...Buddhism for Urban America
Urban Dharma Newsletter... September 16, 2003
This Issue: Special Issue / Buddhism and
Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?
...By STEPHEN S. HALL / September 14, 2003
2. Buddhism, Medicine, and Health ...Ven. Master Hsing
3. Temple/Center/Website- of the Week:
4. Book/Movie Review: None
Is Buddhism Good for Your Health? ...By STEPHEN S. HALL
/ September 14, 2003
the spring of 1992, out of the blue, the fax machine in Richard
Davidson's office at the department of psychology at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison spit out a letter from Tenzin Gyatso,
the 14th Dalai Lama. Davidson, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist,
was making a name for himself studying the nature of positive
emotion, and word of his accomplishments had made it to northern
India. The exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists was
writing to offer the minds of his monks -- in particular, their
meditative prowess -- for scientific research.
self-respecting American neuroscientists would shrink from,
if not flee, an invitation to study Buddhist meditation, viewing
the topic as impossibly fuzzy and, as Davidson recently conceded,
''very flaky.'' But the Wisconsin professor, a longtime meditator
himself -- he took leave from graduate school to travel through
India and Sri Lanka to learn Eastern meditation practices --
leapt at the opportunity. In September 1992, he organized and
embarked on an ambitious data-gathering expedition to northern
India, lugging portable electrical generators, laptop computers
and electroencephalographic (EEG) recording equipment into the
foothills of the Himalayas. His goal was to measure a remarkable,
if seemingly evanescent, entity: the neural characteristics
of the Buddhist mind at work. ''These are the Olympic athletes,
the gold medalists, of meditation,'' Davidson says.
work began fitfully -- the monks initially balked at being wired
-- but research into meditation has now attained a credibility
unimaginable a decade ago. Over the past 10 years, a number
of Buddhist monks, led by Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk
with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, have made a series of visits
from northern India and other South Asian countries to Davidson's
lab in Madison. Ricard and his peers have worn a Medusa-like
tangle of 256-electrode EEG nets while sitting on the floor
of a little booth and responding to visual stimuli. They have
spent two to three hours at a time in a magnetic resonance imaging
machine, trying to meditate amid the clatter and thrum of the
data from these experiments have been published formally yet,
but in ''Visions of Compassion,'' a compilation of papers that
came out last year, Davidson noted in passing that in one visiting
monk, activation in several regions of his left prefrontal cortex
-- an area of the brain just behind the forehead that recent
research has associated with positive emotion -- was the most
intense seen in about 175 experimental subjects.
the years since Davidson's fax from the Dalai Lama, the neuroscientific
study of Buddhist practices has crossed a threshold of acceptability
as a topic worthy of scientific attention. Part of the reason
for this lies in new, more powerful brain-scanning technologies
that not only can reveal a mind in the midst of meditation but
also can detect enduring changes in brain activity months after
a prolonged course of meditation. And it hasn't hurt that some
well-known mainstream neuroscientists are now intrigued by preliminary
reports of exceptional Buddhist mental skills. Paul Ekman of
the University of California at San Francisco and Stephen Kosslyn
of Harvard have begun their own studies of the mental capabilities
of monks. In addition, a few rigorous, controlled studies have
suggested that Buddhist-style meditation in Western patients
may cause physiological changes in the brain and the immune
growing, if sometimes grudging, respect for the biology of meditation
is achieving a milestone of sorts this weekend, when some of
the country's leading neuroscientists and behavioral scientists
are meeting with Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama
himself, at a symposium held at M.I.T. ''You can think of the
monks as cases that show what the potential is here,'' Dr. Jon
Kabat-Zinn, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University
of Massachusetts Medical School who has pioneered work in the
health benefits of meditation, says. ''But you don't have to
be weird or a Buddhist or sitting on top of a mountain in India
to derive benefits from this. This kind of study is in its infancy,
but we're on the verge of discovering hugely fascinating things.''
the 2,500-year history of Buddhism, the religion has directed
its energy inward in an attempt to train the mind to understand
the mental state of happiness, to identify and defuse sources
of negative emotion and to cultivate emotional states like compassion
to improve personal and societal well-being. For decades, scientific
research in this country has focused on the short-term effects
of meditation on the nervous system, finding that meditation
reduces markers of stress like heart rate and perspiration.
This research became the basis for the ''relaxation response''
popularized by Prof. Herbert Benson of Harvard in the 1970's.
Buddhist practice, however, emphasizes enduring changes in mental
activity, not just short-term results. And it is the neural
and physical impact of the long-term changes, achieved after
years of intense practice, that is increasingly intriguing to
Buddhist tradition,'' Davidson explains, '''meditation' is a
word that is equivalent to a word like 'sports' in the U.S.
It's a family of activity, not a single thing.'' Each of these
meditative practices calls on different mental skills, according
to Buddhist practitioners. The Wisconsin researchers, for example,
are focusing on three common forms of Buddhist meditation. ''One
is focused attention, where they specifically train themselves
to focus on a single object for long periods of time,'' Davidson
says. ''The second area is where they voluntarily cultivate
compassion. It's something they do every day, and they have
special exercises where they envision negative events, something
that causes anger or irritability, and then transform it and
infuse it with an antidote, which is compassion. They say they
are able to do it just like that,'' he says, snapping his fingers.
''The third is called 'open presence.' It is a state of being
acutely aware of whatever thought, emotion or sensation is present,
without reacting to it. They describe it as pure awareness.''
fact that the brain can learn, adapt and molecularly resculpture
itself on the basis of experience and training suggests that
meditation may leave a biological residue in the brain -- a
residue that, with the increasing sophistication of new technology,
might be captured and measured. ''This fits into the whole neuroscience
literature of expertise,'' says Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist,
''where taxi drivers are studied for their spatial memory and
concert musicians are studied for their sense of pitch. If you
do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight
hours a day, there's going to be something in your brain that's
different from someone who didn't do that. It's just got to
D. Cohen, an expert on attention and cognitive control at Princeton,
has been intrigued by reports that certain Buddhist adepts can
maintain focus for extended periods. ''Our experience -- and
the laboratory evidence is abundant -- is that humans have a
limited capacity for attention,'' he says. ''When we try to
sustain attention for longer periods of time, like air-traffic
controllers have to do, we consider it incredibly effortful
and stressful. Buddhism is all about the ability to direct attention
flexibly, and they talk about this state of sustained and focused
attention that is pleasant, no longer stressful.''
nothing else, the meeting at M.I.T. this weekend shows that
Davidson, one of its principal organizers, has managed to persuade
a lot of marquee names to join him in making the case that it
has become scientifically respectable to investigate these practices.
Participants include mainstream scientists like Eric Lander,
a leader of the human genome project; Cohen, a prominent researcher
into the neural mechanisms of moral and economic decision-making;
and Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-Prize-winning Princeton economist
who has pioneered research into the psychology of financial
want to preserve both the substance and the image of rigor in
their approach, so one doesn't want to be seen as whisking out
into the la-la land of studying consciousness,'' concedes Cohen,
who is chairman of a session at the M.I.T. meeting. ''On the
other hand, my personal belief is that the history of science
has humbled us about the hubris of thinking we know everything.''
''Monk experiments'' at Madison are beginning to intersect with
a handful of small but suggestive studies showing that Buddhist-style
meditation may have not only emotional effects but also distinct
physiological effects. That is, the power of meditation might
be harnessed by non-Buddhists in a way that along with reducing
stress and defusing negative emotion, improves things like immune
function as well.
power of the mind to influence bodily function has long been
of interest to scientists, especially connections between the
nervous, immune and endocrine systems. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser
and Ronald Glaser, researchers at Ohio State University, for
example, have done a series of studies showing that stress typically
impairs immune function, though the exact woof and weave of
these connections remains unclear.
enough, the Buddhist subjects themselves are largely open to
scientific explanation of their practices. ''Buddhism is, like
science, based on experience and investigation, not on dogma,''
Matthieu Ricard explained in an e-mail message to me last month.
The religion can be thought of as ''a contemplative science,''
he wrote, adding, ''the Buddha always said that one should not
accept his teachings simply out of respect for him, but rediscover
their truth through our own experience, as when checking the
quality of a piece of gold by rubbing it on a piece on stone,
melting it and so on.''
July, I joined Davidson and several colleagues as they stood
in a control room and watched an experiment in progress. On
a television monitor in the control room, a young woman sat
in a chair in a nearby room, alone with her thoughts. Those
thoughts -- and, more specifically, the way she tried to control
them when provoked -- were the point of the experiment.
hypothesizes that a component of a person's emotional makeup
reflects the relative strength, or asymmetry, of activity between
two sides of the prefrontal cortex -- the left side, which Davidson's
work argues is associated with positive emotion, and the right
side, where heightened activity has been associated with anxiety,
depression and other mood disorders.
research group has conducted experiments on infants and the
elderly, amateur meditators and Eastern adepts, in an attempt
to define a complex neural circuit that connects the prefrontal
cortex to other brain structures like the amygdala, which is
the seat of fear, and the anterior cingulate, which is associated
with ''conflict-monitoring.'' Some experiments have also shown
that greater left-sided prefrontal activation is associated
with enhanced immunological activity by natural killer cells
and other immune markers.
one scientist in the control room said, ''All right, here comes
the first picture,'' the young woman visibly tensed, gripping
her elbows. Electrodes snaked out of her scalp and from two
spots just below her right eye. And then, staring into a monitor,
the young woman watched as a succession of mostly disturbing
images flashed on a screen in front of her -- a horribly mutilated
body, a severed hand, a venomous snake poised to strike. Through
earphones, the woman was prompted to modulate her emotional
response as each image appeared, either to enhance it or suppress
it, while the electrodes below her eye surreptitiously tapped
into a neural circuit that would indicate if she had successfully
modified either a positive or negative emotional response to
being measured,'' Davidson explained, ''is a person's capacity
to voluntarily regulate their emotional reactions.''
Jackson, the lead researcher on the study, added, ''Meditation
may facilitate more rapid, spontaneous recovery from negative
visiting monks, as well as a group of meditating office workers
at a nearby biotech company, have viewed these same gruesome
images for the same purpose: to determine what Davidson calls
each individual's ''affective style'' (if they are prone, for
example, to hang onto negative emotional reactions) and if that
style can be modulated by mental effort, of the sort that meditation
seeks to cultivate. It is the hope of Davidson and his sometime
collaborator Jon Kabat-Zinn that the power of meditation can
be harnessed to promote not only emotional well-being but also
founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts
Medical School in 1979, Kabat-Zinn and colleagues have treated
16,000 patients and taught more than 2,000 health professionals
the techniques of ''mindfulness meditation,'' which instructs
a Buddhist-inspired ''nonjudgmental,'' total awareness of the
present moment as a way of reducing stress. Along the way, Kabat-Zinn
has published small but intriguing studies showing that people
undergoing treatment for psoriasis heal four times as fast if
they meditate; that cancer patients practicing meditation had
significantly better emotional outlooks than a control group;
and not only that meditation relieved symptoms in patients with
anxiety and chronic pain but also that the benefits persisted
up to four years after training. Kabat-Zinn is conducting a
study for Cigna HealthCare to see if meditation reduces the
costs of treating patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia
and irritable bowel syndrome.
the time being, meditation science is still stuck in a cultural
no-man's land between being an oxymoron and something more substantive.
''We're very early in the research,'' said Davidson, who admitted
that ''the vast majority of meditation research is schlock.''
But a well-designed study published in July by Davidson, Kabat-Zinn
and their colleagues provides further evidence that the topic
July 1997, Davidson recruited human subjects at a small biotech
company outside Madison called Promega to study the effects
of Buddhist-style meditation on the neural and immunological
activity of ordinary American office workers. The employees'
brains were wired and measured before they began a course in
meditation training taught by Kabat-Zinn. It was a controlled,
randomized study, and after eight weeks, the researchers would
test brain and immune markers to assess the effects of meditation.
was reluctance among some employees to volunteer, but eventually,
about four dozen employees participated in the study. Once a
week for eight weeks, Kabat-Zinn would show up at Promega with
his boom box, his red and purple meditation tape cassettes and
his Tibetan chimes, and the assembled Promega employees -- scientists,
marketing people, lab techs and even some managers -- would
sit on the floor of a conference room and practice mindfulness
for three hours.
July, the results of the experiment at Promega were published
in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, and they suggest that
meditation may indeed leave a discernible and lasting imprint
on the minds and bodies of its practitioners. Among the Promega
employees who practiced meditation for two months, the Wisconsin
researchers detected significant increases in activity in several
areas of the left prefrontal cortex -- heightened activity that
persisted for at least four months after the experiment, when
the subjects were tested again. Moreover, the meditators who
showed the greatest increase in prefrontal activity after training
showed a correspondingly more robust ability to churn out antibodies
in response to receiving a flu vaccine. The findings, Kabat-Zinn
suggested, demonstrated qualitative shifts in brain activity
after only two months of meditation that mirror preliminary
results seen in expert meditators like monks.
results are still embraced cautiously, at best. Indeed, the
Wisconsin study took five years to publish in part because several
higher-profile journals to which it was submitted refused even
to send it out for peer review, according to Davidson. And yet,
by the time the study was over, the subjective experience of
participants complemented the objective data: meditation ultimately
left people feeling healthier, more positive and less stressed.
''I really am an empiricist in every aspect of my life,'' said
Michael Slater, a molecular biologist at Promega. ''I doubt
dogma, and I test it. I do it at the laboratory bench, but also
in my personal life. So this appealed to me, because I could
feel the reduction in stress. I could tell I was less irritable.
I had more capacity to take on more stressors. My wife felt
I was easier to be around. So there were tangible impacts. For
an empiricist, that was enough.''
that's not enough for many other people, especially the scientific
skeptics. But Slater made an offhand comment that struck me
as a highly convincing, though thoroughly unofficial, form of
peer review. ''My wife,'' Slater said quietly, ''is dying for
me to start meditating again.''
S. Hall is the author, most recently, of ''Merchants of Immortality:
Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension.''
Buddhism, Medicine, and Health ...Ven.
Master Hsing Yun
the origin of the world, birth, aging, illness, and death have
been unavoidable. Prince Siddhartha learned of this truth
when he ventured beyond his palace and visited the poor area
of town. Here, amidst beggars, sick people, and decrepit
elders, he saw the reality of life.
a desire arose in his heart to relieve the pain and suffering
of these people. Thus, he renounced his life of luxury and became
a monk, hoping that through meditation and cultivation he could
find solutions for the poor and ailing people.
the beginning, the Buddha realized that just as one can suffer
from physical disease, one could also suffer from an unhealthy
mindset. To cure both diseases of the body and mind, the
Buddha devoted his entire life to passing down the knowledge
of the Tripitaka (1). While the Buddha sought to cure
both physical and mental illness, emphasis was placed upon the
used the knowledge of the Dharma to heal the illness that arose
from the three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. The
Buddha’s medicine treats disease starting from the patients’
minds, curing them of the three poisons. Psychologists
also treat illness by working with their patient’s mental
state, but this is quite different from the Buddhist practice
of treating the mind.
to Buddhism, the pure and wondrous Dharma is the perfect medication
for an ailing mind, as well as a sick body.
both the mind and body healthy is important, for the body is
the vehicle in which we can practice the Dharma. Like
all things, the mind and the body are interdependent; the health
of the mind influences the health of the body, and vice versa
– the health of the body influences the health of the
mind. With a healthy body as a tool, we can cultivate
a compassionate heart and a clear mind. With a cultivated
mind, we are able to examine ourselves, clearly see the nature
of our problems, and then work to resolve them. We will
then be approaching the path to true health.
Buddhism and Medical Science
the sutras, we can find analogies that describe the Buddha as
the doctor, knowledge of the Dharma as the medicine, monastics
as the nursing staff, and all people as the patients.
According to this medical analogy, Buddhism is considered a
medication with a broad meaning – a medication that can
cure the ailments in all aspects of life. In general,
but with exceptions, Western medicine functions within a much
smaller framework. Western medicine typically approaches
illness through physical symptoms. This approach tends
to temporarily reduce the suffering and remove the symptoms
for a period, but a lack of symptoms does not mean that the
root cause has been identified and removed. Therefore,
the complete elimination of the disease has not occurred.
Buddhism offers patients not only symptomatic relief, but
also spiritual guidance to ensure overall and long-lasting health.
Western researchers have conducted massive studies on pathology,
pharmacology, immunology, and anatomy, enabling them to develop
more sophisticated medical techniques, scientists still doubt
that religion can help explain the cause of a disease.
Without validating the role of religion in disease, scientists
remain quite distant from the definition of disease, its causes,
and its treatments as understood from a religious perspective.
According to Buddhism, it is not enough to approach to medicine
in a manner that simply eradicates symptoms; the spiritual aspect
of disease and its mind-based causes and remedies must be the
recently have science and religion started to communicate and
blend in a manner that is beginning to narrow the gap between
a scientific approach to disease and one rooted in religion.
For instance, the U.S. government coordinated international
conferences on “The Relationship Between Religion and
Health.” Also, Harvard Medical School offers a class
entitled “The Essence of Medicine.” Religion
is gradually influencing the biological, psychological, and
social medicine of Western society. Buddhism has played
a significant role in uniting spirituality and medicine in the
the East, religion has impacted the field of health and medicine
for a much longer time. Eastern medical practitioners
never doubted the role of religion in disease; the two have
been integrated for thousands of years. Out of thousands
of documents in the Tripitaka, a significant number contain
records about Buddhist medicine. When this canon of discourses
and sutras was brought to China, the most salient aspects of
Indian Buddhism blended with the most highly regarded aspects
of Chinese medicine. Through modifications and improvements
contributed by numerous Buddhist masters from the past and present,
the Chinese Buddhist medical system has evolved into the one
that presently exists. In the following pages, I will
elaborate further on the Buddhist understanding of illness and
disease and the Buddhist approach to medicine and healing.
The Buddha as the Great Doctor
the Buddha was young, he learned the science of medicine (2).
He became very knowledgeable about the nature and cure
of diseases. According to the sutras, a famous physician
named Jivaka further advanced his medical practice and mastered
additional skills by learning from the Buddha and following
the Buddha’s instructions. Jivaka performed several
remarkable surgical procedures, earning a respectable reputation
in the medical field. One of his well-known operations
involved the repair of an obstructed colon. Jivaka performed
this surgery using a sequence of techniques similar to contemporary
practices: administering anesthesia, opening the abdominal
region, repairing the colon, and finally, closing the incision
with stitches. Though a trained physician, Jivaka became
even more competent in his mastery of medicine under the Buddha’s
spiritual and medical guidance.
addition to records about the Buddha and Jivaka, numerous sutras
such as The Sutra of Buddha’s Diagnosis, The
Sutra of the Buddha as a Great Doctor, The Sutra on Relieving
Piles, The Sutra on Healing Mental Distractions of Improper
Meditation, The Sutra of Healing Dental Diseases, The Sutra
of Dharani for Healing All Diseases, The Sutra of Dharani for
Season’s Diseases, Suvarnaprabhasottama Sutra, Vinaya
of the Five Categories, Vinaya of the Four Categories, Ten Recitations
Vinaya, and Mahasanghavinaya, contain many other references
to the Buddha’s knowledge about medicine. The Buddha
truly deserved to be regarded as the grand patriarch of Buddhist
medicine. He was capable of curing diseases not only of
the body but also of the mind, which were his specialty.
Today, when a patient seeks a physician’s care for a physical
ailment, the physician typically only pays attention to the
painful symptoms in the body, ignoring both the causes and the
suffering in the mind. By not investigating and discovering
the true roots of the disease, they only accomplish a fraction
of real healing. They do very little to heal the patients’
unhappiness, for they do not recognize and understand the true
cause of the human life cycle of birth, aging, illness, and
death. They do not take into account that karma and mental
constructs have something to do with the origins of illness.
Buddha’s realization of what induces the perpetual cycle
of rebirth and the stages of aging, illness, and death, enabled
him to guide others to live with ultimate physical and mental
health. The Buddha eliminated disease by going to the
heart of the cause and drawing upon his knowledge of the proper
remedy. In Anguttara-nikaya, the Buddha explained
that an imbalance of chi (3), an overabundance of phlegm, and
an increase or decrease in the body’s temperature could
be treated with clarified butter, honey, and oil-based food
mental health, greed, anger, and ignorance are understood as
the three gravest psychological diseases. The Buddha taught
that greed could be cured by the contemplation of impurity,
anger by the contemplation and practice of kindness, and ignorance
by the contemplation of the true nature of all things and the
cultivation of wisdom. These are the medications that
the Buddha encouraged everyone to use in order to heal the diseases
of both body and mind.
The Sutra of Buddha’s Diagnosis the Buddha explained
that a doctor should progress through four steps when helping
a patient. Doctors must: 1) discover the origin of the
illness, 2) achieve a thorough understanding of the illness,
3) prescribe the appropriate medication to cure the illness,
and 4) completely cure the illness in a manner that prevents
it from reoccurring. In addition to mastering these four
criteria, a good doctor should always act with a generous heart
when treating patients, considering them as his or her dearest
Buddha also identified five important practices for caretakers
– nurses, family members, friends, and others –
to be aware of as they cared for patients. He encouraged
caretakers to: 1) insure that the patients are tended to by
good-hearted and skillful doctors, 2) wake up earlier and go
to bed later than patients and always remain alert to the patient’s
needs, 3) speak to their patients in a kind and compassionate
voice when they are feeling depressed or uneasy, 4) nourish
the patients with the proper food in the correct amounts and
intervals according to the nature of the ailment and according
to the doctor’s instructions, and 5) talk with skill and
ease about the Dharma with the patients; instructing them in
proper healthcare for the body and mind.
the Buddha offered advice to patients in order to help them
heal quickly and thoroughly. He recommended that patients:
1) be cautious and selective about the food they eat, 2) consume
food at the proper intervals, 3) stay in touch with their doctors
and nurses, always acting kindly and graciously towards them,
4) keep an optimistic or hopeful outlook, and 5) be kind and
considerate of those who are caring for you. The Buddha
believed that a cooperative effort from the doctors, caretakers,
and patients yielded the best results from treatment.
The Buddha was not just an average doctor; he was an exceptional
doctor who had vision and insight.
Medical Theories in Buddhism
to Chinese medicine, diseases are caused by seven internal
and six external elements. The internal elements
are extreme levels of happiness, anger, anxiety, a ruminating
mind, sadness, fear, and shock. The external elements
are coldness, summer-heat, dryness, heat, dampness, and wind.
The seven internal elements, also referred to as emotions, are
believed to cause illness because they directly impair the healthy
functioning of the five main organs of human beings. Extreme
levels of either happiness or fear damage the heart, anger harms
the liver, anxiety harms the lungs, a ruminating mind affects
the spleen, and shock hurts the kidneys. According to
Chinese medicine, a healthy and balanced emotional life is essential
in maintaining one’s physical health.
Buddhist sutras describe the causes of disease in a similar
manner. For example, The Sutra of Buddha’s Diagnosis
mentions that there are ten causes and conditions of sickness.
These reasons are: 1) sitting for too long a period without
moving, 2) eating too much, 3) sadness, 4) fatigue, 5) excessive
sexual desire, 6) anger, 7) postponing excrement, 8) postponing
urination, 9) holding the breath, and 10) suppressing gas.
Approaching the causes of disease from a slightly different
angle, The Discourse of Great Equanimity and Insightful Meditation
points out six origins for disease. They are described
as: 1) an imbalance of the four elements (earth, water, fire,
and wind), 2) irregular dietary habits, 3) incorrect
meditation methods, 4) disturbances by spirits, 5) demon possession,
and 6) the force of bad karma. Illness that originates
from most of these origins can be cured if people improve their
diet, become more aware of their bodies’ natural processes,
and get plenty of rest. However, the last three causes
4) – 6) are related to karma, and one must work on improving
his/her character and purifying his/her mind in order to be
cured. A person afflicted for the last three reasons needs
to spend time in spiritual practice, repentance, and doing good
deeds. Only then will his/her illness begin to go away.
The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra states that illness
is caused either by internal or external causes and conditions.
Still, Visuddhimagga mentions additional causes of disease,
but they are too numerous to list here. All of the theories
on the various causes of illness can be grouped into two main
categories: A) the imbalance of the four elements and B) the
presence of three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.
The following is a detailed discussion of these two classifications.
Imbalance of the Four Elements
to Buddhism, the body is composed of four impermanent elements
– earth, water, fire, and wind. Only consciousness
is reborn in one of the six realms. This theory is the
foundation of Indian Buddhist medical science. Chinese
medicine believes the body to be comprised of a unique system
of subsidiary channels that transmits vital energy (chi), blood,
nutrients, and other substances through the five organs and
six internal regions in one’s body. When this intricate
circulation system is flowing properly, the four elements stay
in balance, the major organs can perform their essential functions,
and the body remains healthy.
Discourse of Condensed Equanimity and Insightful Meditation
states that each of the four elements is able to cause one
hundred and one diseases, with a total of four hundred and four
diseases possible. Each element is connected to certain
types of diseases. For instance, the earth element is
related to diseases that make the body become heavy, stiff,
and painful, such as arthritis; the water element afflicts the
body with diarrhea, stomach aches, and difficult digestion;
the fire element causes fever, constipation, and problems urinating;
lastly, the wind element is related to breathing difficulties
third volume of Nanhai Ji Gui Neifa Zhuan states that,
“If diseases are related to the four elements, they are
usually caused by overeating or overexertion.” An
imbalance of the four elements and the resulting illness can
also occur due to a diet that is not in tune with the four seasons.
When the seasons change and the temperature varies from
cool to cold to warm to hot, it is important to adjust our diet
in a manner that enables the body to function at its best. In
The Suvarnaprabhasottama Sutra, a young man asked his father
who was a doctor, “How do we cure the suffering of human
beings and cure diseases that arise from the imbalance of the
four elements?” The doctor responded to his son
by saying, “We live our lives through four seasons of
three months, or six seasons of two months in some parts of
the world. Whether four or six, we must live according
to the seasons, eating food that corresponds with hot and cold,
warm and cool. In this way, our bodies will benefit. A
good doctor is well learned in prescribing the right food and
medicine to adjust the four elements and nourish a patient’s
body during a particular season. When the season and the
food are in balance, so too will the body be in balance.”
a reasonable amount and adjusting what we eat according to seasonal
changes are two important factors in maintaining balance among
the four elements and allowing chi to circulate unimpeded through
our bodies. We automatically dress differently when the
seasons change in order to comfort and protect ourselves during
a particular temperature change or weather conditions. If
we adopt this practice and adjust our diet with the weather
and seasons, we help our bodies to stay balanced and guard against
Anger, and Ignorance
anger, and ignorance, sometimes referred to as “the three
poisons,” are also reasons why people are afflicted with
sickness. When one is stuck in any one of these destructive
mental states, one opens the door and invites disease.
The Vimalakirti Sutra states, “All the diseases
I have right now are derived from illusory thoughts I have had
in the past ? because human beings are attached to a “self”,
affliction and diseases have the chance to be born their bodies.”
When one allows oneself to be ruled by the three poisons, the
psychological and physical health hazards are numerous and can
be quite debilitating. The following descriptions provide insight
into how greed, anger, and ignorance cause illness:
is defined as an improper and excessive desire for something.
For example, one is more likely to overeat when one is having
a favorite meal. Such greed can then lead to an overly
full stomach and the food will not be well digested. Or,
one may like food so much that he/she eats much too frequently.
This type of desire which cannot be satisfied can cause obesity,
fatigue, and heart problems. Greed is never without consequences.
can also have excessive desires for sensory experience. In
The Discourse of Interpretation Great Equanimity and Insightful
Meditation, it is stated that too much attachment to what
we perceive through sound, smell, sight, taste, and touch can
cause both psychological and physical illness. A person
may cling to the experience of these five sensations, which
can cause an imbalance in our rational thoughts and disturb
our ability to make moral choices. Physical health problems
can also arise. In the Buddhist health theory, those who are
too attached to physical appearance will suffer from diseases
of the liver. Those who are too attached to sounds will
suffer from kidney diseases. Those who are too attached
to aromas will suffer from lung diseases. Those who are
too attached to taste will suffer from heart diseases; and those
who are too attached to the sensation of touch will suffer from
spleen diseases. Thus, when we encounter the multitude
of sensations that are a natural part of daily life, it is best
to maintain a balanced attitude and practice the Middle Path
(4). In order to maintain optimum physical and mental
health, the Middle Path is also the best way to approach sleeping,
eating, and exercising. When one sleeps too much, one
will not have a clear mind. When one eats too much food
that is high in cholesterol and sugar, one is gradually increasing
the risk of poor health and could ultimately face chronic disease,
such as diabetes or heart disease. In today’s fast-paced
society that promotes working excessively and watching hours
of television, people do not exercise enough, and eventually,
this has an adverse affect on their bodies. Additionally,
nowadays people are constantly exposed to a noisy and stressful
environment, which can cause people to become sick more easily.
If one decreases one’s greed and desire and approaches
life with the attitude of the Middle Path, one can lead a healthier
fourteenth volume of The Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra
states that, “Anger is the most toxic emotion compared
to the other two poisons; its harm far exceeds all of the other
afflictions as well. Of the ninety-eight torments (5),
anger is the hardest one to subdue; among all psychological
problems, anger is the most difficult to cure.”
Although anger is a psychological problem, it can also lead
to severe physical consequences. For example, when aversion
and anger arise in a person, the blood vessels become constricted,
causing a rise in blood pressure and thus increasing the risk
of heart attack.
writing about anger, Venerable Punengsong from the Qing Dynasty
good doctor always finds out
The cause of a sickness first.
Anger is quite harmful
To someone who is sick.
relationship between a patient’s pulse
And his illness is delicate.
the correct prescription,
We can heal ourselves of our illness.
doctors examine their patients to determine the cause of illness
and the proper medication to prescribe, one of the most essential
ingredients of treatment is pacifying the patients’ emotions.
Anger causes poor circulation, which can have devastating effects
on the entire body. It acts as a blockade, causing the
body and mind to be less receptive to treatment. When
agitated emotions subside and the patient is able to experience
a sense of tranquility, recuperating is both easier and quicker.
Anger and hatred are particularly detrimental to the healing
process, and in fact, often worsen the problem.
one is ignorant, one is unable to understand or see things as
they really are. Many of us are like this when it comes
to illness. We are unable or unwilling to look at the
root of the illness. Instead of pinpointing the true cause and
effect that will help us to eradicate the illness, and instead
of using wisdom to guide us to the proper care, we take a detour
and become distracted by ineffective remedies. We sometimes
look for a “quick fix,” using unsubstantiated methods,
unscientific therapies, and unsound doctors. Meanwhile,
the illness is usually causing us both physical and psychological
suffering. Using wisdom to investigate the actual cause
of our illness will help us to set foot on the road to complete
and long-lasting recovery.
it is usually easy to detect the symptoms of a physical disease,
we often remain ignorant of psychological diseases. They
follow us like a shadow. We do not examine the constructs
of our mind with wisdom and awareness, and poor psychological
health follows. If we remain blind to our psychological
diseases, the problems can compound and cause more severe sickness
within our bodies. Modern scientists agree that anger,
extreme happiness, anxiety, terror, sadness, and other emotions
can impact one’s physical well being. According
to recent medical research, “When a person is unhappy,
angry, or under pressure, his or her brain will release the
hormones called adrenaline and nor-adrenaline, which can act
as a toxin.” In addition, if the body is influenced
by extreme emotions for a long period of time, the illness induced
by the emotional imbalance or stress is harder to cure.
For example, a digestive disorder rooted in a prolonged emotional
condition is more difficult to cure than one caused by an external
factor. There is scientific evidence, not just religious
theory, that emotions indeed impact the healthy functioning
of the body. Therefore, it is in our best interest to
cultivate awareness of our emotional condition, handle our emotions
well, and not become too attached to or controlled by them.
Buddhism, there are eighty-four thousand methods that are used
to cure eighty-four thousand illnesses. For instance,
the Buddha taught that to eliminate greed, one can use the contemplation
of impurity. Once a person meditates on impurity, he or
she will experience a decrease in desire. The Buddha taught
people afflicted with anger or hatred to practice universal
kindness and compassion in order to reduce their hostility.
When they feel themselves becoming angry, they should become
mindful of the meaning of compassion. In doing so, they
will understand that getting mad is not an appropriate or helpful
their angry words and thoughts will dissipate.
people are ignorant, they should contemplate cause and effect
and the law of impermanence, to help them nurture the mindset
of non-attachment. Nothing arises outside of dependence origination
and nothing that arises will last forever; all phenomena will
one-day cease to exist. Since everything behaves like
dust, which comes and goes, what is the purpose of being attached
to it? Realizing there is no immunization for impermanence
helps to reorient our minds from ignorance to wisdom and allows
us to live with greater overall health.
Hanshan Deqing from the Ming Dynasty said, “No one can
get sick, age, die, or be born for you. This suffering,
only you must bear. All bitterness and sweetness one must
go through on one’s own.” If we can accept
the inevitability of suffering and impermanence with equanimity,
it is like taking a dose of the finest medicine. Thus,
when we adjust our emotions, subdue our temper, and act generously
toward others, we will find our way through life’s problems
with more ease and reduce the chance of illness. If we
apply these principles of Buddhist medicine to nurture our minds
and restore our bodies, generosity will emerge out of greed,
compassion will emerge out of anger, wisdom will emerge out
of ignorance, and health will emerge out of sickness.
When we treat the poisons of the mind and act with equanimity
in all circumstances, there will be harmony of body and mind
and disease will be kept at bay.
The Medicine of Buddhism
occurrence of a disease is closely related to one’s mental
health, physical health, spiritual health, behavior, habits,
living environment, and even the society and culture in which
one lives. Harmonizing all of these elements and engaging
in specific practices can help to bring about optimum health
and prevent illness. Gaining awareness about the cause
of illness and conducting our lives in a manner that nourishes
and maintains long-term good health can drastically improve
our overall well-being. The Buddha offers us several suggestions
and practices that can serve as medicine for all aspects of
Healthy Dietary Habits: A Chinese idiom states, “Troubles
are caused by words flowing out of the mouth; illness is caused
by food going into the mouth.” Using caution and
moderation in what we consume is an important practice for good
health. Before consuming any food, we should determine
if the food is fresh, if it is thoroughly cleaned, and what
would be a reasonable amount to eat. The Sutra of Buddha’s
Bequeath Teachings (Ch. I-chiao-ching Sutra) states, “When
we eat, we should regard our food as medicine, for consuming
too much or too little is not healthy. A regular and proper
dose can support our bodies, cure our hunger, relieve our thirst,
and prevent us from becoming ill. Like bees gathering
honey, they take what they need, but they don’t consume
the whole flower.” As Xingshi Chao states, we should
adjust the type of food we eat according to the season, consuming
various combinations of food in order to maintain our body’s
equilibrium. Our bodies are susceptible to different ailments
depending on the season, and a diet conscious of this fact offers
a better chance of staying healthy.
Regulation for Chan Monastery outlined five contemplations
to be mindful of when we take our meals:
consider the effort required
To grow and prepare the food;
am grateful for its sources.
In observing my virtue;
impeccable in mind and heart,
shall deserve this offering.
shall protect my heart
being ensnared by faults;
shall guard myself
cure my weakening body,
shall consume this food as medicine.
tread the path
shall accept this food
should maintain a balanced diet and approach food with a gracious
attitude. When our bodies are given the right amount of
food, our digestive organs will function properly, and our body’s
metabolism will be in prime condition, thus preventing digestive
diseases and other health problems. Being mindful of and
grateful for the food we consume contributes to the health of
our mind as well as our body.
Our mind is constantly exploring the world around us and
as a result, illusory thoughts are always arising and ceasing.
Our over-active mind rarely gets a chance to rest. The
constant stream of thoughts we experience can affect our ability
to concentrate without interruption and can have a negative
affect on our daily life. In addition to psychological
health risks, one’s physiology can also be adversely affected
by an overwhelming amount of mental activity. The brain
can cease to function properly due to our continual clutter
of thoughts or an instance of severe mental excitation.
For example, when one experiences a tremendous surprise, the
face may appear discolored, the hands and feet become cold,
and one’s ability to concentrate normally will be impaired.
However, if this person can take a deep breath to slow down
the heartbeat and calm the emotions, the presence of tranquility
will return the body to its normal state and the chance for
harming any vital organs will decrease.
the meditative practice of breathing slowly and concentrating
on the breath, one’s psychological and physiological well-being
can dramatically improve. In The Medicine Chan,
written by a Japanese physician, three specific physical benefits
derived from meditation were mentioned: 1) increased energy
and a prolonged period of prime years 2) improved blood circulation,
and 3) a renewed endocrine system (6). Through meditation,
our body achieves a greater state of balance and our breathing
becomes regulated. Our mind becomes focused, clear, and
organized. Desires are dissolved and improper thoughts
are eliminated. When our mind is clear and focused at
all times, even as we walk, sit, and sleep, we will be calm
and peaceful, which eventually results in a greater degree of
overall health – both mental and physical. Master
Tiantai Zhizhe recognizes the significant impact that meditation
can have on overall health. He commented that if meditation
is practiced on a regular basis and applied to daily occurrences
with wisdom, all four hundred and four illnesses can be cured.
a mind that is free from the exhaustion and confusion of constant
thoughts, we can accomplish significant things in our lives,
instead of merely thinking about doing so. Through acting,
instead of just thinking, one can more authentically experience
each moment and ultimately encounter the truth of life.
Respect to the Buddha: The benefits of paying
respect to the Buddha are numerous and come in many forms, nurturing
both physical and mental health. Bowing to the Buddha
increases the strength and flexibility of the body. When
one bows, one’s neck, hands, arms, waist, and legs stretch,
giving the whole body an opportunity to exercise. By stretching
the body, stiffness decreases and blood circulation increases,
thus reducing the chance of becoming ill.
bowing results in distinct physical benefits, the act of bowing
and the resulting benefits have more to do with our state of
mind than our physical action. Our mental presence when
bowing is of utmost importance. When we bow, we should
show respect and sincerity, remaining deep in concentration
as a slow bow is performed. As we pay respect in this
manner, we should contemplate the Buddha then expand our focus
to include unlimited Buddhas in all directions. When we
pay respect to unlimited Buddhas, unlimited beings are benefited.
Ourselves, the Buddha – in fact all true nature
is empty. However, though empty, if one bows before the
Buddha with a sincere and respectful heart, an amazing spiritual
experience can take place. Contemplating the truth of
emptiness teaches us to reorient our self-centered way of being
and realize that the notion of self is merely illusory. Bowing,
therefore, is performed not only to express our deepest gratitude
to the Buddha and all Buddhas, but also an effective way to
eliminate our ignorance, decrease our attachment to self, dissolve
the burden of karma, and cultivate our spiritual practice. As
we can see, bowing is a health-giving gesture that nourishes
both our body and mind.
Confession is another practice that helps to restore and
maintain our health. It is like clean water that washes
away the dirt from one’s heart and the dust from one’s
mind. A story about a Tang Master named Wuda offers us
an example of how confession can be a healing agent. Master
Wuda had a man killed in a previous life. Seeking revenge
in future lives, the man who was killed was reborn as a sore
on Master Wuda’s foot. No doctor could cure the
sore because it was a manifestation of Master Wuda’s bad
karma. After seeking guidance from an Arhat who helped
him to realize his wrongdoing, Master Wuda repented with a sincere
heart, cleansed his wound with pure water, and the sore disappeared.
Only the heart of repentance could cure Master Wuda of
his ailment. Thus, all of us should repent our mistakes
and misdeeds to the Buddha and vow not to repeat the same behavior
and create more bad karma. In addition, with the heart
and mind of a bodhisattva, we may compassionately repent for
all beings, thereby relieving their suffering as well as our
own. Psychologically, repentance is believed to release
impure thoughts and worrisome guilt that act like toxins in
our bodies. It alleviates our mental burdens and reduces the
potential for illness.
Mantras (7): Mantras are
powerful in curing diseases when recited with a sincere heart,
deep concentration, and proper intentions. The Great
Compassion Mantra and the Medicine Buddha Mantra
are two such examples. When recited, each Mantra generates
a tremendous amount of merit and has amazing healing and transforming
the Buddha’s Name: Many people are distressed by anxiety,
agitation, improper desires, and delusional thought. These
torments not only disturb our psychological well-being and eventually
take a toll on our physical health, they also hinder our ability
to perceive the truth of life and attain enlightenment. When
we recite the name of the Buddha, the torment of improper and
delusional thoughts will cease and our mental anguish will evaporate.
The heart calms down, the mind is awakened and purified, and
no greed, anger, ignorance, or other toxins will arise, thus
giving us greater protection from illness and delivering us
from our ignorance. Reciting the Buddha’s name also
helps us to reduce our bad karma, eliminating as many misdeeds
as there are grains of sand in the Ganges. A Buddhist
saying tells us, “Reciting the Buddha’s name once
can diminish one’s bad karma, and bowing to the Buddha
can increase one’s good karma.” Thus, reciting
the Buddha’s name is an effective practice for healing
the distress of our minds and bodies, as well as benefiting
our cultivation and awakening us to the truth of life.
the Dharma as Medicine: Our world is ailing from a broad
range of modern diseases that, while not actually classified
as standard medical illnesses, still cause overwhelming suffering
and need to be treated. Some of these are environmental
diseases, which include pollution, resource destruction, and
loud noise, and societal diseases, including violence, harassment,
materialism, kidnapping, and crime. There are also, educational
diseases, such as the physical and emotional abuse of students
and the growing lack of respect for authority, and economic
diseases, such as opportunism, greed, and corruption.
There also exist religious diseases, which could be explained
as superstitious practices, religions that encourage harmful
practices, and incorrect interpretations of religious concepts.
Relationship diseases refer to infidelity, polygamy, and rape,
and mental diseases include jealousy, distrust, and resentment.
We may seek a doctor’s help for physical illness, but
the diseases listed above can only be cured by our own efforts
to develop our character, cultivate our wisdom, and practice
the Dharma. Buddhism can be used as a medicine to cure
our minds of destructive and unhealthy thoughts, which create
the conditions for all of the diseases mentioned above.
A pure mind creates a pure world, and the wondrous Dharma is
the perfect medicine to guide us to healthy thoughts, healthy
behavior, and healthy lives.
particular, the six paramitas (8) can be used to cure six kinds
of diseases in Buddhism: 1) Generosity cures greed, 2) Observing
the precepts cures violation of the precepts, 3) Tolerance cures
hatred, 4) Diligence cures laziness, 5) Meditation cures the
frenzied mind, and 6) Prajna (wisdom) cures ignorance. The
medicine of the six paramitas enables us to treat our mind and
generate peace and harmony in all aspects of our lives.
When we embrace the Dharma, we can resolve the conflicts in
our daily life with more ease and develop a healthy mind and
a gracious character.
Wuchih created a recipe of ingredients that can be used to turn
an unhealthy mind into a healthy one. In the spirit of
Master Wuchih, I created my own recipe for health:
One strand of compassionate heart,
One slice of morality
And original nature,
A pinch of cherishing good fortune,
Gratitude and appreciation,
complete package of
Sincere words and actions,
piece of observation of
Precepts and upholding the Dharma,
One piece of humility,
Ten portions of diligence and frugality,
Combine all cause and effect,
And unlimited skillful means,
The more the better!
off with all your faith,
Vows, and practice.
Use the pot called magnanimity,
Use the heart called open-mindedness,
Don’t burn it!
Don’t let it dry out!
Lower your hot temper by three degrees,
(Mellow out and lose in a little gentleness.)
Put into a bowl and grind into small pieces.
people entering each other’s hearts and cooperating with
Think everything over three times,
Give encouragement as a pill,
Each day take this medicine three times,
Drink it down with the soup of
Remember when you take the medicine,
cannot have clarity in speaking
But a muddled being.
Or benefit yourself at the expense of others.
Ambushing others from behind,
And harboring malice within,
Using a smile to masquerade the desire
Or speaking from both sides of your mouth,
Creating disharmony just for the heck of it,
Refrain from engaging in the seven above,
Along with no jealousy or suspicion,
And Truth to calm the troubled heart,
If you can do this, all ills will disappear.
The Contribution of Monastics to Medicine
India, most monastics are well educated in the five sciences,
especially in medicine, which they are required to study.
Because knowledge of medicine is mandatory for monastics, throughout
Buddhist history there are many well-known monastic physicians,
medical scholars, and medical texts. For example, in the
Buddhist sutras, we find countless references to and discussions
about medicine. Evidence also demonstrates that Buddhism
has made a significant contribution to the world of medicine
not only through the development of respectable health theories
and principles but also through actual practice. While
by no means an exhaustive list, the following are brief accounts
of Buddhist masters who have stood out in the history of Buddhist
China, Master Buddhasimha was dedicated as the Honorable National
Master of the East Gin Dynasty by Emperors Shile and Shihu.
He was exceptionally skillful in reciting curative prayers and
administering medicine. He tended to many patients who
were paralyzed, in great pain, and were hopeless about finding
a cure for their ailment. Master Buddhasimha never gave
up on them, faithfully devoting his heart to caring for them
as they suffered, prescribing the proper medication, and finding
a lasting cure for their diseases.
Zhu fatiao came to China from India, and stayed in Changshan
Temple most of the time. He was quite famous for his ability
to cure people, and patients journeyed hundreds of miles to
seek his help. After skillfully diagnosing the problem
and prescribing the appropriate treatment, nearly all of his
patients were restored to good health.
Faxi lived during the Tang Dynasty. When he resided in
the capital, he assumed full responsibility for all of his patients’
needs and cared for them personally, including cleaning up their
excrement. He never complained about this task or considered
it filthy or difficult. On the contrary, he was always
enthusiastic and joyful as he tended to his patients.
Both the patients and fellow monastics praised his compassionate
conduct. Master Faxi not only cured patients’ physical
diseases, he also patiently brought them the knowledge of the
Dharma to comfort them when they were feeling hopeless or in
have also been credited for contributing to the cure of leprosy,
a dangerous and contagious illness that often drove people away.
However, many Buddhists chose not to avoid victims of leprosy
but instead worked among them to help ease their suffering and
cure their debilitating illness. Many monks put forth
great effort to help leprosy patients, caring for them, encouraging
them, changing their bandages, draining their infected sores,
and doing their laundry. These people risked their lives
by performing services that most people avoided. Their
tenderness touched many people.
we have discussed, numerous physical and mental diseases afflict
us and cause great suffering. While Buddhist medical theories
acknowledge and treat the devastating effects of physical diseases,
they regard diseases of the mind as the most destructive to
health and happiness. According to Buddhism, people suffer
from disease when they:
into peace of mind
a fearful heart
sadness and worry
humility and offer tolerance to others
when quietude is appropriate
a healthy balance of chi
a simple lifestyle
their fear of death
of these diseases are caused by our rigid attachment –
to an idea, belief, person, appearance, possession, emotion,
status, or experience – to anything at all. If we
can understand the true meaning of detachment and the true nature
of emptiness and treat all illness with this awareness, we will
then have the perfect, miracle medicine to remove the roots
of disease. Both the body and the mind need to be taken
care of, and the medicine of Buddhism is the ideal remedy. Use
the Dharma to heal your mind, and the path of true health will
open up for you. I wish you health and happiness!
The Tripitaka is the canon of Buddhist teachings, including
Sutras (sermons of the Buddha), the Vinaya (precepts and rules
of Buddhist discipline), and the Abhidharma (commentary on the
Medicine is one of the five sciences whose study is mandatory
for monastics. The other four are language, arts and mathematics,
logic, and the philosophy of Buddhism.
According to Chinese medicine, chi is the energy or life force
that circulates throughout the body; this vital power is believed
to flow throughout the entire universe.
In practicing the Middle Path, one avoids both extremes of indulgence
Sometimes referred to as “temptations” or “afflictions,”
these mind-torments, e.g. greed, anger, sloth, jealousy, and
many others, inhibit one from residing in true, original, pure
System of glands that secrete hormones directly into the lymph
Powerful spiritual practice of reciting a word, sound, or verse,
used to cultivate wisdom, deepen concentration, and effect a
change in consciousness.
Literally meaning “crossing over to the other shore,”
paramitas are the core virtues of the bodhisattva path.
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