Artwork courtesy of livingbuddhistart.com
How to Invoke the Medicine Buddha
It is no coincidence that the words “medication” and “meditation” are only one letter different. They both come from the same Latin root word, medeor, meaning “to heal or to make whole.”
In the West, our medical focus is on the external—on the curing of physical symptoms—while Eastern traditions focus more on the internal, that is, addressing the mental causes of illness. It is our good fortune to be living at a time when we can access the best of both worlds.
Medicine Buddha meditation is a healing practice treasured by many in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. We can practice it for ourselves, or for someone we care about who is ill. The oldest Medicine Buddha sutra we know about dates from the seventh century. In that sutra, we are told the story of a bodhisattva, Medicine Buddha, who made twelve vows about how he would help living beings after attaining enlightenment. The holistic healing of mind and body was an important focus of his vows: he promised to help eradicate pain, disease, and disabilities of all kinds, as well as promote good health and optimal flourishing.
When we practice Medicine Buddha meditation, we do not do so to replace mainstream medical treatment, but to complement it. The practice purifies and removes the underlying, karmic causes of disease and cultivates the causes for holistic well-being. Such may be the power of our practice that we experience significant improvements in the symptoms, too. But we need to be clear about what we are doing.
Medicine Buddha is as much about mind as it is body. Empirical evidence shows that when we meditate, it triggers a self-repair mechanism in our own bodies. We stop producing cortisol and adrenalin, and instead enhance the production of immune-boosting endorphins and seratonin, arming our body against invasive bacteria, viruses, and other imbalances. These changes also promote positive mental states.
An element of confidence in the practice is helpful. The placebo effect is said to account for more than a third of all healing. Medicine Buddha meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. If we have confidence that it can work for us, then we’re off to a very good start.
Resonance may also account for the powerful impact of Medicine Buddha practice. On one level, we may be sitting alone in a room meditating, but in a different way we are resonating with the many hundreds of thousands of people who have done exactly the same thing before us. We’re benefiting from their experience and contributing to the experience of those who follow.
When doing this practice, it’s important to retain an awareness that you are not an inherently existent person asking an inherently existent buddha to get rid of an inherently existent illness. This would be little different from a theistic or shamanistic approach. It is precisely because nothing has any true, separate, or independent existence—including illness—that practices like this have power.
We invoke Medicine Buddha through the use of specific imagery and sound, reaching out to the consciousness of those numberless beings who have already attained enlightenment and who have chosen to manifest Medicine Buddha’s qualities.
The minds of buddhas are understood to be all-seeing and all-knowing. Buddhas react to their mantra in the same way we react when we hear our name mentioned, so we pretty much have a buddha on speed dial when we use their mantra. To borrow a metaphor from the late Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche, when we recite a buddha’s mantra we are providing a hoop through which they can hook us into their energetic influence.
Note that Medicine Buddha is a Kriya tantra practice. As such, it is helpful that you first have some familiarity with the sutra tradition, as well as receive proper initiations and teachings from a properly qualified teacher, if you wish to fully embody the precious Medicine Buddha lineage.
How to Practice Medicine Buddha Meditation
Find a quiet place to meditate and assume the optimal meditation posture for you. Take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, and then spend a short time establishing your motivation in a heartfelt way. You may think or say: “By this practice of Medicine Buddha, may I (or the being for whom I am practicing) be purified of all disease, pain, and suffering, and enjoy robust good health, and attain complete and perfect enlightenment to lead all other beings to this same state.”
INVITE MEDICINE BUDDHA TO YOUR PRESENCE
Visualize Medicine Buddha sitting, looking at you. He is depicted as having a dark blue (lapis lazuli) body, this being an archetypal color of healing. With his left hand he holds a bowl of healing nectars, and with his right a medicine plant. In your visualization, he is at about the height of your forehead, a few feet in front of you, gazing at you with as much love as a mother for her only child. He is everything beautiful gathered into one.
I recommend having an image of Medicine Buddha in a place where you’ll see it frequently throughout the day. That will make it easier for you to “see” Medicine Buddha when your eyes are shut. After all, the more familiar you are with anything, the easier it is for you to picture it in your mind. (You can easily picture your front door, right?) Even if your visualization is not great initially, just picturing a blob of blue light is sufficient.
What’s really important is to have a very real sense that Medicine Buddha is actually there. That if you looked up, or opened your eyes, you would see him. Try and cultivate the feeling that you are in the presence of a truly amazing being. If you’ve ever had the privilege of being in an audience with someone such as the Dalai Lama, you will know that there is a palpable sensation to his being there. Try to imagine this same energetic presence with Medicine Buddha.
MAKE YOUR REQUEST
Ask Medicine Buddha to eliminate pain, purify disease, and/or rebalance or restore your health (or that of the being for whom you are practicing). You don’t need precise knowledge of the anatomical changes required. What matters here is intention.
Visualize that Medicine Buddha willingly responds to your request. Instantly, healing blue lights and nectars emanate from the bowl in his lap, come to the crown of your head, and flow down, filling your body, or that of the being for whom you are practicing. You can direct the lights and nectars to specific parts of the body, but there is such an abundance of them, that they will fill your whole being anyway.
Imagine that this process instantly, completely, and permanently eliminates and purifies all disease, pain, and suffering and—importantly—the causes of disease, pain, and suffering. In addition, the causes of holistic well-being of mind and body stream in with limitless abundance.
While visualizing this process, recite Medicine Buddha’s mantra. There are a few variants of the mantra, depending on lineage. This is one version of the mantra, which is in Sanskrit:
TAYATA, OM BEKADZE BEKADZE
MAHA BEKADZE BEKADZE,
This is pronounced:
Tie-ya-tar, om beck-and-zay beck-and-zay
ma-ha beck-and-zay beck-and-zay
Continue the visualization and mantra recitation for at least ten minutes if you are new to the practice. If you are a seasoned meditator, you will probably wish to go on for longer.
Conclude your session with a dedication, such as, “By this practice of Medicine Buddha, may I (or the being for whom I am practicing), and all beings, be free from pain, disease, and suffering, and quickly achieve complete and perfect enlightenment.”
The Medicine Buddha, or Bhaiśajyaguru, is as his name suggests connected with healing. His mantra exists in both long and short forms. In its long form it is:
namo bhagavate bhaiśajyaguru vaidūryaprabharājāya tathāgatāya arhate samyaksambuddhāya tadyathā: oṃ bhaiśajye bhaiśajye bhaiśajya-samudgate svāhā.
The short form is:
(tadyathā:) oṃ bhaiśajye bhaiśajye mahābhaiśajye bhaiśajyarāje samudgate svāhā.
“Bhaisajya” means “curativeness” or “healing efficacy,” while “guru” means “teacher” or “master.” Thus he’s the “master of healing.” He’s also known as Bhaisajyaraja, “raja” meaning “king.”
The short form of the mantra could roughly be translated as “Hail! Appear, O Healer, O Healer, O Great Healer, O King of Healing!” The optional “tadyathā” at the beginning means “thus,” and it’s not really part of the mantra, but more of an introduction.
The long version could be rendered as, “Homage to the Blessed One, The Master of Healing, The King of Lapis Lazuli Radiance, The One Thus-Come, The Worthy One, The Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, thus: ‘Hail! Appear, O Healer, O Healer, O Great Healer, O King of Healing!’ ”
In Tibetan pronunciation, the mantra comes out as:
(Tad-ya-ta) Om Be-kan-dze Be-kan-dze Ma-ha Be-kan-dze Ra-dza Sa-mung-ga-te So-ha
(Tibetan is from an entirely different language group from Sanskrit, and so it’s even harder for Tibetans to approximate Sanskrit pronunciations than it is for English speakers).
Bhaiśajyaguru is one of a set of eight healing Buddhas, which includes Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Bhaiśajyaguru is the head Buddha of the group.
He is Lapis Lazuli blue in color, although sometimes he’s depicted as golden-skinned. He is dressed in the robes of a bhikśu (monk). His left hand rests in his lap in the mudra (hand gesture) of meditation, while in his right hand, held palm upwards at the right knee, he holds a branch of the healing myrobalan plant.
In his left hand, which rests in his lap in the dhyana (meditation) mudra, he holds a bowl of amrita — the nectar of immortality.
The idea of the Buddha as healer goes back — as a metaphor — to the days of the historical Buddha. It’s said, in fact, that the formula of the Four Noble Truths is based on a medical model of diagnosis, etiology, prognosis, and therapy. The Buddha demonstrates in the historical teachings a good knowledge of anatomy and physiology, at least by the standards of his time, and although he almost certainly wasn’t trained in the medical arts he seems to have had some knowledge of them.
Later texts, like Santideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” take up the notion of the Enlightened ones being healers, referring to the Buddha as “the Omniscient Physician who removes every pain.” He also expresses the aspiration, “May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I be their nurse until their illness never recurs.”
Click below to hear an MP3 version:
- The h in “bh” is lightly aspirated, similar to the English “abhor”
- ā is like a in father
- e is ay in lay
- v is pronounced halfway between English v and w. If in doubt, then a w sound will do
- ś represents the “sh” sound in the English word “shine”
- In Tibetan pronunciation “svāhā” becomes “soha.” This is technically incorrect from a Sanskrit point of view, but it also has many centuries of tradition behind it, and in any event few Westerners pronounce Sanskrit correctly either! Still, outside of the Tibetan tradition it’s probably best to revert to the best approximation possible of the Sanskrit, where both a’s are long (as in father), and the v comes close to being an English “w” sound.
The following essay, written by Srivandana, was originally published in Dharma Life magazine, and is reprinted here by generous permission of the author.