Global History of Buddhist Medicine

Medicine is central to the religion of Buddhism, and Buddhism has been an vitally important vehicle for transnational exchange of medicine globally. In all periods and all locations across the world, Buddhism has provided individuals with intellectual tools to frame and understand illness, has shaped health-seeking behaviors in conscious and unconscious ways, and has offered a range of popular therapies and institutional structures for dealing with the sick.

This history is complex, involving multiple intertwining threads. Health and illness were common concerns in the earliest Buddhist texts, which drew heavily on existing medical traditions circulating in ancient India. Carried across geographic, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, these ideas and practices became an integral part of the spread of the religion across Asia in the ancient and medieval periods. The dynamics of reception in each of the cultures that received the Buddhist transmission were different, and consequently, particular configurations of Buddhist healing differed markedly from culture to culture. In the modern period, transregionally transmitted Buddhist knowledge formed the nucleus for the development of local forms of traditional medicine that continue to thrive in many parts of Asia.

Comprising a major focus of my scholarly work, the historical relationship between Buddhism and medicine is explored in detail in the materials below.

Books & Edited volumes

Buddhism & Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources (Columbia University Press, 2017): Edited collection of 62 chapters by 57 contributors introducing translations of texts about Buddhism and medicine covering much of premodern Asia.

Buddhism & Medicine: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Sources (Columbia University Press, 2019): Edited collection of 35 chapters by 31 contributors introducing translations of texts and ethnographic transcripts about Buddhist healing in the modern era.

Buddhist Healing in Medieval China and Japan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2020): Co-edited with Andrew Macomber. Essays analyzing the interplay between the global and the local, and demonstrating the richness of Buddhist healing as a way to explore the history of cross-cultural exchange.

“Buddhism & Healing,” special issue of Asian Medicine: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine, vol. 12.1–2 (2017), co-edited with William A. McGrath. This issue will become freely accessible on Brill’s website in 2021.

Selected scholarly articles & chapters

  • 2018, “Buddhist Medicine and its Circulation.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Ed. David Ludden. New York: Oxford University Press; doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.215. [Link] — An overview article that introduces the field and the literature.
  • 2017, “Cultural Associations of Water in Early Chinese and Indian Religion and Medicine,” Special Issue: Water and Asia, Education About Asia 22.2: 23–28. — An accessible article ideal to assign to undergraduates.
  • 2015, “Toward a Global History of Buddhism and Medicine,” Buddhist Studies Review 32.1: 35–61. — Focusing on crosscultural exchange in the first millennium.
  • 2014, “Medicine,” Oxford Bibliographies Online: Buddhism. doi: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0140 Last update: 2018. — Bibliography of highlights in the literature in this field.

Popular media
& blogs

Recorded lectures