Theological Origin of Medicine Buddha Statues
Medicine Buddha statues depict a popular Mahayana Buddhist deity who has the power to cure all suffering. Additionally, the “Medicine Buddha” is known as Bhaisajyaguru and his origins lie in the eponymous Bhaisjya-guru-vaidurya-prabha-raja Sutra (Medicine Buddha Sutra).
Evidence of birch bark manuscripts of the Medicine Buddha Sutra were first discovered at a Mahasamghika monastery near Bamiyan, Afghanistan. These manuscripts and evidence of other Mahayana Sutras found there date back to the 7th century A.C.E.
Additionally, it is believed that the remains of the sutras were left there by the visiting Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang. Xuanzang was translating the Mahayana sutras into Chinese and transported them along the Silk Road back to China. As a result or his efforts, the popularity of Medicine Buddha spread throughout Asia and the appearance of Medicine Buddha statues and paintings would soon follow.
12 Great Vows of Medicine Buddha
As a Bodhisattva, Medicine Buddha made 12 great vows in the Medicine Buddha Sutra to the faithful who only need say his name. In other words, taken directly from the sutra “Manjushri, when the World-Honored Medicine Buddha was treading the Bodhisattva path, he solemnly made 12 great vows to grant sentient beings whatever they desired”.
To get “whatever they desired”, devotees only need to say his name or recite his mantra. As a result, they can be cured of any form of physical, mental or spiritual suffering. Additionally, Medicine Buddha goes on to make promises beyond the vows.
Devotees are promised riches and even redemption for use of witchcraft with evil intent. As a result, both the offender and the victim will be protected from any harmful consequences – if they hear his name or recite the Medicine Buddha mantra.
Why Are Medicine Buddha Statues Blue (Lapis Lazuli)?
Medicine Buddha is strongly affiliated with a deep blue color known as “lapis lazuli”. Lapis lazuli is also a type of deep blue colored gemstone that is mined in northern Afghanistan. Evidence of first lapis lazuli mines in the area date back as far as the 7th century B.C.E.. Ironically, these lapis lazuli mines are located near Bamiyan, Afghanistan where the first Medicine Buddha Sutras were discovered. Strange coincidence?
Although Medicine Buddha’s original title was “raja” or King, the Chinese monk Xuanzang translated it as “Tathagata” which means Buddha. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that during the translations, Xuanzang may have inserted the lapis lazuli color of Medicine Buddha into the Medicine Buddha Sutra. Unfortunately, we will never know because Medicine Buddha statues or paintings that predate the 7th century A.C.E do not exist.
In contemporary times, it is rather surprising that lapis lazuli Medicine Buddha statues are not very common. This is especially true because lapis lazuli is not prohibitively expensive.
Nonetheless, Medicine Buddha statues are always depicted with a lapis lazuli medicine bowl in the palm of his left hand. The 3 lapis lazuli nectars it contains will cure the sufferings of ignorance, hatred and greed. Therefore, lapis lazuli’s blue color is implied throughout all Medicine Buddha statues although it is not the base material for the sculpture. Additionally, the deep blue color of lapis lazuli permeates throughout the Medicine Buddha Sutra and his Pure Land of “Pure Lapis Lazuli”.
Description of Lapis Lazuli Pure Land
After achieving Buddhahood, the Medicine Buddha received his own Pure Land called “Pure Lapis Lazuli”. Descriptions of his Pure Land are liberally illuminated with the light of pure lapis lazuli. Additionally, all of the buildings, palaces and pavilions are made of the seven treasures similar to Amitabha’s pure land of Sukhavati.
Indeed, Medicine Buddha vows that when he attains supreme enlightenment “my body, inside and out, will radiate far and wide the clarity and flawless purity of lapis lazuli. This body will be adorned with superlative virtues and dwell peacefully in the midst of a web of light more magnificent than the sun or moon. The light will awaken the minds of all beings dwelling in darkness, enabling them to engage in their pursuits according to their wishes.”
The Pure Land of Medicine Buddha is called “Pure Lapis Lazuli” or “Lapis Lazuli Pure Land” and the Medicine Buddha Sutra proclaims that the “ground is made of lapis lazuli”. Additionally, the formal name of Medicine Buddha is “Medicine Buddha Lapis Lazuli Radiance Tathagata” and the skin of Medicine Buddha is the color of pure lapis lazuli. Indeed, he is the lapis lazuli Buddha.
Attributes of Medicine Buddha Statues
Medicine Buddha statues depict him using the Varada or “gift giving” mudra with his right hand. This mudra is completed by placing the hand over the right knee with palm open and facing outwards. It implies that Medicine Buddha has given the gift of medicine to sentient life.
Additionally, he is holding a sprig of the Myrobalan plant in between the thumb and index finger of the same hand. This Myrobalan plant is used as an ancient Indian Ayurvedic medicine that predates the Buddha. It is known to cure eye disease, infection, skin disease such as leprosy, mind obscurations and it also gives long life.
In the left hand of Medicine Buddha statues, there is commonly found the lapis lazuli medicine bowl filled with the three lapis lazuli nectars. Additionally, he sits in full lotus pose on a lotus pedestal. He wears the robes of a monk and has all the signs of a Buddha.
Medicine Buddha Mantra
The healing attributes of Medicine Buddha are intricately entwined with the Medicine Buddha mantra. As a result, if recited properly devotees can transfer the karma of Medicine Buddha to themselves or others.
However, in order to release his healing powers the practitioner must fulfill all of the requirements. Therefore, repeating the Medicine Buddha mantra is only one aspect of effectively removing bad karma or sickness. The Medicine Buddha Mantra as provided in the sutra is – “oṃ bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajye bhaiṣajya-samudgate svāhā.”
Requirements of the Medicine Buddha Mantra
As outlined in the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the devotee must enter a “de facto state of samadhi” (deep concentration). This is accomplished by saying the mantra with absolute sincerity, faith and selflessness.
The key to the Medicine Buddha mantra is – “efficacy lies in the complete absence of doubt on the part of the practitioner.” By entering a state of deep concentration the practitioner has entered the realm of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If so, “How then can disease or calamity defeat him”?
In the Medicine Buddha Sutra, it instructs the practitioner to recite the mantra over the patient’s food or water “108 times on his behalf”. As a result – “Once he has consumed the food or drink, his illness and suffering will at once disappear.”
The recommended method of performing this prescribed treatment of Medicine Buddha is by reciting the Medicine Buddha mantra over a glass of water 108 times. When the 108 recitations have been completed, with utmost sincerity and in complete absence of doubt, the practitioner gently blows a wisp of their breath onto the glass of water.
As a result, the good karma that was derived from the mantra recitations will transfer to the glass of water. Then the glass of water is given to the patient who drinks it in the hopes of removing spiritual, mental or physical ailment.
Indeed, testimonials of the efficacy of this treatment abound. Additionally, the potency of the Medicine Buddha mantra can be enhanced if the mantra is recited by groups of people. If so, then the karma effects are amplified proportionally.
Medicine Buddha Statues Trinity
In Buddhist temples throughout East Asia, the Medicine Buddha statues trinity is commonly found. This trinity is composed of the Buddha Shakyamuni statue in the middle, Amitabha Buddha to his right and a Medicine Buddha statue to the left of Shakyamuni.
Each statue in the trinity has a special symbolism. The Buddha Shakyamuni statue represents the “basic Buddha principle”, and he is the Buddha of our time. Additionally, Medicine Buddha statues portray Bhaisajyaguru as the protector of the eastern direction (paradise).
As the protector of the eastern realm, he guards sentient life, strengthens their health and protects them from untimely death. The Amitabha statue represents his Western Pure Land of Bliss – Sukhavati. He waits in his pure land to protect devotees after their inevitable death in the earthly realm.
In Mahayana Buddhism, Medicine Buddha protects devotees in their worldly life and Amitabha protects devotees and offers them a favorable rebirth in Sukhavati. Ideally, the combination of earthly and heavenly peace will result in “ultimate peace, happiness and liberation” – Nirvana.
Sutra of the Medicine Buddha by Dharma Master Hsuan Jung, Minh Thanh, P.D. Leigh