The Buddhadharma if full of amazing characters who, in there own way, contributed much to the tradition. Other than Shakyamuni himself, few figures have had as much influence over the evolution of Buddhism as Ananda. He might also be one of early Buddhism’s more relatable figures.
Ananda was a cousin of the Buddha who is most well known for being Shakyamuni’s devoted attendant, traveling throughout India, acting as the Buddha’s spokesman and secretary. He is also known for lagging behind in his development of the practice compared to his comrades, possibly due to his responsibilities. Ananda was, however, gifted with a good memory, able to recount the Buddha’s plethora of teachings. Due to his years of being in the near constant presence of the Buddha, he became a living book of Dharmic knowledge even if he wasn’t always able to understand it.
Ananda was also a well-loved friend to the nuns of the early Sangha because he successfully advocated for their inclusion. Finally, on a more Amidist note, because the Buddha transmitted the teaching of what would come to be called nembutsu to Ananda, he is responsible for furthering those teachings to the present day.
Ananda, however, did have his critics. Kasyapa was probably his most vehement opponent in the Sangha.
Kasyapa could be quite critical toward Ananda and his criticism seemed to come to a boiling point after the Buddha’s parinnirvana. It is possible that Ananda’s relatively liberal views toward a democratic Sangha with no head, his relaxed teaching style, and his advocacy for women to be part of the order were not welcomed by Kasyapa, who may have likely had a more authoritarian and conservative perspective due to his brahmin background.
This tension between the two disciples reflects not only a possible power struggle but also two different approaches to spirituality. Kasyapa emphasized a self-power path of discipline and meditation. Ananda, on the other hand, represents an Other-Power path of faith, dedication, and friendship. Though Kasyapa’s discipline helped hold the monastic order together after the Buddha’s passing, the spirit of Ananda’s celebratory faith helped the Dharma thrive among the the more devotional order members as well as the laity. Today, this legacy can be found in sculptures, paintings, prayers, and poetry.
Ananda was a relatively ordinary person living in the presence of wisdom and compassion. And though he was an ordinary person, the Buddha spoke through him. In this way, he represents those of us who have not mastered all of the wisdom of the Dharma but celebrate it with great faith nonetheless.
Namo Amida Bu
Image from britannica.com