Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Little-known Buddhist Physician



Vāgbhaa was a Āyurvedic physician who flourished during the 6th century, probably in Sindh in western India. His teacher was Avlokita, another notable Buddhist physician of whom unfortunately all information has been lost. Since ancient times Vāgbhaa major work, the Asagahdaya, has been considered the epitome of all medical treaties that preceded it.  He starts his treatise by praising the Great Physician, i.e. the Buddha, ‘who destroys diseases the foremost being lust, which always clings and creeps over the whole being giving rise to craving, delusion and discontent’. Being based on a faulty understanding of human anatomy (the veins carry wind and converge  on the navel, etc.) many of Vāgbhaa cures are not  relevant today, but other things he wrote  certainly would be. Although primarily concerned with medicine and sickness and health Vāgbhaa includes advice on ethical living believing that the two are related. ‘All beings believe that everything they do is done because it will make them happy. But there is no true happiness without virtue. So one should put virtue first.’ 
The ethical values he recommended are imbued with distinct Buddhist principles. Examples of this are included in the first chapter of the Asagahdaya. ‘One should strive to look after those who suffer because they have no livelihood, or because they are sick or distressed. One should even try to see small creatures like one’s own self…One should aim to be helpful even to enemies who wish one ill. One should maintain equanimity through good times and bad. Do not crave for success but rather give heed to those things  which nourish success. Speak at the right time, be kind, moderate and graceful. One should never break one’s word… Keep to the Middle Way in all things… A good person fulfills these qualities; gentleness towards family, generosity to others, restraint of body, speech and mind, and treating the cares of others as if they were one’s own.’ 
Vāgbhaa did not neglect advice on etiquette and common-sense precautions so to avoid sickness or accidents that would require consulting a physician. ‘One should keep one’s body hair, finger nails and beard short, and one’s feet and bodily orifices clean. Bathe regular, be nicely perfumed, well-dressed, and acceptably but not ostentatious… Travel with an umbrella and sandals and keep one’s gaze straight ahead. When it is necessary to go out at night take a staff, ware something on the head and get a friend to accompany you…One should not sneeze, laugh, or yawn without covering the mouth. One should not pick one’s noise or aimlessly scratch the ground with one’s foot.’  
You can read more about Vāgbhaa in K.R Srikantha’s Vāgbhaa’s Asaga Hdaya: Text, English translation, notes, appendix, and indices, 1991-5 or perhaps better in Dominik Wujastyk’s more easily available The Roots of Ayruveda, Penguin Books, 2003.

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