Yesterday I underwent a rather complicated medical procedure that is part of my on-going treatment for cancer, and needless to say, it wasn’t much fun. First of all, getting up very early in the morning and having to fast (going without food I don’t mind, but no coffee sucks), does not put me in the best frame of mind for these things. I start with a rather begrudging attitude. After all, it isn’t a procedure that anyone in their right mind would want to go through, and no one would want have my medical problem. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that having this disease is a great opportunity.
Raoul Birnbaum, author of the definitive work thus far on Bhaisajyaguru (The Healing Buddha, 1979), wrote another book, Healing and Restoring (1989), which includes a chapter entitled “Chinese Buddhist Traditions of Healing and the Life Cycle.” The chapter is devoted to a discussion of healing based on the Sutra of the Master of Healing and T’ien-t’ai teacher Chih-i’s healing methods. Towards the end of the chapter, Birnbaum provides an excellent explanation of what I mean by disease being an opportunity.
The scripture and rituals dedicated to the Master of Healing are pervaded by a sense of transformation, by a sense that healing is a profound process of change . . . For Buddhists, sickness may provide a jolt of urgency, a vivid sense of the immediacy of suffering and the necessity of conquering it. It provides a striking reminder on the tenuous grasp one may have on human incarnation . . . Further, the enormous focused effort required to harness the mind for curing when the body is in a weakened state may be precisely what is required to attain enlightenment . . . Thus, disease – a very great source of suffering – may be viewed as beneficial by Buddhists intent on enlightenment.”
This point of view is not some great Buddhist revelation. There are many people of faith, doctors, psychologists, self-help gurus, etc., with similar viewpoints. But the diverse methods of healing Buddhism has to offer are unique, that is, uniquely Buddhist.
The “Master of Healing” is Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine or Healing Buddha, one of the most popular Buddhist archetypal figures, revered in India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Birnbaum notes that “In the texts, this buddha continually pledges to assist devotees not only to become healed, but to attain enlightenment in the process.” The “texts” are works from a long-ago age, written and read by individuals who may have taken such statements literally. From a modern perspective, the Healing Buddha is a mythological figure, but also an archetype representing the natural healing powers of the mind and body. The Healing Buddha can assist only in the sense that by meditating on this figure, by contemplating the qualities represented, one can identify with, and “become” a healing buddha.
In the process of becoming a healing buddha, one can undertake to fulfill the third great vow made by Bhaisajyaguru: “I shall cause all beings to obtain what they need.” Obviously, what they need most is to be able to overcome their sufferings. This is exactly the same as the first of the Bodhisattva Vows, “to liberate all living beings.”
I mentioned the other day that suffering (dukkha) is a sort of ill-ness, a dis-ease. It is a cancer that can cause out-of-control growth of cells of pain, dissatisfaction and disconsolation, a malignant malaise. In this sense, all forms of suffering are a disease that must be conquered.
In Chih-kuan for Beginners, one of the works Birnbaum relies on in his discussion of the T’ien-t’ai approach to healing, Chih-i states, “While in his own practice or when working for the welfare of others, a practitioner should be acquainted with the causes of disease and the method of healing them . . .”
The main cause for the disease of suffering is self-cherishing and the main method for healing is cherishing others. Chih-i is credited with composing the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and he said that if a person cannot fulfill the first vow of saving all living beings, he or she can never fulfill the fourth vow of attaining enlightenment. The first vow is figurative because it would be impossible to save all living beings. Yet, the conundrum presented by the idea of enlightenment juxtaposed with the goal of liberating all beings from their suffering, points to the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism, and this message was conveyed exquisitely by the Dalai Lama during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, a statement that I’ve presented a number of times before:
If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”
Attaining enlightenment, becoming a Buddha with a big “B” is not as important as becoming a healing buddha. Suffering is beneficial when we use it to benefit others. Healing others is as important as healing ourselves. That is the kind of understanding all healing buddhas should adopt.