Healing Rituals

Film: Annual Medicine Buddha Ceremony at Minh Dang Quang, produced by C. Pierce Salguero & Lan A. Li

This film focuses on a major ceremony held each year at the lunar new year in the Thiền Viện Minh Đăng Quang temple in Telford, in exurban northwest Philadelphia. It is a ritual calling on the Medicine Buddha to bring health, good luck, longevity, and freedom from suffering to the community and the whole world. The film focuses on the main ritual activity during the ceremony, the chanting of the Medicine Buddha Sūtra, which is the principal text associated with this deity. It is chanted in the Vietnamese language, in a distinctly Vietnamese style of intonation. Aside from emphasis on the aural experience of the ritual, the film also lingers on visual details of the material culture of the temple, the altars, as well as preparations taking place in the kitchen.

 

Background

Virtually all Buddhist traditions worldwide have well-developed repertoires of healing rites, and many of these are practiced in the city. In Mahāyāna Buddhist contexts, which represents the majority of temples in our study, healing rituals typically involve prayer and offerings to call upon deities to intercede in preserving supplicant’s health and overcoming their illnesses. The most prevalent Mahāyāna healing deity in Philadelphia is Avalokiteśvara, the savior-bodhisattva associated with compassion. She (or, in Vajrayāna centers, “he”) is known by different names, including Guanyin 觀音 (Ch.), Quan Âm (Vtn.), Kwan Um (Kr.), and Chenrezig (Tib.). The second most common is the “Medicine Buddha,” Bhaiṣajyaguru, known as Yaoshi 藥師, Dược Sư, Yaksabul, or Menla. In most Mahāyāna temples that explicitly call upon one or both of these deities for healing or protection from illness, the rituals are incorporated into the standard devotional services that are held on a weekly basis. Some temples additionally organize annual or periodic events that bring together the community for special worship. 

One of the most common forms of devotional practice in Buddhist communities is the chanting of sūtras (i.e., Buddhist scriptures) or mantras (i.e., shorter incantations in more condensed formats). While specific sūtras can be chanted for a variety of different purposes, certain titles appeared again and again in the context of Mahāyāna healing rituals. These most notably include the Medicine Buddha Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and the Heart Sūtra — all mainstays of East Asian healing practice worldwide. The most common mantras to appear in our survey were the “Great Compassion Mantra,” a popular incantation associated with Avalokiteśvara, as well as the “Medicine Buddha Mantra.” It is notable that the chanting of sūtras and mantras is not limited to temples serving primarily Asian-American communities, but can also be found in some non-Asian meditation centers as well (for example, see the Soji Zen Center and the local Soka Gakkai International chapter).

Aside from public rituals, private healing rites may also be commissioned for purposes of purification and protection. Such events can be arranged by individuals or families, and can be aimed at overcoming personal bouts of illness or other health-related misfortunes. In Mahāyāna temples, private healing rituals often consist of the same sorts of actions as might be done in a public ceremony — prayer, giving of offerings, and chanting — though now personalized for the family or individual patron. In some Theravāda and Vajrayāna temples, which tend not to hold public rituals specifically focused on healing, personal healing rites often involve methods that are not normally conducted in public—such as spirit channeling, exorcism, or other esoteric activities. The officiants of such rites are typically monastics, although in some communities lay ritual specialists are also utilized.

 

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Further reading:
  • Raoul Birnbaum. 1985–86. “Seeking Longevity in Chinese Buddhism: Long Life Deities and their Symbolism.” Journal of Chinese Religions 13/14: 143–76.— General introduction to healing deities in East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism.
  • C. Pierce Salguero. 2014. Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 82–92. — Overview of Buddhist healing ritual practices in the East Asian context.
  • Gregory Schopen. 2017. “Help for the Sick, the Dying, and the Misbegotten: A Sanskrit Version of the Sūtra of Bhaiṣajyaguru.” In Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources, edited by C. Pierce Salguero. New York: Columbia University Press. — Introduction to and translation of the scripture chanted in the video.
  • Michel Strickmann. 2002. Chinese Magical Medicine. Standord: Stanford University Press. — The classic study of medieval Chinese Buddhist ritual healing.