Interview with C. Pierce Salguero, editor of Buddhism and Medicine

C. Pierce Salguero’s recent anthology, Buddhism and Medicine, brings together a number of newly translated premodern sources to demonstrate the centuries-long links between Buddhism and various forms of healing practices throughout East Asia. On November 19th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Salguero to discuss his recent book–Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: How did you become interested in the intersection of Buddhism and medicine?

PS: I came to be interested in this topic through my own experience being in Thailand and spending time in monasteries and meditation centers, as well as in traditional medicine schools. In each of those different communities I saw very strong and deep engagement with the other. When I was in the monastery, I would see monastic doctors using local plants and local traditional medicine to heal monks in the community. Then in the traditional medicine centers, I saw a lot of engagement with ritual, meditation, and other forms of practice. So I became really interested in that intersection between those two fields.

This was before I became a graduate student, so I went into academics with this question: Where did that start? Initially I was interested in tracing the history of Thai Buddhist engagements with traditional medicine, but as I started to investigate that from a more historical perspective, it became clear that those connections actually go way beyond just Thailand. My scope started expanding to Southeast Asia and then started including China, India, and Tibet and then moved farther and farther into the past as I did more reading of the scholarship.

By the time I was done with my Masters degree program, it was pretty clear to me that Buddhism has had a very close relationship with medicine all the way back. The exact configuration of that relationship and how it plays out is different in different cultures and different traditions of Buddhism, but the intersection itself is a common theme. I hesitate to say this is a feature of Buddhism everywhere, but it seems like there isn’t a culture that I’m aware of where Buddhism isn’t in some way connected with medicine or health. Even today in modern Western forms of Buddhism, there’s a fascination with the connection between mindfulness and psychological well-being. So even in what are often characterized as secular forms of Buddhism, there’s still this emphasis on healing and well-being.

KB: This book is about premodern intersections between Buddhism and medicine. In what ways can we see the historical legacy of this premodern relationship in contemporary Buddhism?

PS: This book is the first of a three-volume set: it is an anthology of translations of premodern sources. The second volume is going to be an anthology of modern and contemporary sources, which will include translations of written works as well as transcripts of ethnographic interviews. Then the third volume will be a single-author synthesis of all of that material into a global history of Buddhism and medicine. Both the second and third volumes will focus on modern and contemporary continuities as well as ruptures with the past in terms of Buddhist engagement with medicine. But the final book will tie all of that together into some sort of narrative that I am working on right now. I intend that book to be very readable for wider audiences, not for specialists in Buddhism and Buddhist studies.

There are a couple of themes that will run through the second and third volumes. One addresses, as mentioned, modern continuities with and ruptures from the premodern sources across different countries in Asia. Accompanying the modernization of Buddhism, there was also a rethinking of how Buddhism plays a role in health in light of modern medical advances, scientific medicine, and biomedicine. These represent clear ruptures with traditional Buddhist notions of health. But then, on the flip side, there are also a lot of continuities with the past. There are practices that I read about in fifth or six century Chinese texts that are still being practiced today all over the Buddhist world. So, it’s neither ruptures nor continuities, it’s both.

Another theme running through the whole series is cross-cultural exchange. My last book was about medieval China and exchanges between India and China, so I am bringing an interest in cross-cultural exchange to this project as well. The central argument of all three volumes is that Buddhism is a vehicle for the intercultural exchange of medical ideas. As Buddhism spread initially from India to China to Southeast Asia, it brought with it medical ideas. Medical ideas were baked into the Buddhist tradition—in the texts, in the practices, in the institutions. As these Indian notions arrived in China, in Southeast Asia, in Tibet, how each one of those receiving cultures dealt with those Indian ideas was different. But in each case, Buddhism was a catalyst for cultural exchange throughout the premodern period between different cultures in Asia. My argument carries through to the present day, when Buddhism is yet again a catalyst for cross-cultural movements of notions about psychological well-being, mindfulness, meditation, and health. That’s a facet of the continuity I mentioned earlier: the way that Buddhism historically has and continues to play a role in facilitating an engagement with medical ideas.

KB: How did you get the idea to put together these sources for the premodern anthology?

PS: The book came together very organically. For my previous book on medieval China, I looked at a lot of Buddhist texts in medieval Chinese and had done some very rough translations to use in my writing. After the first book was finished I thought about what I could do with this material. It wasn’t quite enough to constitute a book on its own, so I reached out to friends of mine also working on medieval Chinese sources, asking if they had anything they would want to contribute. Next, I reached out to my Japanese colleagues to broaden the focus to East Asia as opposed to just China. I was just asking for anything anyone had sitting on their hard drive, perhaps the side products of other projects, like my own material was. And it turns out, a lot of people have that kind of material on hand, so a lot of it started coming in. The first volume has sixty-two chapters. The second volume, which is coming together now, will bring the total to about a hundred chapters. While some of this material is the result of new translations people did for the book, the vast majority of the sources were material people already had and were willing to contribute.

KB: Any particularly compelling or surprising material discovered during this research?

PS: I have learned so much from my colleagues about all of the regional and local variations in Buddhist engagements with healing and medicine. I love the subject matter, so it was a great learning experience to call upon seventy experts in their various fields and have them tell me what Buddhist engagements with medicine looked like in such diverse times and places.

It’s hard to choose, because there are so many different scholars from different disciplines that contributed. There’s philosophy; there are popular narratives about monks and Buddhists and bodhisattvas healing people; there’s doctrine; there are legal codes. There’s just such a wide variety of material that it’s hard to highlight any one in particular.

There are a few chapters that I think are exceptionally good for teaching, especially for teaching undergraduates. There are chapters that are very interactive. One of them, for example, includes instructions on how to memorize Buddhist concepts using your hand. There is another chapter on how to tell your medical fate according to your birthday, using charts included in the book. With both of these chapters, we have taken images from Chinese documents and translated them so that you can actually follow along. Interactive chapters like this will, I think, be really fun for students.

KB: How do you see this book contributing to the field of Buddhist studies?

PS: I am an interdisciplinary scholar, because while my PhD is in the history of medicine, all of the content that I deal with is Buddhist. I have always sort of straddled this line between two disciplines. I am really interested in how these two disciplines speak to one another and what the history of medicine can say to the history of Buddhist studies and vice versa. The main argument of this series—which I think it is reflected well in the materials contributed to the first volumes—is that you can’t separate the history of Buddhism from the history of medicine. They are so closely intertwined. I hope if there’s one contribution these books make to the field of Buddhist studies it is to illuminate how central healing, the body, medicine, and therapy are to the Buddhist tradition globally.