Buddhism and Medicine

An Anthology of Premodern Sources

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C. Pierce Salguero
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , August
     704 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Pierce Salguero is a leading member of a rapidly growing group of mostly younger scholars working on Asian medical traditions. Many of these scholars are represented in this volume, which is intended as the first of two volumes from Columbia University Press on Buddhism and medicine (the first deals with premodern sources; the second will deal with modern and contemporary sources). Salguero studied traditional Thai medicine in the late 1990s and wrote a series of textbooks on aspects of Thai healing. He subsequently undertook an MA in East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia and a PhD in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His dissertation formed the basis of his first major academic book, Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). That book’s concern with religion and cross-cultural exchange is characteristic of Salguero’s work. The present book offers many examples, both in Salguero’s own contributions (he is responsible for the introduction and six of the chapters) and those of other scholars.

The book’s format is familiar from the Princeton Readings in Religions and similar series. Each of the chapters (sixty-two in all) presents translations of one or more passages from an Asian source, preceded by an introduction and a list of further reading. The translations are in modern English, with minimal technical terms in Asian languages, and are followed by detailed notes. The volume includes a glossary and a list of the geographical locations of the readings. 

The chapters vary considerably in length: some are only three or four pages long, the longest is over thirty pages. The translations cover most of the traditional Buddhist world. The bulk are from Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese (including works by Korean and Vietnamese authors), Tibetan, and Japanese, but others include Korean, Khmer, Thai, and Mongolian. There are canonical sutras and collections of recipes, spells, and charms made by individual doctors, texts on why monks and nuns should not practice medicine, other texts on how to practice medicine, excerpts from medical manuals from the classical traditions of Asia alongside Tantric practices for driving out ghosts and evil spirits, and much else. As Salguero notes in his clear and helpful introduction, the volume “makes available for the first time a wide range of translations of primary sources from across premodern Asia that exemplify this very multifaceted nature of the historical relationship between Buddhism and healing” (xxii).

Some benefits of this mass of material are the multiple connections and contrasts between the readings. The classical analogy between the teachings of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and a medical prescription comes in many forms. Sometimes the moral is that one should not waste time dealing with worldly illness. Elsewhere, by contrast, practicing the Buddhist teachings is itself seen as a powerful healing technique. Jīvaka, the Buddha’s personal doctor, and Bhaiṣajyaguru, the “Buddha of Medicine,” each appear repeatedly, and the reader can see how they were understood and imagined differently across space and time. 

Tantric and esoteric medical rituals feature in several chapters. As Michael Slouber points out in relation to snakebite rituals, in the absence of antivenom serum, providing a patient with reassurance and encouraging calm rather than panic, might itself be of real therapeutic value. The same might be said of Andrew Macober’s description of the Japanese ritual response to an epidemic, and other examples. But the therapeutic effect of exorcism for forms of psychiatric illness has been recognized and analyzed at length by medical anthropologists, and the internal manipulation of prāṇa and qi may well have direct physiological effects on the body’s immune system. These last two chapters form part of a fascinating section on “meditation as cure and illness,” with Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Thai contributions discussing both how meditation can give rise to illness and how it can be used to balance the body’s elements and so bring about healing. But Robban Toleno gives us something different in chapter 39: a parody in which aspects of Buddhist practice are given quasi-medical descriptions: “Meditation (chan). Its flavour is sweet and its nature is cooling. It pacifies the heart, drives off evil qi, opens obstructions and stagnation, clears the blood vessels, clarifies the mind, benefits the will, halts [the aging of the] facial complexion, and removes distress” (400).

Salguero has clearly worked hard to achieve consistency among his highly varied sources, but a few lapses remain. Gregory Schopen provides a detailed and useful discussion of the provenance of the Sūtra of Bhaiṣajyaguru (235-36; 246 n2). In the next chapter, uninformed readers are left in the dark as to whether the text being translated (the Qianshou jing) is an Indian sūtra or a Chinese imitation; we are told only that the sūtra was “produced by Bhagavat-dharma during the Tang dynasty” (252). Some authors give us references to the text edition they are translating, others don’t. Some give the name of the text in the original language, others choose not to. None of this is vital, since it’s mainly scholars who would want to know this information, and they can usually work out the answer for themselves, but it would have been useful to have it included in the volume. The decision to keep the translations as free as possible from Asian languages is justifiable, but it can make it difficult for readers to work out which term is being translated by, for example, the “awakening factors” in chapter 2. The answer, bojjhaṅgā in Pali, doesn’t appear in the chapter notes, the glossary, or the index.

These are minor cavils that might be addressed in a second edition. For the present, we can be very grateful for the cornucopia of fascinating material provided by Salguero and his collaborators. Even well-informed scholars will find new and unfamiliar things in this rich and varied collection, and students are likely to encounter many texts to engage their interest and stimulate further study. I recommend this book highly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geoffrey Samuel is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studie at Cardiff University, and Honorary Associate in Buddhist Studies at the University of Sydney.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C. Pierce Salguero is associate professor of Asian history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Abington College. He is the author of Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China (2014),Traditional Thai Medicine (2016), and numerous scholarly articles and popular works on Buddhism and traditional medicine in Asia.


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