Sunday, November 17, 2013

Beyond Coping: The Buddha on Illness

Wisdom Quarterly; Abbot Thanissaro (Geoffrey DeGraff,, "Study Guide"
The Buddha ministers to the needs of a very sick monk the other monks were neglecting
Chinese Oroqen shaman
An anthropologist once questioned an Eskimo shaman about his tribe's belief system. After putting up with the anthropologist's questions for a while, the shaman finally told him: "Look. We don't believe. We fear."
In a similar way, Buddhism starts not with a belief, but with a fear of very present dangers. As the Buddha himself reported, his initial impetus for leaving home and seeking awakening was his comprehension of the great dangers that inevitably follow upon birth: aging, illness, death, and separation.
The awakening he sought was one that would lead him to a happiness not subject to these things. After finding that happiness, attempting to show others how to find it for themselves, he frequently referred to these themes as useful objects for contemplation.

Because of this, his teaching has often been labelled "pessimistic." But his emphasis is actually like a doctor who focuses on symptoms and causes of disease to bring about a cure. The Buddha fearlessly dwells on these unpleasant topics because the awakening (enlightenment) he teaches brings about total release from them.
This study guide provides an introduction to the Buddha's teachings on them. The passages included here -- all from the Pali canon -- are arranged in FIVE SECTIONS:

1. The first section (The Buddha as Doctor, the Dharma as Medicine) presents medical metaphors for the teaching (Dharma or Dhamma), showing how the Buddha was like a doctor and how his teaching is like a course of therapy offering a cure for the great dangers in life.
2. The second section (The Doctor's Diagnosis) diagnoses the problems of aging, illness, death, and separation, touching briefly on the Buddha's central teaching, the four noble truths.

3. The third section (Heedfulness) contains passages that use these themes as reminders for diligence in the practice. The central passage is a set of five recollections, in which these recollections forms a background for a fifth recollection: the power of one's actions (karma or kamma) to shape one's experience. In other words, the first four recollections present the dangers of life, whereas the fifth indicates the way to overcome the dangers by developing skill in one's own thoughts, words, and deeds.

4. The fourth section (Advice) contains passages that give specific advice on how to deal with these themes. The Buddha's teachings on karma provide an important underpinning for how problems of pain and illness are approached. Given the fact that the experience of the present moment is shaped by past and present intentions, it is possible that -- if an illness is the result of present intentions -- a change of mind can effect a cure. If the illness is the result of past intentions, a change of mind may not cure it but can protect the mind from being adversely affected by it. Some passages focus on how practicing the Dharma can cure an illness, whereas others focus on how the Dharma can ensure that, even if a person may die from an illness, the illness will make no inroads on the mind.

5. The fifth section (Teaching by Example) gives examples of how the Buddha and his disciples skillfully negotiated the problems of aging, illness, death, and separation.

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