In the wake of the “mindfulness revolution” of the past two decades, it is now common for many people in the United States and around the globe to think of meditation primarily as a tool for cultivating mental health and well-being. Yet even as this perspective has become mainstream, more committed practitioners of Buddhism have articulated the critique that an exclusive interest in health outcomes is misguided, vastly inferior to an “authentic” practice of meditation focused on liberation. A broader perspective, one that looks at the history and the wider context of contemporary Buddhist practice worldwide, may help to examine—and question—some of the assumptions behind both sides of this debate.
Perhaps most surprisingly for some, there can be no doubt that this-worldly health-seeking practices have been closely associated with Buddhism since its very inception. Practical tools for mental and physical healing—including but not limited to meditation—were adapted and elaborated across virtually all of Asia for most of Buddhism’s history, and indeed have often played a major role in the popularization of the religion in its new host cultures. Approaching this topic from a historical and global perspective, however, also brings to light ruptures with the past that have affected and reshaped modern Buddhist notions of health and healing.
Buddhism’s connection with health goes as far back as the Pali canon, the primary collection of early scriptures that was first written down in Sri Lanka beginning in the 1st century B.C.E. and is assumed to represent an earlier oral tradition from India. While medical knowledge is by no means the primary concern of these texts, it is mentioned tangentially in a great number of medical metaphors, similes, and analogies, such as the frequent comparison of the Buddha to a physician and his teachings to medicine. A number of parables and narratives involve doctors, surgery, medicines, and other health matters, such as the famous “parable of the poisoned arrow,” in which the Buddha discourages questioning that would distract a person from dealing with the existential problem at hand. Meditation texts such as the influential Satipatthana Sutta describe the physical components of the body—the organs, fluids, and elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and so on)—in ways that are strikingly similar to lists appearing in Indian Ayurvedic medical treatises from around the same period. Additionally, the Pali Vinaya, or monastic code, lists numerous contemporary medicines and procedures, and specifies whether the Buddha approved or disapproved of each one in turn (spoiler: he usually approves). Finally, several stories in the sutta literature tell of the healing powers of reflecting or contemplating certain aspects of the dharma, such as the seven factors of awakening. These stories seem not to refer to structured meditation practice, but rather to claim that even simply being reminded of the dharma has a healing effect on the body.
We might think of Buddhist healing as one of the first “world medicines.”
Less tangential, and more relevant to health care per se, are narratives in which the Buddha is personally involved in healing activities. In one iconic story in the Vinaya, the Buddha comes across a monk with dysentery who has been abandoned by his fellow monastics. After caring for the monk with Ananda’s help, the Buddha admonishes the sangha. “Whoever would tend to me,” he says, “should tend to the sick.” Other sections of the monastic code discourage monks and nuns from engaging in healing or other “worldly arts” for personal profit, and the Buddha’s words in this story are meant to advocate that monastics care for one another, not for the laity. However, Buddhists the world over have interpreted the story of the monk with dysentery—which appears in many versions in multiple languages—as an imperative to become involved in healing, nursing, and palliative care as an embodiment of the Buddhist values of compassion and merit-making.
With the linking up of the Silk Road and maritime trade routes across Asia, Buddhism began a period of expansion from the 1st century B.C.E. to the 8th century C.E. Aspects of Indian medicine that are reflected in early Pali and Sanskrit texts—stories, metaphors, models of the body, specific therapies—were embedded in Buddhist tradition and came along for the ride. Just as some might refer to Buddhism today as one of the first “world religions” in the sense that it expanded beyond its original cultural and linguistic context, one might similarly think of Buddhist healing as one of the first “world medicines.”
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