Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Art of Healing - The Buddhist Way


Tibetans use an ancient form of medicine known as Gso-wa Rig-pa or "The Knowledge of Healing" whose origins are believed to be based on the teachings of the historical Buddha. Tibetan medicine is held in high esteem in Tibet and central Asia.

In the Tibetan medical tradition, the concept of well-being takes into account the full dynamics of mind, body and spirit to achieve an effective and comprehensive healing strategy. It is immersed in Buddhist tradition, which differs from non-Buddhist medicine in that it utilizes three types of therapeutic intervention: medicinal entities, the power of mantra (a creative, repetitive sound) and the power of meditative stabilization (Donden, p. 215). In doing so, the Tibetan healing traditions transport us into a strange world of interconnectedness between macrocosmic principles and their microcosmic manifestations; harmony and balance between the cosmic macrocosm and the human microcosm is believed to be essential for health and well-being. This is true not only in the sense that balance is required for health, but also in the somewhat deeper sense that such balance is the essence of health; balance among the physical, psychological and spiritual elements of human existence is health.

In addition to being a relatively secular approach to health and well-being, involving medicines and dietary and practical suggestions, the Tibetan healing tradition is rich in tantric Buddhist ritual and symbolism. Furthermore, ritual and symbol contain multiple levels of meaning which all exist collaterally in a spiritual approach to healing. Iconography, music, chants, mantra, symbolic objects such as prayer wheels and prayer flags, mandalas (geometric paintings or drawings) and visualizations are utilized in modest to elaborate rituals to focus and objectify the source of healing power. Tibetan symbols and rituals, whose ultimate purpose is to mobilize the bodhicitta (aspiration to attain enlightenment in order to free all sentient beings from suffering) in the individual, generate not only cognitive considerations but also encompass subjective meaning for the spiritual, emotional and sensual spheres.

Clearly, a comprehensive discussion of Tibetan healing traditions is beyond the scope of this paper. However, I will consider several aspects of the tradition which are integral for any basic understanding of the subject. First, I will discuss the etiology of illness from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Second, I will discuss some of the relatively secular therapeutic approaches to healing. Finally, I will explore the spiritual dimension of healing by focusing my discussion on some of the tantric practices involving the Medicine Buddha. A powerful example of a Buddhist healing ritual, which invokes a "meditative transformation of medicine" as described in the conclusion of Dr. Yeshi Donden's Health Through Balance,will conclude this analysis.


an early Mahayana text, the Buddhist sage Vimalakirti mused that, "All sentient beings are ill" (Birnbaum, p.13). To the Tibetan, the inevitability of suffering and illness is a reflection of the fact that we are born. The Tibetans believe that we "take birth" because we are ignorant of the true nature of reality and that it is this ignorance that is the cause of all suffering and disorder. Dr. Yeshi Donden remarked that "the root [of illness] is beginningless ignorance" and that "ignorance is with us like our own shadow . . . even if we think that we are in very good health, actually we have had the basic cause of illness since beginningless time" (Donden, p. 26).
Tibetans believe that our false perceptions of the world and its projections actually change the world, which is fundamentally neutral. Moreover, people become attached to ego-centered views, which "contain the seeds of profound misunderstanding of what it means to have Being in this world" (Walsh-Frank, p. 8). Consequently, because "all phenomena are mere reflections and designation of the mind" (Thonduk, p.193), and the mind is driven by delusional thinking, samsara (our perception of the phenomenal world) is filled with suffering.
Furthermore, the Tibetan Buddhist believes that karma(simply stated, the law of cause and effect) from one's previous incarnations can also be responsible for our illnesses in our present experience. Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, explained this principle when he said:
In sooth to every man that's born
A hatchet grows within his mouth,
Wherewith the fool, whene'er he speaks

And speaks amiss, doth cut himself . . . (quoted from Samyutta-nikaya in Birnbaum, p.9) Thus, the distant causes of the diseases are seated in the past mental environment which was influenced by "afflictive emotions"--mental factors that are the root cause of all illness. While these factors are impossible to enumerate, they are all the consequences of ignorance (Donden, p.15). Ignorance generates other negative states of mind such as desire, hatred, jealousy and pride. Such negative emotions drive our mentations, and our mentations contribute to our suffering.

However, our emotional energies are neither good nor bad in themselves; for example, the energy/intelligence that turns to hatred when siezed in the neurotic grip of ego can also manifest as simple, clear awareness of the true situation--thus it is how we relate to our emotional energies that is crucial to well-ness. Understanding one's emotions is an essential part of the Buddhist journey to full awakening and freedom form unwanted conditions of all sorts. However, since most of us have very little ability to work with our emotional energies without creating negative experiences, medicines and other remedies are required.

While Tibetan notions of the law of karma imply infinite interlinked causes for any single event, three emotions, known as the "Three Interior Poisons," are considered to be at the root of all illness. The first poison is desire or passion, which implies grasping at objects or pleasant experiences. Desire is also perceived as "grasping at self" where self is our involvement with any object of our desire whether it is a chair, person or idea (Tsarong, p.17). And self, which involves a subject grasping an object, is an illusion to which we cling, because we still do not understand that anitya(impermanence) is a primordial condition of living in samsara. Similarly, hatred, or aversion, regarded as the second poison, consists of pushing away unpleasant experiences or objects. Finally, ignorance, or confusion, which involves misunderstanding the nature of an object or a particular experience, is the third poison of the mind.


Ron Leifer, a scholar of Tibetan medicine, considered the practice of Tibetan medicine a science because it is based on "observation and logical reasoning rather than faith, scripture or religious authority" (Leifer, p.753). However, even though the therapeutic methods described above may appear to be divorced from spiritual implications, they are not. Tibetan medicine typically directs its attention toward spiritual factors regarding the cause and cure of illness which by Western standards would be regarded as the "domain of the priest or psychiatrist" (Burang, p.59).

The Tibetan physician focuses his attention on spiritual factors even in the treatment of the simplest illnesses. Every Tibetan physician vows to "regard medicine as an offering to the Medicine Buddha and all other medicine deities" and considers his "medical instruments as holy objects" (Dummer, p. xix). Even the pharmaceuticals, which are mixtures of vegetable, animal and mineral compounds, are prepared with meticulous attention to religious ritual. For example, after the Tibetan physician gathers the dozens of different ingredients that go into the making of the single small pill, he performs a meditative ritual. Before and after the ingredients in the pills have been assembled, the physician imagines himself and the medicine to be Hayagriva, a Buddhist deity. The physician and the deity are considered to be consolidated as one inseparable entity. The medicines are further blessed "into a magnificent state through being implanted with mantra [a prayerful vocalization]" (Donden, p.214). Because pills are blessed this way, Tibetans believe that even the dying can benefit from them.

The emphasis on metaphysical principles in Tibetan medicine has its roots in the teachings of the historical Buddha, who lived about 2,500 years ago. The ancient texts of the Pali Canon record that early Buddhist communities believed that the four necessities of life are food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Since illness tended to weaken the focus of the mind, which was the liberating faculty, concepts of healing were important in the earliest Buddhist communities.

In the teachings of the Pali Canon, a person "who is not liberated, who is still subject to the sufferings brought on by insatiable craving, is considered ill." (Birnbaum, p.15). Sakyamuni Buddha was portrayed as the Supreme Physician who used two basic healing methods: healing by means of instruction and healing by means of miracles. Sakyamuni Buddha, who was considered a link between humanity and myriad celestial beings, repeatedly reminded his disciples that they should diligently seek to be healed. And Sakyamuni Buddha proclaimed that "Lo, I am physician without peer . . . " (As translated by E.M. Hare in Woven Cadences of the Early Buddhists in Birnbaum, p.16). Consequently, his disciples could turn to the King of Medicines, (the Dharma, or Buddha's teachings) or the Supreme Physician himself for relief.

Those whose illnesses were perceived to be fatal received lessons on impermanence as a fact of the natural world, whereas those who were curable were encouraged to meditate on the seven limbs (bojjhangas) of enlightenment: mindfulness, his teachings (dharma), striving, joy, tranquility, meditative trance and equanimity (Birnbaum, p.10). From the traditional perspective the bojjhangas are considered a method for overcoming the"Three Interior Poisons": desire, hatred and delusion. The emphasis on Buddha as the Supreme Physician, a model of selfless compassion who devoted his life to easing the pain and suffering of others, indicates a fundamental attitude regarding the nature of Buddhist medicine: "dispassionate compassion" (Birnbaum, p.17). This attitude serves as a behavioral prototype for contemporary Tibetan physicians.

1 comment:

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