The Buddha and the Sangha had a doctor by the name of ‘Jīvaka Komārabhacca’. Having cured King Bimbisāra of a fistula, Jīvaka was thereby appointed to a number of royal posts, one of which included official physician for the Sangha. More than just a doctor to the Buddha and the Sangha, he also played an important role in the introduction of a code of conduct for the monastic community.
As official physician for the Sangha, Jīvaka had plenty of work for little or no fee. It is said that the Buddha once saw Jīvaka about a “disharmony of the body-fluids” and was prescribed a treatment of oil-massages, laxatives, warm baths, and fruit-juice.
As can be imagined, having an on-call physician made living the homeless life of a Bhikkhuni or Bhikkhu quite attractive, especially to the sick. There seems to have been cases where sick people would join the Sangha in order to get treatment from Jīvaka and to get help from the other Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus.
In response to this situation, Jīvaka went to the Buddha and requested that sick people not be allowed to join the Sangha. The Blessed One accepted this request and issued instructions forbidding sick people from being given the going forth (into the homeless life).
Situations like this one shed light on the delicate situation the Buddha found himself in as he built the Sangha and spread the Dhamma. It might be supposed (as I would have) that anyone who was sincerely willing would be able to join the Sangha in the Buddha’s time. But the Buddha had to balance the life of the Sangha with his relations to the Sangha’s physician and the King (who appointed the physician). Perhaps this was a pragmatic decision on his part, balancing these priorities by deciding to exclude the sick from the community of Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus.
Decisions such as these ones are not unreasonable. The practical benefits of joining a monastic community are great and so there will inevitably be those that aspire to take advantage of the situation. As a result, safeguards of one form or another seem natural. For instance, the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom has a live-in Dharma student option where all your expenses are covered in return for your full time service. However, you have to first pay for your room and board during a prescribed period so that the teachers can gauge your commitment to the seminary program.
As we develop our practice, what ways do we subtly take advantage of it? Are we looking for a free ride somewhere? A free meal? Or a group of people to help us feel less lonely in the world? (I admit to having used the practice for each of these at some point in time!) And what safeguards can we develop to keep us on the path without greed, without hatred, and without delusion?
Tough questions, for sure. But that is why we practice. As Haju Sunim often tells us, “Nine times down, ten times up!”
(Note: The story of Jīvaka and the Buddha is paraphrased from H. W. Schumann’s The Historical Buddha (tr. M. O’C. Walshe), pages 101 – 103. References to Pāli Canon sources can be found there.)