doctor. Once we are under the care of a physician, it is important to trust them. However, we must all also take some responsibility ourselves. In the case of serious illness, it is always a good idea to get a second opinion on treatment.
Do not become lazy or inattentive. Your attitude toward what you are doing will be transmitted to the person who is sick. Get up early, keep their room and clothing clean, straighten the bed and be sure the person is as comfortable as can be.
Speak positively. Speak often to the person who is sick, using words of praise and encouragement whenever possible. Your speech can help them overcome loneliness and depression as it bolsters them with sociable and life-giving feelings. Don’t shut them away and pretend they no longer are part of the world or that their opinions no longer matter. When people feel involved in the events around them, they get well much more quickly.
Don’t sleep too much or ignore the person who is sick. You should be attentive to their needs and sensitive to the fact that they may have needs that are difficult for them to express. Flowers, sunshine, artwork or the right kind of reading material can do wonders for someone who is sick. The fact that others are paying attention to them is a great source of comfort to anyone who is not feeling well.
Speak about the Dharma. Keep the precepts while you are around the sick person and provide them with Buddhist materials if these seem helpful. People who are sick should be reminded that everything, including illness, is transitory. In the highest levels of reality, there is no such thing as sickness.
If these five points are closely followed, good health will usually quickly return.
The Rewards of Caring for the Sick
All acts of sincere generosity produce good rewards. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, “Being generous toward the sick and caring for the sick is one of the greatest forms of generosity.”
The Brahmajala Sutra says, “If any Buddhist should make offerings to a sick person or care for a sick person as if they were no different from the Buddha himself, then they will have planted great good seeds in the best of the eight fields of good reward.”
From many other places in the sutras, we can see that Buddha considered care of the sick to be very important. He said many times that caring for the sick would lead to good rewards in the future.
The sutras also mention many occasions when the Buddha himself cared for disciples who were sick; he washed them, washed their clothes, swept the floor and used encouraging language so that they would feel well cared for and well appreciated. Part of the greatness of the Buddha was his capacity to remember the importance of the small things in life even as he was able to see beyond this world completely. His mind was able to penetrate the deepest truths of the universe and yet at the same time he was also able to sweep the floor and mend clothing.
The great Chinese translator of Buddhist sutras, Xuanzang, similarly, did not feel he was above helping others. Before he left for India on his great journey to collect Buddhist sutras, Xuanzang cared for a dirty and lowly monk until he was cured. As Xuanzang watched over him, the monk taught him the shorter Prajnaparamita Sutra. Many years later, Xuanzang produced the finest translation ever made in Chinese of the long version of this sutra. Xuanzang’s Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra is still the standard version of this sutra used today in China.
The sages of old used to say, “One seed of grain planted in the spring, produces ten thousand seeds in autumn. Good and bad behavior both bring certain results.”
They also used to say, “If you plant a melon seed, you will get a melon. If you plant a bean, you will get a bean.”
There is another old saying: “A flower’s redness lasts less than one hundred days. A human being in this life has fewer than one thousand good days.”
While we are healthy we should use our time well. We should fill our lives with wholesome, positive activity and never shirk the duty to care for ailing friends or relatives. Good behavior is good in and of itself, but it is also a means to improve ourselves as we gradually better our own conditions by planting seeds of compassion and kindness in the world around us.
When people near to you become sick, don’t wait for them to ask for your help. This is the time to reach out and be generous with your life. Your caring kindness will go a long way toward improving this world.
Life and death flicker like flames. Suffering goes on and on. Take the Mahayana vow to save all sentient ones. Vow to stand in for them and carry their burdens for them. Vow to lead them all to the shores of ultimate joy.
— Eight Realizations of the Bodhisattva Sutra