Medicine Buddha

It would be a comfort to believe that chanting the dharini of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru could cure cancer. Seeking comfort, people sometimes cultivate such a belief.  To the extent that people gain comfort from such a belief & the practices flowing from it, I have nothing critical to say.  Sick people will find relief if it’s available. Call in mind-over-matter, or the placebo effect, it seems clear that comfort & relief. They will also look for it even if it is not available & this slips over into a distortion of reality, delusion. (“They?” I know this person–it is me.) That’s something we Buddhists like to avoid when we can. No doubt it easier to to maintain healthy, non-delusional belief within the context of a culture-wide belief system. Such cultural systems are disappearing from the world–and have been doing so for at least a couple of centuries–under the pressures of modernity.

The scholar & teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman does what is most difficult for a Western Buddhist: He adopts the traditional Tibetan worldview that Western Science is wrong in its most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. As far as I can tell from reading & listening to a number of Thurman’s lectures, he is completely sincere in this. He can say, for example, that the fundamental underlying force in the universe is bliss [nirvana] & that it was the Buddha who discovered it. Thurman follows this with the idea that the Buddha’s discovery constituted the founding of a “buddhist science.” Thurman follows this up with what I take to be a metaphysical or spiritual insight I find valuable. Referring to the Four Noble Truths, Thurman remarks that the big deal here is not the first truth, that our world is characterized by suffering, but the third, that there is relief from suffering. “Any fool can invent suffering,” he says–“it takes real genius to see that there is a solution, nirvana.” Like many other religious modernisers, Thurman wants to find a justification in science for his belief in “buddhist science.” I don’t really get this. I remember seeing the same phenomenon when my parents used to drag me to the Grace Brethren church in San Jose. A lot of those men were engineers & I used to think that was why they tried so hard to find ways to align their faith with science; unfortunately, this almost always meant distorting or misunderstanding science.

Thurman is such a fine & energetic explicator of Buddhism I wish I could join him, but I can’t. There is a kind of old-fashioned film called, Travel with Robert Thurman to Bhutan, in which a group of students does exactly that. Along the way he delivers a couple of dharma talks that are pitch-perfect & offer genuine insight into liberation; the film ends, however, with Thurman lecturing Bhutanese education officials on the need to oppose modernization. The logic of this, flowing from his initial assumptions, is flawless. As practical politics it leaves a good deal to be desired.

And yet, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet in which some small pocket have kept “buddhist science” alive & imagine that over centuries a new world culture emerging based on the idea of relief from suffering. Well, I never liked that John Lennon song anyway. For one thing, it’s not “easy if you try.”

Nevertheless, I love the idea of a medicine buddha & the images are striking. Bhaisajyaguru is almost always portrayed with deeply blue skin, much darker than the Hindu god Krishna, for example. In both traditions, a distinction is made between light blue, associated with turquoise, and dark blue, associated with lapis lazuli. One could get lost in the tangles of Indian color symbolism & never emerge from the tangles, but it seems safe to say that early Indian culture, both Vedic & (later) Buddhist, associated light blue / turquoise with the sublime & infinite. Just spend some time staring at the sky. So here I am out on the cutting edges of modernity, yet trying to find some use for these images from a traditional culture that retain something powerful for me. Perhaps I can only read & understand them in symbolic & aesthetic ways. But is that a diminishment? Isn’t that how the peasants have always understood such images?

Counterintuitive

This item in the NY Times caught my attention yesterday because I am writing a story in which a religious woman is dying. According to the study quoted, very devout people request more heroic measures to extend life than those who are not religious. One would have thought otherwise, given that the afterlife should be no great mystery for believers. The study’s authors say that the devout believe life is sacred and that they have a duty to extend it. I have another theory: the devout are more frightened of death than non-believers because they fear damnation. At least among the Christians I knew growing up, one’s salvation was never quite assured. This of course keeps people in a state of exquisite fear and trepedation throughout their lives, as they build ever more elaborate visions of paradise to distract themselves from their obsessive fear of eternal punishment. Or if they don’t fear damnation, perhaps they fear nothingness, which would give the lie to their lives as believers. This is the sort of belief system that eats away at life by inducing continual anxiety, then in a final irony desperately clings to life in the face of death. This is the way my mother lived and died and I find it profoundly depressing.