Buddhist Medicine in India
- Vesna A. WallaceVesna A. WallaceUniversity of California, Santa Barbara
The Pāli Tripiṭaka demonstrates that Indian Buddhists were familiar not only with the classical Āyurveda of the late Vedic period but also with the Atharvaveda and with the oldest passages that precede the redaction of the Āyurvedic Saṃhitās. The Nikāyas, Pāli Vinaya, and certain noncanonical Pāli sources contain the earliest accounts of Buddhist knowledge of diseases, medicinal substances, dietary guidelines, herbal and surgical treatments, and illnesses specific to the life and practices of a bhikkhu, the most common of which were gastrointestinal ailments, digestive problems, piles, and skin-related diseases. These sources also offer the information on medical training, infirmaries, and caregivers. Knowledge of medicine in Pāli literature is a combination of popular and folk medicine and classical Āyurveda. In all of Indian Buddhist traditions, the knowledge of preventing illnesses, preserving good health, and securing longevity is closely related to the Buddhist conception of the preciousness and rarity of human life, and the importance of health for Buddhist practice is emphasized. The ultimate medicine is said to be the Buddha Dharma and the ultimate physician the Buddha. In the Pāli Vinaya Piṭaka, the Buddha himself acts as a physician, making a diagnosis and prescribing a treatment, although he himself at times succumbed to illness and physical pain. The Indian Mahāyana and Vajrayāna traditions also recognized the Medicine Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru), Amitābha, Āyurbuddha, and various Bodhisattvas as healers and designed the devotional, ritual, and meditational practices related to these celestial physicians. Another healer who is given attention in many Buddhist sources as early as the Pāli Vinaya is Jīvaka, “the king of physicians,” known for his superb diagnostic and surgical skills.
Different classifications of diseases, ranging from 35 and 49 to 404, are given in various Pāli and Sanskrit sources. While certain Pāli noncanonical sources contain mutually differing lists of the eight causes of illness, including karma, some Sanskrit sources, like Garbhāvakrānti Sūtra, speak of 80,000 bodily worms as causes of human illnesses. All major Indian Buddhist traditions equally recognized various malicious entities as external causes of illness and offer diverse methods of healing the afflictions caused by these entities.
In the Indian Buddhist tantric tradition, according to which only embodied human beings can practice tantra, the importance of maintaining health and ensuring a long life become of paramount importance. Since various yogic tantric practices are most intimately related to subtle physiological and prāṇic systems, the physiological aspects of illness are examined as well as, medicinal formulas, and medical treatments that accord with Āyurveda. But tantras and tantric-medical treatises also pay great attention to the preparations and usages of alchemical substances, knowledge of the drawings of yantras and maṇḍalas, ritual performances, astrological divinations, and applications of protective and healing mantras and dhāraṇīs as regular therapeutic methods. In this regard, the medical training of a tantric healer covered multifaceted aspects of tantric knowledge.