Dec 4, 2022
Martin Goodson

Ananda and the Untouchable Woman


What is it we are escaping from when we get bored? Martin explores the deeper processes that are taking place that can show us the way to awakening.

Ananda was for many years the faithful assistant to the Buddha, who also happened to be his cousin.

One day Ananda went to the well for a drink of water.  When he got there, he found a woman of the untouchable caste drawing water.  Ananda respectfully asked the woman if she could supply him with some water to drink?  The woman, rather embarrassed, said that as an untouchable she could not give him anything as he would be contaminated by her lowly caste.  Ananda again asked her for something to drink and again the woman refused saying that her caste did not permit her to give water to a monk.  For a third time Ananda asked and finally she relented and gave him a drink for which he thanked her and for her generosity.  The woman was so touched by Ananda’s persistence and his acknowledgement of her capacity to be of service to him in this small matter that she fell in love with him.

So, she went to the Buddha and asked if she may become Ananda’s assistant.  The Buddha asked her why she wanted to do this. The woman told the story of what had happened at the well.  The Buddha replied to her saying, “What you have fallen in love with is Ananda’s kindness; but you too possess this kindness in yourself.  And if you cultivate this same kindness in yourself then with it you will be worthy to serve Kings and Queens.”

The use of parables as teachings stories appears in all religions and Buddhism is no exception. With this story of the Buddha’s cousin and assistant, Ananda, and his meeting with someone living at the bottom of society is a story that can be taken both inwardly as well as outwardly. 

When we begin to practice Zen seriously, there is a need to develop a rootedness in one’s own body. It may come as a surprise for meditators and practitioners to discover that great emphasis is placed on practice-in-the-body as a foundation for exploration of the nature of the heart/mind. But without the understanding that body and heart are one, practice can quickly become exchanged for fanciful thoughts and judgemental opinions, rather than investigating the energy that powers such thoughts. 

An early discovery for the student is that the screed of thoughts that accompanies us throughout the day acts as a cover. What it hides are truths about myself that perhaps I am not too keen on looking at too closely. In depth psychology these are the contents of what is called the ‘shadow’. A semi-hidden, occasionally revealed part of the psyche that is the accompaniment to my conscious understanding of myself. I recall a number of years ago a student who had been practicing Zen for about 18 months saying that he had always considered himself to be a very tolerant fellow, but in the past couple of months had come to the realisation that in fact he was intolerant about a number things. What was particularly interesting for him was that, when it came to protected categories such as race or sex he had very liberal views, but when he met people who disagreed with his opinions he realised that he was judging them in a caricatured way, not as human but as unthinking bigots who were fundamentally different from himself. What he had slowly realised was that in making this the only characteristic he saw them by, he too was indulging in the same narrowness of view that he was accusing others of doing.

Probably, many of us can recognise ourselves in this example; the simple fact is that, as the Buddha taught, when the fires flare in us, I become narrower, no matter how liberal I might consider myself to be!

The same is true when I am in the grip of a firm belief about myself. As a child I developed a strong dislike to the smell and even the look of mussels. As an adult I had to ‘endure’ the sight of people in restaurants ordering a pile of the ‘offending’ creatures which would duly arrive steaming in their shells and I would suffer a sense of nausea at the smell and the thought of eating them.

One evening I was with a friend in a restaurant and he ordered - mussels! They arrived and by this time, I had regaled him with my story of how I so disliked them as a child - ignoring the fact that he may not have wanted to hear this just as he was about to tuck into a bowl of the ‘offending’ invertebrates. However, on a whim, I asked to try one. He obliged and I skewered one on my fork and put it into my mouth and chewed. Whilst it was not the greatest taste in the world, I did not have the instant revulsion that I imagined that I would experience. The body’s tastes had changed in the intervening years but, ‘I’ had not realised this bit of information. This is despite the fact that other foods that ‘I’ detested as a child were now regular parts of my diet as an adult.

These ‘bits of information’, or ‘insights’, are kept away precisely because ‘my’ conscious attitude is against them and I will not tolerate identification with them. 

In the parable, what is referred to by the Buddha as ‘kindness’ in Ananda,  is just this tolerance. My suspicion is that Ananda thought nothing of asking her for some water, although he would have realised the impact on the woman herself. For the woman what she was seeing was a projection of her own ability to practice kindness, which, like charity, begins at home. Having been treated as an untouchable she too had come to take on this identity. Her view of herself narrowed to the point of complete identification with this view, hence her inability to accept that Ananda would see her as something quite different. It is just this self-view which is what is called ‘I’,  ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘my opinion’. In this regard,  tolerance  is the ability to dis-identify with and tode-clutch from a view or opinion of either self or others. It is not to deny the existence of such a view but simply  to realise that there is space around it, and that it is not the whole of ‘self’ or of what is possible to be true.

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