In any community that exists for more than a short time, someone will fall ill. Often when serious illness strikes, the family is the primary care-giving community, but sometimes friends become like family. When someone is sick, it tends to pre-empt petty concerns and reminds us that we do, at base, care about each other.
In describing how communities of the Buddha’s followers should work, the Buddha listed five qualities that those attending to the sick should embody, and another five that make a patient easy to care for. By considering them together, we acknowledge that at times in our lives we’ll be called on to give care, and at other times we will be the ones needing care.
Monks, possessing five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient. What five? (1) He is able to prepare medicine. (2) He knows what is beneficial and harmful, so that he withholds what is harmful and offers what is beneficial. (3) He takes care of the patient with a mind of loving-kindness, not for the sake of material rewards. (4) He is not disgusted at having to remove feces, urine, vomit, or spittle. (5) He is able from time to time to instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with a Dhamma talk. Possessing these five qualities, an attendant is qualified to take care of a patient.
Possessing five other qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. What five? (1) He does what is beneficial. (2) He observes moderation in what is beneficial. (3) He takes his medicine. (4) He accurately discloses his symptoms to his kind-hearted attendant; he reports, as fits the case, that his condition is getting worse, or getting better, or remaining the same. (5) He can patiently endure arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, harrowing, disagreeable, sapping ones’ vitality. Possessing these five qualities, a patient is easy to take care of. (AN 5:123-124, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
The Buddha gives us practical advice on how to be a good care-giver and also a good care-receiver. Regarding item (5) in the first paragraph, not everyone feels qualified to share the Buddha’s teachings, nor would every patient welcome them. But regardless of our knowledge, we can try to encourage, inspire, and gladden the patient with whatever words or actions might work best for that individual.
Regarding item (4) in the first paragraph, many carers find themselves revolted by the prospect of dealing with bodily fluids and other “yucky” things. But if called on to perform such assistance, it can be a beneficial reminder to the carer that we are all in human bodies and this is how bodies function when they’re not well. Illness or disability is likely to come to all of us at some time in our lives. Why not face the reality now?
In the Buddha’s time, there were many fewer options than there are now for reducing physical pain related to illness. But even with excellent medications and care, we are all of a nature to experience physical discomfort at one time or another. In many situations, it can’t be entirely eliminated and patient endurance will be needed.
As we live through these experiences, either as carer or patient, we can use the opportunities presented to bring ourselves more into alignment with our highest aspirations.