I hadn’t heard about the Dalai Lama’s remarks to young Tibetans in Dharamasala when I published my last post, although it would have been a neat trick if I had, since I wrote the post a day before he spoke. However, I had similar thoughts in mind. Paraphrasing his remarks, the Tibet Post International reports that the Dalai Lama told the young people “no [one] can say that one religion is good and another religion is bad. Usually, religion is just like medicine. We have to prescribe it according to the conditions of each patient and each disease.”
These remarks were made on June 1, the beginning of a three day session in which Tibet’s spiritual leader conducted teachings to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to young Tibetans and students in Dharamsala, using as his texts, Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of the Buddha for His Teaching on Dependent Arising and Nagarjuna’s Drops of Nourishment for People.
I have to admit that I am not as generous or ecumenical as the Dalai Lama. I’m not so sure that I agree with him about what one can say about a particular religion or that religion itself is usually like medicine. Nevertheless, in my post, I did compare Buddhism, which I don’t really consider a religion, to medicine.
I mentioned how the Buddha is called “The Great Physician” because of his diagnosis of the disease of suffering and his prescription for its treatment.
Continuing with that theme, Chapter 3 of the Bodhicaryavatara (“Conduct or Way of the Bodhisattva”) by Shantideva contains a verse that is part of a well-known “aspirational prayer”:
May I be the medicine
For all beings ailing in the world,
May I be their doctor, their nurse,
Until their every sickness has been healed.
Although Shantideva is considered the author of a great work of literature, and his poetry is praised for its profundity and depth, his book contains many “stock” phrases (not unusual in Buddhist literature), and in this instance he may have been inspired by a passage included in his other work, Siksasamuccaya (“Compendium of Doctrine), from the Vajradhvaja Sutra:
May all beings be like efficacious medicines and drugs. May all beings stay far from the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. May all beings be like the sun arising, by scattering the veil of darkness and gloom for all beings.”
The wish to become medicine is just one expression of the greater aim of bodhicitta, the “aspiration for awakening,” which is the subject of the Bodhicaryavatara. The Dalai Lama says that
Bodhichitta itself has two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration is simply wishing to attain enlightenment for all beings, the desire to pursue the path. Application begins with taking the vow of bodhichitta and promising to put it into action. Aspiration is like simply wanting to go somewhere; application is actually going.”
Actually, I think it is difficult to say that any religion or spiritual philosophy by itself is medicine. The people who use spiritual teachings to improve their lives and to help others are the real medicine. Elsewhere in the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says, “If the doctor’s instructions are ignored, how will a patient in need of a cure be healed by the medicine?” It stands to reason that if we don’t practice Buddhism and try to put the teachings in action through the course of our daily living, then having such an great physician and effective treatment does us very little good.
According to dictionary.com, the word “medicine” comes to us “via Old French from Latin medicina ( ars ) (art of) healing, from medicus doctor, from mederi to heal].” All of which implies action taken. A doctor engages in the practice of medicine, “to heal” means to engage in the art of healing. The Buddhist art of healing consists of aspiration and application, and both aim at healing ourselves and others. One without the other is like a one-wheeled cart: it won’t take you very far.
If you’re like me you’ve heard this sentiment about taking action, applying the teachings and so on many times. But it is such an important point that it’s good to recollect it often. Or as Woody Guthrie once said, “Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew”