HEALING: A TIBETAN BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE
By Ven. Pende Hawter
What do we mean by healing? Do we mean healing of the physical body,
healing of the psyche, soul, mind, or both of these. What is the
connection between body and mind? Many modern healing techniques regard
successful healing as the cure of the presenting physical problem,
whether this be symptoms of cancer, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, or
some other illness. If the person does not recover from the presenting
physical problem, or if that problem recurs or another develops at a
later time, this may be regarded as failure. It is not uncommon in
these situations for the therapist or organization that has been
helping the "sick" person to infer or state that the person must have
done something wrong, that they haven't stuck strictly enough to the
diet or meditated enough or done whatever else it was that they were
supposed to do. In these situations the person can become very guilty,
depressed or angry. In many cases, they just give up hope. To avoid
these problems, it is necessary to consider a more comprehensive view
of healing that incorporates not only physical healing but mental
To understand healing from the Buddhist perspective, a useful starting
point is to consider the Buddhist concept of mind. The mind is
non-physical. It is formless, shapeless, colorless, genderless and has
the ability to cognize or know. The basic nature of mind is pure,
limitless and pervasive, like the sun shining un-obstructed in a clear
sky. The problems or sickness we experience are like clouds in the sky
obscuring the sun. Just as the clouds temporarily block the sun but are
not of the same nature as the sun, our problems or sickness are
temporary and the causes of them can be removed from the mind. From the
Buddhist perspective, the mind is the creator of sickness and health.
In fact, the mind is believed to be the creator of all of our problems.
That is, the cause of disease is internal, not external.
You are probably familiar with the concept of karma, which literally
means action. All of our actions lay down imprints on our mind stream
which have the potential to ripen at some time in the future. These
actions can be positive, negative or neutral. These karmic seeds are
never lost. The negative ones can ripen at any time in the form of
problems or sickness; the positive ones in the form of happiness,
health or success. To heal present sickness, we have to engage in
positive actions now. To prevent sickness occurring again in the
future, we have to purify, or clear, the negative karmic imprints that
remain on our mind stream. Karma is the creator of all happiness and
suffering. If we don't have negative karma we will not get sick or
receive harm from others. Buddhism asserts that everything that happens
to us now is the result of our previous actions, not only in this
lifetime but in other lifetimes. What we do now determines what will
happen to us in the future.
In terms of present and future healing, the main objective is to guard
our own actions, or karma. This requires constant mindfulness and
awareness of all the actions of our body, speech and mind. We should
avoid carrying out any actions that are harmful to ourselves and to
others. Buddhism is therefore a philosophy of total personal
responsibility. We have the ability to control our destiny, including
the state of our body and mind. Each one of us has unlimited potential
- what we have to do is develop that potential.
Why do some people get ill while others remain in the best of health?
Consider skin cancer. Of all the people who spend many hours out in the
sun, some will develop skin cancer and others will not. The external
situation is the same for all of them, but only some will be affected.
The secondary cause of the skin cancer - the sun - is external, but the
primary cause - the imprints laid down on the mind stream by previous
actions - is internal.
Also, people with similar types of cancer will often respond quite
differently to the same treatment, whether this be orthodox or
alternative. Some will make a complete recovery. Some will recover
temporarily and then develop a recurrence. Others will rapidly become
worse and die. Logically one has to look to the mind for the cause of
Buddhism asserts that for lasting healing to occur, it is necessary to
heal not only the current disease with medicines and other forms of
treatment, but also the cause of the disease, which originates from the
mind. If we do not heal or purify the mind, the sickness and problems
will recur again and again.
This introduces the notion of "ultimate healing". By ridding the mind
of all its accumulated "garbage", all of the previously committed
negative actions and thoughts, and their imprints, we can be free of
problems and sickness permanently. We can achieve ultimate healing - a
state of permanent health and happiness. In order to heal the mind and
hence the body, we have to eliminate negative thoughts and their
imprints, and replace them with positive thoughts and imprints.
The basic root of our problems and sickness is selfishness, what we can
call the inner enemy. Selfishness causes us to engage in negative
actions, which place negative imprints on the mind stream. These
negative actions can be of body, speech or mind, such as thoughts of
jealousy, anger and greed. Selfish thoughts also increase pride, which
results in feelings of jealousy towards those higher than us,
superiority towards those lower than us and competitiveness towards
equals. These feelings in turn result in an unhappy mind, a mind that
is without peace. On the other hand, thoughts and actions directed to
the well-being of others bring happiness and peace to the mind.
It is important to consider what happens to us when we die. The
Buddhist view is that at the time of death the subtle consciousness,
which carries with it all the karmic imprints from previous lives,
separates from the body. After spending up to forty-nine days in an
intermediate state between lives, the consciousness enters the
fertilized egg of its future mother at or near the moment of
conception. New life then begins. We bring into our new life a long
history of previous actions with the potential to ripen at any time or
in any of a myriad ways. The state of mind at the time of death is
vitally important and can have a considerable effect on the situation
into which we are reborn. Hence the need to prepare well for death and
to be able to approach our death with a peaceful, calm and controlled
mind. Death itself can be natural, due to exhaustion of the lifespan,
or untimely, due to certain obstacles. These obstacles arise from the
mind and can be counteracted in different ways. One method commonly
employed in Tibetan Buddhism to remove life obstacles is to save the
lives of animals that would otherwise have been killed. For example,
animals can be rescued from being slaughtered or live bait can be
purchased and released. For those with a life threatening illness, it
is important to understand that being free of that illness doesn't mean
that you will have a long life. There are many causes of death and
death can happen to anybody at any time.
Tibetan medicine is popular and effective. It is mostly herbal
medicine, but its uniqueness lies in the fact that in the course of its
preparation it is blessed extensively with prayers and mantras, giving
it more power. It is said that taking such medicine will either result
in recovery, or, if the person is close to death, they will die quickly
and painlessly. (Another theory, based on personal experience, is that
it tastes so bad you want to recover quickly so that you can stop
taking the medicine!)
Blessed pills and blessed water are also used extensively. The more
spiritually developed the person carrying out the blessings or the
healing practices, the more powerful is the healing result or
potential. These pills often contain the relics of previous great
meditator’s and saints, bestowing much power on the pills.
Many Tibetan lamas actually blow on the affected part of the body to
effect healing or pain relief. I have seen a person with AIDS with
intense leg pain have his pain disappear after a lama meditated
intensely and blew on his leg for twenty minutes. Compassion is the
power that heals.
Visualization can also be very powerful healing. One method is to
visualize a ball of white light above your head, with the light
spreading in all directions. Imagine the light spreading through your
body, completely dissolving away all sickness and problems. Concentrate
on the image of your body as completely healed and in the nature of
This type of meditation is even more powerful when combined with
visualizing holy images and reciting mantras. I often tell my Christian
patients to visualize the light as Jesus, with the light emanating from
In the Tibetan tradition, there are many Buddha figures (deities) which
can be visualized while reciting their mantra. The Medicine Buddha;
Chenrezig, or Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of Compassion); or one of the
long-life deities such as Amitabha are commonly used. Deities can be in
peaceful or wrathful aspects. The wrathful ones are often used to cure
heavy disease such as AIDS.
If you are not comfortable with these images, you can use other objects
such as crystals, or simply visualize all the universal healing energy
absorbing into you, transforming your body into light, and imagine
yourself as totally healed.
Over the centuries many people have used these methods and have
recovered from their illnesses, even from conditions such as leprosy,
paralysis and cancer. The aim of these practices is to heal the mind as
well as the body, so that the diseases or problems will not recur in
Also, many diseases are associated with spirit harm. Lamas and other
practitioners will often recite certain prayers and mantras or engage
in ceremonies to stop the spirit harm and allow the person to recover.
A seven-year-old girl I knew had petit-mal epilepsy as the result of
spirit harm; the epilepsy disappeared after various rituals and prayers
had been performed. Whenever she had an epileptic attack, the girl
would see a frightening apparition coming towards her. After the
initial prayers had been performed, however, her attacks lessened and
she would see a brick wall between her and the frightening figure. This
wall was the color of a monk's robes. Eventually the attacks and
visions disappeared altogether.
In summary, we can say that the essential ingredients in the healing
process, for both the person doing the healing and the person being
healed, are compassion, faith, and pure morality.
Another powerful method of healing in Tibetan Buddhism is to meditate
on the teachings known as thought transformation. These methods allow a
person to see the problem or sickness as something positive rather than
negative. A problem is only a problem if we label it a problem. If we
look at a problem differently, we can see it as an opportunity to grow
or to practice, and regard it as something positive. We can think that
having this problem now ripens our previous karma, which does not then
have to be experienced in the future.
If someone gets angry with us, we can choose to be angry in return or to
be thankful to them for giving us the chance to practice patience and
purify this particular karma. It takes a lot of practice to master
these methods, but it can be done.
It is our concepts, which often bring the greatest suffering and fear.
For example, due to a set of signs and symptoms, the doctor gives the
label 'AIDS' or 'cancer.' This can cause great distress in a person's
mind, because they forget that it is only a label, that there is no
truly existent, permanent AIDS or cancer. 'Death' is another label that
can generate a lot of fear. But in reality 'death' is only a label for
what happens when the consciousness separates from the body, and there
is no real death from its own side. This also relates to our concept of
'I' (or ‘self’) and of all other phenomena. They are all just labels and have no
true, independent existence.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a highly realized Tibetan Lama, says that the most
powerful healing methods of all are those based on compassion, the wish
to free other beings from their suffering. The compassionate mind -
calm, peaceful, joyful and stress-free - is the ideal mental
environment for healing. A mind of compassion stops our being totally
wrapped up in our own suffering situations. By reaching out to others
we become aware of not just my pain but the pain (that is, the pain of
Many people find the following technique powerful and effective: think
"By me experiencing this disease or pain or problem, may all the other
beings in the world be free of this disease, pain or problem" or "I am
experiencing this pain/sickness/problem on behalf of all living
One voluntarily takes on suffering in order for others to be free of
it. This is similar to the Christian concept of regarding one's
suffering as sharing the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Even death
can be used in this way: "By me experiencing death, may all other
beings be freed from the fears and difficulties of the death process."
We have to ask ourselves "What is the purpose of my life? Why do I want
to have good health and a long life?". The ultimate purpose of our life
is to be of benefit to others. If we live longer and just create more
negative karma, it is a waste of time.
Giving and taking is another powerful meditation. As you breathe in,
visualize taking the suffering and the causes of suffering from all
living beings, in the form of black smoke. When breathing in the black
smoke, visualize smashing the black rock of selfishness at your heart,
allowing compassion to manifest freely. As you breathe out, visualize
breathing out white light that brings them happiness, enjoyment and
Developing compassion is more important than having friends, wealth,
education. Why? Because it is only compassion that guarantees a happy
and peaceful mind, and it is the best thing to help us at the time of
We can use our sickness and problems in a very powerful way for
spiritual growth, resulting in the development of compassion and
wisdom. The highest development of these qualities is the full
realization of our potential, the state of full enlightenment.
Enlightenment brings great benefit to ourselves and allows us to work
extensively for others. This is the state of ultimate healing.
I have outlined some of the concepts that are the basis of the Buddhist
philosophy on healing. Lama Zopa taught many of these methods
Rinpoche at Tara Institute in Melbourne in August 1991 during the first
course given by Lama Zopa specifically for people with life-threatening
Some of these ideas may appear unusual at first, but please keep an
open mind about them. If some of the ideas appear useful to you, please
use them; if not, leave them aside.
May you achieve health and happiness!
[Ven. Pende Hawter
The Karuna Hospice Service
P.O. Box 2020
Tel. (07) 857 8555]