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Buddhism Teaching Resources

Buddhism Teaching Resources

Teach about Buddhism with a little help from Edinburgh Buddhist Studies

The Story of the Sick Boy

Here is a short story about illness and anxiety from an Indian Buddhist text called the Avadanasataka. The text is a Sanskrit collection from around the middle of the first millennium CE, and more information and a full translation of the story can be found in my book Many Buddhas, One Buddha (Sheffield: Equinox, 2020).

What I find interesting about this story is the way in which the two aspects of suffering – physical illness and mental anxiety about the consequences of that illness – are dealt with separately, though always with an awareness of their link to one another. As with all the stories of the Avadanasataka, I also love the portrayal of the Buddha, with his infinite compassion, supernormal knowledge, and magical cosmos-illuminating smile.


It is worth noting that the text is from neither the Theravada nor the Mahayana traditions, but from a lost school of Indian Buddhism called the Sarvastivada. The portrayal of the Buddha is as someone very impressive, miracle-working, magical, superhuman. He is very definitely supreme, yet other paths to awakening are possible too – as well as stories about people becoming future buddhas (which becomes a mainstream goal in the Mahayana) the text also contains stories of people become awakened as arhats (awakened disciples of a buddha, and the mainstream goal in the Theravada tradition).

As well as being particularly pertinent to our times, when we are all having to deal with increased illness and anxiety, the story demonstrates some basic Buddhist ideas about karma (which can control your current situation but not how you respond and move forwards), about the suffering that characterises existence, and about the ways in which mental suffering can be alleviated, particularly through the power of loving kindness.

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