During Rohatsu retreat this year I took several turns as time-keeper (Doan) for the morning sit at 6:00 am, in order to lead the sangha in the morning service, as a training example to those attending who are not as familiar with the chanting protocols, accompanied by drum and gong.
At one point, as happens every morning, my sinuses started to drain, and I realized that I had forgotten to tuck a tissue into my sleeve as I usually do to accommodate this daily ritual. While sniffling as silently as I could until the opportunity arose to leave the zendo to retrieve a napkin, it occurred to me that at some point Buddha would have had a similar problem. While he taught about the accumulation of merit, and warned against the accumulation of possessions and too much wealth, he surely experienced the accumulation of mucus in his sinuses as well. In fact, his descriptions of the true nature of our physiological being are near scathing in their directness and unflinching honesty about the various fluids and organic matter, including waste material, that make up what we fondly refer to as “me” or “myself.”
So I began to wonder just how Buddha would have handled a runny nose, sitting, as he was, in front of hundreds or thousands (myriad kotis, etc.) of his ardent followers, hanging on his every word. We can be pretty sure that the culture of that time had long since figured this out, and had a customary way of dealing with such exigencies. But they apparently did not have paper, certainly not a handy box of Kleenex tissues, and the cloth that they did have was not only hand-woven, but hand-everything, and so would have been relatively expensive to use as a hanky. We are told that they reused scraps of fabric recovered, laundered (in the local stream) and stained with dye to hide the uneven coloration, for their patchwork robes (J. Okesa).
Naturally my curiosity turned to other, more extreme matters, such as the delicate issues of defecation and urination, so I turned, as we moderns do in matters such as this, to Google. I found to my delight and amazement that indeed the ancient precursors in India to Buddha’s time, a civilization that once held forth in the Indus valley, had, not indoor plumbing, but a kind of outdoor plumbing. That is, archeologists have discovered, and you can see the photos online, that they had crafted toilets of stone, which were positioned over streams, a kind of continuously-flushing toilet. They look much like my grandparents’ outhouses in my childhood. This basic technology was also a characteristic of other civilizations, such as that of early Greece, but in India had been lost to history by the time of Buddha, so the practice of going on the ground, or directly into the river, had re-arisen; and is in fact still common in many of the less developed locales in the world today.