Therapeutic Approach

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

Buddhism, when taken as a whole is therapeutic in character. It analyses the causes and conditions of the present predicament of human existence and suggests remedial measures to befollowed for the alleviation of it. Because of the scientific methodology that has been followed by the Buddha in the first sermon, the Cambridge psychologist, Thouless, says that it is “very much like a modern lecture on bacteriology, where disease, the cause of the disease by the multification of the blood stream of bacteria and viruses and then the cure and the destruction of the invading bacteria and viruses by injecting antibiotics and other medicinal substances to the blood stream of the patient is explained”.

The Buddha’s approach to suffering and its remedy was so rational and convincing that a later Indian philosopher, Patanjali too followed the same methodology of analysis in order to explain the cyclic existence of beings. He directly referred to the science of medicine to drow the analogy of disease the cause of disease, recovery and cure, emphasising that Yoga philosophy is also divided into four sections. The cycle of existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is the union of prakrti and purusa. The termination of the union is release. Right vision is the means of release. Patanjali is obviously later than the Buddha.
The therapeutic approach is so fundamental to early Buddhism that, Thouless does not hesitate to name it as a system of psychotherapy.
Commenting on the Sabbasava-sutta which deals with the elimination of asava he develops his thesis and asserts that asava can be best understood if it is translated as mental stress.

According to the Sabbasava sutta seven different ways have to be adopted to get rid of different kinds of asava.
1. By vision (dassana)
2. By control (samvara)
3. By association (patisevana)
4. By endurance (adbhivasana)
5. By avoidance (parivajjana)
6. By elimination (vinodana)
7. By mind culture (bhavana)

Asavas have been defined as ‘destructive and consuming’ (vighata parilaba) in the text which is actually their overall effect.
The therapeutic approach of the doctrine is summed up again and again in several places of the canon. In one place it is stated that the Noble Eightfold Path should be developed to destroy asava, while in another, mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. Yet in another instance, the eight constituents of the Path have been mentioned together with Right Knowledge and Right Release to be developed to destroy them. This shows that the destruction of different kinds of asava is fundamental to Buddhist training and that it is therapeutic in character in prescribing remedial measures.

So much so that the monk who is proficient in the practice leading to a
sure course to Nibbana has three means for the destruction of asava.
i. He keeps watch over the doors of his sense faculties, ii. He is moderate in eating, iii. He is given to watchfulness.
The imagery of healer and medicine with reference to the Buddha and the doctrine has been illustrated by Pingiyani to Karnapalin in an alluring phraseology. He says: “Just sir, as a clever physician might in a moment take away the sickness of one sick and ailing, grievously ill, even so sir, whenever one hears the master Gotama’s dhamma, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair vanish.”

Let alone the dhamma, sometimes the vinaya also has been compared to medicine. Nagasena in the Milindapanha draws the comparison between the levying of the disciplinary rules by the Buddha and administration of medicine by a physician in order to bring out the fact that the Buddha is a physician par excellence.

The aspect of prescribing medicines for physical ailments and the concern depicted in regard to hygiene and sanitation of the community of monks are also sometimes mentioned to describe the Buddha as a healer. In the vinaya one whole chapter has been devoted to medicine and different kinds of afflictions. Medical practitioners have been consulted and medications in vogue at the time have been prescribed for sick monks with utmost concern within the limits of the obligations of the monkhood.

In an article : SIGNIFICANCE OF PARITTA, the Ven HAMMALAVA SADDHATISSA SANGHA NAYAKE OF THE UK has stated : In countries where Theravada Buddhism is practised, the recital of PARITTA especially when people are sick is well known, because it’s efficacy to give mental solace. Embodied in Paritta is the asservation of truth, which can ward off certain types of sickness. The recital of Paritta can also bring about prosperity, and wade off evil from those reborn as “shades” (Peta) in the ghostly realms. The word Paritta first occurs in the Cullavagga and the Anguttara Nikaye in connection with the Khandha-paritta as a protection for oneself. The Girimananda Sutta, contains a list of ailments, and constitutes a meditation on the impurity of the body taught by the the by the Buddha to Ven Ananda for the benefit of Girimananda, who was grievously sick. The sounds of Paritta chanting does have a vibrating, mind penetrating effect on the listerner. It is the power of truth, and of love which is limitless that wards off evil influence, heals diseases and promotes good health. The Buddha said, “The truth protects him who lives by it”.


The Bactrian king, King Menader (2nd century B.C.) argued with the monk, Nagasena, that if the Buddha said,”Not in the sky, not in the ocean’s midst
Not in the most secluded mountain cleft Not in the whole wide world is found a spot where remaining one could escape the snare of death,
then the pariTTas like Ratana, Khandha, Mora, Dhajagga, Atanatiya, and AnguliMala prescribed by the Buddha for the protection of those in danger must be useless. If the paritta ceremony is not useless, then the Buddha’s statement that there is no escape from death must be false.

To this Nagasena replied, “Paritta verses, O King, are meant for those who have some portion of their life to run. There is no ceremony or artifical means for prolonging the life of one whose allotted span of life has come to an end. And there are three reasons for the failure of paritta: the obstruction caused by past kamma, the obstruction caused by present defilements, and the obstruction caused by lack of faith (Confidence in the dhamma). That which is a protection to beings, its power through faults of those beings own making.”