Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, was renowned among the great disciples for his zealous devotion and for preserving the teachings intact. He served the Buddha loyally for twenty-five years, accepting no privilege, and was designated best in learning, memory, goodness and resolution. He pressed the Buddha to found an order of nuns and undertook their instruction. Famous for his gentleness, humility and extraordinary memory, Ananda retained the Buddha’s discourses by heart and his telling of them formed the basis of the Sutra (sutta) Pitaka, literally “the basket of teachings,” a major part of the Pali canon. The phrase “Thus have I heard,” which opens each sutra or teaching, signals that what follows is considered to be a text recited by Ananda at the first council following the Buddha’s death. In an excerpt from Great Disciples of the Buddha, writer and translator Hellmuth Hecker describes the life and work of the monk known as the “vessel of truth.”

Of all the great monks in the Buddha’s retinue, the Venerable Ananda occupied a unique position. He was born on the same day as the Buddha and in the same caste, the warrior caste of the royal family of the Sakyans. His father, Amitodana, was the brother of the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana, so the two were cousins and grew up together in the Sakyans’ capital city of Kapilavatthu.

When he was thirty-seven years old, Ananda joined the Buddha’s order of monks, proving himself a willing and diligent pupil. During his first rains retreat he attained the fruit of stream-entry. During the first years of his life as a monk Ananda was fully occupied with the purification of his own mind; he blended easily into the Sangha and slowly developed more and more resilience and mental strength.

When the Buddha and Ananda were both fifty-five years of age, the Buddha called a meeting of the monks and declared: “In my twenty years as leader of the Sangha, I have had many different attendants, but none of them has really filled the post perfectly; again and again some willfulness has become apparent. Now I am fifty-five years old and it is necessary for me to have a trustworthy and reliable attendant.” At once all the noble disciples offered their services, but the Buddha did not accept them. Then the great monks looked at Ananda, who had held back modestly, and asked him to volunteer.

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Image 1: The Buddha surrounded by his disciples in an eighteenth-century Tibetan thangka; Ananda stands at the bottom right. Image through the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation/Courtesy of Moke Mokotoff

When he was asked why he was the only one who had not offered his services, he replied that the Buddha knew best who was suitable to be his attendant. He had so much confidence in the Blessed One that it did not occur to him to express his own wishes. Then the Buddha declared that Ananda would be pleasing to him and would be the best choice for the post. Ananda was in no way proud that the Master had preferred him to the other disciples, but instead asked for eight favors.

The first four were negative in character: First, the master should never pass a gift of robes on to him; second, he should never give him any alms food which he himself had received; third, having received a dwelling place, he should never give it to him; fourth, he should never include him in any personal invitations (such as an occasion for teaching where a meal would be offered). The other four were positive: If he was invited to a meal, he asked for the right to transfer this invitation to the Buddha; if people came from outlying areas, he asked for the privilege of leading them to the Buddha; if he had any doubts or inquiries about the Dhamma, he asked for the right to have them cleared up at any time; and if the Buddha gave a discourse during his absence, he asked for the privilege of having it repeated to him privately. Ananda explained that if he did not pose the first four conditions, then people would say that he had accepted the post of attendant only with an eye on the material gains he would enjoy by living so close to the Master. But if he did not express the other four conditions, then it could rightly be said that he fulfilled the duties of his post without being mindful of his own advancement on the noble path.

The Buddha granted him these very reasonable requests, which were quite in accordance with the Dhamma. From then on Ananda was the constant companion, attendant, and helper of the Blessed One for twenty-five years.

So great was Ananda’s mastery of the Dhamma that the Buddha even spoke of him as a living embodiment of the Teaching. Once a lay disciple asked the Buddha how, after he had honored the Teacher and the Sangha, he could honor the Dhamma – and this in an age before the Dhamma was transcribed in books. The Buddha replied, “If you wish to honor the Dhamma, householder, go and honor Ananda, the guardian of the Dhamma.”

One of the virtues of Ananda that established his fame was his conduct as the Buddha’supatthaka, his personal attendant. The Buddha said of him that he was the best of all attendants, the foremost of all those monks who had ever filled this post.

In three of his verses in the Theragatha, Ananda sums up the way he served the Buddha through the last third of his life:

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him well with loving deeds
Like a shadow that does not depart.

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him with loving speech
Like a shadow that does not depart.

For twenty-five years I served the Blessed One,
I served him well with loving thoughts
Like a shadow that does not depart.

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Image 2: Ananda, in detail from the thangka in the previous image

Ananda also [had a boundless] willingness to sacrifice himself. When Devadatta [another cousin and disciple of the Buddha] let loose a wild elephant to kill the Buddha, Ananda threw himself in front of the Buddha, ready to die himself rather than let the Blessed One be killed or injured. Three times the Buddha asked him to step back, but he did not comply. Only when the Master moved him gently from the spot through supernatural powers could he be dissuaded from his intention to sacrifice himself.

Above all, Ananda had the duties of a good secretary, facilitating the smooth communication between the thousands of monks and the Master. Together with [the disciples] Sariputta and Moggallana he tried to sort out, and attend to, the manifold problems of human relationships that turn up in a community. Ananda played the important role of clarifying doubts and keeping order. Often he was the go-between for the monks, arranging for them an audience with the Master, or he brought the Buddha’s words to members of other sects. He refused no one and felt himself to be a bridge rather than a barrier.

Among the disciples whom the Buddha declared preeminent, the Venerable Ananda had the distinction of being pronounced preeminent in five qualities.

One, of those who had “heard much,” i.e., who had learned much of the Buddha’s discourses (bahussutnam); two, of those who had a good memory (satimantanam); three, of those who had mastery over the sequential structure of the teachings (gatinmantanam); four, of those who were steadfast in study, etc. (dhitimantanam); and five, of the Buddha’s attendants (upatthakanam).

These five qualities all stem from mindfulness (sati). In a narrower sense, sati is the ability to remember. Ananda had this ability to a phenomenal degree. He could immediately remember everything, even if he heard it only once. He could repeat discourses of the Buddha flawlessly up to sixty thousand words, without leaving out a single syllable. He was able to recite fifteen thousand four-line stanzas of the Buddha.

Sati, or mindfulness, in this context, means the retention in mind of the discourses heard and their application to one’s own self-inquiry. For the third quality, gati, widely differing renderings have been proposed by translators, but according to the ancient commentary it refers to the capacity to perceive in the mind the internal connection and coherence of a discourse. This Ananda was able to do because he understood well the meaning and significance of the teaching concerned, with all its implications. Hence, even when his recitation was interrupted by a question, he was able to resume the recital exactly at the point where he had broken off. The fourth quality was his steadfastness (dhiti), his energy and unflagging dedication to the tasks of studying, memorizing, and reciting the Buddha’s words and of personally attending on the Master. The fifth and last quality was that of a perfect attendant.

In selecting Ananda as the treasurer or guardian of his Dispensation, the Buddha had chosen one whose personal qualities coincided perfectly with the demands of the post. By virtue of his devotion to learning, Ananda was ideally suited to receive the manifold teachings delivered over a forty-five-year period; by virtue of his phenomenal memory, he could retain them in mind exactly as spoken by the Master; by virtue of his sense of order, he could be relied on to preserve them in the correct sequence and to explain them in such a way that the structure of ideas accorded with the Buddha’s intention; and by virtue of his steadfastness, he would so endeavor that the pupils under his charge would receive the teachings fully and be properly trained so that they in turn could pass them on to their own pupils.

Buddhist tradition specifies the number of recitation units (dhammakkhanda, lit. “aggregates of the Dhamma”) in the Buddha’s Teaching as eighty-four thousand, and in one verse Ananda claims to have received them all:

I received from the Buddha 82,000,
And from the bhikkhus 2,000 more.
Thus there are 84,000 units,
Teachings that are set in motion.

The Buddha often addressed the Venerable Ananda with questions on the teachings, which were either meant for Ananda’s spiritual growth or gave the occasion for a discourse to all the monks present. In this way many of the conversations between the Buddha and Ananda are discourse for the instruction of others.

Sometimes Ananda reported certain views of his to the Buddha so that the Master could either accept them or correct them. Once he approached the Buddha and said, “It seems to me, Lord, that good friendship is half of the holy life.” Unexpectedly, the Buddha disagreed: “Do not speak thus, Ananda! Noble friendship is more than half the holy life. It is the entire holy life!” For what would the holy life be like if they had not all come to the Buddha, as their best friend, to be shown the right way?

Once Ananda saw an archer perform extraordinary feats. He told the Buddha how much this had impressed him – and coming from the warrior caste, Ananda must have been temperamentally disposed to appreciate such displays of martial skill. The Buddha used this statement to draw an analogy. He said it was more difficult to understand and penetrate the Four Noble Truths than to hit and penetrate with an arrow a hair split seven times.

Another [sutra] says that Ananda once saw the famous brahmin Janussoni, a disciple of the Buddha, driving along in his glorious white chariot. He heard the people exclaim that the brahmin’s chariot was the most beautiful of all. Ananda reported this to the Buddha and asked him how one could describe the best chariot according to the Dhamma. The Buddha explained the vehicle to Nibbana by means of a detailed simile:

Faith and wisdom are the draught-animals, moral shame the break, intellect the reins, mindfulness the charioteer, virtue the accessories, meditation the axle, energy the wheels, equanimity the balance, renunciation the chassis; the weapons are love, harmlessness, and solitude, and patience is its armor.

When Ananda was 120 years old, he felt that his end was near. He went from Rajagaha on a journey to Vesali, just as his Master had done. When the king of Magadha and the princes of Vesali heard that Ananda would soon attain final Nibbana, they hurried to him from both directions to bid him farewell. In order to do justice to both sides, Ananda chose a way to die in keeping with his gentle nature: he raised himself into the air through his supernormal powers and let his body be consumed by the fire element. The relics were divided and stupas erected.

After his passing the elders who compiled the subsequent recension of the canon added three verses to his collection in the Theragatha.

Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma,
The guardian of the Great Seer’s Treasure,
Ananda, the eye of the entire world,
Has attained final Nibbana.

Of great learning, bearer of the Dhamma,
The guardian of the Great Seer’s Treasure,
Ananda, the eye of the entire world,
Was a dispeller of gloom in the darkness.

The seer who was so retentive,
Of keen memory and resolute,
The elder sustaining the true Dhamma,
Ananda was a mine of gems.

Excerpted from Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Loves, Their Works, Their Legacy, by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker, edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi, reprinted courtesy of Wisdom Publications.