In our family we have three children from preschool to middle school in age, so as the cold and flu season arrives, it seems that someone in our house is always coming down with a fever or starting to cough. Sakyamuni Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging, and death are four inescapable kinds of suffering in this life, so there is no choice but to accept the reality that getting sick is part of being alive. That said, when we get sick, we naturally seek medicines to alleviate our symptoms and speed our recovery. There are also medicines we may take before we get sick to avoid the most severe illness. When choosing medicines to take it is best to follow the advice of a good doctor.
The Buddha is often described as a good doctor because, just as a good doctor carefully investigates an illness before providing an appropriate prescription, the Buddha arrived at a deep understanding of the troubles of human life before providing suitable teachings for all people. Just as a good doctor begins by examining the conditions of an illness, the Buddha looked deeply into the nature of human existence and identified the pervasive nature of suffering in birth, illness, aging, and death. Like a good doctor, who proceeds to investigate the cause of the illness, the Buddha awakened to the truth that our suffering arises from clinging to and being carried away by the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. Having identified the cause of an illness, a good doctor, will set a goal and encourage the patient to achieve optimal health. The Buddha assures us that we can awaken from delusion and realize the state of ultimate liberation from suffering. Like a good doctor who prescribes suitable medicines and care to treat an illness, the Buddha offers teachings that make clear the path to awakening and freedom from discontent.
The medicines we receive from our doctors may take the form of pills or shots. There are some medicines that we take to get relief when we have already gotten sick. There are other medicines, such as vaccines, that we receive before we get sick in order to prevent serious illness. From time to time, people do contract illnesses after they have been vaccinated, but because the vaccine strengthens their immune response, they often do not get as sick as they might have had they not been vaccinated.
In the eyes of the Buddha, suffering is the fundamental illness of human life, and the Buddha provides the medicine of the Dharma, the teaching of true reality, as the medicine. We receive the medicine of the Dharma by hearing the Buddha’s teachings and entrusting in the truth that the teachings impart for our lives. It may be personal crisis or deep sadness that leads a person to seek guidance from the Buddha’s teachings. In those cases, the crisis or the sadness is the precious karmic circumstance which brings the comfort of the Buddha’s wisdom into one’s life. Just as a vaccinated person can have a strengthened immune response, one who regularly hears the Dharma in daily life receives a mind grounded in the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings and can draw on that wisdom for strength in times of crisis or loss. Shinran Shonin offers the following words to describe the medicine of Amida Buddha:
There was a time for each of you when you knew nothing of Amida’s Vow and did not say the Name of Amida Buddha, but now, guided by the compassionate means of Sakyamuni and Amida, you have begun to hear the Vow. Formerly you were drunk with the wine of ignorance and had a liking only for the three poisons of greed, anger, and folly, but since you have begun to hear the Buddha’s Vow you have gradually awakened from the drunkenness of ignorance, gradually rejected the three poisons, and come to prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 553)
“To prefer at all times the medicine of Amida Buddha” is to recognize the way in which we have been led astray and caused to suffer by our greed, anger, and folly. No longer lost in a state of confusion, we are resolved to follow the path to awakening that is illuminated by the wisdom of the Buddha. There will be moments of stress and sadness as long as this life continues, but if we steadfastly turn our ears to the Buddha’s teachings, we will not stray from the path to liberation.
Namo Amida Butsu