The Buddha’s instructions on how best to approach aging, illness, and death apply to everyone: not only in the sense that we all face these facts of life, but also in the sense that we will be called upon—even before we face these facts ourselves—to give care to those who are facing them in the present.
The Canon doesn’t depict a deva messenger who conveys this message. Caregivers do play—literally—a supporting role in the portrait of the ill deva messenger: picking him up and helping him lie down. But they come to the fore in the passage describing the Buddha and his closest attendant, Ven. Ānanda, caring for the monk with dysentery.
This story delivers a message phrased in strong terms: If you would tend to the Buddha himself, tend to the sick. This message was aimed directly at the monks on the grounds that they had no family to attend to them, so they should care for one another, but it’s phrased in such a way that the message applies indirectly to lay people as well.
When you belong to a family, you’re duty-bound to look after the aged, ill, or dying members of your family. After all, “tending to one another” implies that someday you will need someone to tend to you, too. We’re all in this together.
The Buddha lists the traits needed to be a good caregiver, whether you’re a relative or friend of the patient or are a professional who wants to give care not only to the patient’s body but also to his or her mind.
His comments on this topic were designed for situations in which both the patient and the caregiver are Buddhist and have shared views about what the true Dhamma teaches…
Some of the lessons—such as how to deal with pain or to develop the brahmavihāras—are more universal than others. And there’s one proviso: If you’re a Buddhist caregiver, it’s important that you observe the Buddha’s strictures about how to treat a patient in line with the precepts.
For instance, you can’t lie to the patient—say, sugar-coating the doctor’s diagnosis by misrepresenting it—and you can’t do anything to speed up the patient’s death, even if the patient requests it, because those actions would harm you.
Harming yourself through breaking the precepts is something the Buddha would never recommend, regardless of how other people might feel that they would benefit from your “helping” them in that way.
Of the Buddha’s stipulations for an ideal caregiver, two require special discussion: what it means to have goodwill for the patient and how to teach the patient lessons in the Dhamma.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Undaunted : The Buddha’s Teachings on Aging, Illness, Death, & the Deathless, “Giving Care.”