I remember reading a book by Ajahn Buddhadāsa in which he describes physical illness as a ‘nimitta’—a ‘sign,’ ‘symbol,’ or ‘omen’—of death. I find this an accurate description, for I have noticed that even with seemingly innocuous phenomena—say a small bump under the skin or a mild but unusual headache—that my mind frequently brings up the question: ‘Is this a sign of something serious and is this the beginning of the end?’ Both sickness and death are ‘divine messengers’ (deva-dūta): they help wake us up to the inescapable nature of things. According to Ajahn Buddhadāsa’s statement above, sickness is the servant of death.
Following are some teachings by the Buddha on physical illness:
Ārogya-paramā lābhā, santuṭṭhī paramaṃ dhanaṃ.
Health is the greatest good fortune. Contentment is the greatest wealth.
(Dh. verse 204)
There are to be seen beings who can assert freedom from suffering from bodily disease for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years; who can assert freedom from bodily disease for even a hundred years. But, those beings are hard to find in the world who can assert to be without illness of the mind, with the exception of one who is free from mental impurity.
(A. II. 143-4)
(See the section on ‘Attributes of an Arahant’ in the book on Awakened Beings by Ajahn Payutto.)
On one occasion, when he was staying near Vesālī at the Gabled Hall in Mahāvana, the Blessed One, arising from seclusion in the evening, visited the monks’ infirmary. There he saw a weak and ailing monk, and sat down beside him on a seat made ready.
And when he was seated, the Blessed One addressed the monks, saying: ‘Monks, if five things do not forsake someone who is weak and ailing, for him this may be expected: before long, by realizing for himself with direct knowledge, he will here and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints. What five?
‘Here, a monk abides discerning the unattractiveness of the body; he regards the disagreeable nature of food; he regards how nothing in the world offers satisfaction; he discerns impermanence in all conditioned things; and the perception of death is clearly established in his mind.’
(A. III. 142-3)
At one time the Buddha visited a newly ordained monk who was suffering from an illness:
The Blessed One sat down and said to that monk: ‘I hope you are bearing up, I hope you are getting better. I hope that your painful sensations are subsiding and not increasing, and that their subsiding, not their increase, is to be discerned.’
‘Venerable sir, I am not bearing up, I am not getting better. Strong painful feelings are increasing in me, not subsiding, and their increase, not their subsiding, is to be discerned….
‘Venerable sir, I understand the Dhamma to have been taught by the Blessed One for the sake of the fading away of lust.’
‘Good, good, bhikkhu! It is good that you understand the Dhamma to have been taught by me for the sake of the fading away of lust. For the Dhamma is taught by me for the sake of the fading away of lust.
‘What do you think, bhikkhu, is the eye permanent or impermanent?’—‘Impermanent, venerable sir.’ … ‘Is the ear … the nose … the body … the mind permanent or impermanent?’—‘Impermanent, venerable sir.’—‘Is what is impermanent easeful or stressful?’—‘Stressful, venerable sir.’—‘Is what is impermanent, stressful, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self”?’—‘No, venerable sir.’
‘Seeing thus, bhikkhu, the instructed noble disciple experiences disenchantment towards the eye … disenchantment towards the mind. Experiencing disenchantment, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It is liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.”’
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, that bhikkhu delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in that bhikkhu the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.’
(S. IV. 46-7)
If you can be mindful when you are sick you will learn something very deep and meaningful. You will see how lonely you are and how meaningless everything is.
Sayādaw U Jotika