Medicine Buddha Teachings

Book coverAccording to the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, recorded in the Sutra on Entering the Womb, there are four classes of illness. The first includes illnesses which are relatively inconsequential, and from these illnesses one will recover whether or not one takes medicines.

The second class of illness includes more serious, even dangerous, illnesses, but if one takes the appropriate medicines, one will recover from these as well. A modern update of this category would surely include many effective modern medical procedures, such as acupuncture, surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, etc.

The third class of illness includes those for which medicines are of no use, illnesses from which one cannot recover simply through the use of medicines or other medical procedures. These illnesses, however, can be cured, and one can thereby recover one’s health, through the practice of appropriate spiritual techniques taught in the buddhadharma.

The fourth class of illness includes those which have a karmicly determined irreversibly terminal nature. When one’s body manifests such an illness, death is inevitable and no amount of medicine or medical procedure can prevent it. In fact, the use of medicines in such cases—with the exception of narcotics for pain—only serves to increase one’s suffering.

The teachings on the Medicine Buddha which follow in these pages, given by the extraordinary Tibetan meditation master and scholar Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, are intended most particularly for those who are suffering from the third class of illness, illnesses for which no successful medical treatment has been found, but which are still curable through the practice of profound spiritual techniques. In the Buddhist tradition the most notable of these techniques are the spiritual practices associated with the Medicine Buddha. Through such practices, the innate healing powers inherent in the basic nature of all sentient beings can be uncovered and accessed. In this way sick persons can cure themselves of the illnesses that medicines and medical procedures are unable to cure.
Book cover

As normal human beings we have a tendency to think that illnesses are physically based and require physical solutions. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask how it is possible that spiritual practice can help the body cure itself. This question becomes even more critical for those who have no faith in the miraculous powers of a creator god. But if one has confidence in or even an intimation of any kind of spiritual reality that transcends the limitations of a strictly material universe, then one will find oneself extremely interested in the answer to this question provided by the Buddhist tradition.

In the vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, we would answer this question—how one can cure oneself through spiritual practice—from two perspectives: from the perspective of the ultimate truth of the nature of reality, and from the perspective of relative truths, which discuss how things appear to us when we have not yet realized the ultimate truth of the nature of reality.

From the standpoint of ultimate truth, all phenomena, including all the phenomena that we misapprehend as physical matter, are empty of any inherent existence. Though they appear to be very solid and real to us, they are in truth mere illusory appearances lacking any substantial reality, like a light show in space, like the aurora borealis, a rainbow, an echo, a flash of lightning, a mirage, a magical display, a dream, an hallucination, like the images in movies and on television, or like the reflection of the moon in water. None of these illusory appearances, including what we take to be matter, have any true, separate, permanent, solid or substantial existence independent of ever-changing equally non-existent causes and conditions. When scientists today investigate and scrutinize the atoms which we for centuries have thought of as the building blocks of the material world, they find no indivisible and, therefore, permanent particles of matter. They find mostly space with variously described sorts of energies rushing around within it. These energies are also insubstantial, impermanent, and unpredictable. They cannot be said to have any kind of permanent existence. The more scientists investigate, the more illusory the nature of matter appears. The Buddha discovered this same truth in meditation 2,500 years ago, and the Buddhist tradition has been teaching it ever since.

All phenomena are ephemeral, constantly changing in the same way as the appearances within a kaleidoscope constantly change. None of these illusory appearances—including the appearances of sickness and disease, which are also mere empty appearances—have the power to cause us suffering unless we mistakenly apprehend them as real and substantial. When we misapprehend these appearances, when we take them to be real, we fixate on them and thereby cause them to solidify in our experience. This gives them the appearance of solid, substantial reality, and then in our lives these illnesses do, in fact, become for us very real and solid, and we suffer from them.

Still, though everything that we experience is empty of any kind of substantial existence, we still experience something. What is it that we experience? We experience mind.

In discussing the nature of things, or the nature of appearances, which in the ultimate analysis are merely empty, insubstantial radiations or light-manifestations of an equally empty and insubstantial, though luminous, mind, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche expresses the teachings of the Buddha given 2,500 years ago in the third turning of the wheel of dharma, his third great cycle of teachings:

Before meditating, before recognizing things to be as they are, one will have seen the radiance of this mind as solid external things that are sources of pleasure and pain. But through practicing meditation, and through coming to recognize things as they are, you will come to see that all of these appearances are merely the display or radiance or light of the mind which experiences them.

When one is able truly to recognize sickness and disease as “merely the display or radiance or light of the mind which experiences them,” empty of any inherent substantial existence, then one’s suffering disappears.

Regardless of which of the first three categories of illness one is suffering from, if one is able to recognize its true nature—that it is merely the empty magical display or radiance or light of the mind which experiences it—one will experience no suffering, and depending on the level and completeness of this realization, one’s illness will dissolve in the empty pure primordial expanse, and one will be cured. Even if one is afflicted by the fourth category of illness and it is karmicly inevitable that one will die from that particular illness, one will die without suffering or fear, because all phenomena, including illness, are empty. They lack any kind of substantial, permanent reality independent of equally empty and interdependent causes and conditions. They are all merely insubstantial, ever-changing, kaleidoscopic light shows in the primordially pure open expanse of empty luminous awareness.

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Most of the time, of course, we have no idea why we are ill. This comes about as a consequence of our present inability to recognize many of the various negative emotions that we suppress in our minds and to “see,” with the eye of wisdom, the karmic deeds, usually committed in previous lives, which are responsible for such emotions and for our illnesses. These recognitions are the prerequisite for “seeing” directly the relationship between negative mental/emotional states, evil deeds, and illnesses. The practice of the Medicine Buddha will also eventually remove the obscurations of mind that block such recognitions. In the meantime, if we understand the general principle of karmic cause and effect and have confidence in the possibility of spiritual purification, we can practice the Medicine Buddha and attain results long before the dawning of such spiritual insight.

All of these benefits come about because the basis of all illness is evil deeds and the emotional defilements that give rise to them. The practice of the Medicine Buddha is one of the most profound ways of purifying such deeds and defilements and the karmic imprints that they leave in the psychosomatic system in the form of illness and compulsive behavior. In this way, the Medicine Buddha removes the causes of our illnesses and the illnesses themselves.

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From the teachings by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

When you receive the blessing of the Medicine Buddha, and of buddhas and bodhisattvas in general, various unpleasant things—obstacles, sickness, demonic disturbances—will be pacified, and compassion, faith, devotion, insight, and so on will flourish and increase. In order to practice the descent of blessing most effectively, it is a good idea to focus the blessings on whatever is afflicting you most at that time. For example, if you are having a particular physical problem—an illness or some other physical problem—or a particular mental problem—a particular klesha, a particular type of stress, or particular worries—you can focus the absorption of the blessings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas on that. You can focus it on the removal of wrongdoing and obscurations in general, but focus it especially on what you regard as your greatest concern at the moment. For example, you may feel that you lack a specific quality: If you feel that you lack insight or you lack compassion or you lack faith, then think that the blessing serves to promote that quality that you feel you are most lacking. And feel that through the absorption of these blessings you actually become filled with that quality as though it were a substance that were actually filling your whole body.

Those visualizations are for the usual, formal practice of the Medicine Buddha. In his book Mountain Dharma: Instructions for Retreat, Karma Chakme Rinpoche recommends the following visualization for the actual alleviation of sickness. You can visualize yourself as the Medicine Buddha, if you wish, but the main focus is to actually visualize a small form of the Medicine Buddha, no larger than four finger-widths in height, in the actual part of your body that is afflicted. So if it is an illness or pain in the head, visualize a small Medicine Buddha in the head; if it is in the hand, visualize a small Medicine Buddha in the hand; if it is in the foot, then visualize a small Medicine Buddha in the foot. Visualize the Medicine Buddha in that place, and think that from this small but vivid form of the Medicine Buddha rays of light are emitted. These rays of light are not simply light, which is dry, but liquid light having a quality of ambrosia. This luminous ambrosia or liquid light actually cleanses and removes the sickness and pain—whatever it is. You can do this not only for yourself, by visualizing the Medicine Buddha in the appropriate part of your own body, but you can do it for others as well by visualizing the Medicine Buddha in the appropriate part of their body or bodies. The radiation of rays of light of ambrosia and so on is the same.

This can be applied not only to physical sickness but to mental problems as well. If you want to get rid of a particular type of anxiety or stress or depression or fear or any other kind of unpleasant mental experience, you can visualize the Medicine Buddha seated above the top of your head and think in the same way as before that luminous ambrosia or liquid light emerges from his body, filling your body and cleansing you of any problem, whatever it is.

You might think that all of this sounds a bit childish, but in fact it actually works, and you will find that out if you try it.

From “Introduction,” Medicine Buddha Teachings by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche.

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