Buddhism and Medicine

Ven. Pandit Medagama Vajiragnana, Sangha Nayake of Great Britain


Buddhism and Ayurvedic medicine originated in India and both aim at eliminating suffering. Buddhism primarily concerns with the well-being of the mind and Ayurveda deals with the well-being of the body. While treating one aspect of a person, one cannot neglect the other because both are inseparably linked together. Both systems regard the body and the mind as interdependent and inter — linked. This relationship has been illustrated with a picture of a boat and a boatman. Body is the boat, mind is the boatman. The boat cannot go anywhere without direction from the boatman, but the boatman relies on the boat in order to make his journey. Similarly, with body and mind, both are interdependent and rely on each other. Let us look at the relationship between the medical profession and teaching of Buddhism. Both have healed the ailing mind and body throughout their history and will continue to do so in the future.

The Buddha said that his main concern was the problem of human suffering and how it could be eliminated. The term the Buddha used to convey the concept of suffering in Pali is "Dukkha". His whole effort was directed towards finding a way out of dukkha. It is very difficult to find a single English word which conveys the meaning of dukkha, but it has variously been translated as suffering, pain, sickness, unsatisfactoriness, imperfection and so on. It includes all ills of the mind and the body.

The Buddha said, "Monks, there are two kinds of disease. What are they? Bodily disease and mental disease. People are seen who say they have been physically healthy for a year, for two years, for three years....or more, but beings who say they are mentally healthy for even a moment are rare in the world."

The Buddha was teaching his disciples to discipline their minds as an aid to overcome the effects of physical illness. He was very much aware of the intimate relationship between mind and body. Once an old decrepit man named Nakulapita, came to see the Buddha and asked for some solace in his old age. The Buddha, agreeing with him, said that his physical state was poor and that he was getting very old and decrepit. He advised him to train his mind in the following way: "May my mind not be ill, though my body is ill."

The mind has a powerful influence on the well being of the individual. Because it is so closely linked with the body, its mental states affect physical health . The Buddha said, "Mind is the forerunner of all mental states. Mind is chief, mind made are they." (Dh. 1 & 2) Modern psychological studies reveal that:  

Fear: lowers resistance, leads to a feeling of weakness and exhaustion

Anger: results in muscular unco-ordination.

"Mind not only makes sick, it also cures", "One who wishes to succeed in life must treasure good health".

The first task of the doctor is to discover the cause of the patient’s sickness. Buddhism too is very much concerned with causation. The Buddhist approach to medicine is entirely in line with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada) i.e. that all happenings are due to a cause or many causes. The attempts of the physician to heal the body is considered in Buddhism as a noble act based on universal love and compassion because it results in the alleviation of suffering. Buddhism, too, is primarily concerned with the alleviation of suffering.

The Ayurvedic approach to life advocates following the very same Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. The eight factors of this path are, Right understanding, Right thought, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness and Right concentration.

In one of the discourses known as Girimananda Sutta, the Buddha talks about the causes of sickness and disease as originating from an imbalance of bile, phlegm, wind, from conflict of the humours, from changes of weather, from adverse condition (which here means faulty deportment), from devices (practiced by others such as black magic, poisoning and so on), from the result of kamma (kamma-vipaka); cold, heat, hunger, thirst, excrement, and urine. I believe that Ayurvedic medicine is prepared on the grounds of ill-balance of these constituents in a person .

Both Buddhism and Ayurveda maintain a "holistic" approach to life.

For Buddhists this means the doctrine of the "middle way", an avoidance of all extremes and moderation in all things. Ayurvedic principles fully support this Buddhist doctrine, and both systems teach the same method of ethical life. Buddhists call it the five precepts, which are; Abstaining from taking life, Abstaining from taking what is not given, Abstaining from sensual impropriety, Abstaining from unskillful speech, Abstaining from taking intoxicants.

"Of gains, gain in health is the highest and best" (Dhp. 204)

"If one wishes to have along life, one cannot obtain it by prayers or vows.

Instead one should follow a path of life conducive to longevity"

(An. wheel 208 BPS 1975)

Three types of patients: (An. 1. 120)

(a) There are some patients who do not recover even though they get the best medical attention and nursing. (b) There are some who recover whether or not they get medicine and nursing care. (c) There are some who recover only if they get proper medicine and nursing care.

In the recent past the conviction has steadily grown in the medical profession that very many causes of disease, organic as well as functional, are directly caused by mental states. An optimistic patient has a better chance of getting well than a patient who is worried and unhappy.

At the popular level in Buddhist countries one part of the Buddha’s teaching has been cultivated with great devotion and used for remedial purpose by the followers. This is the chanting of Paritta. Paritta means discourses for protection and are certainly part of teaching of the Buddha himself. Most chanted discourses are not only of philosophical value, but also have a direct psychological effect. This Piritta charting purifies the mental state of the listeners especially of those who are suffering from physical ailments.

It is certain that paritta recitation produces mental well-being in those who listen to them with confidence in the Dhamma which is truth. Such mental well being can help patients to recover from their illness. The Buddha himself had paritta recited for him and he also requested others to recite it for his disciples when they were ill. Unless the illness is caused as a result of one’s own unskillful acts, it is possible to change these mental states to bring about mental and physical healing. But both Buddhism and Ayurveda teach that we live a succession of lives and we bring with us into our present life a karmic inheritance based on our actions in previous lives including some disabilities and diseases.

Some selected sermons of the Buddha are chanted for various reasons such as to recover from illness, to avert danger, to ward off the influence of malignant beings, to obtain protection and deliverance from fear and evil and to promote welfare and well-being. One day Ven. Angulimala came upon a woman in labour and was so moved by compassion for her that he asked the Buddha’s advice. The Buddha told him to recite some Piritta verses for the woman to hear. When he did so, the woman immediately and painlessly delivered her child. Since then this verse has always been chanted near the time of labour. The Buddha exhorted his disciples to cultivate loving kindness (metta) towards listeners while reciting these sermons.

Buddhist meditation acts directly on the mind. It has a significant role to play in improving the mental states. Meditation is of two kinds, calming (samatha) and insight (vipassana). The samatha meditation calms the emotions, worries, tensions, anxieties and all that upsets the balance of mind. The Insight Meditation gives one the ability to see things objectively as they really are. Meditation is a universal method of healing, transcending all boundaries of race, creed, colour and nationality.

Following the teaching of the Buddha, rulers actively promoted healing activities by building hospitals and establishing free dispensaries. The well-known Indian Buddhist Emperor, Asoka, of the 3rd century B. C. carved the following edict on a rock (Girnar text 11) "Everywhere in the dominions of King Priyadarsi (Asoka), Beloved of Gods, and likewise in the bordering territories has arranged for two kinds of medical treatment viz. medical treatments for people and medical treatments for animals. And wherever there were no medical herbs beneficial to people and beneficial to animals, they have been caused to be imported and planted. On the roads, wells have been caused to be dug and trees have been caused to be planted for the enjoyment of animals and humans". This is the first record of the establishment of government hospitals not only for human beings but also for animals.

This example was faithfully followed by the kings in Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism. King Gamini provided free food and medicine to the sick as prescribed by his physicians. Venerable Welivita Saranankara Sangha Raja of Sri Lanka is reported to have composed a book on medicine which is known as Bhesajja Manjusa. Thus the well-known Buddhist statement "Health is the highest gain" (arogya parama labha) stands established both in theory and practice. In the Vinaya pitaka (disciplinary code) monks are allowed to treat medically certain people. The Buddha himself ministered to a suffering monk and declared the following memorable words, "He who tends the sick, respects me". Thus we see the close connection between Buddhism and Ayurvedic medicine. (Sunday Island)

"Whosoever would wait upon me,
Whosoever would honour me,
Whosoever would follow my advice,
He should attend on the sick"


(Mahavagga Bodhi leaves B 76, 1977, BPS)