Buddhism Medicine
C. Pierce Salguero
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0140


Knowledge about physical health 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” (Ch. foyi 佛醫 or fojiao yixue 佛教醫學, Jp. bukkyō igaku 仏教医学), 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 Eurasian medical systems (including Hippocratic, Galenic, and Islamic 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 Buddhist medical topics. In the early 21st century, 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 modern 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 modern relationship between Buddhism and medicine, with a focus on the former. Scientific studies on the health benefits of meditation, health policy advocacy, and works of a nonscholarly nature geared toward practitioners and devotees are excluded. Also omitted are topics tangential to matters of physical health, such as mental health, conceptions of the body, bioethics, the science of meditation, and so forth. Many publications of all of the above types are available and are covered in other Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism articles, such as “Buddhism in Psychology and Psychotherapy,” “Buddhism and the Body,” and “Meditation.”

Introductory Works

The titles listed in this section are article- or chapter-length overviews representing the most accessible introductions to some major topics in the study of Buddhist medicine. The works cited here, which discuss a variety of settings both historical and modern, are assignable as undergraduate readings. Deshpande 2001 introduces historical Indo-Sinitic Buddhist medical exchange. Kitagawa 1989 and Skorupski 1999 are overviews of basic Buddhist medical doctrines useful for entry-level students. Salguero 2018 gives a historical introduction to transregional Buddhist medical exchange in premodern Asia, while Salguero 2016, a short monograph, provides an overview of Buddhist connections with traditional medicine in Thailand. Ṭhānissaro 2007 is a discussion of medicine in the Pali Vinaya that includes translations of selected passages. Ratanakul 1999 discusses Buddhism and medicine in modern Thailand, as well as providing a short introduction to medical ethics. Numrich 2005 discusses health-care choices among early-21st-century American Buddhists. All these references are meant to be good introductory entry points rather than comprehensive treatments of their topics. One potential drawback to these works 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 pieces should be read in tandem in order 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 36.13 (2001): 1078–1081.

    This short article in a nonscholarly publication contains a summary of the influence of Buddhist medicine in medieval China, 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.

  • 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, Paul 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.

    This study of the differences between American “convert Buddhists” and “culture Buddhists” surprisingly 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. “Buddhist Health Care Ethics.” In A Cross-Cultural Dialogue on Health Care Ethics. Edited by Harold G. Coward and Pinit Ratanakul, 119–127. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999.

    This essay is an assignable introduction to Buddhist bioethics in modern Thailand. See also in this volume “Buddhism, Health, Disease, and Thai Culture” (pp. 17–33), which discusses some basic concepts and the role of Buddhism in Thai health care on the basis of interviews with patients and practitioners.

  • Salguero, C. Pierce. Traditional Thai Medicine: Buddhism, Animism, Yoga, Ayurveda. 2d ed. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2016.

    A brief (one hundred page) overview of the history and modern practice of traditional medicine in Thailand, with special emphasis on Buddhist influences (both Theravada and tantric). A semischolarly work intended for undergraduates and general readers.

  • Salguero, C. Pierce. “Buddhist Medicine and Its Circulation.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Edited by David Ludden. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.215

    This essay explores the role of Buddhism in the transmission of medical ideas from India to the rest of Asia. It focuses on broad historical processes of transregional exchange from the ancient to contemporary periods.

  • 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 Pali 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 Pali.

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