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Buddhism and Healing

Monks, Medicine and Miracles:

Health, disease, and religion in early Korean history.
Don Baker
University of British Columbia
We all know what the world's oldest profession is. I would like to hazard a
suggestion that the second oldest may be that of priest-physician. We don't have to be a
Buddhist to recognize that to live is to sufferno one goes through life without falling ill
or feeling pain at one time or another. That has been true since there have been human
beings on this planet of ours. And it is likely that from the first time someone fell ill or
felt pain, they sought help from those around them.
We can safely hypothesize that some members of the first human communities may
have gradually acquired a reputation for having more success than others in offering
relief from the ravages of disease, either through blind luck or through trial and error. It is
likely that such success with healing was linked in many instances with a perceived
privileged access to the invisible realm of the gods, the ancestors, and other spirits.
Since the causes of disease are often mysterious and invisible to those not privy to the
discoveries of modern medical science, it is to be expected that the earliest explanations
of disease were at least partially religious, as were most of the earliest remedies. If
invisible forces caused disease, invisible forces had to be either appeased or mobilized to
cure or prevent disease. At least, that appears to be the case on the Korean peninsula.
Most scholars who have studied the prehistory of the Korean peninsula assume that there
must have been some shamans among the first healers.
It is also generally assumed that shamans and shamanistic rituals were not the only
recourse against disease available to the first patients on the peninsula. There was
probably also some local vegetation which had proven itself apparently effective, when
ingested, in either preventing, curing, or mitigating disease. In addition, there may have
been some incantations, some special verbal formulas, which had come to be accepted as
The most informed speculations about how the inhabitants of the Korean peninsula may have conceived
disease and healing appear in Miki Sakae, Chsen igakushi oyobi shippeishi [the history of
medicine and disease in Korea] (Osaka, Japan: privately printed, 1962), part II, pp. 3-4; Kim
Tujong, Han'guk ihaksa (The history of medicine in Korea) ( Seoul: Tamgudang, 1981), pp. 6-28.
useful in warding off those forces which cause disease, as well as some taboos, some
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community recognition of situations or environments which experience had shown to be
particularly risky. Shamanism, herbs, incantations, and taboos were all primitive medical
strategies, lacking a comprehensive and coherent theoretical framework to tie them
together. This lack of a unifying theoretical thread undermined the consistency and
clarity necessary to inspire confidence that these various approaches to health and healing
could be trusted to provide the prophylactic protection or therapeutic treatment they were
supposed to provide.
For a medical theory to be truly effective in easing the fear we all have of disease,
and of the pain and the death disease can bring, and give us hope that those diseases
which threaten us can be overcome, it must offer relief in four major areas. First of all, it
must offer an explanation for disease. It must identify the causes of illness, telling us
why we get sick. Second, it must tell us how to prevent disease from attacking us and
those we care for. Third, it must provide some practical advice for overcoming disease if
prevention fails and we, or our loved ones, are afflicted. It must offer some specific
methods of treating both the symptoms and the causes of disease. Fourth, it must provide
a prognosis, a relatively reliable prediction of the likely outcome of a particular affliction,
so that physical pain will not be unduly aggravated by uncertainty over what is going to
happen next. Explanation, prevention, treatment, and prognosisthose are the four
features that make a medical theory persuasive, its practitioners believable, and its
strategies credible.
Those are also four features which a comprehensive religious philosophy can
provide. Religion may be described as an attempt to control the uncontrollable (through
ritual), explain the unexplainable (through doctrine), and predict the unpredictable
(through revelation). Disease and death were clearly among the most uncontrollable,
unexplainable, and unpredictable phenomena of pre-modern life and therefore were both
the subject of religious concern and the object of religious activities. Of the four medical
strategies most likely present in Neolithic Korea, only shamanism comes close to
fulfilling the functions of religion I have just described. A shaman was a master of ritual
and often during the course of the ritual offered revelations. However, the beliefs
underlying shamanistic rituals lacked the clear definition and broad scope necessary to
qualify as doctrine.
Religious philosophies resemble all other broad generalizations and theories: they
gain their persuasive power by combining breadth with depth. The greater the range of
phenomena they encompass within their explanatory framework, the more compelling the
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case for their acceptance. However, they must not become so general and abstract that
they neglect the minute details of every day life or they lose credibility. This greater
breadth combined with depth is what gives the more theoretically sophisticated religions
an advantage over the less doctrinally oriented religions such as shamanism.
When Buddhism entered Korea, for example, it gained converts partially because of
its theoretical power of its doctrines and their related theories. Buddhist monks could
explain pain, disease, and death both ontologically and medically. They could explain
suffering in general as an inescapable component of the human condition. That, after all,
was the Buddha's great insight. But, because they also brought with them a detailed
medical theory constructed from Indian, Chinese, and religious elements, they could also
explain why specific diseases struck and could offer concrete advice for preventing or
curing those diseases and could provide a prognosis of what course the disease would
most likely take, once they had identified it. Buddhism was aided in its drive for
acceptance by the fact that Buddhism does not share Christianity's aversion to sharing the
deities, beliefs or practices of other religious traditions and thus Buddhist missionaries to
Korea were able to absorb and build on many features of the indigenous religion,
including their medical beliefs and practices, rather than having to fight them.
There is no way to tell which specific diseases were afflicting the Korean people
when Buddhism first penetrated the peninsula, during the Three Kingdoms period. Most
of the references to disease in the Samguk sagi are brief mentions of some vague
pestilence attacking the population in the capital. The entry for the seventh year in the
reign of Kogury|s King Sosurim ( 377) is typical: In October it did not snow. There
was thunder. There was an epidemic among the people.
The entries for later centuries
are not much different. Kim Pusik tells us that in the seventh year of the Silla's King
Ky|ngmun (867), In May there was an epidemic in the capital. In August there was a
When it is a member of the royal family, a court official, or some other specific
individual, rather than the people as a collectivity, who are afflicted, a little more
information is given about the nature of that affliction, but usually not much more. In the
Samguk sagi (Seoul: Kwangjo Publishing Co., 1976), p. 312.
Ibid., p. 319. More examples from the same edition of the Samguk sagi can be found on pages 18, 21,
22, 37, 38, 55, 58, 162, 176, 198, 202, 217, 298, 329, 343, 412, 393, 409, 436, and 437, These same
examples are cited in Miki, op. cit., pp.1-3.
Samguk yusa, for example, various people are said to suffer from lesions, pain, general
Buddhism and Healing
weakness, or simply a disease but such vague language makes it impossible to identify
precisely which diseases they are suffering from.
In a few cases, as well as in some
Japanese records and in some Silla medical texts preserved in Japan, we find enough
information about diseases on the peninsula to even pinpoint which part of the body they
affected. Apparently, Koreans suffered from lung disease ( possibly pneumonia or
tuberculosis), skin troubles (boils, as well as pox diseases such as smallpox and measles),
stomach problems, fevers and chills, and maybe even leprosy. However, we are not given
enough information to be any more specific than that.
We know a lot more about what Koreans of that time thought caused disease than
we know about those diseases themselves. Illness was, broadly speaking, ascribed to a
lack of harmony between the afflicted and the afflicted's surroundings. Those detrimental
surroundings could be either spiritual or material. Spirits of the lingering dead or other
invisible beings could cause illness, as could such material factors as a lack of food, an
improper diet, or a cold, damp, or excessively hot environment. Illness was also
sometimes explained as the result of a lack of harmony between what was supposed to be
done and what was actually done. In other words, Immoral or inappropriate behavior
could engender illness.
The famous Ch|yong story in the Samguk yusa is one example of belief in
disease-causing spirits, although the plague spirit in that particular story was more
interested in sleeping with Ch|yongs wife than with spreading disease.
The Samguk
sagi adds tales of vengeful spirits exacting revenge on those who had harmed them.
Kogury|s King Yuri (putative dates 19 B.C. -18 A.D.), for example, fell ill when the
spirits of two men he had executed hastily out of anger avenged that injustice from
beyond the grave.
Behavior which violates physiological, psychological, or ethical norms could also
result in illness or even death.The Sutra of Buddhist Medicine (Puligy|ng), a text
Kim Yongok, Samyuk yusa indk (Seoul:Tong namu, 1992), pp. 1001-02.
Miki, op. cit. ,pp.4-6, Kim Tujong, pp.99-101.
Kim Yongok, p. 51; Samguk sagi, translated by Ha Tae-Hung and Grafton K. Mintz (Seoul: Yonsei
University Press, 1972), p.127.
Samguk sagi, p. 249; Yi Pu-y|ng, Illness and Healing in the Three Kingdoms Period: A Symbolic
Interpretation, KOREA JOURNAL, vol. 21, no. 12 (Dec. 1981), p.9.
probably available to Koreans in the Silla era, pointed out that illness can result from
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immoderate eating,excessive exertion, anger and vexation,[and] immoderate
sexual cravings, for example.
And the Samguk yusa provides an example from Chinese
history of a rebel general, To Pa-tao, who brought illness upon himself by the way he
acted. To ordered his soldiers to attack a Buddhist monk who appeared at the gates of his
headquarters. The monk was uninjured but To ended up confined to his bed with a high
Even if the spirits were benign and our behavior appropriate, we could still fall ill.
illness was portrayed in many cases, both in Chinese and in Indian medical theory, as the
product of either disharmony within the body or between the body and its natural
environment. In Han dynasty Chinese Confucian thought, the organs of the body were all
correlated with the five phases (symbolized by water, wood, fire, soil, and metal) which
characterized all interaction in the universe. In the Indian vision of man and the cosmos
which accompanied Buddhism to China and Korea, the body was composed of the same
four elements ((earth, water, fire, and wind) from which everything material was made.
In both five-phase and four-element theory, illness was often viewed as a naturally-
caused manifestation of a disequilibrium among forces which should be balanced and
cooperating harmoniously. Both these Confucian and the Buddhist explanations of health
and sickness had reached Korea by the Three Kingdoms period.
Koreans learned of the the Buddhist view not only in such explicitly medical texts
as the Sutra of Buddhist medicine but in more general works such as the Sutra of Golden
Radiance (Kmgwangmy|nggy|ng).
Books such as the Yellow Emperors Inner Classic
(Hwangje naegy|ng) introduced the Confucian version of medical theory.
An English translation of that text is available in Paul U. Unschuld, Medicine in China (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1985), pp.309-314. Kim Tujong (p. 73) lists the Sutra of Buddhist
Medicine among nine Buddhist healing texts from China which he thinks had been brought into
Korea by Silla times. Miki (part I, p. 39) provides an even longer list of Buddhist works with
information on both medical theory and healing practices which are included in the Kory| Tripitaka
and were probably known to Koreans for centuries before that Tripitaka was complied.
Samguk yusa, p. 184-85; Kim Yongok, op. cit., Samguk yusa ch|ngbon, p. 71, Peter Lee, trans. Lives
of Eminent Korean Monks, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp.42-43.
Unschuld, pp.51-100, 132-153.
Kim Tujong, pp. 40, 73.
Ibid., pp. 29-36.
approaches to explaining the etiology of disease coexisted peacefully, sometimes even in
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the same person.
The same was true of medical treatment as well.
A Silla text which survives only
in bits and piece in the 984 Japanese compilation Ishimp (Core medical prescriptions) is
an example of such eclecticism. The Silla P|psa pang (prescriptions of a Silla Buddhist
monk) appears, from its title, to have been written by Silla Buddhist monks. However, its
prescriptions are a mixture of Chinese herb medicine and Buddhist healing practices. It,
along with the Paekche Sinjip pang (A new collection of Paekche prescriptions), which
also survives only in its citations in the Ishimp ,is the most detailed description we have
of specific medical practices in pre-Kory| times.
In addition to the information we can glean from those fragments of Silla medical
guides, we also know which texts court physicians relied on, at least in Unified Silla.
According to the Samguk sagi, in 692, King Hyoso (692-720) established a medical
office staffed with two physicians. Those physicians were to base their medical practice
on seven basic sources: The Classic of Pharmacology (Ponchogy|ng), the Classic of
Proper Ordering (Kaplgy|ng), The Classic of Pure Questions (Somungy|ng), the Classic
of Acupuncture (Chimgy|ng), the Classic of the Pulse (Maeggy|ng), The Classic of the
Hall of Light (My|ngdanggy|ng), and the Classic of Difficult Issues (Nangy|ng). These
works are all within the classical Chinese Confucian tradition of acupunctural and herbal
treatment based on five-phases correlations.
This was formal medicine for the literate
elite and for the court. Informal medicine, both for the elite and for the people in general,
had a much broader repertoire of therapeutic techniques and healing practices, such as
exorcisms and incantations.
Buddhist monks, missionaries as well as native Koreans, were among the
practitioners of this informal medicine. Buddhist monks occasionally took on the role of
priest-physician for three main reasons. First of all, medicine was part of the package of
advanced civilization they brought from China, just as their Buddhist religion was. Their
strategy was no different from that of Christian missionaries centuries later who build
hospitals to show both the moral and the material superiority of Christian civilization.
Second, by engaging in healing, monks would meet Korean expectations of what
Kim Tujong, p.78,
Miki, Part I, pp.21-23; Kim Tujong, pp.48-49, 74-77.
Kim Tujong, pp.65-69, briefly describes each work.
religions should do. After all, the only religion which preceded them on the peninsula
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was the folk religion, which took healing as one of its primary functions. Those religions
with the most persuasive power are those which come closest to meeting the most
important needs of their target audience. In a recent survey of South Korean
attitudes,when asked what was the most important thing in life, more people (19.8%) said
health than gave any other single answer (money was second, at 16.7%).
If we may
extrapolate from 1983 back more than a millennia, admittedly a risky extrapolation, then
health was important to Koreans in the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods as
well. Monks who could heal would therefore be guaranteed a large, and probably
receptive, audience.
Third, Buddhist monks knew that healing could do more than simple attract
attention to their overall message. It could also impress their audience with the power of
their deity. To replace the folk religion as the dominant religious orientation on the
peninsula, and to gain acceptance alongside Confucian medicine, it was necessary to
show that Buddhists could not only heal, they could heal diseases that no other healers
could, that their methods, and the spirits which supported them, were more powerful.
Not just effectiveness but superiority was essential to the use of healing as a missionary
Theoretical superiority in easing fear of disease was clearly not enough by itself to
convince the targets of Buddhist proselytizing endeavors to accept Buddhism. Buddhist
monk-healers also had to show that their theories worked in practice. In other words, they
had to actually cure diseases, particularly diseases that had proven intractable to other
approaches. According to the Samguk yusa, that is precisely what some of the first
Buddhist monks on the peninsula did.
There is some confusion in the records available to us about the first Buddhist
missionary to Silla.
Even Iry|n (1286-1289), the author of the Samyuk yusa, is not sure
whether Mukhoja and Ado are the same person or two different individuals. For our
purposes, who he is or who they are, is less important than the story told about both
Mukhoja and Ado that they first gained attention for their Buddhist message by healing
Shim Jae-ryong, Modernity and Religiosity of Korean People Today, SEOUL JOURNAL OF
KOREAN STUDIES, vol. 4, 1991, p. 173.
Peter Lee provides a brief survey of the various theories about who Ado was. Lee, p. 6.
Kim Yongok, pp. 69-71; Samguk yusa, pp. 179-182, Lee, pp. 50-56.
the daughter of the king, after both shamans and medicine had failed to cure her.
Buddhism and Healing
reported result of that successful example of Buddhist healing was the first Buddhist
monastery in Silla, Hngnyun-sa, built by the grateful father of that now healthy
According to Iry|n, the association of Hngnyun-sa with healing remained
strong even in his day, with the soy sauce produced in that temple said to have healing
properties, particularly if applied to a wound while listening to the bells of Hngnyun-
The power to heal was not limited to the first Buddhist missionaries to Korea. The
hagiographies of W|ngwang (?-630.)and W|nhyo (617-686) also include accounts of
their drawing on the power of Buddhism to heal otherwise incurable diseases.
W|ngwang, better known for supposedly authoring the five maxims which are popularly
believed to have been the guiding principles of the hwarang, also cured his king of some
indeterminate illness, after physicians had tried curing him and failed.
While expounding the texts and lecturing on the truth, he succeeded in gaining the
kings faith. At the first watch, the king and his courtiers saw that the masters head was
as golden as the disk of the sun. The kings illness was immediately cured.
The story of W|nhyos involvement with healing is more indirect and apocryphal.
A Sung dynasty account of the lives of famous Tang era monks relates once when a
queen of Korea fell ill, a shaman said that she could only be cured by medicine from
abroad. But when the king sent one of his men by ship to obtain such medicine in China,
he was stopped in the middle of the Yellow Sea by the Dragon King. The Dragon King
informed that envoy that the queen could only be cured if W|nhyo wrote a commentary
on, and gave a lecture on, the Book of Adamantine Absorption (Kmgang sanmei
ky|ng,) a sutra which the Dragon King proceeded to give that envoy to carry back to
One obvious point of this story is that Buddhism can heal where shamanism
cannot and moreover Buddhist healing makes Chinese medicine unnecessary.
A similar point is made in a similarly unreliable account of healing by another Silla
Lee, p. 62.
Kim Yongok, p. 127; Samguk yusa, p. 358.
Translation from Lee, p. 80. Also see Samguk yusa, p. 283, Kim Yongok, p.103.
Sung Kao-seng chuan (Taipei: Wen-chin, 1987), pp.78-79; Robert I. Buswell, Jr., The Formation of
Chan Ideology in China and Korea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 43-48, Miki,
I, p. 40.
monk, Hyetong. The Samguk yusa claims that, while studying in a monastery in China,
Buddhism and Healing
Hyetong cured the daughter of the Chinese emperor by expelling a dragon which had
been causing her illness. That dragon fled to Korea, so Hyetong had to return to Korea
to tame that dangerous mythical beast. Not only did he succeed in getting that dragon to
stop bothering human beings, Hyetong also cured both a Silla king and a Silla princess
by uttering certain incantations. (Hyetong had learned the incantations of esoteric
Buddhism in China)
Another Buddhist monk skilled in the healing practices of esoteric Buddhism was
Milbon. Milbon, we are told by the Samguk yusa, once healed Queen S|nd|k (632-0647)
of Silla by reading from the Yaksagy|ng (the sutra of the Buddha of Healing) and then
throwing a magical staff which pierced the hearts of both a fox and an old monk, the two
creatures responsible for the Queens illness. On yet another occasion, Milbon showed
that not all Buddhist healers were equal. After both a shaman and monk had failed to rid
Kim Yangto of a host of spirits which were afflicting him, Milbon was summoned and
proceeded to defeat those troublesome spirits, curing Kim of his life-threatening illness.
It is unlikely that these stories of miraculous healing by Buddhist monks bear a very
close relationship to reality. They may not even date back to the time they are said to
have occurred. However, they do provide evidence that by the Kory| dynasty, when
most of these tales were recorded, a close link between Buddhism and healing had been
established. Moreover, we have other concrete evidence that the resort to Buddhism as a
medical strategy dates back at least to Unified Silla times. We find that evidence both in
the remnants of Silla medical texts which survive in Japan as well as in remaining
pre-Kory| sculptures of the Buddha of Healing.
Statues of Yaksa y|rae, sometimes appearing as Yaksa posal, are material
manifestations of the link between Buddhism and healing. His very name, master of
medicine is a verbal nod to that linkage, just as his identifying sign of a medicine bottle
in his left hand is a visual sign that healing was one of Buddhisms functions. Yaksa was
not the only healing figure in Buddhism. One of the faces of the eleven-headed statue of
Kim Yongok, p. 120; Samguk yusa, pp.333-3437; Miki, p. 40.

Kim Yongok, p. 116, Samguk yusa, p. 331-32. more on Hyetong, Milbon, and esoteric Buddhism in
Silla Korea can be found in Kim Chaegy|ng, Silla i Milgyo suyong kwa s|nggy|k, Pulgyosa
hakhoe, ed. Silla mita ch|ngto sasang y|ngu (Seoul: Minjoksa, 1988), 287-317; Ko Ikchin,
Hanguk kodae Pulgyo sasang sa (Seoul: Tongguk University press, 1989), pp.383-467.
the bodhisattva Kwanm in S|kkuram grotto is the face, common to statues of that
Buddhism and Healing
particular bodhisattva, which expresses compassion for those who experience pain.
Samguk yusa also relates one episode of possible healing by Kwanm.
The Maitreya
Buddha is another Buddhist figure to which the ill may go for relief.
But it is Yaksa
y|rae who was the most explicit representation of the healing power of Buddhism.
It is therefore significant that there are 17 Silla Yaksa statues in the National
Museum in Seoul, along with two more attributed to the Three Kingdoms Period. Mun
My|ngdae, in his inventory of Buddhist sculpture in South Korea, found an additional
seven more Yaksa statues which could be definitely dated to the Silla period and another
24 more of undetermined date.
Yaksa clearly was not the most popular figure in Silla
Buddhism.There are a lot more Maitryea, Amitabha, and Kwanm statues. And they are
mentioned in the Samguk yusa a lot more than Yaksa is.
But the existence of at least 26
statues of the Buddha of Healing which can be definitively dated to before the fall of
Silla, and the possible existence of 24 more, suggests that healing was a significant,
though not a dominant, thread in the fabric which made up early Korean Buddhism and
that any survey of healing practices in early Korea which excluded Buddhism would be
Of course, statues alone do not prove that Silla Koreans actually prayed to Yaksa
y|rae for relief from the ravages of disease. For stronger evidence that the Buddha of
Healing played a role in actual medical practice, we turn to Silla P|psa pang, that Silla
text embedded in a later Japanese medical manual. There we are given a prayer to be
Rhi Ki-yong, Silla Buddhism: Its Special Features, in Lewis Lancaster and C.S. Yu, ed. Introduction
of Buddhism to Korea (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, p.195-196.
Kim Yongok, p.124.; Samguk yusa, pp. 347-48.
Lew Lancaster, Maitreya in Korea, in Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, Maitreya, the Future
Buddha (Cambridge, English: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp.143, 147.
For detailed information on Yaksa y|rae, see 1) Yi Chongik, Chungsaeng i apum salml
ttaras|yaksa y|rae, Pulgyo sasang, no. 3 (1984), p.225-231); 2) Leonard Zwilling, On
Bhaisajyagura and His Cult, in A.K. Narain, ed. Studies in the History of Buddhism (New Delhi:
B.R. Publishing Co., 1980), pp.413-421; 3) Raoul Birnbaum, The Healing Buddha (Boudler:
Shambhala, 1979).
Mun My|ngdae, Hanguk chogaksa (Seoul: Y|lhwadang, 1984), pp.296-369.
Kim Yongmi, Tongil Silla sidae amita sinang i y|ksaj|k s|nggy|k, in Pulgyosa hakhoe, ed. Silla
mita ch|ngto sasang y|ngu, p. 127.
intoned while facing East (the realm of Yaksa) before swallowing some medicine. That
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prayer goes as follows:
I bow before the Buddha of Healing [Yaksa] who resides in the East in the land of Deep Blue
Radiance, the King of Healers and the Supreme Healer, the Bodhisattva JO(i,

)vaka, and the child of

the Himalayas, asking that he graciously bestow on me that medicine which eliminates all disease
(agada) in order to cure the illness which afflicts me now, expel all noxious vapors, and help me so
that all the organs in my body will work together in harmony, the blood in my veins and arteries will
run smoothly and strongly, my entire body will be hale and hearty, my time on this earth will be
extended, and in all my comings and goings, whether sitting up or lying down, I will be protected in
this life.
We also find in the Yaksa sutra itself, the same sutra supposedly used by Milbon to
weaken disease-causing demons, not only promises of both prevention and healing but
also some specific prophylactic and curative techniques.
By Silla times there were at least three Chinese-language translations of the Yaksagy|ng
available, by Dharmagupta, Hsan-tsang, and I-ching, dating to the 7th and early 8th
centuries. All three appear in the the Kory| Tripitaka, but they were certainly known to
Koreans much earlier.
Taehy|n, a Silla monk, wrote a study of this sutra, so at least the
version he used, the Hsan-tsang translation, was on the peninsula during Unified Silla.

There are some differences among the various versions, but all of them contain variants
of the 12 vows of Yaksa for which this Buddha of Healing is best known.
Of particular
interest to those who have fallen ill or are suffering from some infirmity are the Buddha
Master of Healings vows six and seven. In the I-ching version., they are:
Sixth Great Vow: I vow that when I attain enlightenment in a future age, if there are any sentient
beings whose sense faculties are incomplete, who are ugly, stupid, rheumatic, deaf, blind, mute,
Kim Tujong, p. 75; Miki, I, p. 21; Kim Chaegy|ng, p.314, n.50.
Kory| Daejagnky|ng, 10:1341-1366. On the various versions available to Koreans, se Ko Ikchin,
Taehy|n, Yaksa ponw|ngy|ng koj|kki, in Hanguk pulgyo ch|ns| (Seoul: Dongguk University,
1979-1980), vol. 3, pp.409-418.
Kory| Daejagnky|ng, 10: p.1341; 1347; 1358-59.
bent, lame, hunchbacked, leprous, insane, bound and constrained by the sufferings of all sorts of
Buddhism and Healing
diseasesif such persons hear my name and with utmost sincerity call it out and hold it in their
minds, then they will all receive that which is auspicious and glorious, and they will be cured of all
Seventh Great Vow: I vow that when I attain enlightenment in a future age, if there are any sentient
beings who are sick with disease and have neither medicine nor physicianif they should hear
my name for but a fleeting moment, they will be cured of all diseases.
In fulfillment of those vows to heal the afflicted, this sutra contains some concrete
advice on how to go about preventing or overcoming disease. There are mantras, one in
the Hsan-tsang version and five in the later, more Tantracized I-ching version.
there are rituals, even one for raising people from the dead, or at least, in the translation
of one sympathetic scholar, awakening them from a coma.
As part of that death-defying
ritual, those who want to have their nearly departed regain [his] original vitality as if
waking from a dream, are told they must, among other things, Read and recite this
sutra forty-nine times. Light forty-nine lamps and make images of the Tathagatas, seven
in all, placing seven lamps before each image.You should release forty-nine living
creatures. By doing these things, you will be able to repel misery and suffering, and the
sick person will not be in the grasp of negative spirits.
This medicinal undercurrent of Korean Buddhism did not die out with the fall of the
Silla dynasty. Yaksa y|rae and his sutra continued to appeal to a least some practicing
Korean Buddhists in the centuries which followed. Artists continued to sculpt the Buddha
of Healing throughout the Kory| and Chos|n dynasties.
Moreover, he has maintained a
following up to the present day. As recently as this year(1992), I am told, Tonghwa-sa in
Taegu is building a large Yaksa statue in response to the wishes of the women in its
Translation by Birnbaum, p.193.
Zwilling, pp.417-418; Birnbaum, p. 92.
Birnbaum, pp.86-87.
Translation by Birnbaum, pp. 204-205; original in Kory| Daejagnky|ng, 10: 1362.
Mun My|ngdae, op. cit., has located 4 Yaksa statues which can confidently be attributed to Kory| and
9 to which he gives a Chos|n era date.
Personal Communication, Frank Tedesco, Seoul, June, 1992.
Plastic Buddha of Healing statues are also available for a reasonable
Buddhism and Healing
price, for those who want their own personal Buddha of Healing in their home or shrine,
from the miscellaneous goods shops along Chongno, across from Chongmyo, in Seoul.
The sutra itself has also survived, and not only in the Kory| Tripitaka. Volume
nine of the S|kpo Sangj|, the first piece of prose even written in hangl, is basically a
Korean language version of the less-esoteric Hsan-tsang Yaksa sutra.
Since the S|kpo
Sangj|l, was compiled by the prince who later reigned as King Sejo ((1455-1468), and
was written under the direction of King Sejong (1418-1450), clearly Yaksa was not seen
in the fifteenth century as a minor Buddhist figure and his sutra was not seen as some
insignificant, peripheral text.
Further evidence of interest in the medical side of Buddhism during the Chos|n
dynasty are the three woodblock editions of the Yaksagy|ng in the Kyujangak collection,
one printed in 1607 and two separate editions both printed in 1869. There are modern
editions as well. I purchased a 1992 printing of the I-ching (more esoteric)version,
including both a Korean translation and the Chinese character version (with hangl
pronunciation keys for every character), at a bookshop on the grounds of a Buddhist
temple in Seoul.
And Silsang-sa, one of the original nine founding mountain temples
of meditative Buddhism on the peninsula, published its own Korean translation of the
Hsan-tsang version, with the original text in Korean with the Chinese characters
alongside it, in 1986.
Silsang-sa published the Yaksagy|ng soon after witnesses reported that a statue of
Yaksa y|rae at that temple began to have episodes of sweating and of emitting rays of
That is not the only example of Yaksa y|rae devotion in Korea today. On June 8,
1992: I intended a Yaksajae, a ritual centered on the Buddha of Healing, at Pongguk-sa,
a temple in Seoul.
There were at least 50 people in attendance at the mid-day, weekday ritual, mostly
middle-aged and older women. There were, in addition to the presiding monks, three men
present (two of whom were middle-aged) and two young (pre-school) boys. They started
T|kchu S|kpo Sangj|l, vol. 6, 9, 11 (Seoul: King Sejong Memorial Society, 1991), pp. 99-179..
Yaksagy|ng (Seoul: Kmnyun Publishing Co., 1992).
Yaksa yurigwang y|rae ponw|n kongd|kgy|ng (Namw|n, North Ch|lla province: Silsangsa, 1986)
Ibid., pp. 76-77.
off by chanting the Ch|nsugy|ng, a prayer to the bodhisattva Kwanm. The audience
Buddhism and Healing
chanted along with the monks, apparently by memory.
After this, the monks led the people in chanting Yaksas name. They chanted over and
over again Yaksa y|rae pul. for about thirty minutes. Some read the Yaksagy|ng while
the chanting went on. (copies were available for sale in front of the temple, and also for
borrowing in the main hall during the service.At the end of the two-hour ritual, there was
a one hour sermon by a visiting monk, who said nothing about Yaksa y|rae.
Pongguk-sa is an interesting temple, in that it has Yaksa y|rae. as its central figure
in the main hall. Yaksa has Sakyamuni on his left and Kwanm on his right. It is
important to note that this is not the original main hall (that is now the office) but is
bigger than the original. That suggest that attendance at this temple has been growing.
Of course, Yaksa y|rae. is not the only manifestation of the Buddha worshipped at
Pongguk-sa. Beside the monthly rituals for Yaksa y|rae., there are also monthly rituals
for Kwanm and Chijang. But the survival, if not the flourishing, of Yaksa worship, at
Pongguk-sa, Silsang-sa, and other places in Korea today shows that healing and the
search for relief from the threat of disease remain a vital part of Korean Buddhism today,
as they have been for centuries, since Buddhism first arrived on the peninsula.
There is a tendency, in academic studies of Korean Buddhism, to focus on
outstanding monks, doctrinal development and meditative practices. Such studies are
necessary, of course, Without them, we would not have a very clear sense of even the
broadest outlines of the history of monastic Buddhism on the Korean peninsula.
However, if we want to understand popular Buddhism as well, it is well to remember that
as the literate elite in late Silla Korea began turning toward the sophistication of S|n
Buddhism, the masses at the same time were beginning to pay more attention to another
side of Buddhism, the popular side, which included healing.
Though medical theory and healing practices were clearly part of Buddhism in
Korea from the very beginning, the specific manifestation of that concern for health and
healing among the Buddhist faithful through worship of Yaksa did not become significant
until the late seventh or the early eight century. If Yaksa had been important earlier,
W|nhyo 617-686) , who apparently wrote about everything Buddhist known to him,
would surely have written something about the Yaksagy|ng.
Nevertheless, once Yaksa
worship took root on the peninsula, it remained an important strand in popular, if if not
Yi Kiy|ng, Hanguk Pulgyo y|ngu (Seoul: Hanguk Pulgyo y|nguw|n, 1982), p. _______
monastic, Buddhism. Its survival over the centuries shows that health and healing have
Buddhism and Healing
remained significant concerns of the Buddhist community ever since. That survival also
shows that Buddhist healing, even as Indian medical theory has been overshadowed by
Chinese Confucian medical theory, has continued to serve, not as an alternative medicine,
but as a supplement to shamanism, local herbal recipes, Chinese medicine, and, in the
modern era, even modern medicine.
Buddhisms ability to address questions of health and healing, to promise some relief
from both the uncertainty, the pain, and even the terror disease and illness bring, was one
factor, though certainly not the only or the most important factor, in Buddhisms
successful penetration of the Korean peninsula. Its medical reach has also been a factor,
though again not the only or the most important factor, in the resilience and continued
vitality of Buddhism as a significant part of Korean religious culture. For this reason, any
survey of Korean religion in general or of Korean Buddhism in particular which
overlooks Buddhist medical theory and practices in general, or Yaksa worship in
particular, risks simplifying the complex fabric which is Korean religiosity, depriving it
of its full richness, complexity, and vigor.
By the same token, any survey of the history of Korean medicine which neglects
religion would be incomplete. Any look at the different ways Koreans have thought
about questions about health and illness, or at the different tools they have used to stay
healthy and fight disease, must include some discussion of how religious beliefs and
values have both shaped and reflected Korean medical thinking and techniques. A full
understanding of how medicine has developed over the centuries in Korea requires that
some attention be paid to religion's role in soothing the afflicted and healing their
afflictions. Yaksa y|rae, as well as Buddhist doctrines and rituals, shared in that role.
Finally, the interaction of religion and medicine, as an attempt to deal with the most
basic issues which face all human beings, including the ultimate issue of mortality itself,
merits inclusion in any general history of Korean civilization. It is widely recognized
that a full understanding of any civilization requires that attention be paid to the effect
religious beliefs and values had on those individuals who lived and constructed that
history. That is why survey histories also include at least a brief discussion of religious
teachings and religious leaders. However, those same textbooks normally say little, if
anything, about medicine.Yet understanding how those same civilizations have
responded to the challenges which have faced them, including those challenges posed by
viruses and other infectious agents, and how they have survived, flourished, or decayed in
the face of those challenges, is also important. Yaksa y|rae, and the Buddhism which
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brought him to Korea, therefore are more than a mere footnote to Korean history. They
are at the very core of that history, providing part of the dynamism, the resilience, and the
vitality which has kept Korean civilization alive, and Korean, for well over a thousand