Dhamma as medicine

by Ven Dr. Pathegama Gnanarama Maha Thera PhD of Singapore
Courtesy : Vesak Lipi (2007 Edition)

In the Middle Length sayings of Gotama Buddha, it has been recorded:
“The Buddha is like a physician in that He is able to heal sickness of the defilement. The Dhamma is like a rightly applied medicine, and the Sangha with the defilements cured, are like people restored to health by the medicine.”

Again, in another passage it is said : Of all the medicine in the world, Manifold and various There is none like the medicine of Dhamma Therefore, O monks, drink of this. The Buddha was a humanist who strove to soothe the ills of life with his dhamma therapy, as a Physician He possessed clairvoyance and He was able to see suffering man, and identify the causes of facets of suffering. The medicines He dispensed to provide mental relief in states of unsatisfactoriness were, His Noble dharma, which was a form of psychotheraphy.

Dealing at length on this subject the Ven Dr Pathegama Gnanarama Maha Thera PhD of Singapore, has in a valued publication : ASPECTS OF EARLY BUDDHIST SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT (1998) referred to DHAMMA – the MEDICINE”. We now publish excerpts from his book which dwells deep into the subject.

The Buddha, the physician par excellence, administers medicine in the form of dhamma to the mentally and spiritually sick, for their recovery from ills by which they suffer thoughout their lives. The dhamma is medicine and considered a colourful sugar-coated medicinal pill. The fact has been brought to light in a discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya. As given there, undertaking of the dhamma is conducive to happiness both in the present as well as in the future. The Buddha illustrating the fact says, “The dhamma is as if honey, oil and sugar had been mixed together and given to a man suffering from dysentry. While he drinks he might be pleased with its colour, scent and taste. After having drunk it, he would get his illness cured. Therefore the undertaking of the dhamma is pleasant now and it ripens in the future as pleasant and with its shining and beaming radiance it surpassed other doctrines whatsoever that are preached by ordinary recluses and brahmins.”

In another instance, addressing Sunakkhatta, a Licchavi, He explains the present predicament of man and how he should achieve his welfare in this world and in the next In the course of the explanation a simile of a man wounded by a dart and a surgeon attending on him has been drawn. At the end, identifying the different constituents of the simile. He says that he spoke in terms of a simile in order to convey the following meanings: “Wound is a term for the six internal bases. ‘Poisonous’ humour (septicaemia) is a term for ignorance. ‘Dart’ is a term for craving. ‘Probe’ is a term for mindfulness. ‘Knife’ is a term for Noble wisdom. ‘Surgeon’ is a term for the Tathagata, the Accomplished One, the Fully Enlightended One.”

Comparatively, mental health is far more important than physical health. Mental health contributes to physical health and vice versa. Wrong perception makes a person sick in mind. When once Nakulapita, the householder, said to the Buddha that he was aged, advanced in years, old and had lived out his span of life, sick and was always ailing, the Buddha told him that if a person who took material form, feeling, peception, conformations and consciousness as substantial he would be sick in mind. Although physical health had begun to deteriorate in old age one could maintain mental health though correct and right perception.”

The fact that mental hygiene is a desirability is highlighted in another discourse. Addressing the monks the Buddha says: “There are to be seen beings who can admit freedom from suffering from bodily disease for one year, for two years, for three years, four, five, for ten, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty years. But monks; those beings are hard to find in the world, who can admit freedom from mental disease even for one moment save only those in whom the defilements have been destroyed.”

In the very first sermon at Isipathana (modern Sarnath) The Turning of the Wheel of Law’, the Buddha’s expounding of the Four Noble Truths can be understood on the analogy of a pathological analysis of affliction and cure. Therein the present predicament of man is analysed in the First Noble Truth with its physical, psychological and psycho-physical aspects, showing how those afflictions are woven into the fabric of our existence.
In the Second Truth, the root cause of the present affliction, which exists in the form of desire, is broken down into its constituents for the better understanding of that cause. In the Third, the state of being redeemed from afflictions by regaining health is described, which is nothing but Nibbana, the Supreme Bliss. In the Fourth Truth, the remedy to ameliorate the affliction is prescribed by way of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is quite clear that the theory of causality also applies to the analysis of suffering, the cause of suffering and its appeasement and path.