Scratching the Itch

This is an excerpt from chapter 6 of ‘Buddhadhamma,’ on awakened beings.

Another important descriptive term for an arahant’s mind, which covers many of the characteristics already mentioned, is ārogya, translated as ‘without sickness’ or ‘freedom from illness.’ It can also be rendered as ‘health’ or ‘healthy.’ Ārogya is an epithet for Nibbāna.1 Being without illness or being healthy refers here to the absence of mental illness or to a healthy mind, as mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings to an aged layman:

You should practise and train yourself thus: although the body is diseased, the mind will not be diseased.2

The Buddha said that there are two kinds of illness: physical and mental:

Beings who can assert to be without illness of the mind are difficult to find in the world, with the exception of one who is free from the taints.3

These words of the Buddha illustrate that an arahant is a person with perfect mental health. The description of an arahant as being free of illness or in good health reveals the value of realizing Nibbāna.

One may wonder: if arahants do not seek the pleasures cherished by ordinary people, how can they be happy, and what worth does Nibbāna have?

An absence of illness is a condition of happiness that is complete in itself. It is far better than the happiness resulting from a temporary alleviation of pain, not to mention the discomfort of sickness and chronic ailments.

Terrace of the Leper King

Obtaining medicine or treatment to allay symptoms of illness offers momentary happiness. The more severe the symptoms, the greater the happiness when the symptoms subside. From one perspective, a healthy person is denied this kind of pleasure. But no-one in their right mind would desire a sick person’s happiness, of waiting to savour the end of pain and discomfort.

In the case of an illness, happiness is experienced through the repeated or occasional alleviation of discomfort and agitation. Such occasional happiness can be compared to the pleasures sought by ordinary people. The happiness of being without illness, which is normally not recognized as happiness, is simply internal ease and relief. This can be compared to the state of an arahant or to the happiness of Nibbāna.

The Buddha applied the analogy of a leper with erupting sores. Due to irritation and itching, the leper scratches the lesions and heats his flesh over coals. The more he scratches and sears his body, the more itchy and inflamed do the sores become. The happiness and pleasant sensation he receives relies upon having a wound that can be scratched. The leper will remain in this state until a skilled doctor prepares a medicine that cures him of the leprosy. Cured of leprosy, he becomes a person in good health (aroga), happy (sukhī), free (serī), with self-mastery (sayaṁvasī), and able to go where he pleases (yena-kāmaṅgama). Both the scratching of the sores and the grilling by the fire, which used to provide him with pleasure and relief, are no longer considered by him as a form of happiness. He now regards such behaviour as painful and miserable.

This analogy can be applied to ordinary beings, who seek pleasure from the five ‘strands’ of sensuality. Although they experience pleasure through obtaining things and gratifying desire, they are inflamed by desire, experiencing increased turmoil and agitation. When life is conducted in this manner, pleasure and delight only revolve around the arousal of craving, leading to greater passion. Gratification is sought to temporarily quell the agitation. With the realization of Nibbāna, no ‘fuel’ remains to provoke craving, and happiness is experienced without alleviating an inflammation.4


An unenlightened person is compared to someone who derives pleasure from scratching an itch. The greater the itch the more one scratches, and the more one scratches the greater the itch. And the greater the itch the greater the pleasure from scratching. An ordinary person thus likes to increase the degree of pleasure by seeking ways to increase the stimulation and excitement, and so increase the itch; as a result more pleasure is experienced from increased scratching. A realized being is like someone who is cured from an itch-inducing illness, whose normal physical state is healthy; happiness exists due to the absence of an itch and of a need to scratch. An ordinary person, however, may criticize such a person as lacking the pleasure derived from scratching an itch.

Similarly, an unenlightened person’s search for happiness is like building up and fanning a fire, and then receiving amusement and coolness by extinguishing it. The brighter and hotter the fire, the more effort needed for extinguishing, causing more spectacular crackling and flashing. An ordinary person conducts his life in this way, despite greater risks of danger for himself and others. Those who are liberated resemble persons who have extinguished the fire. They live in ease, coolness, and safety, with no need to be burnt, and with no need to be on guard against dangers from heat. They are not engaged in the thrill or anxiety of extinguishing a fire that they previously ignited.


1 M. I. 509; Dh. verse 204; Sn. 146.

2 S. III. 1.

3 A. II. 143-4.

4 See M. I. 506-509.

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