Buddhism and Health

This is a summary of a workshop discussion on Buddhism and Health that was conducted at the WACANA 2011 in Nalanda Buddhist Society yesterday. The emphasis for this year’s WACANA is on familiarising ourselves with the Buddha Words, ie. the suttas in particular and the tipitaka in general.

1. Definition of Health
Health is defined as physical and mental wellbeing since a human being is made up of a physical body (rupa) and mind (nama). Mind here includes emotional health.

2. Buddhists’ Attitude towards Health
In the Dhammapada v. 204 as well as in Sukkhavagga (Dhp XV), it is said that “health is the greatest gift and contentment is the greatest wealth”. Health is therefore of primary importance for a Buddhist as a healthy body is the ideal vehicle to support our cultivation of the mind. Thus, physical health should not be neglected.

In the Magandiya Sutta (MN75), the Buddha pointed out that “even though I may be afflicted in body, my mind will be unafflicted”. This shows that it is possible to attain and have equanimity in our mind despite the presence of physical pain. In other words, physical pain may be unavoidable but mental suffering is optional, depending on how well we have cultivated our mind.

Thus, mental cultivation is the best assurance we can have to maintaining equanimity in the face of physical illness, aging and death.

3. Physical Health
In the vinaya, advice is given to monks to exercise regularly to maintain good health and in the Donapaka Sutta (SN3.13), the Buddha advised King Pasenadi to be moderate in eating so as to maintain a healthy weight. Medical research has also found that those who eat less tend to have a longer and healthier life. This may explained the Buddha’s rationale for restricting meals for the monks after noon. Having enough quality sleep is also important in maintaining good physical and mental health.

4. Mental Health
A. Definition of a Good Mental Health
In the Buddhist’s perspective, a good mental health is one in which we are free from stress, dissatisfactions or sufferings (dukkha).

In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN56.11), the Buddha introduced the Four Noble Truths, which is the truth of dukkha, the truth of the cause of dukkha (tanha), the truth of the cessation of dukkha (nirodha) and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha (the Noble Eightfold Path).

In the Dukkha Sutta (SN38.14), the Buddha noted that “there are these three forms of stressfulness – the stress of daily pain (dukkha dukkha), the stress of change (viparinama dukkha) and the stress of conditioned things (samkhara dukkha)”.

Thus, in achieving our goal of having a healthy and tranquil mind that is free from stress, we have to cultivate our mind to overcome these three types of dukkha.

B. How to Achieve Good Mental Health
In order to achieve good mental health, Buddhists should strive to understand the teachings of the Buddha fully. Since the suttas is the only true and reliable source of the Buddha’s teachings, it is therefore important for Buddhists to be well versed with the suttas. It is even more important to put what we have learned into practice.

For Buddhists, meditation is one of the foremost tools in mental cultivation that will lead to insights and deeper understanding of the dhamma, thereby helping us to see things as they really are and to recognise their true nature of anicca and anatta. There are many suttas we can refer to for our meditation practice. Among them are Karaniya Metta Sutta (Snp1.8) on Loving-Kindness, Samatha Sutta (AN10.54), Satipatthana Sutta (MN10) and the Maha Satipatthana Sutta (DN22). Through our practice, we hope to achieve the four Brahma Viharas of Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Uphekkha, as well as a mind that is flexible, non-judging, accepting and discerning.

Equally important in having good mental health is our ability to form quality relationships with others such as family, friends, colleagues, employers or employees, neighbours and even strangers. A good guide to this is found in the Sigalovada Sutta (DN31).

It is important to realize that our ability to relate to others is also dependent on our ability to love ourselves. We need to begin with self love and expand that love unconditionally to others. Only in this way will we have the self esteem and confidence to relate healthily with others. A good practice for this is Metta meditation.

The ability to forgive is another essential tool to good mental health. Forgiveness here refers to forgiving ourselves as well as others. In fact, forgiveness is essential for healing. In this regards, although the word “forgiveness” is hardly found in the suttas, there is a guideline in the vinaya with regards to self disclosure, the acceptance of responsibility for our own actions and the attitude of repentence and taking corrective actions. A monk can confess his transgressions in the presence of at least 4 other monks, take responsibility for his transgressions and accept whatever punishment meted out to him.

5. Kamma and Health
Last but not least, Buddhists also recognise the role of kamma in influencing our lifespan, health and beauty, and this can be found in the Cula Kammavibhanga sutta (MN135).

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