Medicine Buddha

There is something about 2am. I work until 11pm then stumble into bed at midnight, after a day of teaching and studying. I'm asleep immediately but wake up at 2am with my heart pounding, in a panic. There's no story, only sleeplessness and my beating heart. Or I work until 11 and then can't sleep. I'm too wired from a day of looking at screens, a day of thinking thinking thinking, reading, pushing. I lie in bed until 2am, my heart pounding, and then take a melatonin.

When I am at a monastery, insomnia is never a problem. Waking up at 4am and then doing physical labor all day does wonders for your sleep patterns. But for those of us who live in houses, who work 9-5 jobs, the reality is that our existence is a constant barrage of tasks, errands, thoughts, anxieties, screens, meetings, and more screens. It's like driving for hours in a hot car. When you get out, the heat follows you. It takes a long time to cool down.

In Tokugawa era Japan, Soto Zen priests popularized a medicine called Gedokuen. It was herbal medicine that was essentially placebo. According to legend, a dragon girl appeared to Dogen asking for salvation. Feeling compassion, Dogen gave her a lineage chart, and she was saved. Out of gratitude, she gave him the herbal medicine, Gedokuen, instructing him to heal people with it. Zen priests were Japan's first doctors. Before "real" doctors, Zen priests were there, giving herbal medicine, performing funerals, exorcizing ghosts. People would carry copies of sutras with them for protection, ingest magical talismans, or dissolve sutras into water to drink, believing this would heal them. This is the subject of Duncan William's book "The Other Side of Zen," which I've been reading this week. He explains, "The rise of Daiyzan as a prayer temple providing this world benefits was intimately tied to the temple's ability to package... miraculous powers into sacred items that could be taken home."

Zen priests are pharmacists. These days our medicine is meditation, dharma talks, and books, not magical talismans, but the spirit is the same. We give out medicine for people to take home. But what if the pharmacist is also sick? Does that make the medicine any less real?

An interesting thing happens when you get a bunch of women together in a room in the United States. This isn't true cross-culturally-- I lived with Japanese nuns for three years, and we didn't ever talk about our feelings. Japan has a different way of dealing with healing, with emotions, with expression. Zen practice does not deal with feelings. But bring a group of women together in this culture, in the 21st century, have them sit meditation together, and it's telling the things they will want to talk about. We will talk about the man who wanted to kiss us, who became enraged when we said "no." We will ask each other, "Did I do something wrong? Am I a bitch? Was I mean?" We will talk about self-hatred and self-criticism. We will talk about wanting to be skinnier. We will talk about feeling like we are terrible women.

Sometimes women sit in the tiny meditation room in my house. I show up in robes, representing a tradition of non-duality, of koans, of strict form and discipline, of tradition, incense, candles, and ceremony. I sit silently with women and then they want to know what to do about self-hate.

What did Dogen know about self-hatred? Did he even have a word for this? What is the medicine for that?

Aoyama Roshi wrote, "The foundation of nuns' responsibility, conscience, and honor is to have been granted the role to support the spiritual dimension of the efforts of women." The first convents in Japan were the equivalent of modern day domestic violence shelters. For centuries, the only way to legally divorce if your husband refused to was to escape to a convent. One you were inside the convent walls you were free. In Taiwan, the first same-sex marriage was performed by a Buddhist nun. In Vietnam, Buddhist nuns are who run the orphanages. Across the world and throughout history I see Zen monks being pharmacists and doctors; I see nuns taking care of women and children, healing.

I wonder about the medicine for our times. What medicine can I give you? What if I am sick too?

Spring has begun. I walk through the streets of LA and feel the sun on my skin. When I walk I try to breathe deep breaths. Sitting with my dog on the coach, she licks my feet. I seek out women-- to hear their stories and to tell mine. For every illness there is a different medicine, and Kuan Yin has one thousand arms.

I'm teaching a class on women and Buddhism Tuesday nights in April! If you live in LA and would like to continue this conversation, please consider signing up:


  1. I would guess you are better at this than I am, already, and your difficulty falling asleep may not be resolved just through shifting focus, but then again...

    I wrote this for a water-conservation non-profit that published a catalog of their events/classes, whose founder was a great believer in mindfulness ala Thich Nhat Hanh and submitted essays incorporating mindfulness into the catalog, but even though my essay was completely secular it was still too esoteric for them:

    The principle is to engage the sense of equalibrioception with proprioception, and with the sense of gravity, in the movement of breath.

    "When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point…" (Genjo koan)

    Good luck with your sleep practice.

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