A short history of the Medicine Buddha and the meaning of the mantra
I would like to give you a brief historical overview of the Medicine Buddha.
Nowadays, modern scientists describe different galaxies, the Milky Way, the nine planets
and so forth. We believe that they exist because we can, for instance, see photos of them.
When Buddha Shakyamuni was alive, he spent some time together with his retinue in a
place called Vaishali, near a city now called Patna. One day, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī
approached the Buddha and said to him, “At present, we are very fortunate to be able to
meet the Buddha as he dwells among us. However, in the future, when the Buddha is no
longer with us, we will experience great problems such as diseases, famines, political
upheavals, and so on. What can we do then?”
The Buddha replied that Mañjuśrī need not worry because in the future there would be
Buddhas on other planets who would pray especially for sentient beings on Earth.
At the time of the Buddha, English terms such as “galaxy” and “Milky Way” were not
known. However, in the Buddhist scriptures it is stated that there are as many different
worlds in our universe as there are grains of sand in the riverbed of the Ganges.
When we think about it, these grains of sand actually look like galaxies.
The Buddha explained to Mañjuśrī that when Buddha Shakyamuni is no longer alive, the
Medicine Buddha — in the form of the six Medicine Buddhas and the seven Medicine
Buddhas — will live in other worlds far away from Earth. When the Buddha said this to
Mañjuśrī there were other Bodhisattvas, Hearers and so forth who then asked the Buddha
whether it would be possible to meet the different Medicine Buddhas. The Buddha
answered that it was possible as they could be invited to Vaishali. When the Buddha
formed the thought of such an invitation, it took no longer than to snap one‘s fingers before
the seven Medicine Buddhas appeared before him. The seven Buddhas were
accompanied by an entourage of 36,000 Bodhisattvas and 12 Dharma protectors, with
each of the Dharma protectors in turn being accompanied by a further 700,000 Dharma
protectors. Many Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and so on appeared in front of Buddha
Shakyamuni. If you believe this account, you will feel that this was really an amazing
From a scientific point of view, there is nothing faster than the speed of light. Yet if the
seven Medicine Buddhas together with their encourage had moved at the speed of light,
they could not have appeared before the Buddha within a time-span that only lasted as
long as it takes to snap one‘s fingers.
According to the Buddhist scriptures, light is not the fastest moving entity, for it is said that
there is nothing faster than the mind. Therefore, what enabled the Medicine Buddhas and
so on to appear so quickly before the Buddha, was their mind. When I compare modern
scientific findings and this account, I feel amazed and fascinated by the events described
here. Anyway, Buddha Shakyamuni, the seven Medicine Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas and all the
others took the opportunity of their coming together to convene a conference.
[The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso says in his work The Medicine Buddha
Rite from the Sutras, Powerful Conqueror that Grants Every Wish (sman bla’i mdo chog
yid bzhin dbang ryal)]: “He ordered the protection of the teachings in general and of the teachings
[in this world] in particular after the eight Tathagathas gathered at Vaishali”.
During the conference, they discussed how to prevent the problems of disease, famine,
political instability and so on from occurring in the future.
The person who recorded this meeting was the Bodhisattva Śaraṇamukta (skyabs grol).
This is similar to what happens today, when a conference brings together presidents and
prime ministers and two people get up to have a verbal exchange while another person
takes notes. Nowadays, however, the notes are typed into a computer, whereas at the time
of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva Śaraṇamukta had to take them by hand.
[The Medicine Buddha Rite from the Sutras, Powerful Conqueror that Grants Every Wish
“A result of the prayers is that owing to Śaraṇamukta’s activities adversities
like disease, death and the deterioration of the world are pacified and
well-being and happiness flourish”.
As mentioned earlier, when the eight Tathagathas (Buddha Shakyamuni and the seven
Medicine Buddhas) got together, there were also numerous Bodhisattvas present. Yet the
most appreciation and gratitude is owed to the two Bodhisattvas, Mañjuśrī and
Śaraṇamukta. For if the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī had not asked the Buddha his initial
question, the meeting would not have taken place, and if the Bodhisattva Śaraṇamukta
had not taken meticulous notes, we would have not have any detailed account of this
Although I do not have extensive knowledge of history, I know that, for example in Japan,
the practice of the Medicine Buddha was prevalent in the seventh century, when the
Japanese emperor practiced mainly the meditation on this Buddha. He passed the practice
down to his successor, and so it became the main hereditary practice of a succession of
In the ninth century, during the reign of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, the Medicine
Buddha became one of the main meditational deities of the lineage of Tibetan Dharma
kings after King Trisong Detsen invited the Nalanda master Shantarakshita to Tibet and
received the empowering blessing of the Medicine Buddha from him.
In Western countries, presidents and prime ministers place their hand on a Christian Bible
when they are sworn into office. In Tibet, a text that was afforded similar importance and
trust and also very likely used when taking an official oath was a text on the practice of the
Medicine Buddha called The Eight Hundred Sets of Discourses (mdo sde brgyad brgya
pa) written in ink made of gold.
This completes a brief overview of the history of the Medicine Buddha. Because the word “medicine” is part of his name, we associate the practice of this meditational deity with the prevention or removal of illness. The practice, however, does not only serve this purpose since it is also highly effective, as mentioned earlier, in counteracting famines, political conflicts and other external and internal problems. Also, as becomes clear from this brief historical account, the practice is not only prevalent in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism; it used to be popular in the Japanese tradition.
Regarding the Medicine Buddha mantra, there is a deep meaning to the first syllables
TADYATHA. In general, they mean “like this”. We need to understand what the word “this”
here refers to. The word “this” is important as it refers to cyclic existence, a truth of
It is really amazing. There are nine planets. Of the nine, our planet Earth is neither too
small nor too big. It is the right size. Also, it is neither too far from the sun nor too close to
it. The Earth has the perfect location. Why is that?
According to my understanding, if the Earth were too small, it would probably be covered
in ice and we wouldn’t be able to survive on it as humans. If the Earth were too large, it
might be difficult for all the beautiful greenery like plants and so on to survive. If it were too
close to the sun, we all know what that would mean. There would be a danger of it being
consumed. If it were too far from the sun, it would turn to ice. So it is in a perfect place.
Now the question is: Why is our Earth in exactly the right place? That is an important
question. There are only two possible answers to that, or two possibilities. There is no third
possibility. The first is that it was created by God, and the second is that it was created by
karma. Although over the last two or three thousand years human intelligence has
improved, no one has yet come up with a third possibility.
According to Buddha Shakyamuni, our Earth came into existence through karma.
So the syllables TADYATHA stand for the law of cause and effect — the world and the
beings in it; all the various problems, that although we want to be happy we experience
problems, that although we do not want to suffer we experience suffering — all this is
owing to karma. Because of the law of karma, things come into existence. Karma gives
rise to the truth of suffering. It creates our external environment, is responsible for the
different kinds of sentient beings and it is due to the law of karma that we experience
suffering. Even though we wish to be happy we do not always find happiness. Although we
do not want problems, problems continuously pelt down on us. This, the Buddha
explained, is cyclic existence.
Śāntideva says in his Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (Chapter 1, verse 28):
“For beings long to free themselves from misery,
But misery itself they follow and pursue.
They long for joy, but in their ignorance
Destroy it, as they would their foe”.
In other words, although we do not want to experience suffering, our ignorance makes us
pursue it, that is, constantly create the causes of suffering, and even though we all want to
be happy we destroy the causes of happiness as we would destroy an enemy.
As for sickness, our ordinary or external physical sicknesses have an internal cause.
Therefore, there are two kinds of illness: direct illness and indirect illness.
From a Buddhist point of view, everything that comes into existence from causes and
conditions cannot arise without causes and conditions. For example, when many people
suffer from a disease, there may also be some people who do not get sick. In the current
pandemic, some people easily get infected, while others, although living in the same place,
do not get sick. The question is: why?
The immediate answer is usually that some people have a better immune system.
However, the question remains: why do some people have a better immune system and
others do not? This leads us to the fact that a strong or weak immune system is the result
of many different causes and conditions. In fact, every situation arises as a result of
numerous different causes and conditions.
From a Buddhist point of view, our ordinary or external diseases are related to our mental
illness, they are connected to the illness of our mental afflictions or deluded mind. The
main cause of our diseases is our deluded mind.
Therefore, the mantra continues with BHAISHAJYE BHAISHAJYE MAHABHAISHAJYE
BHAISHAJYE RAJA SAMUDGATE SOHA, which has five parts. The first of the five parts
is BHAISHAJYE, followed by another BHAISHAJYE. The third part is MAHABHAISHAJYE
or great BHAISHAJYE. This is followed by BHAISHAJYE again and finally the words RAJA
SAMUDGATE SOHA or king of kings. So there are five parts:
5. RAJA SAMUDGATE SOHA
If our ordinary physical diseases were generated only by external causes, we would not
need the five parts of this mantra. However, since they result from our mental afflictions,
we need to develop strong antidotes. We won’t be able to overcome the afflictions just
through saying prayers.
The antidotes are developed first by studying the ultimate nature of all phenomena or
emptiness, then by reflecting and later meditating on it, and finally by directly realizing it.
That is how the meditative equipoise that is an uninterrupted path directly realizing
emptiness gradually eliminates, step by step, all the different obstructions until the subtlest
obstructions have been abandoned and we attain nirvana. Once we attain nirvana, we will
no longer be affected by external diseases, for we will be irrevocably free from their
causes, the afflictions. This is what the mantra indicates.
To be more specific, there are five paths to liberation and enlightenment.
(1) The first BHAISHAJYE indicates the first path, the path of accumulation. Practitioners
who have reached this level attain the wisdom that comes from studying emptiness and
the wisdom that comes from reflecting on emptiness.
(2) The second BHAISHAJYE denotes the path of preparation on which practitioners attain
the wisdom that arises from meditation on emptiness, which is a union of calm abiding and
special insight realizing emptiness.
[(3) MAHABHAISHAJYE denotes the path of seeing. It is “great BHAISHAJYE” because at
this level practitioners attain a meditative equipoise directly realizing emptiness. This mind
is an antidote that eliminates intellectually-acquired obstructions to liberation.
(4) The fourth BHAISHAJYE indicates the path of meditation, on which practitioners, with a
meditative equipoise directly realizing emptiness, eliminate two kinds of obstructions, the
innate obstructions to liberation and the obstructions to enlightenment.
(5) As for the last words, RAJA SAMUDGATE SOHA, RAJA means king, and these words
indicate the path of no-more-learning, which refers to Buddhahood.
When we have eliminated these obscurations and thus overcome all afflictions, we have
become completely free from all ordinary diseases. Thus, according to this explanation, the mantra indicates how we can reach the state of
enlightenment through the five paths. For example, when we travel to an unknown place, we should first look at a map to
understand how to get there. Similarly, this mantra acts as a kind of map.
So from TADYATHA — from this present cyclic existence, a truth of suffering — we begin
our journey to enlightenment. But how do we get from cyclic existence, that is, how do we
get from our present mental illness to our goal of Buddhahood? What are the stages that
lead us there, how are the mental illnesses overcome, what are the causes for overcoming
them, and so on — all this becomes clear with the map indicated by this mantra.
Therefore, first there is BHAISHAJYE, then there is the next BHAISHAJYE, followed by
the third BHAISHAJYE or MAHA BHAISHAJYE, and the last BHAISHAJYE. After that, we
reach our final goal — RAJA SAMUDGATE SOHA — the enlightened state of a Buddha.
From another perspective, this mantra also points to the four noble truths.
At the age of thirty-five, Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya. For the
next forty-nine days he did not give any teachings. Then he began to turn the wheel of the
Dharma by teaching the four noble truths at Sarnath near Varanasi.
Many of us may think that the four noble truths should only be practiced by the monks in
saffron-colored robes from the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and so on. We
may think that we are Vajrayana or tantric practitioners and do not need to practice the
four noble truths. There is definitely a danger that we may develop this attitude. We might
think that we are practicing deity yoga, which surpasses the practice of the four truths.
But in reality, all tantric practices are included in the practices of the four noble truths. Even
the Medicine Buddha mantra represents these four and does not go beyond them.
As I initially explained, TADYATHA, or “like this”, denotes the first two truths, the truth of
suffering and the truth of the origin of suffering. As before, the first BHAISHAJYE indicates
the path of accumulation and the second BHAISHAJYE the path of preparation. [But since
they are not Arya paths] they are not truths of the path. MAHABHAISHAJYE denoting the
path of seeing and the fourth BHAISHAJYE denoting the path of meditation are [Arya
paths and therefore] truths of the path. RAJA SAMUDGATE SOHA points to the truth of
cessation, which refers to the elimination of obstructions.
In general, reciting this mantra is very beneficial, but if we recite it with an understanding of
the different paths and the four noble truths as presented herein, the mantra will be
extremely powerful and bring great blessings.
(This teaching was given by Kyabje Jhado Rinpoche on January 29, 2022 in Seattle, USA
as part of a Medicine Buddha Jenang organized by the Dharma Friendship Foundation