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, northwest of the city. 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 altars as well as preparations taking place in the kitchen.

 

Background

Buddhist traditions worldwide virtually all have well-developed repertoires of healing rituals of various types. In Mahāyāna Buddhist contexts, healing ceremonies typically use prayer and ritual to call upon deities to intercede in preserving the health and overcoming the illnesses of the supplicants. The most common Mahāyāna healing deity in Philadelphia is Avalokiteśvara, the savior-bodhisattva associated with compassion who known in different languages as Guanyin 觀音 (Ch.), Quan Âm (Vtn.), Kwan Um (Kr.), or Chenrezig (Tib.). The second most common is the “Medicine Buddha” Bhaiṣajyaguru, known as Yaoshi 藥師, Dược Sư, Yaksabul, or Menla. In most of Philadelphia’s Mahāyāna temples, rituals involving one or both of these two deities are incorporated into standard devotional services that are held on a weekly basis. These occasions often involve explicitly calling upon these deities for healing or protection from illness. Some temples organize annual or periodic events that bring together the community for special worship.

In addition to major communal events, private healing rituals can also be commissioned at temples of Mahāyāna, Theravāda, and Vajrayāna/Esoteric sectarian affiliation for purposes of purification and protection. These events can be arranged by individuals or families, and can be aimed at overcoming personal bouts of illness or other health-related misfortunes. Private healing rituals may 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. These rituals may in some communities also involve methods that are not normally conducted in public, such as spirit channeling or exorcism. The officiants of such rites are typically monastics or ritual specialists. For example, in the Cambodian community, lay Buddhist ritualists known as ajhan conduct many of the personalized healing rituals, including communicating with and managing ghosts and spirits.

The most common form of devotional practice in Philadelphia’s Buddhist communities, featuring in public or private rites alike, is the chanting of sūtras (i.e., Buddhist scriptures) or mantras (i.e., short incantations in more readily memorizable formats). While specific sūtras can be chanted for a variety of different purposes, certain titles appeared again and again in Mahāyāna healing rituals, whether carried out at Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean temples across the city. The most popular sūtras are the Medicine Buddha Sūtra, the Diamond Sūtra, and the Heart Sūtra, which are all notable mainstays of East Asian healing practice worldwide. The most common mantras chanted in Philadelphia are the “Great Compassion Dhāraṇī,” 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).

 

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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.