MASTER OF HEALING, BHAISHAJYA: SUTRA OF MEDICINE BUDDHA. ‘Aspirations to End Adversity’ with 17th Karmapa (Part IV)

On the fourth day of the ‘Aspirations to End Adversity’ there was a recitation of the Sutra of the Medicine Buddha. Here is the transcript of the brief teaching the 17th Karmapa gave on the Sutra (and some extra background references on the Medicine Buddha Sutra, its Indian and Chinese translators and the mantra):

“In the Tibetan Kangyur there are two sutras of the Medicine Buddha, one long and one short. The long one teaches about the pure realms aspirations and so on of the Medicine Buddha as well as those of other Tathagatas, Well-Renowned Name and so forth. The sutra we will recite today is the shorter one. This teaches the past aspirations and the pure realm of the Medicine Buddha[i]. In Chinese, there is also a Medicine Buddha Sutra translated by the Indian master, Dharmagupta[ii] and others, which teaches the names of the Medicine Buddha and 8 bodhisattvas.

In 8th century Tibet, during the Dharma King Trison Detsen’s reign, Shantarakshita composed three sutra rituals of the Medicine Buddha – one long, one medium and one short. Later, when Atisha came to Tibet, it is said that he wrote at Toding Temple the praises “the flower of your name” with one stanza for each of the seven tathagatas and a well-known one-stanza praise of the Medicine Buddha, “O Bhagavan, you are equally compassionate to all….” Kadampa monasteries held the sutra rituals of the Medicine Buddha in high esteem, and because of this, Tibetan philosophical colleges always recited the sutra ritual of the Medicine Buddha, even though reciting too many pujas could create an obstacle to study and was generally discouraged.

At this time, when the coronavirus pandemic is raging across the globe, we are not only experiencing difficulties with physical health; there is also the mental hardship of feeling deprived of joy. When the body is unhealthy, the mind finds it difficult to be joyful. But being healthy physically does not necessarily mean that we will feel happy mentally. Thus mental happiness is more valuable than physical well-being. Through the vast aspirations the Medicine Buddha made in the past, through his indomitable courage and boundless compassion, it is very important for us to inspire ourselves and train in relieving all our own and others’ physical and mental illnesses and in strengthening our love for one another and our benevolent wishes. Normally, we only remember to recite the Medicine Buddha Sutra and mantra when we get a little sick and pay it little attention otherwise. Yet this Medicine Buddha Sutra is not about medicine or treatment. It speaks of the manifold, vast aspirations or commitments the Medicine Buddha made for the sake of other sentient beings. It is important to see whether those can have an effect on our mind and whether it can encourage us to practice virtue.”

The Medicine Buddha
Medicine Buddha thangka from Tibet, 12th Century (Source:Medicine Buddha – Main Form (Himalayan Art))

Bhaiṣajyaguru (भैषज्यगुरु,藥師佛, sangs rgyas sman bla), formally Bhaiṣajya-guru-vaiḍūrya-prabhā-rāja (“Master Healer and King of Lapis Lazuli Light”) is the Buddha of healing and medicine in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Commonly referred to as the “Medicine Buddha”, he is described as a doctor who cures suffering using the medicine of his teachings.

It is said that Bhaiṣajyaguru’s original name and title was rāja (King), but Xuanzang[iii] translated it as Tathāgata (Buddha). Subsequent translations and commentaries followed Xuanzang in describing him as a Buddha. The image of Bhaiṣajyaguru is usually expressed with a canonical Buddha-like form holding a gallipot and, in some versions, possessing blue skin. Though also considered to be a guardian of the East, in most cases Akshobhya is given that role. As an exceptional case, the honzon of Mount Kōya’s Kongōbu Temple was changed from Akshobhya to Bhaiṣajyaguru.

Xuanzang, (602-644) Chinese monk who translated texts into Chinese, including the Medicine Buddha Sutra

For a film about one of the Chinese translators of the Medicine Buddha Sutra, Xuanzang, and his extraordinary twelve year overland trip to India to bring the Indian Buddhist texts back to China, see here:

Bhaisajyaguru had taken twelve great vows for the welfare of beings as well as vowed to prevent nine forms of violent and untimely death. The paradise of Bhaisajyaguru is said to be made of vaidurya or lapis lazuli, free from blemishes. He has a dark blue colour like lapis lazuli. He is flanked on the right by Suryaprabha with his two acolytes and on the left by Candraprabha again accompanied by his two acolytes. Below them are Eight Bodhisattvas, four on the right and other four on the left. According to the three Chinese translations of Bhaisajyaguru-sutra by Srimitra (ch.12, A.D. 317-322), Dharmagupta (A.D. 616) and Hsuan-tsang (A.D. 650), if one recalls the name of Bhaisajyaguru at the moment of death, the Eight Bodhisattvas come down to take the devotee to his paradise (see image below).

Paradise of Bhaisajyaguru, 7th – 8th Century A.D., Dunhuang, Gansu, China. Silk Painting, 119 x 117.5 cm. Acc. No. Ch. liii. 002 (2003/17/348). © National Museum, New Delhi.
Medicine Buddha’s dharani mantra

The 17th Karmapa gave an exceptional recitation of the Medicine Buddha’s mantra using the correct pronunciation of the Sanskrit syllables. This is uncommon for Tibetan Buddhist lamas in the past who generally use the Tibetan pronunciation of the Sanskrit syllables. Someone has uploaded this lovely recitation here:

In the Bhaiṣajya-guru-vaiḍūrya-prabhā-rāja Sūtra, the Medicine Buddha is described as having entered into a state of samadhi called “Eliminating All the Suffering and Afflictions of Sentient Beings.” From this samadhi state he spoke the Medicine Buddha Dharani:

namo bhagavate bhaiṣajyaguru vaiḍūryaprabharājāya

tathāgatāya arahate samyaksambuddhāya tadyathā:

oṃ bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye mahābhaiṣajya-samudgate svāhā.

The last line of the dharani is used as Bhaisajyaguru’s short form mantra.

The meaning of the mantra

Bhaisajya” means “curative” or “healing” while “guru” means “teacher” or “master.” Thus he is 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 translated 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!’ ”

[i] Bhaiṣajyaguru is described in the Bhaiṣajya-guru-vaiḍūrya-prabhā-rāja Sūtra, commonly called the Medicine Buddha Sutra, as a bodhisattva who made twelve great vows. On achieving Buddhahood, he became the Buddha of the eastern pure land of Vaiḍūryanirbhāsa “Pure Lapis Lazuli”. There, he is attended to by two bodhisattvas symbolizing the light of the sun and the light of the moon respectively. Sūryaprabha (rìguāng biànzhào púsà) and Candraprabha (yuèguāng biànzhào púsà).

[ii]  Dharmagupta [達摩笈多] (d. 619) ( Darumagyūta) is said to be a native of Lāra in southern India. He became a monk at age twenty-three and later traveled through various kingdoms in Central Asia to pursue study of the sutras. He went to Ch’ang-an in China in 590, where he lived at Ta-hsing-shan-ssu temple and engaged in the translation of Buddhist scriptures. Together with Jnānagupta, he produced a Chinese version of the Lotus Sutra titled the Supplemented Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law.

[iii] Xuanzang (玄奘; fl. 602 – 664), born Chen Hui / Chen Yi (陳禕), was a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator who traveled to India in the seventh century and described the interaction between Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism during the Harsha-Vardhan Empire. During the journey he visited many sacred Buddhist sites in what are now India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He became famous for his seventeen-year overland journey to India (including Nalanda Monastery), which is recorded in detail in the classic Chinese text Dà Táng Xīyù Jì (Great Tang Records on the Western Regions), which in turn provided the inspiration for the novel Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming dynasty, around nine centuries after Xuanzang’s death. He is said to have visited a Mahāsāṃghika monastery at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the 7th century CE, and the site of this monastery has been rediscovered by archaeologists. Birchbark manuscript fragments from several Mahāyāna sūtras have been discovered at the site, including the Bhaiṣajya-guru-vaidūrya-prabha-rāja Sūtra.

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