Healing Buddha

When faced with a life-threatening disease, many people turn to faith. I am no different, except I don’t consider it a turn to “faith,” rather I have turned to the “tools” of Buddhism.

Japanese image of the Healing Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai) from the 12th Century

One tool is practice centered on the Healing or Medicine Buddha. My interest in the Healing Buddha is not new. I began studying Healing Buddha teachings over a decade ago, and participated in several “Medicine Buddha Empowerments,” including one given by Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002. In Tibetan Buddhism, an empowerment initiates or gives permission for a student to engage in a specific tantric practice, usually some form of deity worship.

I’m not sure that empowerments are all that helpful (or necessary) since most people don’t understand what’s going on during these rituals and therefore, they are not any better prepared to undertake a particular practice than they were before. This, I think, is especially true of the kind of large gathering empowerments like those given by the Dalai Lama. I feel more personalized instruction with a competent teacher is much better.

Moreover, I don’t worship deities. But neither do tantric practitioners, not if they are approaching this sort of practice, also known as “deity-yoga” in the right way. These “deities” are not supernatural beings to be “worshipped.” They are archetypes to use as objects of meditation. They symbolize inner forces or potentials:

However, even if we admit that all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life . . . Just because the depth-consciousness (which I think is a better term than the “unconscious”) contains an unlimited wealth of forces, qualities, and experiences, it requires a well-ordered, purposeful and trained mind to make use of this wealth in a meaningful way, i.e. to call up only those forces, contents of consciousness or their respective archetypal symbols which are beneficial to the particular situation and spiritual level of the individual and give meaning to his life.”

Lama Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, has been one of the most popular of these archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Meditating on the Healing Buddha is a tool for harnessing our natural healing energies, and because compassion is a prime motivation for engaging in any Buddhist activity, it’s also a tool for helping others to heal.

This is not a substitute for conventional or alternative medical practices and procedures.  It’s not faith healing, based upon a belief in divine intervention. Nor does it fall under the category of spiritual healing, the belief in mystic energy. As I see it, there is nothing divine or supernatural about this. It’s an aid to natural healing, tapping into the energies of thought and emotion, a tool for strengthening the power of the body to heal itself, which the body is designed to do. Healing the mind, as well.

Meditation on the Healing Buddha often involves visualization: you visualize yourself becoming the Healing Buddha. Chanting the Healing Buddha mantra is a meditation practice that may or may not involve visualization. The mantra is derived from the Bhaisajyaguru-vaiduryaprabharaja Sutra (“Healing Buddha Sutra”) and although you will see various spellings, it basically goes “TAD-YA-THA OM BHE-KAN-ZAY BHE-KAN-ZAY MAHA BHE-KAN-ZAY RAZA SA-MUN-GA-TAY SOHA.”

There are various interpretations of the meaning, too. I think a reasonable one is something like “Thus: Om Healer, Healer, Great Healer, gone to awakening, awaken in me.”

I’ll have more to say about the mantra and the Healing Buddha in upcoming posts. In the meantime, here is a short video I put together of the Healing Buddha Mantra set to music.


The Mother of All Buddhas

Sunday is Mother’s Day, so it seems only fitting to talk about Prajna-Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Prajna-paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-paramita, Transcendent Wisdom.

In some forms of Buddhism, particularly Tantric ones, Prajna-paramita was worshipped as a goddess, sometimes regarded as a manifestation of Tara. Here is a ritualistic description of her in the later form, from the Ekallavira-Canda-Maharosana-Tantra:

I shall reveal the nature of Prajnaparamita who sits in the sattva-paryanka-sana . . . She is blue in color, full  of good fortune, and stamped with the figure of Aksobhya. Her right and left hands hold respectively a red and blue lotus on each of which rests a book on Kamasastra (a treatise on love and erotics). She has youthful and elevated breasts, large eyes, and pleasant speech.

“Sattva-paryanka-sana,” by the way, is a mode of sitting in which the legs are not locked, but placed one above the other with only one of the soles being visible.

In Prajna-paramita literature, her importance as a symbol is more philosophical than ritualistic, more nurturing and less erotic. I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth sharing once again – a wonderfully poetic description of the Mother of All Buddhas from the Prajna-Paramita Sutra:

The Compassionate Mother of Buddhas

Transcendent wisdom gives light, O Thus Gone One, She is worthy of homage; I pay homage to transcendent wisdom! She is unstained. She removes the darkness from everyone in the triple world. She does her utmost to bring about the forsaking of the blinding darkness caused by the defilements and by false views. She makes us seek the safety of all the dharmas which act as wings to enlightenment. She brings light, so that all fear, terror, and distress may be forsaken. She shows the path to beings, so that they may acquire the five organs of vision. To beings who have strayed on to the wrong road she brings about the knowledge of all modes through the avoidance of the two extremes, on account of the forsaking of all the defilements together with their residues.

Transcendent wisdom is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, on account of her generations of the Buddhadharmas. She is neither produced nor stopped, on account of the emptiness of own-marks. She liberates from birth-and-death because she is not unmoved nor destroyed, she protects the unprotected, on account of her being the donor all dharmas. She brings about the ten powers (of a Buddha), because she cannot be crushed, she sets in motion the wheel of Dharma with its three revolutions and its twelve aspects on account of it being neither turned forward nor backward. The perfection of wisdom shows forth the own-being of all dharmas, on account of the emptiness of the nonexistence of own-being.”


The Heart Sutra and Kuan Yin

As I mentioned the other day, compassion is just as important theme in the Heart Sutra as emptiness (sunyata), the focus of most of the attention. This might be difficult to see because there is no specific reference to compassion. However, there is hardly a word in the sutra that is not representative of some Buddhist concept. Therefore, simply the word “Bodhisattva” stands for the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion.

Now, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra: the original longer one, and a shorter one for chanting. The longer version contains a prologue and epilogue, each about a paragraph in length. The prologue sets the scene, on Vulture Peak where the Buddha is sitting in meditation surrounded by an assembly of monks and Bodhisattvas, and Shariputra asks Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva how to practice Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom). In the epilogue, the Buddha emerges from his meditation, praises Avalokitesvara for his good words, and everyone rejoices. In the short version of the sutra, the epilogue is reduced to a single sentence and the epilogue is redacted entirely.

The Heart Sutra is supposed to be a condensed version of the much, much longer Maha-Prajna-paramita Sutra. But Avalokitesvara does not appear anywhere in that work, rather he is borrowed from the Lotus Sutra. And, of course, Avalokitesvara is “the Bodhisattva of compassion.”

Why does Shariputra pose his question to Avalokitesvara and not to the Buddha? It’s unusual since the Buddha is teacher, the center of so many sutras, and the key figure in Buddhism. The traditional explanation for this is that the compliers of the Heart Sutra, by having Shariputra, a Hinayana disciple, ask for guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva, were making a point about the “small vehicle” versus the “large vehicle.” Using rhetorical allegory, they were making a case for the validity and superiority of Mahayana.

But who really cares about that? Today, there is no Hinayana, except for the Theravada school, which rejects the term, considering it an insult. Yet, there is a way to interpret the scene that is very relevant to us today.

In China, Avalokitesvara is known as Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin); in Japan, Kannon; in Korea, Kwan Um; and often, the bodhisattva is a female icon (Avalokitesvara, you know, is androgynous). The Chinese Kuan Yin, the “Goddess of Compassion,” was a figure that transcended religious sectarianism. Taoists, Confucianists, and Buddhists alike worshipped Kuan Yin. However, that was among the lay people, who worshipped Kuan Yin in their homes (it was very unusual for Chinese families to have a statue of Buddha on their home altar), but not in the temples, which were run by men, and where Kuan Yin was nearly always male.

Vestiges of Buddhism’s patriarch institutions remain today, especially in the on-going controversy over ordaining women as nuns, which could be resolved in the blink of an eye if the monks would come to their senses and decide to join the rest of us in the 21st Century. Moreover, in today’s world, women are still struggling for equal rights. The recent controversy over the “War on Women” is ample evidence that women’s rights remains a vital issue. Because of this, I think it’s important to try and find positive images of women in Buddhist literature considering that much of it seems sexist, if not downright misogynistic.

The Heart Sutra affords us an opportunity for this, if we transform Avalokitesvara from a male figure to that of the female Kuan Yin. Now, one could say this in unnecessary, that Avalokitesvara’s androgynous nature represents the unconditioned where there is no division between male and female. But somehow the symbolism of having one of the Buddha’s male disciples seeking wisdom from a woman makes a more powerful statement, one that should be inspiring to women, and as well, meaningful to men.

In the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Volume 2 by David Adams, et al, there is a very interesting entry on Kuan Yin which poses the question, “Does Guan Yin offer a psychologically tame balance for the ancient traditional role of women as subservient . . . Or does Guan Yin function as more bold, compassionate, saving contrast to that repression, even a feminist opponent to that?” I say, the latter. Even for me, as a man, regarding Kuan Yin in the female persona causes the Heart Sutra to come alive with unexpected meaning, relevant to our times. Having Shariputra seek guidance from a woman is symbolic of women’s dignity, which must be respected.

This I think coincides with what Rita M. Gross (dharma teacher and former Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies in Religion, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), in Buddhism After Patriarchy, calls “reconstruction of the symbol system.” She argues that Buddhism is reconstuctible “because the fundamental teachings and symbols of Buddhism are essentially egalitarian and liberating for all, equally relevant and applicable to all beings.”

Kuan Yin is not the only feminine ideal in Buddhism. It should not be forgotten that Prajna-paramita is also female, “the mother of all Buddhas,” nor that an important aspect of Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism has always the presence of powerful, even sexually active, female archetypes. But there is something about Kuan Yin that makes her, as Sandy Boucher says, “a towering female figure.”

In Chinese philosophy, yin (a different character from the Yin in the bodhisattva’s name) is identified with the female principle – passive energy that resonates with love and wisdom. It was a kind of energy inherent in all people, regardless of gender, but may be more or less dominant according to the person. This is another way that Kuan Yin as the female principle reinforces the sutra’s theme of compassion.

There are many other aspects of Kuan Yin, the feminine ideal, to be discussed, but this will have to suffice for now. For those interested in this subject, I recommend Boucher’s book, Discovering Kuan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, which explores Kuan Yin’s history, legends and is filled with many poignant personal stories, along with Kuan Yin meditations, songs, and practices.

On the more scholarly side, there is Chun-fang Yu’s Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesìvara, an in-depth and lengthy (688 pages) study of the “dramatic transformation of the (male) Indian bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into the (female) Chinese Kuan-yin.”

We see images of this great Bodhisattva throughout the Far East in the lovely figure of Kwan-yin looking down in mercy on the world. That principle of mercy engages us in the world, addressing ourselves to others with sympathy, with compassion for their sense of sorrow. We feel the world is sorrowful. We see people feeling that they are in sorrow and yet they are actually in delight. The truth is that since this is nirvana, we are all motivated by delight, and so we are. So life is.

Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light


Asian American Heritage Month

May is Asian American Heritage Month – actually, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2009. During May all Americans, not just Asian-Americans, celebrate “The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” May was chosen so to mark the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, the tracks of which were laid in large part by Chinese immigrants.

In reflecting on this celebration, I find it extremely sad that there seems to be a real division between Asian-Americans and non-Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, as evidenced by a recent online discussion. I have heard many times that Asian Americans are in search of a sense of identity. I don’t know if that is at play here or not, but I feel that through my study of the history of Asians in the United States, I have a fairly decent understanding of the challenges Asian Americans have had in that regard.

What I don’t understand, specifically in relation to Buddhism in America, are accusations of colonialism and white supremacy because frankly I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And I’ve been around Buddhism quite a while. What does seem to be a factor is a certain amount of revisionist history. An example is the case of Henry Steel Olcott, who, up to now, was widely respected for his efforts to foster a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I recently became aware of several books which attempt to paint Olcott as a sort of white supremacist. In one, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation, Joseph Cheah, a Catholic priest, writes, “Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.” This statement contradicts everything previously known about Olcott, whom a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”

I’ve read Cheah’s book and it’s full of inaccuracies. Furthermore, it seems that the bulk of the book is simply rehashing the somewhat dubious theories of other scholars and researchers. For Olcott, Cheah’s primary source is The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Steven Prothero, who is not a Buddhist but calls himself a “confused Christian” and who has written at least one other “terribly flawed book.”

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds.I just don’t believe that very many white Americans who are attracted to Asian philosophy have that in their hearts, and I don’t believe they would even be interested in Asian spirituality if they did. My experience has been the opposite. I have been interested in Buddhism for over forty years and during that time I have often reached out to Asian Buddhists and on many occasions I have felt that they have been standoffish, almost unfriendly, and have long suspected that it is they who feel superior and that they really don’t consider non-Asians as real Buddhists, or that we can ever truly fathom Buddha-dharma.

Well, there you have it. As Dave Mason once wrote in a song, “There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” There is a divide and the question is how to bridge it. While I don’t buy the claims of colonialism and white supremacy, I cannot negate the feelings of those who sincerely, without twisting facts, hold that view. Yet, I feel it only makes matters worse to engage in a war of words by taking exception to certain terms and labels when their use is well-intentioned. I think it’s a case of everyone talking and nobody listening.

Perhaps we should take our cue from an Asian Buddhist who is not an American, Thich Nhat Hanh, who advocates “deep listening.” This is the practice of listening with compassionate intention, using compassion and understanding as an antidote to conflict. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion.”

Maybe that was what has been missing from my own experiences.

I hope that during the month of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we can stop talking at and begin talking with one another, practicing deep listening as we do, and hopefully by the time June rolls around, we will be a few steps closer to the bridging this gulf between Asian and non-Asian American Buddhists. I feel that Buddhists should try to set an example for the entire world, that we should be leaders in making substantive contributions to the collapse of racial barriers, and if we, the Buddha’s children, aren’t capable of doing that in our dialogues with each other, then maybe none of us understands Buddha-dharma.

For more on APAH visit the home page at the Library of Congress.


So Long to a Man with Ideations

My step-uncle Cuyler Wenberg passed away yesterday, May 3rd. He was 83. He had a stroke some time back and recently came down with pneumonia and throat trouble that made it hard for him to swallow . . . things went downhill from there.

Cy was a great guy, I will miss him a lot. I don’t have too much to say about his death, or life. The news is still sinking in. It’s still pretty raw.

The first time I met Cy, we went to a bluegrass festival in Orange County together. We rode up there and slept in his camper, which was a little funky, but I liked that, and I liked him right away. This might sound strange to some folks but what really sold me on him was when he told me that one time he took his kids to a Bruce Springsteen concert. I could tell he wasn’t a big rock music fan, but anybody who’d do something like that is just all right with me.

Among other things, Cy was a writer. He self-published two books, one a work of fiction titled Atlantis, Beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and Gadflies, a collection of short essays. To my mind, he wasn’t much of a gadfly himself. He didn’t rock the boat and he wasn’t irritable. I’d describe him as an eclectic man, and a natural man, drawn to the earth and the sea. His essay writing reminded me a little of Woody Guthrie. In Gadflies, instead of a table of contents, he wrote:


Ideations – that’s the kind of word Woody would have made up. But Cy’s ideations were all his own.

After he moved to Coos Bay, Oregon we had many a phone conversation about writing, life, and other things. He’d completed a novel about Moses that he sent to me. To be honest, I didn’t get very far with it. Moses is not really up my alley. But I admired him for completing 3 books, while I was, and still am, trying to write past the third chapter in just one.

Here is an essay from Gadflies. I chose this one because it tells a little about his background and family, and it’s a good reflection of his personality.


I have two special cups, my favorites. One was given to me by my daughter, Lori, the other by my daughter Kristin.

I’m sure everyone has a favorite cup or two commemorating a special occasion. Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor were all special to the Wenberg clan when I was a youngster. These were the times all the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and a few close friends, would meet at Elk Grove, located on the outskirts of Chicago. It was a picknicking day of baseball and other games, visiting, eating, and in the afternoon, a siesta time in the shade for some of the older folks.

I was reminded of those earlier times when a Wenberg reunion was proposed by my brother, Earl, and Reita, his wife – a weekend on the Oregon Coast. Now I was one of the older generation, along with my wife, Lu, plus Earl and Reita, and sister Hazel and her husband Ernie, together with our families. It was a great time. Unlike living within twenty or thirty minutes of each other as our clan did in the Chicago area, our reunion brought us kinfolk together from all up and down the Pacific Coast.

On our last evening together, the camp-fire’s flickering glow just a stone’s throw from the murmuring waves of the Pacific ocean, Lori presented Hazel, Earl, and I each with a cup. A cup with a traditional orange/red-colored Swedish wooden horse imprinted on the side – a neat reminder both of the reunion and our Swedish heritage. That cup also stirs to mind memories of those earlier reunions, also of Lori and the special times I’ve shared with her family. It is my ‘camping’ cup, and travels in its own special perch in my van.

I don’t remember the specific date when I received my cup from Kristin. I believe it was a birthday p[resent. It is my ‘office’ cup, and also occupies a special place in my heart – that’s because we used to work in the mortgage business together. Like so many well-used office cups, I had allowed residue dregs from countless fillings of coffee to build up in Kristin’s cup to the point they began to look permanent, like brown-glazed pottery.

One morning, before its usual fill-up, I attacked the cup with gritty soap and water. The brown overlayment stubbornly, but gradually, rinsed away. One particularly bothersome spot on the bottom of the cup refused to dissolve. It achieves this ‘special’ status when I rediscovered a special message hidden in its bowl.

Rubbing harder, it slowly transformed into a heat-shaped reddish color – then fine print appeared just above the now visible heart that spelled out, together with the heart, “I (heart) a lot.” I had completely forgotten it was imprinted in the bottom of the cup. The inside heart, coupled with a happy face and words on the outside of the cup repeated the message, “I love you a lot.”

Cups. I wonder if any of the disciples ever went back to the upper room after the crucifixion, the room where they had celebrated the last Passover with Jesus and shared a cup with Him. I wonder if any of the disciples ever went back for that cup, that silver chalice of history, books, and legend?

“And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten saying, ‘This cup which is poured out of you is the New Covenant in my blood.” Luke 22:20

Reprinted from GADFLIES © 2003 Cy Wenberg, published by Trafford

Cy, I have a cup just like yours, stained with “residue dregs from countless fillings of coffee” that I’ve had for six or seven years. About twice a year, I actually use some soap to clean it, instead of just washing it out with water. Tonight, I lift my cup and share it with you.