Dealing with Disease, by Ajahn Sumedho

Globe with stand.

A very common illusion in the materialist world is that we should try to get rid of disease. I remember about twenty-five years ago (From a talk given in Australia in March 1987) in the States, before I ordained, people thought that modern science was going to get rid of all disease within the next twenty-five years. Now, twenty-five years later, we’ve got new diseases! And cancer seems to be a kind of disease that isn’t going to go that quickly.

Maybe disease isn’t something to get rid of; maybe it’s something to understand, to contemplate, to come to terms with. Being born itself implies that we are going to be subject to different forces beyond our control. We can, of course, learn how to live more care­fully, respecting life, not mis­using our bodies, nor exploiting them. People exploit their own bodies, using them for all kinds of harmful things, dangerous things. So the body starts breaking down, getting weak, and so forth. This is the result of not understanding the limits, and a lack of respect for the body.

So much of science — to me, anyway — doesn’t seem to have ethical concerns. It seems that science regards any kind of experimentation valid — curiosity is all you need. If scientists put ethics as a priority for their research, they would never have created nuclear weapons. But because they don’t have ethics, they create nuclear bombs, all kinds
of gases, and all kinds of destructive things. Scientists experiment endlessly with animals, and other creatures — for what? Getting rid of disease, making ourselves more comfortable, making ourselves more attractive!

Yet, if we were to live a long life without any quality to it, it would be a hell realm. If I should live two hundred years as a selfish person, in comfort, thinking only of myself, living just for myself, for two hundred years, that would be an actual two hundred year hell experi­ence, because there would be no quality to that life. That life would be mean, ugly, useless. But for a life that has quality, it doesn’t matter how long it is. The life span of the body is not the issue any more. The im­portant issue is the quality we give to it while it’s alive. People are beginning to realize that through looking more deeply, more caringly, more carefully, more wisely, into this experience of being alive in a human form, this will give a quality to life that is whole and complete, and perfect in its form.

As a Buddhist monk, I can only praise kindness and respect for life, even for mosquitoes! Mosquitoes have taught me a lot. I can give talks on mos­quitoes. Yet if you want to know the truth, I still don’t like them. Whenever I see them I don’t want to go up and embrace them; I’d rather they would go away. And if they all disappeared, I wouldn’t shed a tear. But I do respect them; I respect their right to exist; I realize that they have as much right to exist as I do. And I’m not going to quibble about God’s wisdom in creating mosquitoes that annoy me. I don’t see that I have any more right to be here than they do; they are here also. The more I reflect like this, the more I feel a sense of being at ease with them, even though I may not want them or like them. One accepts even the ugly, even the demons of life; one is willing to allow things to be. In that willingness to allow things to be, our responses in the present moment are perfect for that situation. It’s not that we are just passive, saying, ‘It’s just the way it is and we are not going to do anything about it,’ but we have a perspective on a situation and can respond appropriately, rather than reactively. The reactive response is always from desire — ‘I like it and I want to keep it,’ or ‘I don’t like it; I want to get rid of it.’ To respond to something out of wisdom is being able to do what is appropriate at that time and place. That takes patience and a willingness to bear, sometimes, with very unpleasant situations, because if we just react, we tend to increase the misery.

Siamese priest

I remember several years ago, quite a few years ago, I was having problems with somebody. A lot of aversion was arising, so I was trying to make it all right. I wanted to get rid of the problem, so I tended to go at it from an almost aggressive angle of, ‘You’ve got to straighten this out; you’ve got to get it right.’ The more I tried to make it right according to my view, the worse it got. The person wouldn’t cooperate! All he could see was that I was aggressive, insensitive, and stu­pid. That was certainly no way to make it right. So even though I was right in one way — that there shouldn’t be a prob­lem, we shouldn’t be acting like this — I didn’t have the patience to bear with the situation until the response was right. So the response was wrong.

This is where patience, the ability to bear with something, with disease, comes in. Getting back to mosquitoes, I had malaria for a year in Thailand. Before I had it I was a diligent meditator. I really liked to sit; I put a lot of effort into it; I had a lot of ambition to get somewhere in the practice. I thought I was really getting somewhere, getting that concentrated mind, when suddenly — malaria. Malaria is enervating; there is no energy for anything. And you can hardly eat. I was living in a very remote part of Thailand where the food was very coarse. Sometimes I could hardly eat it even when I was healthy. But with malaria, you know, I could hardly bear anything, even de­licious food. Then I’d get these fevers and so forth. Then they’d go. Then I’d feel them coming back. This lasted for a year. During that time our teacher, Ajahn Chah, came to visit the monastery I was in. So I was complaining; I said, ‘I can’t practice any more! My practice is gone, ruined, because of this malaria.’ Then he advised me; he said, ‘Now your practice is malaria.’ I’d never thought of it like that. I thought practice was being healthy and sitting, concentrating your mind when you are full of vigour, and when you are feeling good. He sud­denly brought my attention to the fact that you are not always going to feel that good. So then I started contemplat­ing, reflecting, on malaria and the aversion and resistance to it went away.

Eventually the disease left completely. And I’ve never had any since. That was about sixteen years ago. I began to see that the actual physical side was bearable — the fevers, the weakness, and all that; I could put up with it if I changed my attitude towards it, not hating it, not wanting to get rid of it. From that I learned a great lesson about how to live life. It is often the case with modern human beings that they try to get rid of any kind of pain or discomfort immediately — any disease, off to the doctor, ‘How can I get rid of this disease immediately? I’ve got a lot to do and it’s getting in the way.’ Sometimes people have diseases that aren’t going to go away. With malaria — fevers, discomfort, weakness I found that those things weren’t the suffering. The suffering was my aversion, fear, resentment of it. I could bear with the weakness, the fever, the inconvenience, but what I couldn’t stand was the fear, aversion, panic, and resentment, which I’d created.

(From a talk given in Australia in March 1987)

First published in the October 1989 Buddhism Now.

Click here to read more teachings by Ajahn Sumedho

If you like Ajahn Sumedho’s teachings, you might like to look at his book Don’t Take Your Life Personally.

Categories: Ajahn Sumedho, Buddhism, Theravada

Tags: , ,

7 replies

  1. Practice is this life, and realization is this life,
    And this life is revealed right here and now.

    Maezumi Roshi

  2. Bob, Very correct, although I take the reference to god , to mean a life force, and not a particular person ! :-)

  3. How good wisdom come here…[edited by moderator]

  4. Thank you, I agree all living beings has a right to co-exist on this earth as they God’s creatures. But I also believe one must protect oneself from parasites to ensure one’s wellbeing.

  5. I agree that a disease can be an opportunity to learn more about yourself and life in general and that by understanding and accepting what is happening the suffering can be transformed into a positive experience.
    I also agree that an attitude of “live and let live” towards other living beings is the best. But what to do when the other living being is not a mosquito, but a possible deadly animal like a snake or a tiger?

  6. If we are focused to our disease we sometimes forget to be aware what will be changed in our life.

  7. Thanks. Quality of life is more important than the long life span without quality. That quality itself train us to face the reality.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: