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Awakening to the Medicine Buddha

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A story, a meditation practice and a way of understanding healing, the Medicine Buddha has been used for centuries by Tibetan physicians to maintain their own health and aid healing in others

By James Sacamano

I learned to meditate shortly after completing medical school at the University of Missouri in 1969. I realized the healing power of both meditation and medicine and wondered how to bring these traditions together in my life and practice.

My path through this dilemma opened when I attended a seminar on the Medicine Buddha taught by a senior Tibetan teacher, the Venerable Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, at a retreat near Mt. Ranier in 1999. This program brought the spirit of healing to life directly before me.

The Medicine Buddha, or Menla as he is known in Tibetan, is a story, a meditation practice and a way of understanding healing that has been used for centuries by Tibetan physicians and meditators to maintain their own health and aid healing in others. In these stressful times, fortunately, Menla is now available to all of us.

The practice of Menla is like a koan (or riddle). It does not provide answers but is a tool that provokes our innate ability to look for ourselves, to go beyond the usual way we prevent ourselves from knowing our true nature as healers.

For example, we tend to see things in black and white terms and separated on several domains. There is body and mind, self and other, happy and sad, illness and health, rational and poetic, etc. We generally take allegiance to one side or the other. But as we practise the Menla meditation we begin to see the essential brilliance beyond all dichotomies, which is one way koans can lead to an open, fresh state of mind.

Menla was an ordinary human being just like us, but he lived a very long time ago at an extreme distance to the East—all too distant for us to know but still “real.” When I heard this, the scientist in me said, “Now, just a minute!”

Yet I also experienced a yearning for and invitation to a vaster perspective that this story conveys, and another voice in me said, “How interesting! Ordinary and beyond at the same time. Isn’t that like life itself?”

Like ourselves, Menla had to face all the difficulties of ordinary life—fear of death, loneliness, pain, difficult social situations, etc. But he realized that while life can be difficult, the real suffering we experience is not from our problems per se but from the way we constrict our heart to protect ourselves from the openness in our being that these problems expose. This constriction leads to attitudes and actions that do not authentically represent our basic nature.Â

Being human we have an inherent vulnerability. We dislike suffering in ourselves or others. But in time we tend to lose confidence in the value of this vulnerability and we give up this part of our spirit in the hopes of becoming more solid and secure. This only creates more problems in the long run.

Menla realized this self-alienation could be reduced by creating space to simply stop and be, just as meditators do today. This makes possible occasional, brief moments when we are simply our self and nothing else happens or needs to. We taste the freshness of being willing to be bored. We do not attain a special state of mind. Instead, we have a chance to disengage the auto-pilot of our busy mind and experience the simplicity of our unadorned, basic being. This is not just theory. Contemplative traditions throughout the world have held, and current scientific research demonstrates, the value of meditation in many aspects of life.

As Menla’s meditation deepened he began to see all his life, even the difficult parts, as a manifestation of his own mind. There was ultimately nothing to be afraid of and he realized he could work with everything in his life. So his meditation was not a retreat from life but a way to be more awake in it.

As his confusion lessened, he was able to see the suffering of others more clearly. He realized his personal happiness meant little if so many others around him were still disturbed.

Sensing the magnitude of others’ distress, he dedicated himself to helping others realize the goodness of their basic being and free themselves from the suffering of self alienation, just as he had done.

This wish to help others is a crucial step in going beyond all ignorance and is the source of great joy once one is committed. As physicians, we have probably all felt some of this joy at some time in our career. This is how people become enlightened. Buddhas are not “gods” but ordinary folks who develop their awareness and compassion in order to help others be free.Â

Menla is unique, however, because he realized that while ultimate health comes from being awake, ordinary folks like ourselves stand a much better chance of accomplishing this if we are reasonably healthy and have time and freedom to meditate in order to uncover our natural awareness.

If we are too ill, impoverished or oppressed, we will most likely be focused on reacting to those issues and it will be much less likely that we will be able to deal or have an interest in dealing with the deeper causes of our problems.

So he vowed to learn how to help others have a peaceful, healthy life that would make it possible for them to pursue a path to liberation from fear and ignorance, and realize the full wisdom into which they were born.

When he set himself to this task he began to embody this expansive and caring attitude. His vow to help others lives on today in the practice of Menla that we can all do.

In the Menla meditation we identify with his vow to help others by reducing their burden of illness and ultimately their fear. We recall his story, how he started in confusion just like ourselves, how he settled his mind, just like we can, and how he committed himself to the benefit of others, just as we would generally like to do. We can also facilitate this attitude in ourselves by seeing his archetypal form in our mind’s eye.

He is blue and holds in his hands the symbols of his activity—a begging bowl of a monk in the left hand, and in the right hand the stem of an arura flower, the essential ingredient of all ayurvedic medical preparations. These are the foundations of healing—the bowl of accepting all life has to offer as nourishment and the flower of radiating love and compassion to all.

When we do Menla practice we acknowledge those healing energies, both in ourself and in the universe. Then we live with this attitude of awareness and compassion the rest of our day. Acceptance and compassion are the essential ingredients of all healing relationships and practices—so Menla is the human paradigm of healing.

This practice has benefited my life and guided my work as a physician ever since I received it. It sustains a humanistic, non-dual reverence for life which is the basis of real joy. We open to the universe as it opens back to us, all with the promise of: “In the long run, it is all OK.”

It invites us beyond the dualities of inside, outside, health and wellness, and even the need for health itself. Menla is a bridge from ordinary health to pure being.

Menla illuminates the spirit of healing and augments all other healing disciplines, whether medical, surgical, psychological, conventional or alternative—and it makes them all more enjoyable. This is great medicine for the healer and ultimately for the patient as well.

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James Sacamano is a psychiatrist in Victoria and teaches meditation to patients and psychotherapists.

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