Among the disciples of the Buddha, Venerable Ananda had the most retentive memory. Ananda joined the Sangha when he was a child. It was said that he became a monk together with Aniruddha and Bhadra. Initially when the four Sakyas princes became monks, Ananda was the youngest of all.
The father of Ananda was King Suklodana, Buddha's greatest betrayer, Devadatta was Ananda's elder brother. Once when Buddha returned to his homeland to preach, King Suklodana was afraid that Buddha would influence Ananda so after meeting Buddha, he brought Ananda to Vaisali so that there would be less opportunity of Ananda meeting Buddha. However, later Buddha went to Vaisali too so King Suklodana again brought Ananda back to Kapilavastu.
In fact, among the princes, Buddha had the greatest hope that Ananda would leave home with him. The Buddha could foresee the future and he thought, " If Ananda leaves home, he shall spread Buddha Dharma to the future generations.
When the Buddha knew Ananda had returned to Kapilavastu, he immediately went to the palace of King Suklodana. When Ananda saw the Buddha, he paid his respects to the Buddha and used a fan to fan Him. From here we can see that little Ananda had respected Buddha even at a young age.
When the time was ripe, Ananda and prince Bhadra joined the monk's community.
Helping in the Setting up of the Order of Nuns
Growing up in the Sangha, Ananda had a gentle and compassionate disposition. He was most respected by women because he was caring towards the bhikkhunis and women followers of the Buddha.
It was due to the effort of Ananda that Buddha allowed female to become bhikkhunis.
When Buddha's foster mother Mahaprajapati saw that the Buddha had attained enlightenment, that some of the princes had taken refuge in Buddha and the king was dead, she wanted to leave home to be a bhikkhuni or nun.
Mahaprajapati begged the Buddha to permit her to stay in the Buddha's community or Sangha but the Buddha refused. To avoid the frequent begging from his foster mother, the Buddha went to preach in Namantini monastery which was not far from Vaisali.
Mahaprajapati was not deterred. She gathered five hundred women of the Sakyan clan who had similar thoughts as her, shaved their hair and walked bare-footed to catch up with the Buddha. They walked for over two thousand miles and finally reached the monastery where the Buddha stayed. Having stayed in the palace for so long and not used to walking such long distances, the women looked tired and haggard. They paced outside the monastery and dared not enter. Ananda happened to come out and when he saw Mahaprajapati and the other women wearing the robes of bhikkunis, with dust and tears on their faces, he had a shock. He asked them, "What is going on?"
Mahaprajapati replied, "We leave our loved ones and relatives and walked all the way here to become bhikkunis. If Buddha refuse us again, we shall die here and never return!"
Ananda was so touched by the words that he could not control his tears. He related the message to Buddha and begged the Buddha to grant the women their wish.
The Buddha, however, refused, "Ananda, I sympathise with them but it is not appropriate to let women enter our community."
"Lord Buddha! Are men and women different in the Buddha Dharma?" Ananda picked up the courage to ask.
"Ananda! the Dharma is the same in heaven or in the world. I do not discriminate against women, that is to say that I treat all sentient beings as equal. Women can do as the men did, follow my Dharma and practice but they need not become bhikkunis. This is the question of our system and not whether men and women are equal. Women leaving home are like wild grass in the field which will affect the harvest."
This speech of the Buddha had profound meaning. On the aspect of humanity, women should be allowed to leave home however on the aspect of Dharma logic, it s not good to allow the two sexes to practice together. Wisdom and love move opposite ways, some people might give up practice for love so Buddha refused to let women to join the Sangha. Or perhaps the Buddha felt that as compared to men, women are more vain, delicate and slower than men so he disallowed women from entering to teach them a lesson.
Although the Buddha refused, nevertheless Ananda said in tears, "Lord Buddha! Can you bear to see them die, shouldn't you show them compassion and give them a helping hand?"
The Buddha felt that at times, it was impossible to care for both Dharma and feelings at the same time, he also understood that there was no pure and unchanging Dharma. Buddha was quiet for a while and finally agreed to Ananda's request to allow women to leave home. Happily, Ananda rushed outside to announce the good news. Mahaprajapti and the other women were overjoyed with tears. The Buddha met the five hundred women and wanted them to obey eight extra rules towards the monks.
Encounter with Matanga
Ananda was young and handsome and this caused him some trouble. One day, he begged in Sravasti and on the way back he saw a well. A peasant girl was getting water from the well. Ananda was thirsty so he asked the girl to give him some water.
The girl recognised the young bhikkhu in front of her was Ananda. Very shyly she said, "Venerable! I am a lowly peasant who is not fit to offer you anything."
When Ananda heard this, he consoled her, "Young lady! I am a bhikkhu and I am equal towards the rich and poor!"
The girl was deeply attracted by Ananda's looks and his gentle speech. She even dreamed of marrying him. In actual fact, young Ananda could not forget the young lady too! Next day, when he passed by her house, the girl smiled and acknowledged him. Ananda began to feel confused. However at the moment he remembered he was the bhikkhu who had to abide by the precepts, he though of Buddha, his power engulfed him. Ananda suddenly found wisdom, as if the Buddha had turned into a gust of wind to guide him back to the Jetavana monastery.
On the second day, Ananda calmed himself then went to the city to beg. The young girl wore a new dress and had a new hairdo. She stood on the road waiting for Ananda. When she saw him, she followed him and refused to let him go. Ananda was nervous and helpless. He returned to the monastery and told the Buddha everything. The Buddha then told him to bring the girl to him.
When the girl heard that Buddha wanted to see her, she was shocked but in order to get Ananda, she picked up courage to see the Buddha. Upon seeing her, Buddha said, " Ananda is a practising monk, to be his wife you need to leave home and be a bhikkhuni for a year, are you willing?"
"I an willing, Lord Buddha!" The girl was surprised that the Buddha had so easily made her wish come true, so she answered very quickly.
"According to my system, leaving home needs approval from parents, can you get your parents to approve of it?"
The Buddha did not make things difficult for her. His conditions were not impossible and the girl immediately went home to fetch her mother. Her mother very happily agreed to let her daughter become a bhikkuni first before marrying Ananda.
In order to be Ananda's wife, the girl very happily shaved her hair to become a bhikkuni. She listened to Buddha's preachings very enthusiastically and practised according to Buddha's guidance. Her desires and emotions calmed down after each passing day and in less than half a year, she realised that in the past her pursuits for love was a shameful behaviour.
Buddha always preached that the five forms of desires were unclean Dharma and the source of sufferings. Only when the five desires were cleared could the mind become pure and the life peaceful.
The girl realised her obsession with Ananda was unclean and bad. She regretted and one day, she knelt in front of Buddha and tearfully repented, " Buddha! I am awake now, I will not be ignorant like I used to be. I am very grateful to you. In order to convert ignorant sentient beings like us, you have put in so much effort to think of various ways! From now on, I am going to be a bhikkuni forever, follow Buddha's footsteps to be a messenger of truth!"
Buddha's earnest teachings had finally awakened her to become a model bhikkhuni!
This girl was the well-known Matanga. In allowing a peasant girl to be a bhikkhuni, Buddha received a lot of criticism and opposition from people as the caste system was prevalent at that time. However, Buddha advocated equality of the four castes. The incidence of Matanga's attraction to Ananda's looks and the turning of misfortune into happiness had become a matter of great interest in the Buddhist community and a charming story through the ages.
Trouble with Females
Ananda was helpful towards bhikkhunis. As he could get along well with people, all women, especially bhikkunis had deep respect for him. Sometimes when he walked with Maha Kassapa, bhikkhunis usually asked for Ananda's advice before they asked Maha Kassapa, though Maha Kassapa was more senior than Ananda, in terms of knowledge, experience and age.
The minds of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are constantly at war with their sensible reasonings and emotions. If sensibility win, they can become Buddha, if emotions win, they remain as ordinary people. It is difficult to expect all bhikkhus and bhikkhunis to lead a withered and dull life without any form of love of the world.
In the Jetavana monastery, there lived a young female bhikkhuni. She was deeply attracted by Ananda's outstanding features and grace and loved him secretly. However, living in the strict Buddhist community, she was not allowed to break the precepts, so she felt helpless and frustrated.
One day, this young bhikkhuni fell sick and she asked someone to pass a message to Ananda asking him to visit her. Next morning, before he went to beg for food, the kind Ananda went to visit the bhikkhuni. However she was half dressed and when Ananda walked near her, she looked at him with deep love. Ananda immediately understood and without uttering a single word, he turned and walked away. The young bhikkhuni quickly got up from bed, dressed and rushed after Ananda. She invited Ananda to sit down. When Ananda sat down, he said, " Sister! Do not use unclean things to feed your body, do not have incorrect thoughts of sexual desire. Sister! You are unwell, as long as you put your body and mind in an undemanding state, you will soon recover."
However, the young bhikkhuni still looked at Ananda with tenderness and love, she said, "I understand what you mean but no matter how hard I try, I can't control my feeling for you. People, in order to feel protected and peaceful, cannot be without demands!"
"Sister! You must not think this way. People work for clothes, food and shelter for cultivation of body. To cultivate a healthy body is to practice the way, then the mind can be peaceful. To forget the path but instead pursue the impermanent desire is incorrect. We cultivate our body and mind, cut off all desires to pursue the true path and not be lured by void and empty ways!"
The bhikkhuni was deeply touched and put off her desire for love. She received the Dharma eyes.
Actually, Ananda had no thoughts of love nor desire for women but only pure friendship. However, because of women, he encountered a lot of problems thereby causing jealousy and criticisms.
Becoming Buddha's Attendant
In Buddha's heart, Ananda was the person to spread Buddha's seeds. However, his problems with women were especially much. In order to let Ananda control himself and practice with concentration, Buddha intended to make Ananda his attendant.
In fact, ever since Buddha attained enlightenment, Sariputra, Mogallana, Kapala and others, had taken turns to serve the Buddha. We could say that within these twenty over years, the Buddha had no permanent attendant serving him.
It might be due to Buddha's old age that he needs a constant attendant. A number of bhikkhu volunteered to serve Buddha but Buddha rejected and assigned them to preach in various places. Mogallan understood the Buddha's feelings so together with Sariputra, they persuaded Ananda, "Ananda bhikkhu! The Buddha's intention is that you become his attendant. You are young, capable, intelligent and gentle, we hope you will agree."
Initially, Ananda declined giving the excuse of heavy responsibility. However, he finally agreed after much persuasion from Sariputra and Mollagana. But Ananda listed three conditions:
1. Buddha's clothing, whether new or old, he refuses to wear.
2. When devotees invite the Buddha to receive offerings, he will not go along.
3. When it is not time to see the Buddha, he will not see him. Other than these, he is willing to serve Lord Buddha.
Mogallan and Sariputra related Ananda's conditions to the Buddha. Not only was Buddha not angry, instead he happily praised,
"Ananda is really a bhikkhu with character. He listed three conditions to avoid criticisms. He does not want others to criticise that he serve Buddha because of good clothes and food. He knows how to prevent these conditions…"
From then on, Ananda became Buddha's attendant. He was only twenty over years old. During his twenty-seven years with Buddha, he acted according to Buddha's instructions and accompanied Buddha to preach at various places. He was also the mediator between Buddha and bhikkhus. In the Sangha, Ananda maintained a modest and respectful attitude. Many devotees took refuge in Buddha because of him.
The greatest regret in Ananda's life was his brother, Devadatta.
Devadatta might have become a bhikkhu just because others did and not because he really wanted to be. As a result, he did not practice hard but instead misled the others and was always dreaming of acquiring supernatural powers.
Devadatta and his brother Ananda had very different characters. Devadatta was ambitious and discontented. The Buddha even asked him to return to the ordinary world to become a lay Buddhist and not create problems in the Sangha, however, Devadatta refused to listen to the Buddha.
He wanted the Buddha to teach him the ways to acquire supernatural powers but the Buddha told him to purify his body and mind and that supernatural powers were not representative of virtuous behaviours. After the Buddha rejected him, Devadatta was very unhappy and he begged Arahats like Sariputra and Mogallana to teach him the supernatural power. Sariputra and the others knew his bad character so they rejected him.
Devadatta's rebellious behaviour gradually expanded. He even intended to kill Buddha to ease his anger and made himself the leader.
One day Ananda and the Buddha were walking at the foot of a mountain cliff and were seen by Devadatta who was at the mountain top. He felt that it was an opportunity not to be missed, disregarding the fact that his brother Ananda was there too. Devadatta rolled huge rocks down the cliff. The Buddha did not attempt to avoid them but Ananda ran off. The rocks fell beside the Buddha and after a while, Ananda returned and nervously rushed to Buddha and asked, "Lord Buddha are you all right? This is my brother's doing, I am so ashamed. Your situation is too dangerous." The Buddha calmly answered, " Ananda whether through violence or plots, the Buddha cannot be harmed. You need not feel ashamed because of Devadatta, whoever commits the crime is responsible, the Buddha's situation is not dangerous. I think you are the one in danger, look how you behave just now."
Ananda's cultivation was definitely not comparable to the Buddha. He thought of his nervous behaviour just now and felt regretful.
Later, Devadatta paid for his bad deeds and had a tragic death. However having such a brother was Ananda's greatest regrets in life.
The Buddha's Final Nirvana
Ananda was Buddha's attendant for twenty-seven years. He was a good organizer. No matter who came to see Buddha, he could arrange an appropriate time. Especially those bhikkhus that came from faraway places, they loved to talk to Ananda first before they see Buddha because Ananda was very warm towards them. Lay Buddhists like to listen to Ananda's preachings and Ananda always taught them to respect the triple gems, observe five precepts, be filial towards parents, make offerings to the Sangha. Even though Ananda had not attained enlightenment, he already possessed such virtues. He accompanied Buddha to preach at various places and soon, he was fifty years old.
Forty-five years after he attained enlightenment, Lord Buddha entered Parinirvana between two shala trees at Kushinagara.
Like the radiance of the enchanting evening sun, the Buddha, before he entered Nirvana, gave out an unusual radiance. The Buddha laid on a bed made by Ananda. Soon, darkness fell, incidentally the shala trees burst into bloom, shedding a rain of flowers on Buddha's body. Ananda knelt beside the Buddha's bed and gently asked, "Lord Buddha! What should be our attitude towards women in the future?" Please give me guidance again!"
Buddha answered, "Ananda! To attain enlightenment, one should not think of women, especially you. Although you are growing old, nevertheless it is better for you not to look at women. If it is unavoidance, then treat old women as your mother, elder women as your elder sister and young women as your young sister. Ananda! You must bear in mind my words!"
Buddha explained to Ananda various matters such as the construction of monasteries. Thinking that these were the Buddha's final words, the soft-heartened Ananda began to cry, especially so when he thought of his own unenlightened mind. When the Buddha entered Nirvana, who can be rely to attain enlightenment? The more he thought, the more sadly he cried.
The Buddha talked to him again, "Ananda, do not be sad. Don't I often tell you that the world is impermanent. While there is life, there is death. You have served me for so long, hardworking and tolerant. I will use these meritorious deeds to repay you. Practice hard for zealous progress and soon you will leave the binding of miseries to attain enlightenment!" Buddha followed by addressing the rest, " Fellow bhikkhus! Ananda have loyally served me for so many years. He is gentle and kind. His memory is good. His meritorious deeds will bring brilliance to the world!"
At that time, the moon quietly shone at the Shela Grove. The quiet and lofty mind of the Buddha shone at all the people in the grove. That was a touching yet solemn scene. Everybody, including those enlightened sage, weeps. Ananda was especially sad and cried tearfully.
However, crying wouldn't help, the most important was to ask the Buddha how to keep the Dharma forever. They discussed and chose Ananda to represent them to ask the Buddha:
"First, when Lord Buddha enter Nirvana, who shall be the master? Second, when Lord Buddha enter Nirvana, how shall we live? Third, when Lord Buddha enter Nirvana, how to treat evil people? Fourth when Lord Buddha enter Nirvana, how do we propagate the Teachings"
In his usual compassionate tone, Buddha replied, "Fellow bhikkhus! All of you must remember to take precepts as your master and take the Dharma (Truth) as your refuge, in this way you will ensure the continuance of the Dharma."
After hearing Buddha's words, everyone felt touched. Eventually Buddha entered Parinirvana quietly.
The news that Buddha entered Parinirvana spread and many people from everywhere rushed to see him. Ananda felt that before Buddha die, very few women had the opportunity to pay their respects to Buddha, so he let bhikkhunis and female lay disciples pay their respects first. From here we can see that he was always sympathising with women.
After the Buddha had entered Parinirvana, Ananda rested for three days. Then he hurried to Rajarha because of the First Council where disciples of Buddha would compile the sutras, containing Buddha's sermons and the precepts for believers. Although Ananda had not attained enlightenment, nonetheless as one of Buddha's greatest disciples, he felt he had the responsibility to help out.
The First Council
When Ananda reached Rajarha, it was the eve of the Council. As the leader, Maha Kassapa chose five hundred bhikkhus to take part. All of them were arahats who had attained enlightenment. As Ananda was unenlightened, he was not selected.
Actually, Maha Kassapa recognised Ananda's strong point, especially his memory of the discourses given by the Buddha. However, in such an important matter, Maha Kassapa feared that to let the unenlightened Ananda participate might be a mistake. However, people loved Ananda and they unanimously voted him but Maha Kassapa objected.
That was a great blow to Ananda, but he was not deterred. At night, he practised hard, pondered deeply, let down everything and at midnight, he eventually attained enlightenment. The next day, before the door was opened, he was already inside the hall.
Ananda at that moment was bright and charmingly graceful as the beautiful lily under the bright sun. The eminent bhikkhus stared at him surprisingly but nevertheless they welcome Ananda. Under the leadership of Maha Kassapa, Ananda was carried by the bhikkhus onto the lion's seat and started to recite from his memory. The bhikkhus once again received Buddha's guidance which they were very grateful.
The initial scriptures such as the four Agamas and the Dhammapada, etc were recited by Ananda in the First Council.
After Buddha entered Nirvana, Maha Kassapa became his successor. Twenty years later, Maha Kassapa was over a hundred years old. He went to Cock's foot mountain to enter Nirvana. Before he left, he handed everything over to Ananda. At that time, Ananda was already eighty years old.
Ananda passed his responsibility of spreading Buddhism to his disciples Sanakavasa whom he had trained. Then he walked towards River Ganges in the north. At this time King Ajatasatru of Magadha declared war with Vaisali. Ananda felt it was unfair of him to enter Nirvana in either country as one of them would not be able to have his remaining relics so he decided to enter Nirvana in the boundary of both countries which was the middle of river Ganges.
When King Ajatastru got news of Ananda's Nirvana, he quickly led some of his men and rushed to River Ganges. When he reached the bank, Ananda had already rowed the boat to the middle of the river. King Ajatasatru immediately knelt on the ground and shouted loudly, "The Supreme Buddha! Please have great compassion. Honoured Venerable who gives us peace! Honoured Venerable of the three realms of lights!" Please come back!"
On the opposite bank, the people of Vaisali shouted similar words. Sitting in the boat, Ananda shouted, "I consider the hatred between both your countries, that's why I come here, the middle of the River Ganges to enter Nirvana so that both countries will each have half of my body!"
After saying, Ananda entered the fourth dhyana and into Nirvana, dividing his holy body into two halves for the two countries to worship. Because of Ananda, Magaha and Vaisali stopped fighting and the two countries patched up the differences, saving thousands of lives.