Knowledge about healing and disease has held a central place within Buddhist thought, and healing has remained a persistent part of Buddhist practice since the earliest times. Though there is no universally agreed-upon term, Buddhist perspectives on health, disease, healers, patients, and therapies are typically spoken of by East Asian scholars and devotees as “Buddhist medicine,” and this terminology is used here as a convenient shorthand for a complex topic. The earliest expressions of medical doctrine in Indian Buddhist texts are closely related to ideas found in Āyurveda and have suggestive similarities with other Indo-European medical systems (including Greco-Roman Hippocratic medicine) as well. Integrated into Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and ritual, these core doctrines and perspectives were influential in India and China, and they came to be spread as far as Iran, Mongolia, Japan, and Indonesia. Healer-monks and monastic medical institutions played a major role in this dissemination, as did the large-scale translation of texts concerning a wide range of medical topics. Today, many of the ideas and practices imported from India continue to lie at the foundation of traditions of medicine in Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other parts of Buddhist Asia. At the same time that Buddhist medicine can be understood as a transnational or cross-cultural phenomenon, however, it has always been reinterpreted locally through the lenses of the many cultures that have adopted it. Historians working on Buddhist medicine have thus focused both on the transmission of medical knowledge to new cultures and societies as well as on the unique ideological and rhetorical uses of Buddhism by medical practitioners in many specific historical and contemporary settings. Social scientists have studied the degree to which Buddhist values continue to inform health policy in Asian countries and the complexities of the relationship between Buddhism and biomedicine. This article includes a selective range of scholarship on the history and contemporary relationship between Buddhism and medicine, with a focus on the former. Scientific studies on the health benefits of meditation and health policy advocacy as well as works of a non-scholarly nature geared toward practitioners and devotees are excluded. Also omitted are topics tangential to maters of physical health, such as mental health, the body, medical ethics, and so forth, as these are covered in other Oxford Bibliographies articles such as Buddhism in Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism and the Body, and sections of Meditation. The reader should be aware that many publications of all of the above types are available.
The titles listed in this section are article- or chapter-length overviews representing the most readable introductions to some major topics in the study of Buddhist medicine. The works cited here, which discuss a variety of settings both historical and contemporary, are particularly accessible and therefore assignable as undergraduate readings. Kitagawa 1989 and Skorupski 1999 are overviews of basic Buddhist medical doctrines useful for beginning students. Ṭhānissaro 2007 is a discussion of medicine in the Pāli Vinaya that includes translations of selected passages. Deshpande 2001 introduces historical Indo-Sinitic Buddhist medical exchange. Yoeli-Tlalim 2010 introduces some basic concepts in Tibetan Buddhist medicine and forwards arguments for the relevance of the cross-cultural study of medicine in the 21st century. Dietrich 1996 introduces the range of healers in contemporary Nepal. Ratanakul 1999 discusses Buddhism and medicine in contemporary Thailand, as well as providing a short introduction to medical ethics. Numrich 2005 discusses health-care choices among contemporary American Buddhists. All of the above are meant to be good introductions and entry points rather than comprehensive treatments of their topics. One potential drawback to these pieces is the possibility that beginning students might take the perspectives mentioned by one author in one particular context as if they were representative of Buddhist medicine globally. It is recommended that more than one of these articles should be read in tandem: this is to underscore the regional and temporal diversity of Buddhist medical traditions.
Deshpande, Vijaya. “Ancient Indian Medicine and Its Spread to China.” Economic and Political Weekly 36.12 (2001): 1078–1081.
This short article in a non-scholarly publication is a summary of the influence of Buddhist medicine in medieval China, written by a scholar who has written numerous publications on the subject. While it is relatively simplistic, it is an accessible introduction for an undergraduate audience.
Dietrich, Angela. “Research Note: Buddhist Healers in Nepal, Some Observations.” Contributions to Nepalese Studies 23.2 (1996): 473–480.
A brief overview of a range of different types of Buddhist healers operating in contemporary Nepal. Emphasizing the diversity of practitioners that utilize Buddhism in their healing practices, it provides a snapshot of contemporary practice in a Buddhist cultural context.
Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo. “Buddhist Medical History.” In Healing and Restoring: Health and Medicine in the World’s Religious Traditions. Edited by Lawrence E. Sullivan, 9–32. New York and London: Macmillan, 1989.
This is most likely the best introductory reading on Buddhist medicine. Despite its name, the essay is more concerned with outlining basic doctrine than with historical developments. The author provides a cohesive and readable orientation to the multifaceted relationship between Buddhist thought and medicine.
Numrich, P. D. “Complementary and Alternative Medicine in America’s ‘Two Buddhisms.’” In Religion and Healing in America. Edited by Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, 343–358. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
A study of the differences between American “convert Buddhists” and “culture Buddhists” shows more enthusiasm for complementary and alternative medicine—including forms of religious healing—among the former than the latter. The author discusses some of the reasons for these preferences and the implications of these findings for the American health-care system.
Ratanakul, Pinit. “Buddhism, Health, Disease, and Thai Culture.” In A Cross-Cultural Dialogue on Health Care Ethics. Edited by Harold G. Coward and Pinit Ratanakul, 17–33. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999.
This essay gives an assignable introduction to Buddhist medicine in contemporary Thailand that discusses some basic concepts and the role of Buddhism in Thai health care (with interviews of patients and practitioners). See also in this volume “Buddhist Health Care Ethics” (pp. 119–127), which contains a brief introduction to Buddhist medical ethics by the same author.
Skorupski, Tadeusz. “Health and Suffering in Buddhism: Doctrinal and Existential Considerations.” In Religion, Health and Suffering. Edited by John R. Hinnells and Roy Porter, 139–165. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1999.
This essay will be particularly useful for students who are new to Buddhism. It provides a concise overview of the development of the doctrine of karma over time within the various Buddhist traditions, with special emphasis on its ramifications for Buddhist ideas about health and suffering.
Ṭhānissaro, Bhikkhu. The Buddhist Monastic Code II: The Khandhaka Training Rules Translated and Explained. 2d ed. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2007.
The fifth chapter of the second volume of this two-volume set on the Theravada monastic code contains an overview of the medical contents of the Pāli Vinaya, with illustrative translated passages. The chapter gives students an overall sense of Buddhist medical practice, while also providing a window into the institutionalization of medical knowledge by the sangha. The essay is also available at Access to Insight, cited under Pāli.
Yoeli-Tlalim, Ronit. “Tibetan ‘Wind’ and ‘Wind’ Illnesses: Towards a Multicultural Approach to Health and Illness.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41 (2010): 318–324.
Introduces some of the basic concepts in Tibetan Buddhist medicine (with special focus on rlung, or “winds”), and points out the benefits of cross-cultural comparative study of medicine for contemporary understandings of illness and health.
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