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448 LESSON 26 11 2011 Hatthaka Sutta To Hatthaka excerpt On Sleeping Well in the Cold
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Practice a Sutta a Day Keeps Dukkha Away
PTS: A i 136
Thai III.35; BJT III.35
Hatthaka Sutta: To Hatthaka
On Sleeping Well in the Cold Forest
translated from the Pali by
On one occasion the
Blessed One was staying near Alavi on a spread of leaves by a
cattle track in a simsapa forest. Then Hatthaka of Alavi,
out roaming & rambling for exercise, saw the Blessed One sitting on a
spread of leaves by the cattle track in the simsapa forest. On seeing him, he
went to him and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he
was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Lord, I hope the Blessed
One has slept in ease.”
“Yes, young man. I
have slept in ease. Of those in the world who sleep in ease, I am one.”
“But cold, lord, is
the winter night. The ‘Between-the-Eights’
is a time of snowfall. Hard is the ground trampled by cattle hooves. Thin is
the spread of leaves. Sparse are the leaves in the trees. Thin are your ochre
robes. And cold blows the Verambha wind. Yet still the
Blessed One says, ‘Yes, young man. I have slept in ease. Of those in the world
who sleep in ease, I am one.’”
“In that case, young
man, I will question you in return. Answer as you see fit. Now, what do you
think: Suppose a householder or householder’s son has a house with a gabled
roof, plastered inside & out, draft-free, with close-fitting door &
windows shut against the wind. Inside he has a horse-hair couch spread with a
long-fleeced coverlet, a white wool coverlet, an embroidered coverlet, a rug of
kadali-deer hide, with a canopy above, & red cushions on either side. And
there a lamp would be burning, and his four wives, with their many charms,
would be attending to him. Would he sleep in ease, or not? Or how does this
“Yes, lord, he would
sleep in ease. Of those in the world who sleep in ease, he would be one.”
“But what do you
think, young man. Might there arise in that householder or householder’s son
any bodily fevers or fevers of mind born of passion so that — burned with those
passion-born fevers — he would sleep miserably?”
“As for those
passion-born fevers — burned with which the householder or householder’s son
would sleep miserably — that passion has been abandoned by the Tathagata, its
root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development,
not destined for future arising. Therefore he sleeps in ease.
“Now, what do you
think, young man. Might there arise in that householder or householder’s son
any bodily fevers or fevers of mind born of aversion so that — burned with
those aversion-born fevers — he would sleep miserably?”
“As for those
aversion-born fevers — burned with which the householder or householder’s son
would sleep miserably — that aversion has been abandoned by the Tathagata, its
root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of
development, not destined for future arising. Therefore he sleeps in ease.
“Now, what do you
think, young man. Might there arise in that householder or householder’s son
any bodily fevers or fevers of mind born of delusion so that — burned with
those delusion-born fevers — he would sleep miserably?”
“As for those
delusion-born fevers — burned with which the householder or householder’s son
would sleep miserably — that delusion has been abandoned by the Tathagata, its
root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of
development, not destined for future arising. Therefore he sleeps in ease.
“Always, always, he sleeps in ease: the
brahman totally unbound, who doesn’t adhere to sensual pleasures, who’s without
acquisitions & cooled. Having cut all ties & subdued fear in the heart,
calmed, he sleeps in ease, having reached peace of awareness.”
Since the origin of the
From 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
Tripitaka1. While the Buddha sought to cure both physical
and mental illness, emphasis was placed upon the mind. He 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.
According to Buddhism, the pure and wondrous Dharma is the perfect
medication for an ailing mind, as well as a sick body.
Keeping 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
In 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.
While 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 primary consideration.
Only 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 West.
In 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
When the Buddha was young, he learned the
science of medicine2. 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.
In 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.
The 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 chi3, 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 respectively.
Regarding 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.
In 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 friends.
The 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
According 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.
Various 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, 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
The Imbalance of the Four Elements
According 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.
The 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 and vomiting.
The 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.”
Eating 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 disease.
Greed, Anger, and Ignorance
Greed, 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.
People 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 Path4.
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 life.
The 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
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.
In writing about anger, Venerable Punengsong
from the Qing Dynasty tells us,
A good doctor always finds out
The cause of
a sickness first.
Anger is quite
To someone who is sick.
The relationship between a patient’s pulse
his illness is delicate.
With the correct prescription,
We can heal ourselves of our illness.
As 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.
When 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.
While 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.
In 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 response. Gradually, their angry words and thoughts
If 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.
Master 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.
V. The Medicine of Buddhism
The 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 our
Practice 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.
The Regulation for Chan Monastery outlined five contemplations to be mindful of when we take our
I consider the effort required
To grow and prepare the food;
I am grateful for its sources.
In observing my virtue;
If impeccable in mind and heart,
I shall deserve this offering.
I shall protect my heart
From being ensnared by faults;
I shall guard myself
Particularly against greed.
To cure my weakening body,
I shall consume this food as medicine.
To tread the path
Of spiritual cultivation;
I shall accept this food
As an offering.
One 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.
Meditation: 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.
Through 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 system6. 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.
With 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.
Paying 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.
Although 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
Repentance: 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.
Reciting Mantras7: 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
Reciting 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.
Using 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.
In particular, the six paramitas8 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.
Master 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,
Three portions of
Gratitude and appreciation,
A complete package of
Sincere words and actions,
piece of observation of
Precepts and upholding
One piece of humility,
Ten portions of diligence and
Combine all cause and effect,
And unlimited skillful means,
The more the better!
Topped off with all your
Vows, and practice.
Use the pot called magnanimity,
Use the heart called
Don’t burn it!
Don’t let it dry out!
Lower your hot temper by three degrees,
(Mellow out and lose in a little
Put into a bowl and grind into small pieces.
(Like people entering
each other’s hearts and cooperating with each other.)
Think everything over three times,
Give encouragement as a pill,
Each day take this medicine three times,
Drink it down with the soup of
Love and compassion,
Remember when you take the medicine,
You 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
Along with no jealousy or suspicion,
And Truth to calm the troubled heart,
If you can do this, all ills will
The Contribution of Monastics to Medicine
In 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 medicine.
In 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.
Master 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.
Master 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 pain.
Buddhists 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.
As 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:
Settle into peace of mind
Dissolve sadness and worry
Practice humility and
offer tolerance to others
Recognize when quietude
Maintain a healthy
balance of chi
Lead a simple lifestyle
Practice proper etiquette
Cease their fear of death
All 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!
1 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 Buddha’s teachings).
2 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.
3 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.
4 In practicing the Middle Path, one avoids both extremes of indulgence
5 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 mind.
6 System of glands that secrete hormones directly into the lymph or
7 Powerful spiritual practice of reciting a word, sound, or verse, used
to cultivate wisdom, deepen concentration, and effect a change in
8 Literally meaning “crossing over to the other shore,” paramitas are
the core virtues of the bodhisattva path.
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