Buddhism and Healing: The Power of Mind, Morality, and Traditional Medicine

Buddhism is a religion that advocates the best kind of medicine. The cycle of existence (samsara), which is the root cause of all illnesses, is said to be treated by the Buddha, who is revered as the Great Physician for all living things in the universe. Because our attitudes toward samsara are what cause all illnesses, an epistemological revolution is therefore necessary.

Mental Bases of Illness in Buddhism

Representation of Buddhist Healing
Representation of Buddhist Healing

The three bases of sickness described by Indian Ayurveda are further connected to the mental bases in Buddhism. According to Buddhist teachings, the three bases of illness are ignorance (moha), aversion (dosa), and greed (lobha). These three mental states are said to give rise to physical illnesses. Phlegm is connected to moha, while bile is related to dosa and wind to lobha.

Phlegm is the main cause of most of the pediatric (as kids are ignorant) illnesses: coughs and colds.

Bile is in charge of the youth (youth associated with various aversions): lot of headaches. The Buddhist tradition offers a number of mindfulness practices that can help to heal the mind and body. For example, the practice of metta, or loving-kindness, is said to be an antidote to aversion. This practice involves generating feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill towards oneself and others.

In old age, there are many desires or cravings for the numerous “ownpossessions that one has laboriously accumulated over the years; one wants to hold on to these possessions tightly with greed as long as possible. As a result, old people tend to suffer from many wind-related illnesses: aches and pains in joints

Healing through Addressing Karmic Backlog

Buddhist medicine views illness as a result of one’s karmic backlog. Karmic backlogs are the negative actions we have committed in the past, and they can manifest as physical or mental illness in the present.

To diagnose an illness, Buddhist practitioners may use religious teachings to assess the patient’s karmic state. They may also ask the patient to engage in self-examination to determine if they have any negative karmic baggage.

It is important to note that Buddhist medicine is not deterministic. The Buddha taught that one can overcome karmic determinism through the power of morality. To point this out he said, “What can stars do?” (nakkhatta kim karissanti?). This means that by performing good deeds, one can reduce the negative effects of their karmic backlog.

Self-Examination and Diagnosis in Buddhist Medicine

A Buddhist Monk self examining
A Buddhist Monk self examining

One of the most common Buddhist remedies for illness is generosity. The practice of generosity is said to counteract the negative karmic force of greed. When we give to others, we are not only helping them, but we are also helping ourselves to overcome our own greed.

The most important thing to remember about Buddhist medicine is that it is not just about treating physical symptoms. It is also about healing the mind and spirit. By understanding the karmic roots of our illnesses, and by practicing generosity and other moral virtues, we can break the cycle of suffering and achieve true health.

The main Buddhist virtue of charity, or generosity, is advocated as a treatment for various diseases. The crucial point to remember is that moral behavior is promoted, and it is suggested that behavior be as deontological as feasible. Giving food to stray dogs and crows, which are among the lowest-valued members of the animal kingdom and more of a nuisance than a source of benefit, is the most popular example of such a ritual.

One way to diagnose illness is to look for the mental state that is at the root of the physical symptoms. For example, high blood pressure is often caused by anger or stress. Once the root cause of the illness is identified, it can be addressed through meditation, mindfulness, or other methods of mental purification.

Medication vs Negative thoughts while healing

The story of the woman with the flu illustrates this point. The woman’s flu did not respond to any medication, but it did respond to her apology to the people she had wronged. This suggests that the flu was caused by the woman’s own negative thoughts and actions, and that it was only when she addressed these karmic roots that she was able to recover.

This is not to say that medication is never necessary for illness. However, in many cases, illness can be treated effectively through a combination of medication and spiritual practice. By addressing the karmic roots of illness, we can not only improve our physical health, but also our spiritual well-being.

It is important to keep in mind that the Buddha at this moment did not endorse a belief in karmic determinism only. Even though it is a very significant cause, karma is simply one of the world’s causes (kamma niyama). There are also other natural rules, such the Law of Seasons (utu niyama). For instance, feeling cold during winters is not the result of Karmas. The second law states that “it is in the nature of things to happen that way” and is known as the Law of the Nature of Behavior of things (dhamma niyama).

The Causes of Diseases

The Buddha also taught that there are two kinds of causes of disease: long-term causes and short-term causes. The long-term causes of disease are spiritual factors, such as our karma from past lives. The short-term causes of disease are things that happen in this present life, such as our diet, our lifestyle, and our environment.

Among the short-term causes of disease, there are four main categories:

  • Seasonal changes: These include things like colds and the flu, which are more common in certain seasons.
  • Evil spirits: This is a traditional Buddhist belief that evil spirits can cause disease.
  • Poison: This includes things like food poisoning and exposure to toxins.
  • Habit and behavior: This includes things like stress, anxiety, and poor diet.

The Buddha taught that we can reduce our risk of disease by understanding the short-term causes of disease and taking steps to address them. For example, we can eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, and avoid stress. We can also create a healthy environment for ourselves by reducing our exposure to pollution and allergens.

By understanding the causes of disease, we can take steps to improve our health and well-being. This is one of the many ways that the Buddha’s teachings can help us to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

The kinds of diseases

The classic way of listing all the kinds of diseases in Buddhism is as follows:

  • Karmic diseases: These are diseases that are caused by our karma from past lives. They are often incurable by regular medicines, and may require spiritual medicines, such as religious rituals or moral sacrifices, to be cured.
  • Evil spirit diseases: These are diseases that are caused by evil spirits. They may be cured by mantras or exorcisms.
  • Current or immediate illnesses: These are illnesses that occur in the present life. They may be self-terminating, meaning that they will go away on their own, or they may require medical treatment.
  • Life diseases (or humoral diseases): These are diseases that are caused by an imbalance of the humors in the body. The humors are the four elements of air, fire, water, and earth.

All illnesses are caused by our mental and physical state, which is a direct result of our previous actions. When the mind is ill, the body’s ability to resist infection deteriorates. This is because the body is designed to defend itself from external dangers, but it becomes weak and vulnerable when the mind is troubled. In the broadest sense, physical illness is a result of our spiritual illness, or karma. Karma determines our physical resistance, which could degrade to the point where a small mosquito could kill us.

The failure of immunization philosophy, as evidenced by superbugs, emphasizes the importance of building a natural defense system. This involves strengthening the body physically and spiritually. Indian Ayurveda and Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine recognize the significance of health-promoting remedies, as they enhance our resistance. Mental health plays a vital role in this resistance. Immorality deeply affects mental well-being, leading to heart attacks and other health issues. Blood pressure, for instance, is highly sensitive to mental stress. Research suggests that white-coat hypertension can have cardiovascular effects similar to persistent high blood pressure. Mental stress triggers the release of ATP, causing blood clots and increasing the risk of heart attacks. Mental complexes like guilt and jealousy weaken the body, making it more susceptible to germs. Ultimately, illnesses are not solely caused by germs but also influenced by one’s Karma, encompassing past and present actions. Morality, therefore, takes precedence over medicine.

The Buddhist way of healing and curing diseases

In Buddhism, curing illnesses involves eliminating craving, aversion, and ignorance. The Dhamma serves as the ultimate medicine, even for physical ailments. Treatment in the Buddha’s community involved listening to and reflecting on spiritual teachings. The Buddha himself often visited sick monks to preach the Dhamma. Healing methods included teaching and miraculous healing. Patients were taught based on their disease severity, with fatal cases learning about impermanence and curable cases focusing on the seven limbs of enlightenment. The emphasis on impermanence as a vital meditation underscores its role in achieving liberation.

The Buddhist way of healing

The seven limbs of enlightenment are:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Investigation of phenomena (Dharma)
  3. Striving
  4. Joy
  5. Tranquility
  6. Meditative trance (Samadhi)
  7. Equanimity.

To highlight the healing power of meditation, an anecdote recounts how the Buddha requested Cunda to recite the seven limbs of enlightenment when he was ill. Upon hearing it, the Buddha’s sickness vanished. While the Buddha generally healed through teaching, he occasionally performed miraculous healings, particularly for devoted followers. Such incidents of healing often led to new insight and liberation, illustrating the potential for positive transformation in the face of disease or injury. The focus was on treating the patient, addressing the underlying diseases of ignorance and craving. Chanting, discussing the Dhamma, and practicing loving-kindness played important roles in healing. Buddhism recognizes the mind’s central role in illness and healing, making medicine secondary to mental well-being and morality.

Medicinal Cure according to Buddhism and its nomenclature

If spiritual means didn’t lead to recovery, the Buddha advised taking medicines. He personally recommended various medicinal recipes, some still widely used in Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine. The Buddha himself, while walking with Jivaka, asked if there was any plant that wasn’t a medicine. Jivaka replied, “no.” The Buddha also had instances of taking medicines. When urged by disciples to use his willpower to cure himself, he declined for three reasons. First, he wanted to demonstrate that his body was subject to natural laws, devoid of superhuman exception. Second, his illness was a result of past Karma, showcasing the inexorability of the Law of Karma. Third, fulfilling Jivaka’s previous-life wish to treat a Buddha was a motivating factor. Additionally, the nomenclature of medicinal products in Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine and Indian Ayurveda carries evocative and awe-inspiring names, integrating well with societal norms. In contrast, Western medicinal terminology often emphasizes killing properties like germicides or pesticides.

Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine and Indian Ayurveda use evocative names for medicinal products, while Western medicine uses technical terms.

In Sri Lankan Indigenous Medicine and Indian Ayurveda, medicinal products are given names that evoke a sense of reverence and inspiration. For example, one medicine is called “The Buddha-King Mixture” and another is called “The Nine Gems Mixture.” These names not only convey the intended healing properties but also serve as reminders of the spiritual and holistic nature of these practices.

In contrast, Western medicinal terminology often leans towards technical terms and intonations about “killing,” such as germicides or pesticides. This reflects the more clinical and scientific approach prevalent in Western medicine.

By embracing names that are highly inspiring and culturally resonant, Indian and Sri Lankan traditional healing systems not only aim to address physical ailments but also nourish the overall well-being of the individual. The choice of nomenclature is a testament to the holistic approach and the profound wisdom that underlies these ancient healing practices.

Embracing a Holistic Approach to Health and Well-being in Buddhism

Embracing a Holistic Approach to Health

Buddhism places significant importance on cleanliness, linking physical and moral purity. According to Buddhist thinking, a person’s physical uncleanness reflects their moral state. While cleanliness doesn’t always indicate moral purity, signs of uncleanness are seen as indicative of one’s moral situation.

Buddhism, with its holistic approach to health and well-being, offers valuable insights into the interconnectedness of mind, body, and illness. By understanding the root causes of illness and addressing them through spiritual practices, moral conduct, and traditional medicine, individuals can strive for true healing and liberation.

Rajaguru Buddhist Medicines

B.A. in Tipitaka, B.A.in Philosophy university of Peradeniya,
Royal Pandith in Oriental languages,
M.A. Buddhist Ayurveda Counseling (University of Kelaniya),
MPhil reading (Anatomy Reflected in Pali Canons )

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