Aug 20, 2021
Martin Goodson

Ananda and the Untouchable

Stories Retold

Metta, sometimes translated as goodwill or loving kindness, is an essential aspect of the Buddha nature that reveals itself when ‘I’ am forgotten.

Buddhist monk with hands clasped


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One day Ananda, the Buddha’s assistant, approached a well to have a drink.  A woman, a member of the untouchable caste, was drawing water and Ananda asked her for some.  The woman was surprised that she had been asked to give anything to a monk as the caste laws stated that anything given by one who is considered unclean would also be unclean.  However, Ananda persisted and eventually she gave in and gave him a drink.

The woman was so moved by this experience which had never happened before that she felt a strong affection for Ananda and made up her mind to serve him.  Thus, she went to the Buddha and asked if she might be Ananda’s assistant.  The Buddha asked her why she wanted to do this.  She told him.  The Buddha replied that what she had fallen in love with was not Ananda but his kindness.  Also, that this kindness was present in her own heart and that if she were to cultivate it within  she would be able to serve both kings and queens.

This is a lovely story about the power of goodwill or ‘metta’ to affect the heart. The Buddha taught that the most important element of any act is the motivation behind it.  All of us are capable of ‘doing the right thing’ but this is not really enough; the motivation behind the action determines the outcome.  A common Buddhist practice is the practice of acquiring merit in order to ensure a good future re-birth.  This is akin to the old Christian view of doing good so as to go to heaven after death.  However, if I am doing good solely for the outcome to myself then the act is already flawed.  What is more it shows itself to others in time.  We all know the stereotype of the do-gooder who is so caught up in bringing about some future good that he ignores whether or not the other person requires help in this way.  The problem with trying to do good for others when in fact I am looking for something for myself is that I fail to see what it is that others really do need right now. Both self-concern and regard for others are two very different way of seeing the same situation.  

When the heart has for a moment forgotten ‘I’ and ‘my concerns’, and this does happen more often than realised, then it opens up and reflects the situation.  What is more, not only does it see clearly,  but, because it is a human heart, it responds with the warmth of humanity.  This happens, not because it wants anything, but because it is its nature to do so.  Humans have the capacity to put themselves in the other’s shoes and thus respond without intending something just for myself.  This is also reflected in Jesus Christ’s admonition to ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’.  In other words, by forgetting myself I forget the separation from others too.  Thus, a true ‘fellow feeling’ is born and this is the root of metta and of compassion .

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