Unbounded Wholeness

Holistic medicine is a still relatively new approach to healing in the West, and yet it has ancient roots – in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even in the teachings of Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C. and emphasized the healing power of nature.  This approach to healing is called holistic because it looks at the whole person; joining all the different elements of the physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, social, and environmental into a whole system.

The term ‘holistic’ comes from the word ‘whole’, from the old English word ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy. The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.” The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’. In addition, the word ‘wealth’ (‘weal’) has associations with words heal, health, holiness, and happiness.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal. To be wealthy is to be healthy and whole. To be holy is to heal and be whole. It is said that true happiness is only possible when we achieve complete wholeness and maximum health.

“Unbounded wholeness” is a concept in Dzogchen, a teaching traditional of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a rather complicated notion identified with Samantabhadra, one of the names of the Primordial Buddha. Professor Anne C. Klein, with Tenzin Wangyal, wrote a book on the subject, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. In it, they offer this passage from The Great Profound Bliss Sutra:

Mind of mine, dwelling in the present
Uncontrived, uncoarsened, and untouched
Heart essence of all that is,
Dwells solely as wholeness unbounded.

We can find wholeness in the present because the present is always whole. The present may seem to have separate parts and dimensions but from the ultimate view, we find that it is indivisible. In the now, the past and future join the present to form a timeless reality. It is timeless when our mind is no longer tethered to the idea that the present must be divided into past, present and future.

A Healing Buddha mandala
A Healing Buddha mandala

The catalog of word forms above progressed in a circular motion, one definition leading into another and then back to the previous. A Buddhist symbol for wholeness is the mandala, which is often circular. Jung, in fact, called mandalas “archetypes of wholeness.” He saw the geometric pattern of the mandala as displaying a preexisting condition of consciousness. With this in mind, we might say that our journey to wholeness is a journey of rediscovery – uncovering the wholeness that has always been whole, and unbounded.

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Cancer Again (Naturally)

In December, I started having knee pain. I didn’t think too much about it, even though the pain was intense at times. I’ve had intermittent knee problems for some years, and figured it was probably arthritis or age. It went away after about a week, but then it came roaring back in January – deep throbbing pain that would not go away. I went to a couple of orthopedic surgeons and a rheumatologist. They discovered a lesion in my left femur. Possible cancerous. Possibly not, said one orthopedic oncologist.

The only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. Last Wednesday, they drilled a hole in my bone, went into the left femur, removed tissue from the lesion, and the pathologist on hand during the surgery declared it cancer. Metastasis, to be exact, cancer that spreads from one part of the body to other parts. We, meaning I and the doctors, thought all the cancer was removed when they took out my old liver and gave me a new one.  But, I’m not getting that easy.  There must have been some cancer cells hiding somewhere, perhaps in bone marrow.

Needless to say, having a hole drilled in your bone is extremely painful.  They put a rod in to prevent fractures and make the leg weight bearing. Still, it hurts like hell and pain medication does not provide total relief.

Next is to get with the oncologist I worked with before and decide how to start fighting this thing. From what I understand there are three modes of treatment: radiation, chemotherapy, amputation.

And two battlefronts: the external one, involving the treatments I just mentioned, along with any others that might be available, and there is the inner front, the battlefield of bodymind and spirit. In future posts, as I did before, I plan to share a few of the highlights of my wayfaring through these stages of cancer.

I do have mixed feelings about putting my personal business in front of the public. But, ancient Buddhist texts describe two kinds of illness: those of the unenlightened, and those of the enlightened. The latter are for the purpose of providing opportunities to teach. I would never claim to be enlightened (I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not), nor am I egotistic enough to think I have much of anything to teach anyone.  Yet, if sharing more of my healing journey can be of benefit to others, so be it.

My approach to inner healing is centered on the Healing Buddha (whose image appears in the new header above), and my way is a bit unorthodox. In Tibet, Medicine Buddha is among the Highest Yoga Tantra. I received a Medicine Buddha Empowerment from Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002, but I am not convinced that such empowerments are necessary.

In Teachings from the Medicine Buddha Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009), Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that in Healing Buddha teachings, “The person has to practice Medicine Buddha and have a good heart, with a sincere wish to help others.”

That is the only requirement, and this sentiment fully captures the essence ofBuddhist practice. Just do it. Try to help others. All awakening stems from that.

Now, for some reason, the song, “Alone Again (Naturally)” has been in my head lately.  There are some nice versions available (Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall) but I chose the original because I liked it when it was first released and it has a beat.  Since I started letting folks know about this new development, the most frequent response I have received from family and friends has been, “I am so sorry you have to go through this.”  I’m sorry about it, too. It’s a real drag, and I am very tired of the pain, but what can I do? I got it. It’s mine.  I own it. I have to heal it.  Actually, that makes it sound as if cancer were something completely external.  It’s not.  I am the cancer.  I have to heal myself.

I have to admit, though, there are times when I feel downhearted.  So, dear readers, here is about the only self-pitying you will get from me, and it will be over in three minutes and forty-two seconds:

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Suffering is Beneficial

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.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

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.

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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.

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