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Traditional Tibetan culture nourished a deep and powerful integration of spiritual and practical understanding, respecting both of these aspects of human nature and their potential for supporting health and healing. For example, all phases of Tibetan herbal medicine -- asking for help, searching for herbs, preparing medicines, diagnosing illness, prescribing treatments, taking the medicine -- all of them are carried out with a devotion to spiritual practices and training shared by the patient and the physician, their families, and the entire community.
The near universal appreciation of these spiritual practices stemmed primarily from their practical effectiveness in fostering basic sanity, compassion, and understanding -- progress on the path toward enlightenment -- but over time certain meditation practices were recognized as especially appropriate for emphasis by people troubled by physical or psychological illness, and those who want to help them. This page focuses on some of those practices.
Since the readers of this page are mostly going to be natives of Western countries, or countries that have been strongly influenced by it, we should note that for people steeped in Western culture, just about any form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, or indeed any form of Buddhist Meditation at all, could be considered a healing meditation, especially for stress-related illness. That's why sections on the mindfulness/awareness and tonglen practices are included on this page.
In traditional Tibetan culture, people lived close to the earth. There were no alarm clocks and no pagers, and to talk to someone you had to actually go to where they were and have a conversation. Nearly everyone had some sort of spiritual practice, and most people were practicing meditation every day. In that context, it made sense to single out certain practices as healing meditations. For us, though, any meditation practice that we actually enjoy doing is likely to have a beneficial effect on our health and longevity.
The Tibetans also used other spiritual practices that might not be called 'meditation,' but which were considered beneficial for fostering health and well being, and for healing illness. Building stupas, raising prayer flags, setting up large prayer wheels, and going on pilgrimages are good examples of practices that heal bodies and minds as well as spirits. Even Tibetan herbal medicine combines spiritual and physical healing. Physicians constantly repeat mantras (prayers) while gathering and preparing ingredients for the medicines, and while working with their patients. Moreover, some types of Tibetan medicines contain substances that are considered sacred. These other types of spiritually empowered healing are the topic of another page:
Just a couple of suggestions: First, spiritual shopping can be entertaining and possibly informative, but healing meditations won't really be much use until you settle on a method that seems promising, and stick with it for a while.
Second, with meditation, as with any skill involving coordination of mind and body, working with someone who has developed some mastery of the method and its application is highly recommended. On another page we give links for contacting a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center:
How to chose a center? Among the various
schools and traditions
of Buddhist meditation, different groups emphasize particular practices
when working with beginners. Specifically, traditional Tibetan Buddhist
centers tend to begin with visualization and mantra practices, while
Shambhala Centers, Shamar Rinpoche, and non Tibetan centers following
Zen and Theravadin traditions emphasize mindfulness/awareness practice
with beginning students.
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According to the Buddhist masters, we are not necessarily stuck with our neurotic anxieties. We can develop what Trungpa Rinpoche called 'Basic Sanity,' which is simply the ability to synchronize what our mind is doing with what our body is doing.
The most basic way to train oneself to be more aware of what is actually going on in any situation, including various aspects of ones health, is a certain type of meditation practice, called shi-né (she nay) in Tibetan (Sanskrit shamatha). This term has been translated into English as "mindfulness practice"; however, a more literal translation of the Tibetan term would be "abiding in peace of mind."
Shi-né is the most common form of meditation, not only in Tibet but in other Buddhist countries. It is the basis of Zen, of Theravadin or Insight meditation, and of the Tibetan meditation practices involving visualization. It is also the basic practice of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction approach developed to help patients deal with illness.
A traditional analogy is sometimes used to give a student a quick glimpse of this practice and how it works. An image of a candle flame, flickering in the breeze, is compared to our mind, tossed around by conflicting emotions. Shi-né practice is like putting a glass chimney around the candle, letting it burn steadily and clearly. The practice eventually leads to a relaxed awareness of every aspect of the situation, to what is called "panoramic awareness" (Tibetan lah-tong; Sanskrit vipashyana), which naturally allows one to develop insight into oneself and others.
Unbiased awareness automatically tends toward appropriate action. When ones mind and body are synchronized, when what is actually present is experienced on the spot, ones actions mesh with the situation as it truly is. Developing such basic sanity, such genuine presence in the actual situation, is possible for all of us.
Shi-né practice helps to reduce stress in two ways. First, as the translation "abiding in peace" implies, it directly affects the self- induced stress that stems from entanglement with our internal soap operas, by letting us have thoughts without identifying with them. Secondly, our actions will tend to be more appropriate, and thus more effective — having fewer negative side effects — so that external causes of stress will be reduced.
Doctors tell us that many of the most debilitating illnesses in our modern lives are stress induced. Stress not only makes us miserable, it can make us ill: Prolonged extreme stress is devastating to the immune system. Reducing stress not only helps us feel better, it can actually help in the healing of many physical ailments.
section of this
page provides links to simple instructions for practicing
available on the Web and in books, and links to Tibetan Buddhist
centers, where one can establish a relationship with an experienced
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Efforts toward developing basic sanity, using mindfulness/awareness practice, can help us to improve our own health and other aspects of our personal situation. As we become more aware of what is really going on, we are more effective in working with it. However, when other people are involved, and especially if we are trying to help them, we might need something more.
When Buddha discovered sitting practice, he was living alone under a tree, and when he started teaching he had already discovered his true nature. Part of what he learned was that he was not separate from other living beings.
Meditators who continue interacting with other people, rather than living alone in a cave, may find them highly irritating at times. Ones hard-earned peace of mind scatters like autumn leaves before a stiff breeze and we find ourselves wallowing in neurotic upheavals of all sorts.
Tonglen practice — exchanging oneself, in our imagination, with others who are suffering — gives us a way to work with that, a way to dissolve our desperate clinging to separateness. Before we can really practice tonglen, however, we need to find a way to genuinely connect to our own compassion.
Sogyal Rinpoche suggests that seeing someone in pain, in person or on the news, could inspire us to meditate on compassion. "Any one of these sights could open the eyes of your heart to the fact of vast suffering in the world. Let it. Don't waste the love and grief it arouses; in the moment you feel compassion welling up in you, don't brush it aside, don't shrug it off and try quickly to return to 'normal,' don't be afraid of your feeling or embarrassed by it, or allow yourself to be distracted from it or let it run aground in apathy. Be vulnerable; use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep in your heart and meditate on it, develop it, enhance, and deepen it. By doing this you will realize how blind you have been to suffering, how the pain that you are experiencing or seeing now is only a tiny fraction of the pain of the world.
"All beings, everywhere, suffer; let your heart go out to them all in spontaneous and immeasurable compassion, and direct that compassion, along with the blessing of all the Buddhas, to the alleviation of suffering everywhere.
"Compassion is a far greater and nobler thing
Pity has its roots in fear, and a sense of arrogance and condescension,
sometimes even a smug feeling of 'I'm glad it's not me.' As Stephen
says: 'When your fear touches someone's pain it becomes pity; when your
love touches someone's pain, it becomes compassion.' To train in
then, is to know all beings are the same and suffer in similar ways, to
honor all those who suffer, and to know you
Pema Chödrön, in Start Where You Are, gives instructions for the tonglen practice itself. Here is a brief excerpt about the main practice:
"You breathe in the pain of a specific person or animal that you wish to help. You breathe out to that person spaciousness or kindness or a good meal or a cup of coffee - whatever you feel would lighten their load. You can do this for anyone: the homeless mother that you pass on the street, your suicidal uncle, or yourself and the pain you are feeling at that very moment. The main point is that the suffering should be real, totally untheoretical. It should be heartfelt, tangible, honest, and vivid."
After a while you expand the exchange: "You use specific instances of misery and pain as a stepping stone for understanding the universal suffering of people and animals everywhere. .... What you feel for one person, you can extend to all people."
"You need to work with ... both the immediate suffering of one person and the universal suffering of all. .... Working with both situations together makes the practice real and heartfelt; at the same time, it provides vision and a way for you to work with everyone else in the world."
Tonglen practice is part of the Seven Points of Mind Training, a widely cherished set of guidelines for bringing adverse situations onto the path of meditation, and developing bodhichitta — the unconditional compassion which waters the seed of Buddhahood.
To learn more about the tonglen practice or
Points of Mind Training, look in the Resources
section at the end of this page for links to instructions on the Web,
for more detailed information in books.
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Buddhism offers many different types of mental and physical and spiritual exercises to help individuals move toward the goal of awakening. One form of practice, highly respected by Tibetan Buddhists, is to connect with the qualities of an enlightened being, one who is already awake, as an example and inspiration.
Although all the enlightened beings used in these practices are fully awake and in complete possession of all the superlative qualities of a Buddha, various awakened beings are seen as manifesting especially vividly different aspects of awakened mind. For example, as the passage quoted above suggests, the Medicine Buddha is especially useful in connecting with the healing power of awakening. Other enlightened beings commonly used as the focus of healing practices are Amitayus, the Buddha of Long Life, Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Tara, Mother of the Buddhas.
In addition to fostering in a general way ones ability to heal oneself and others, these practices can be specifically focused on the healing of a particular problem, again in oneself or in someone else, or in a group of people. For example, a meditation on the Medicine Buddha could be focused on benefiting people with a particular disease, and helping people to avoid contracting that particular illness.
Information on The Medicine Buddha, Chenrezig and Tara, and the practices associated with them, can be found on the following pages:
The basic forms of all these practices are
open to anyone
who wishes to use them. Taking the vajrayana initiation (empowerment)
the Buddha aspect that you want to work with is highly recommended, but
you can begin the practice without waiting for that.
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A Tibetan Buddhist mantra can be thought of as a particular form of prayer: Phrases in the ancient Sanskrit language are used to connect with the energy of a particular enlightened being.
The most familiar example is Om Mani Padme Hum,the most widely used mantra in Tibet and in many other Buddhist communities. Here it is written in Tibetan script. Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying this mantra, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful benevolent attention of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
There are many special mantras for various
healing. However, the mantras most often used for healing are those
with the enlightened beings mentioned in the Visualization
section: The Medicine Buddha, Green
White Tara, and Chenrezig.
The mantras can be used without doing the visualization, although it
be helpful to read about the visualization and have in mind some
of the particular enlightened being whose mantra you are repeating.
The links in the table will take you to a page where you can learn about the particular mantra — what it means, how to say it, and what special benefits it is said to convey to those who use it.
Anyone can begin the practice of repeating
However, it is said that for these practices to be fully effective, one
should obtain refuge, the empowerment and oral instructions for the
from a qualified lama. The lamas have already been introduced to the
of these enlightened beings by their own teachers, and they can pass
introduction along to you — but you can
practicing the mantra immediately, before you obtain the empowerment.
fact, beginning the practice may help to clear up any obstacles to
a lama and arranging to receive the transmission.
Spinning the written form of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum around in a mani wheel (prayer wheel) is believed to give the same benefit as saying the mantra, and mani wheels, small hand wheels and large wheels with millions of copies of the mantra inside, are found everywhere in the lands influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
A short teaching by Lama Zopa, Rinpoche specifically discusses the value of prayer wheel practice for healing:
"One idea I have is to use them for healing. Anyone with a disease such as AIDS or cancer, whether or not they have any understanding of Dharma, can use the prayer wheel for meditation and healing."
You can learn much more about them, including how to purchase one, on our page about mani wheels:
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has said that having the mantra on your computer works the same as a traditional mani wheel, as the digital form of the mantra spins around on your hard drive. You can learn more on our page devoted to digital mani wheels:
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Revised on May 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Dharma Haven
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