In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Medicine in Japan

  • Introduction

Buddhism Buddhism and Medicine in Japan
Anna Andreeva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0255


Japan’s long engagement with Buddhist ideas about rebirth, the human body, and healing has resulted in diverse forms of thought and practice about these issues that have persisted throughout the ebbs and flows of Japanese history. After Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea in the 6th century, a wealth of Buddhist scriptures, treatises, and commentaries, translated from Sanskrit and other Central Asian languages into Chinese, began to arrive from the continent. These scholarly texts often addressed existential issues of how to achieve enlightenment and rebirth in divine buddha-lands, and what constituted karmic obstacles to doing so. Buddhist scriptures also contained prescriptions for healing with sutra or spell recitation, talismans, and drug formulas; they recommended elaborate rites to avert disasters, epidemics, or personal physical, spiritual, and mental afflictions. Added to the indigenous Chinese and Korean medical ideas that were also transmitted to Japan throughout all historical periods, Buddhist sources dealing with illness and health, including special deities and rituals, were selectively adopted for use by Japanese Buddhist scholars, monastics, and lay practitioners based at large metropolitan and small remote temples as well as private homes and facilities. Buddhist temples in particular served as hubs accumulating special kinds of knowledge about the human body, healing, medicine, and materia medica, in addition to the ritually oriented healing. A diverse array of Buddhist practitioners specialized in collecting medicinal plants and producing drugs, copying and further adopting Indian and East Asian drug formulas and prescriptions. Some individually practiced various methods of massage, moxibustion, acupuncture, surgery, midwifery, and veterinary medicine. Virtually all practitioners of Buddhism and healing in Japan had to deal with the issue of pollution (kegare 穢れ), resulting from death, childbirth, and contagious diseases. This issue and the concept of pollution, as well as various methods of its purification, played a vital role in the historical formation of healing practices, medicinal and ritual curing, and avoidance of disease in Japan. Various Buddhist denominations championed intellectual, ritual, and medical traditions of their choice. This resulted in at times subtly competing, but more often peacefully coexisting, paradigms of healing that prioritized different forms of well-being: “this-worldly” physical and mental health and stability, or karmically substantiated, “other-worldly” spiritual salvation, as well as a multitude of shades in between. This conglomerate of transculturally mediated Buddhist and East Asian ideas and practices regarding health and healing remained subject to constant adoption and change throughout Japanese history. Perhaps this is what the ambiguous Japanese term “Buddhist medicine” (bukkyō igaku 仏教医学) attempts to cover. This term appears to have been coined by the Japanese scholar of Buddhism Obinata Daijō in the 1960s and further promoted by Fukunaga Katsumi 福永勝美 in the early 1970s and 1980s. Their early publications in Japanese formed intellectual premises for a new field of academic studies that has also been gaining scholarly attention in the West. This article surveys the primary and secondary sources focusing on Buddhism, medicine, and healing, mainly from the viewpoint of Japanese history and anthropology, as well as Buddhist and religious studies and art history.

General Overviews

The general overviews in English and Japanese cited under In English and In Japanese provide only the most necessary information about the standard references and current state of the field. While as yet no single monographs in English is dedicated to the theme of “Buddhist medicine” in Japan, the selection of previously published well-known English- and Japanese-language books and articles in these sections provides a reliable entry to this new subject and the academic fields of inquiry growing around it.

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