Buddhist Medical Demonology in The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas
by Adam C. Krug
University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder,
CO 80309, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org
This essay begins with a brief discussion of the marginalization of demonology in the study of both Indian Buddhist traditions and Ayurvedic medicine. Unlike the study of Buddhist traditions in other geographic regions, there has been relatively little scholarship on the dialogue between Indian Buddhist communities and the localized spirit deity cults with which they have interacted for more than two millennia. The modern study of Ayurverda, with few exceptions, demonstrates a similar trend in the marginalization of bhutavidya, or demonology, which has constituted a legitimate branch of Ayurvedic medicine from at least the time that the earliest Ayurvedic compendium, the Carakasainhita, was composed. This essay argues that this lack of proper attention to Indian Buddhist and Ayurvedic medical demonology is symptomatic of a broader, persistent bias in the human sciences. The essay then examines a handful of stories from the KarmaSataka, a collection of Buddhist avadanas, to argue that certain Buddhist communities may have held their own biases against systems of medical demonology, albeit for entirely different reasons. The balance of this essay then concludes with an analysis of The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas that presents this work as an example of Buddhist medical demonology.
Paul Demieville's 1937 article on Buddhist medicine "Byo" for the Franco-Japanese encyclopedic dictionary of Buddhism Hobogirin was by all measures a landmark survey of the relationship between Buddhism and the healing arts. Demieville covers a tremendous amount of ground on the topic, surveying works from Indian, Chinese, and Japanese traditions that reflect what has since become canon in the field of Buddhist Studies—that there existed an active
dialogue between Buddhists and the medical sciences in nearly all corners of the pre-modern Buddhist world, beginning with some of the earliest phases of these traditions for which we have data. The relationship between Buddhism and medicine has since become so deeply engrained in the field that the popular analogy of the Buddha as a "king of physicians" and his four noble truths as pathology, diagnosis, and prescription is a common didactic in many
introductory courses on Buddhist traditions. Thus, the relationship between Buddhism and medicine functions, as it has for such a long time throughout the history of Buddhist traditions, as one of the very first interpretive frameworks through which new students begin to make sense of Buddhist doctrine. Demieville's article established a number of paradigms that still govern the way that the topic of Buddhist medicine is conceived, researched, and
presented. At the same time, as any reasonable scholar would hope, the nine decades of research that have passed since Demieville first published this work have revealed certain limitations to his study. One of these limitations is reflected in a broader aversion in the field toward research on the impact of popular religious traditions—those loosely organized local deity cults that primarily concerned themselves with the mitigation and propitiation of both benevolent and potentially harmful spirit beings—on the formulation and spread of Indian Buddhist traditions. This aversion extends into the subfield of the study of Indian Buddhist medicine.
To be fair, Demieville did actually leave some room for exploring this area of Buddhist medicine in his three-fold rubric for Buddhist healing practices. Here he lists “religious therapeutics (good works, and practices of worship, expiation, meditation, etc.), magical therapeutics (mantras, incantations, esoteric ritual), and medical therapeutics proper (dietetics, pharmacy, surgery, etc.)” as the three primary categories under which various forms of
Buddhist medicine might be categorized. He then immediately disrupts his own rubric, rightfully adding that “[t]he lines demarcating these three fields are not at all distinct”. It should also be noted that, in general, scholars working on Chinese Buddhist traditions, perhaps due to the work of scholars like Demieville and more recently Michel Strickmann, exhibit a far greater level of sophistication in their understanding of Buddhism's interaction with local religious traditions than scholars who work on the Indian traditions. The same might also be said for scholars working in other cultural-geographic regions to which Buddhism spread such as Tibet, Japan, and Korea. It is also the case that some progress has been made in the field toward engaging Buddhist
sources that might fit Demieville's category of “magical therapeutics,” as is clearly evident in a recently published anthology of pre-modern sources on Buddhist medicine. Still, for all of their prescience, Demieville's words of caution against taking too rigid an approach to his structural division of Buddhist medicine into religious, magical, and medical therapeutics seems to have done little to encourage future generations of scholars to fully acknowledge and integrate Buddhist demonology into the mainstream of the study of Buddhist medicine. Instead Buddhist demonology, which deals with the treatment of illnesses that are brought on by demonic possession, has remained at the fringes of what most scholars of Buddhist studies are comfortable
referring to as medicine proper. This is symptomatic of a broader problem, particularly in the study of Indian Buddhist traditions, in which the field continues to ignore or marginalize evidence of Buddhists' ongoing dialogue with, and assimilation of, localized popular spirit religions.#
Robert Decaroli exposes some of the fallacies and problems inherent to this marginalization in his field upending work Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. He draws our attention to the fact that, in nearly all cases, the attempt to explain the integration of worldly deities associated with popular spirit religions at many of the earliest Indian Buddhist archeological sites “has been cast in pejorative or judgmental terms”. In response to one such line of reasoning, Decaroli argues that the idea that the educated monastic Buddhist elite did not actually believe that the world was populated by spirit beings establishes a rather untenable position that they did not participate in the culture in which they were embedded and instead willfully misrepresented themselves to the public as arbiters of the spirit world simply to open up a viable source of economic support.
Thankfully, the overtly pejorative tone adopted in the early decades of the field concerning the Buddhist monastic sangha's direct participation in an Indian cultural milieu in which popular spirit religions were a strong presence has long been abandoned. The legacy of this early phase of scholarship, however, is still apparent in the enduring lack of research on the interaction of Buddhism and Indian popular religions. The openly negative attitude toward such phenomena in the early decades of the field has given way to a position that is neutral at best. In the absence of strong, affirmative
arguments for the important relationship between Buddhism and Indian popular religions, the fruits of this relationship found in the vast amount of Indian Buddhist literature containing the ritual theories and practices for managing a world overrun by demonic beings has remained understudied and underappreciated. One corrective to this problematic methodology, as I have argued elsewhere, can be found in the adoption of a demonological paradigm in the study of South Asian religious traditions. Until such corrective measures are taken seriously, Buddhist demonology will remain hidden in the shadows of Buddhist Studies.
Decaroli's work stands out as an example of what scholars might gain by taking an affirmative approach to the relationship between popular religion and the formulation of Buddhist traditions in India. As he notes, Buddhist stories about the conversion of demonic spirit beings provide supporting narratives for the assimilation of independent, localized spirit deity cults, and these narratives are as much about the conversion of a particular group of people as they are about the conversion of a local naga, yaksa, or yaksim. In this way, accounts of the spread of Buddhism across India are often found in literary and epigraphic sources that document the tradition's dialogical relationship to Indian popular religion. Decaroli's work provides an explicit and
affirmative argument that Buddhists' engagement with Indian popular religion, broadly conceived, as an important historical force in the formation of Indian Buddhist traditions. To push this argument a bit further, this also implies that the study of Buddhist demonology—a subset of Buddhists' engagement with Indian popular religion that contains a range of specifically Buddhist claims to knowledge and power over the world of potentially demonic spirit beings—can provide important data not only for understanding the process of conversion but also for understanding the discursive construction of Indian Buddhist identities more broadly. For such sources often speak of more than just the conversion of a local spirit deity cult and its followers—they speak to the question of how to be a Buddhist in a world that is overrun by potentially demonic spirit beings.
Such is the case in the opening narrative of the Sardulakarnavadana. Here the young outcaste girl Prakrti falls in love with Ananda after encountering him at a local spring and forces her mother to perform a spell (vidyamantra) to attract Ananda to their home make him her husband. An analysis of the spell tells us that the form of magic Prakr. ti's mother practices involves the propitiation and supplication of a particular class of possessing being (graha) through the performance of a man. d.ala and fire-offering ritual (homa). Caught in the grasp of the mother's attracting spell, Ananda appeals to the
Buddha for help, prompting the Buddha to recite his own spell to release his attendant. The denouement of this opening episode to the Sardulakarnavadana then leads us to an important statement from Prakrti's mother, who explains to her daughter that her own tradition of mantra is no match for the Buddha's mantras. This sets the stage for Prakrti's eventual conversion and ordination into the Buddhist sangha, and for a broader discussion of the issues surrounding the ordination of low caste members of society. But the opening narrative of the Sardulakarnavadana also has something to tell its audience
about the relationship between the Buddhist sangha and popular Indian spirit deity cults. The text engages in a polemic against a popular form of sorcery rites that enlist spirit beings to do one's bidding—a religious formulation that we might refer to as popular demonology. The purpose of this polemic, however, is not to discount the efficacy of such rites, but to argue for the superiority of the Buddhist version of essentially the same ritual techniques. Even the Buddha's mantras, however, have their limitations in the Sardulakarnavadana. When Ananda returns to the Buddha's camp, Sakyamuni goes on to teach him a spell that can be used to incant a protection cord, telling him that anyone who wears this cord on their arm will have good luck and be protected,
unless their misfortune is due to that individual's karma from a previous life. Thus the Sardulakarnavadana limits the apotropaic power of the Buddha's spells by refusing to grant them the ability to overcome the effects of karma. The reasons for this tension between karmic and demonic pathology in Buddhist medicine is discussed in greater detail below in the context of another collection of avadanas, the KarmaSataka.
Before continuing, it is worth taking a moment to point out the parallels between this strategy and those missionizing strategies that appeal to the Buddha as a “king of physicians.” Just as the argument that the Buddha's mantras are superior to all worldly mantras reveals a tradition in active dialogue with Indian popular religions, so too the characterization of the Buddha as “king of physicians” tells us of a tradition in active dialogue with Indian medical traditions. And just as the Buddha's mantras are said to be superior to all worldly mantras, the trope of the Buddha as a “king of physicians” establishes the Buddhist sangha's authority over all worldly medical sciences.
Among the medical sciences, and featured in all three of the three of the “great trilogy” (bhrhattrayl) of Ayurveda—the Caraka-, Su£ruta-, and Astangahrdayasamhitas—we find another body of knowledge that is engaged in dialogue with popular demonology and the world of spirit beings. Much like the demonological material in Buddhist literature, this body of knowledge, which the Ayurvedic literature actually classifies as “demonology” or “the science of spirits” (bhutavidya), provides an example of the formal and systematic codification of a key aspect of Indian popular religion. And much like demonology in the study of Indian Buddhist traditions, bhutavidya remains largely hidden in the shadow of modern scholarship on Ayurveda and the traditional Indian medical sciences.
The marginalization of demonology in the modern study of Ayurveda is parallel to the marginalization of Buddhist demonology in the field of Buddhist Studies. At the level of contemporary popular consumption, there seems to be little room for preserving Ayurvedic demonology as this traditional medical science is rebranded and promoted as a modern health movement in India and abroad. In his dissertation on “Garuda Medicine: A History of Snakebite and Religious Healing in South Asia”, Michael Slouber makes the following cogent observations of this problem in the study of Ayurveda:
Selection of passages also plays an important role in persuasive writing. Few people in modern times are aware that classical Ayurveda counted bhutavidya and agadatantra as two of its eight fundamental branches... In modern Ayurvedic colleges these topics are barely part of the curriculum to the point that many Ayurvedic doctors are not even aware of them. I will not even speak to the degree to which Ayurveda is “sanitized” for export to an American audience.
This pattern of selective amnesia often finds its counterpart in the exclusion of demonological elements from Buddhist meditation traditions that are mass-marketed for modern practitioners. In both cases a very familiar assumption that modernity necessarily entails a Weberian “disenchantment of the world” has perhaps too hastily been adopted. Scholarship on the historical dimensions of Ayurvedic traditions does push back against this problem, but just as we can observe in the study of demonology in Buddhist medicine, traces of this same marginalization remain.
Dominik Wujastyk's 1999 article “Miscarriages of Justice: Demonic Vengeance in Classical Indian Medicine” opens with a poignant example of the cultural bias against the logics of demonology that lies at the root of its marginalization within the study of Ayurveda and Buddhist medicine. Wujastyk opens by citing the title of one of Carl Sagan's last works, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The initial title of the book, drawn from the ISa Upanisad, acts as the foil against which the central concerns of Sagan's own work are brought into relief—to promote science (and no-doubt a form of
popular Scientism) as the necessary means for eradicating all “pseudo-science, unreason, and 'demonolatry'”. Wujastyk responds to the alarmist Scientism in Sagan's book by noting that “[t]he rise of unreason in its various guises is not to be taken lightly, and whatever our view of the details of Sagan's arguments, we do well to think seriously of some of the darker consequences of dogmatism and superstition, from which science is not immune either, of course”.
I would like to take Wujastyk's observation a step further. Given the fact that some form of belief in supernatural beings can be found in nearly all corners of the contemporary world, I suggest that it is time that we count the historical misrepresentation and habitual marginalization of those peoples for whom modernity and the belief in spirit beings posits no contradiction as one of the darker, more violent consequences of a humanistic science that, adopting an ethos suited to its own central mythology, seeks to eliminate all traces of demonology from the human sciences. This ethos is so pervasive that it has a tendency to crop up even in the work of scholars who do not readily affirm the mythology of a “disenchanted” modernity.
Wujastyk's presentation of bhutavidya in his most widely accessible work, The Roots of Ayurveda, is a good example of this problem. This work, which was edited and published for a broad, non-specialist audience, arguably gives the impression that demonology was somehow located on the fringes of Ayurveda. Nothing could be further from the truth in a literary tradition whose core three compendia all count demonology as an important division of the medical sciences. Wujastyk is of course aware of this fact, and in all fairness his decision to largely avoid the material on demonology from the Caraka, SuSruta,
and Astangahrdaya-sam-ihitas could simply be a function of the vast scope of the literature. What's more, his decision to draw upon the Katyapasanihita for the section of The Roots of Ayurveda that does discuss bhutavidya certainly affords him the opportunity to expose his reader to the broader Ayurvedic textual traditions beyond these core three compendia. But it also seems to suggest that the core compendia of the Ayurvedic corpus are concerned largely with what contemporary readers would consider more “rational” approaches to pre-modern medicine, while the classical medical science of demonology is
something associated with a relatively rarified text, the Kaiyapasainhita, which, in Wujastyk's own words, has “barely reached the twentieth century”. Here, Wujastyk refers to the fragmentary state in which the manuscripts of the Kasyapasainhita were found, the first of which was rediscovered by Haraprasad fSastri near the turn of the twentieth century and the second by Hemaraja Sarman prior to 1938. He also describes the language of the
Kasyapasanihita as preserving “certain archaic features” such as the varan.abandha, a relatively rare term for a group of rites for protecting pregnant women from demonic attack. All of this has the unfortunate and perhaps unintended consequence of presenting demonology as an outdated medical science from the fringes of the Ai yurvedic textual tradition that just happens to have barely reached the “modern” world in the form of the fragmented manuscripts of the Kasyapasainhita. The fact that traces of the marginalization of Ai yurvedic demonology appear even in the work of a scholar who is so clearly aware of its importance to Indian medical traditions is perhaps testament to the centripetal effect that the charter myth of a disenchanted modernity still exerts on research in the Human Sciences.
Perhaps no other work has been more successful at pushing back against this problem and advocating for the central importance of bhutavidya and the broader phenomenon of demonic possession in South Asian literature than Frederick Smith's work in The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. Much as Decaroli has done in the context of Buddhist demonology, Smith takes an affirmative approach to the centrality of
spirit possession throughout South Asian literature, crafting a genealogy of the language and mechanics of possession from the Vedas to the emergence of the devotional and tantric religious movements that have dominated South Asian religion from the mid-first millennium CE to the current day. Smith also notes a pattern in the expansion of Ayurvedic demonology from the Su£rutasanihita to the Astangahrdayasanihita that locates the period of increased Ai yurvedic development of its demonology in the first half of the first millennium CE—during precisely the same period that the codification of an even more expansive Buddhist demonology was taking shape in the dharanT and kriyatantra literature.
The argument that engagement with local spirit deity cults played a significant role in the development of Indian Buddhism does not entail that all Indian Buddhist textual traditions supported the development of a Buddhist medical demonology. In fact, there appears to have been some resistance to this development. In some circumstances, this resistance may have been a function of the broader ambivalence toward practicing medicine observed in the various Buddhist monastic codes (vinaya), for instance, which supported the study and practice of medicine by and for one's fellow monastics while discouraging
members of the monastic sangha from acting as physicians to the lay community. The potential reasons for such prohibitions range from the belief that engaging in medical practice is a distraction from pursuing religious goals to the need to establish a clear niche for which the Buddhist community could claim expertise over and against other contemporary ascetic groups. But there is another reason that some Buddhists may have been wary of developing their own medical demonology: the logic of demonic possession complicates and even potentially contradicts the Buddhist understanding of karma, one of the most important early doctrinal features that allowed early Buddhists to distinguish themselves from other ascetic movements.
Not only was the popular body of knowledge from which a Buddhist medical demonology drew not exactly Buddhist in origin, integrating the logic on which it operated into the Buddhist system of karma was potentially problematic. As Smith has shown, the South Asian literature on demonic possession consistently explains spirit possession in moral terms. This seemingly pan-South Asian correlation between morality, demonic possession, and mental illness (or simply illness) operates within the same conceptual domain as the Buddhist doctrine of karma. This overlap is clear in the Ayurvedic understanding of therapies
that rely on spiritual means (daivyapaSraya) outlined as early as the Carakasam. hitaT. This category encompasses some of the most intractable illnesses, which are understood as either the result of the ripening of karma (karmavipaTka) and/or interference from some demonic being. But there is evidence that medical thought within certain Indian Buddhist textual traditions may have resisted grouping karma and demonic possession together as pathologies requiring therapeutic treatments that rely upon spiritual practices. The reason for this reluctance may very well have been the fact that demonic possession has the potential to disrupt the important role that the doctrine of karma played in Buddhist systems of ethics, particularly before the Mahayana schools' rise to dominance. The idea that the negative effects of an individual's actions might be visited upon them through an intermediary spirit being creates a
potential fracture in the Buddhist system of karmic retribution. This fracture opens the door to developments such as rituals for apotropaic intervention that could undermine the psychological and ritual mechanics of intention and confession that govern the relative weight of karmic retribution in Buddhist systems of ethics.
This is just one potential reason that certain Buddhist sources preserve a tension around the relationship between karmic retribution and the pathology of demonic possession. The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas, discussed in the next section, is a good example of a text that attempts to navigate this tension in a relatively inclusive way. But before moving on to this work, it will be helpful first to look at a text that takes a more exclusive approach to the problem and adheres more closely to the argument that karma is the sole cause of illness and physical maladies as well as the sole means of attaining some measure of freedom from them. This approach is showcased in a handful of stories from the KarmaSataka (Las brgya tham pa), a compilation of Buddhist avadanas that each contain one or more lessons on the workings of karma.
The KarmaSataka has been traced to the Sarvastivada School and is thought to date to the early centuries CE, though it is entirely possible that the works it contains preserve older material. Originally composed in Sanskrit (or perhaps a Sanskritic vernacular dialect), the text survives only in its Tibetan translation. While the Tibetan translation does not contain a colophon, the title of the work does appear among the “Basket of Lesser Vehicle Sutras” (theg pa chung ngu'i mdo sde) in the Dénkarma (ldan dkar ma) royal Tibetan catalogue of translated works, which indicates that it was translated into
Tibetan by at least the early ninth century. The basic structure of most stories in the collection begins with an incident involving a central character that is witnessed by the Buddha Sakyamuni and the monastic sangha. The Buddha then recalls the actions that the main character (or characters) in the opening narrative of the story performed in a previous life that led to the incident followed by the results that they will experience in the future as their actions in the present lifetime come to fruition. In this way, each story in the KarmaSataka becomes a lesson on the workings of karma, which is why the best English translation of the title is most likely One Hundred Lessons on Karma.
The theme of demonic possession occurs relatively rarely in the KarmaSataka, and when it does it is either rejected in favor of a karmic pathology or openly parodied. Of the more than one hundred stories in the collection, roughly six even raise the issue of demonic possession. This alone might tell us something about the relative value that the Buddhist community responsible for compiling the KarmaSataka placed on demonology. This does not mean that the
KarmaSataka deviates in any way from presenting a Buddhist worldview that accepts the existence of spirit beings of all kinds. But the text does seem to go out of its way to avoid any narrative that might support the particularly demonic behavior of these spirit beings, and opts instead to focus on karma as the sole determining factor in the circumstances that play out in each story.
Four of the stories that demonstrate the KarmaSataka'S rejection of medical demonology in favor of a karmic pathology revolve around abnormalities related to childbirth. The first in this group is “The story of Lake of Jewels” (dbyig mtSho) , who, like all of the children in these stories, receives his name because of the strange events surrounding his birth and childhood. The story opens, as so many in the KarmaSataka do, with a newlywed couple that has just conceived a child. In this case, immediately after the wife has conceived, she is miraculously ornamented with jewelry, parasols and other accoutrements
fitting for a celestial palace appear on the roof of the house, and the house itself is constantly strewn with flowers and perfumes. Naturally, the husband wonders if a spirit ('byung po, bhuta) has possessed his wife , so he takes her to a soothsayer who reassures the father-to-be that she is not possessed. Instead, the soothsayer explains, the strange events around her pregnancy are entirely due to the baby in her womb, or, more specifically, to the particular karma that that baby carries with it.
This same narrative pattern is repeated in three more works in the Karmasataka that open with a pregnancy and childbirth that is accompanied by strange events in the household. In "The Story of Forest Dweller" (dgon pa ba, *aranyaka) , the newly pregnant mother is overcome with the urge to seek out isolated places and is continually unhappy while in the company of others. In both "The Story of Sim. ha" (seng ge) and "The Story of Jackal" (wa, *jambuka), the newly pregnant mother begins to smell like feces and is overcome by the urge to eat excrement. In all three cases the father-to-be seeks
out a professional opinion to see if his wife has been possessed by a spirit, and in all three cases the soothsayer to whom he brings his wife assures him that it is not demonic possession but the particular being in her womb that is responsible for her abnormal behavioral changes. Most importantly, as the stories of each of these children make clear, the various signs that these concerned fathers read as potential evidence of demonic possession are solely the result of their offspring's particular karma.
There is another set of stories that contain elements related to demonology and demonic possession but fall outside of the grouping in the Karmasataka that refer to a suspected demonic possession related to conceiving a child. "The Second Story of the Bear" (dom, *bhalluka) contains a narrative deployment of medical demonology that revolves around a character who has committed an extreme moral and ethical infraction by betraying a bear that offered him shelter from a ravenous lion. After the man betrays the bear, the bear recites a verse lamenting the wicked behavior of immoral beings. Overcome with grief at what he has done, the man then wanders aimlessly repeating the bear's verse until his brothers find him and bring him to a doctor (sman pa, *vaidya) to
determine what has driven their brother mad. The doctor informs them that their brother 's madness is not a case of spirit possession, and that he cannot heal him. The brothers then take him to a sage (r.s.i) who explains that their brother 's condition is due to having committed a grave moral misdeed by betraying another living being that had given him shelter. Once again, demonic possession is rejected in favor of karma as the dominant pathology.
These stories speak both to the KarmaSataka's awareness of a system of symptomology for determining demonic possession and to its awareness of a range of specialists who are skilled in the diagnosis and treatment of demonic possession. They also reflect the Karmasataka's rather dismissive response to such systems of medical demonology. This dismissal can be contrasted with the Ayurvedic literature, in which karma and demonic possession are seen as correlated pathologies that require similar therapeutic methods. It also stands in contrast to the generally affirmative portrayal in the Karmasataka of medical practices involving the maintenance of proper dietary balance, establishment of proper environmental conditions, and the preparation, prescription, and
consumption of medicines. Although there are certain stories in which medical preparations fail in the face of karmic forces, the attitude toward those classical medical sciences that do not deal with the realm of spirit beings is far more favorable throughout the collection. This indicates that it is not medicine per se but rather medical demonology that is seen as contradictory to the Karmasataka's central project of teaching about the doctrine of karma in a way that promotes the pursuit of virtue, the abandonment of nonvirtue, and the aspiration to become the disciple of a fully realized Buddha and attain the state of an arhant.
Some might object to this reading of the Karmasataka's dismissal of medical demonology on grounds that the collection's pattern of invalidating medical demonology is simply a function of its primary purpose, to promote the Buddhist understanding of karma. The KarmaSataka has all of the markings of a composite text, and it is likely that the stories it contains were selected from other compendia based on their coherence around the specific theme of karma. And there is in fact some overlap between the stories in the Karmaiataka and other collections of avadanas. Furthermore, as a collection of avadanas, a highly narrative-driven genre of Buddhist literature, it may be a bit unreasonable to assume that the narrative devices the authors of these stories apply are anything but that—narrative devices intended only to move the story forward. It is possible to argue that the dismissal of medical demonology in the Karmaiataka is not a reflection of a more general tension among certain Buddhist textual communities between the pathologies of karma and of demonic possession, but simply an unintended byproduct of the literary genre and the specific theme around which these stories are organized. Obviously, a collection of stories whose sole intent is to teach the doctrine of karma is going to privilege the importance of that doctrine in all cases. However, while this is a potentially valid critique of my argument, it still does not account for the fact that the stories in the KarmaSataka demonstrate a bias against medical demonology in all cases while depicting other areas of the medical sciences in a far more positive light. What's more, this same tension between karmic and demonic pathology is evident in the next work this essay examines, The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas.
The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas straddles the three literary genres of sutra, dharam, and tantra in the Dege Kangyur (sde dge bka' 'gyur). It is listed in the sutra section of the Denkarma and in the dharam section of the Pangthangma ('phang thang ma) , which indicates that a Tibetan translation of the text existed by at least the early ninth century. Unfortunately none of the available versions of the text in the Tshal pa and Them spangs ma stemma for the
Tibetan Kangyurs contain a colophon, so the precise identity of the translators is unknown. The various Tibetan Translations of the Treatises or Tengyur (bstan 'gyur) do not contain any true commentaries to The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas, but the Dege, Peking (pe cing), and Narthang (snar thang) Tengyurs include a short anonymous work titled Auspicious Verses on the Lineage of the Seven Buddhas (sangs rgyas rabs bdun gyi bkra shis kyi tshigs su bcad pa) that contains a list of the specific locations and species of tree under which each of the seven buddhas attained awakening. There is a substantial
extracanonical Tibetan commentary to the text written by the Bodongpa scholar Chokle Namgyel (Phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1376-1451) titled The General Sutra Collection Ritual of The Seven Buddhas (sangs rgyas bdun pa'i mdo sde'i cho ga) that consists of instructions for rites that employ the mantras from The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas.
translation (T. 1333; c. 502-557 CE), whose translator is unknown, refers to the work as the *AkaSagarbhapariprccha-saptabuddha-dharam-sutra. The sixth century Jnanagupta translation (T. 1334; 587 CE) refers to the text as the *Tathagata-upayakausalya-mantra-sutra. The Fa-t'ien translation (T. 1147; 984 CE) refers to the work as the Arya-AkaSagarbha-bodhisattva-dharam-sutra. Like the royal Tibetan catalogues of translated works, the Chinese canon also
classifies the text as both sutra and dharam. The Dege Kangyur expands this dual classification, including versions of the text in “The Sutra Collection” (mdo sde), “The Tantra Collection” (rgyud 'bum) , and “The Compendium of Dharam” (gzungs 'dus). Thus like so many works in the Tibetan and Chinese
canons, The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas contains elements associated with a number of different genres of Buddhist literature. This eclecticism explains its dual and tripartite genre classifications. As I argue below, the eclectic style of The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas—its combination of elements from Mahayana sutra, dharam, and kriyatantra literature—allows for a Buddhist medical demonology to emerge in the text.
The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas opens with the Buddha residing in an alpine forest on Mt. Kailasa when he sees a monk in the forest who has been possessed by a spirit ('byung pos zin) and collapsed to the ground where he lies naked, flailing his arms and wailing to the sky. The bodhisattva Akasagarbha, the central interlocutor of the text, also sees the monk and approaches and supplicates Sakyamuni for a spell (vidyamantra) “that can pacify all manner diseases and exorcize all manner of spirits”. Sakyamuni responds by emanating the following six buddhas, with himself as the seventh:
Each of these buddhas proceeds in this order to transmit a spell to Akasagarbha along with a number of ritual instructions on how the spell can be used. And each time one of the seven buddhas recites their particular spell, with the exception of Sakyamuni himself, the text reminds us that the purpose of the recitation is “in order to benefit all beings, pacify all manner of illnesses, and exorcize all manner of spirits”.
The earliest textual witnesses to the arrangement of buddhas in The SuTtra of the Seven Buddhas for which there exists material evidence is found on a fragmentary birch bark manuscript of The Many Buddhas Sutra that was composed in the Gandhar! language and has been radiocarbon dated to the first century BCE. Other early literary evidence can be found in the various Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese recensions of the MahaTvadaTnasuTtra. The archeological evidence for the cult, however, suggests that it is even older. The earliest iconographic witness to this arrangement of the seven buddhas appears in a
series of relief carvings on the outer circumambulatory railing of the Bharhut stu! pa. Here, six of the seven buddhas from The SuTtra of the Seven Buddhas appear in their aniconic representations as the specific species of tree under which they are said to have attained enlightenment. Each is identified by an accompanying inscription in late second century BCE Brahmi script, providing an approximate date for the early emergence of the cult. The cult of the seven buddhas later gained widespread popularity beginning in the third century CE, with iconic representations of the seven buddhas appearing at a number of important Buddhist archeological sites such as the Amaravat! stupa complex at the eastern edge of the Deccan plateau, the Buddhist cave vihaTra complexes of Ajanta, Ellora, and Kanheri in the western Deccan, and as far to the northwest as the Swat Valley.
The most recent and thorough research on this text can be found in Ronald M. Davidson's work on The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas and its importance to a number of early Chinese dharanT compendia. Davidson argues that the original structure of the cult likely emerged in dialogue with the broader South Asian Brahmanical tradition of Dharmasastra literature. In this literature, maintaining caste purity over the course of seven generations through the proper observation of codes governing sexual relationships and the proper performance of rites provided the primary means for substantiating members of the
brahmin caste's claim to their status as the premier ritual specialists of the South Asian cultural world. Davidson posits that the cult of the seven buddhas provides a similar seven-generation schema for the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha and the community of the Buddhist sangha that centers on the pure maintenance and transmission of the praTtimoks. a vows for seven generations of buddhas. By Davidson's argument, this claim would have served to legitimize the Buddhist sangha as a community of ritual specialists that were just as effective in the performance of rites as their Brahmanical contemporaries.
Davidson's hypothesis regarding the cultural milieu out of which the cult of the seven buddhas emerged adopts an inter-textual methodology that traces the seven buddhas across numerous Buddhist sources. This study, however, focuses on the content of The SuTtra of the Seven Buddhas, and the material in this work likely postdates the original cult and its early textual and iconographic witnesses. The issue of central concern in this particular formulation of the cult of the seven buddhas is clearly the development of a Buddhist medical demonology. In fact, at the risk of further complicating already muddled Chinese and Tibetan doxographies, I would argue that The SuTtra of the Seven Buddhas is best classified as a Buddhist medical text. More specifically, it is a work of Buddhist medical demonology that combines elements of Maha!ya!na devotional literature, instructions for the preparation and prescription of medicinal plants and ointments, and instructions on the use of various spells (termed variously as dharams, vidyamantras, guhyamantras, or simply mantras) to treat a broad range of illnesses and conditions that might lead to an untimely death. This relatively short text also preserves one example of the
tension between demonological and karmic pathologies that centers on the issue of whether or not the spells pronounced by each of the seven buddhas to ward off illnesses and exorcize all manner of spirit beings can also counteract unnatural death that is the result of karmic obscurations from a past life. The Tathagata Vipasyin's recitation and transmission of his spell to Akasagarbha contains the kind of eclectic, genre-blending material that begins to explain why The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas can straddle three separate literary genres in the Dege Kangyur. It also gives the reader a first glimpse at just why this work might also be classified as a text on Buddhist medical demonology. The passage reads as follows:
The Tathagata Vipasyin hovered in the sky above them and spoke these root verses of the secret mantra in order to benefit all beings, pacify all manner of illnesses, and exorcize all manner of spirits:
tadyatha oni hala hala hili hilaya
The Tathagata Vipasyin addressed the bodhisattva great being Akasagarbha, “Akasagarbha, whomever bears this vidyamantra in mind, recites it, or masters it will not be slain by a weapon, nor will they die from drowning, fire, or a painful illness. They will not suffer an unnatural death, even if they consume poisonous food.
If you recite the vidyamantra seven times over your food and drink before consuming it, no one else can harm you, you will not contract any illnesses, you will live for a long time, understand what you have studied, and have a vision of the seven tathagatas.
Recite this vidyamantra in the ear of someone who has been wounded with a weapon and anoint them with jasmine oil incanted with the vidyamantra. If you anoint those who are afflicted with diseases such as leprosy or tumors with incanted oil that contains a mixture of jasmine, blue lotus, dill, and wild asparagus, they will recover from all of their illnesses. This mantra can be used for all rites.
Several elements in this passage that are common to Mahayana sutra, dharam, and kriyatantra literature should be immediately apparent to readers who are familiar with these genres of Buddhist scripture. First, there is the spell itself, which clearly qualifies the passage as an example of the dharam genre. Then there are the various uses of the spell, which begin with averting a short list of untimely deaths (dus ma yin pa'i 'chi ba, *akalamaran. a) that incorporates some of the standard perilous situations ('jigs pa, bhaya) from which bodhisattvas commonly vow to rescue living beings who recite or
recollect their names in the Mahayana sutras, particularly in the sub-genre of bodhisattva aspiration (smon lam, pramdhana) literature. Elements of the dharani genre such as understanding everything one has studied are evoked again in the second list of benefits to reciting the spell, but here the spell is not just recited, it is recited over food and drink and essentially consumed. Finally, an element that is common to the kriyatantra emerges in the last line of this section where the Tathagata Vipasyin assures Akasagarbha that, in addition to the list of applications he has just listed, his spell “can be
used for all rites” (las thams cad la yang sbyar bar bya'o). This phrase signals the kind of ritual eclecticism that Phyllis Granoff has pointed to in one of the most important works of the Buddhist kriyatantra genre, the Manjusrimulakalpa, which contains numerous instances in which the single-syllable (ekaksara) mantra is similarly argued to render all Buddhist (lokottara) and non-Buddhist (laukika) rituals effective. Finally, the medical applications of the Tathagata Vipasyin's spell are quite clear in the passage, which contains one recipe for a medicinal oil that is both incanted with the spell and infused with a number of plants with known medical properties.
Explicit evidence of a Buddhist medical demonology is strangely absent from the Tathataga Vipasyin's instructions for using his spell, despite the fact that the frame narrative for the text establishes that the primary reason that Sakyamuni has emanated as the seven buddhas reasons is to provide the bodhisattva Akasagarbha with a spell for exorcizing spirits. Buddhist medical demonology is on prominent display, however, in the next passage from The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas, which contains the Tathagata Sikhin's spell and related instructions. The passage reads as follows:
Then the Tathagata Sikhin hovered in the sky above them and spoke these root verses of the secret mantra in order to benefit all beings, pacify all manner of illnesses, and exorcize all manner of spirits:
om paca paca pacaya pacaya sarvabhutanam
Akasagarbha, I and millions of Buddhas have taught this secret mantra in order to benefit all beings, to completely pacify all manner of illnesses, to ward off spirits that harm one's meditation and cause nightmares, and to prevent untimely death. Now you must uphold it.
Akasagarbha, if someone focuses on my heart mantra three times a day, they will not be harmed by others, they will meet the Tathagata in their dreams, and they will not suffer a horrible death. When they die, they will meet with the tathagatas and serve them.
You can also use the rite to bind the patient with a protection cord against all manner of illnesses. In cases where an illness is the result of a humoral imbalance, you can incant jasmine oil with the mantra and give it to the patient. You can perform the rite of sealing off the directions with water incanted with the mantra, and you can use an incanted cord to protect yourself. You can tie a blue protection cord incanted with the mantra on a child to guard against seizers that possess children. You can whisper the mantra seven times in the ear of someone who has been struck down with a weapon, and you can use it to control others with your mind.
This passage contains a number of references that signal the emergence of a Buddhist medical demonology blending elements from the Mahayana sutra, dharanT, and kriyatantra literature. The applications of the Tathagata Sikhin's spell quickly move from using the spell as part of a meditation practice that results in communion with the tathagatas to a list of medical applications covering everything from illnesses that result from humoral imbalance ('dus pa las gyur pa, *sainnipatika) to the important demonological medical practice of protecting against the various classes of seizers that specifically target children (byis pa rnams kyi gdon, *balagraha). Then, in its final instruction, the text strays into the territory of kriyatantra applications of mantras for rites that are used to control a particular target. Commonly termed controlling rites (dbang, vaiya), this application of mantra recitation is part of a broader, loosely standardized set of practical applications of ritual that can be found throughout the kriyatantra literature.
The clearest indication that the Tathagata Sikhin's instructions in The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas express a form of Buddhist medical demonology is the spell itself, which makes explicit reference to its own medical demonological applications. Following the initial invocation to the three jewels, the spell proper, in a style common to nearly all mantras and dharams, contains a handful of imperative forms that function as direct instructions for the deity that has been invoked, in this case the Tathagata iSikhin. The instructions to “cook” (paca) and “cook out” (pacaya) all spirits (sarvabhutanam) are a direct reference to performing an exorcism for someone who is possessed by a demonic being. A similar use of the term appears in the Saiva Kriyakalagunottara's
ritual instructions for the deity Garuda's vipati mantra, which remains in active use to this day among modern Saiva, Vaisnava, and Vajrayana communities. The spell then makes specific reference to a phenomenon I have noted elsewhere as an important factor in the emergence of a Buddhist demonology—the weaponization of spells and mantras and the formulation of ritual means to protect against such weaponization. Here the Tathagata Sikhin has augmented his own spell for exorcizing spirits with a second spell for neutralizing an enemy's spells/vidya beings (paravidyanam).
Participation in the broader South Asian culture of weaponized ritual was undoubtedly one of several important factors that contributed to the ritual theories and praxes that emerge in early Buddhist esoteric literature. The overlap between this phenomenon and the emergence of a Buddhist medical demonology is evident in none other than the Bhaisajyagurusutra. Unfortunately, just as demonology has been marginalized in the field of Buddhist studies, its sub-field of Buddhist medicine, and in the study of Ayurveda, the culture of weaponized ritual that played such a critical role in the emergence of
esoteric Buddhism, particularly in the kriyatantra literature, remains sorely understudied. The kriyatantra literature contains a wealth of data proving that Buddhist ritual specialists were just as interested in acting as aggressors as they were in defending themselves or their patrons from attack both from both the physical and demonic weapons of their enemies. Rituals in this literature for controlling various classes of spirit deities or inflicting harm on one's enemies through the use of mantras, mudras, and mandalas are often aimed at enlisting various Buddhist deities and non-Buddhist spirit beings to carry out the task.
The set of instructions that the Tathagata Visvabhu provides for his spell contains an example of how Buddhist demonology can be both weaponized and used for medical purposes. It also contains the single instance in The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas in which the tension between karmic and demonic pathologies is clearly on display. The passage reads as follows:
Then the Tathagata Visvabhu hovered in the sky above them and spoke these root verses of the secret mantra in order to benefit all beings, pacify all manner of illnesses, and exorcize all manner of spirits:
Akasagarbha, these root verses of the secret mantra are taught by all of the past, future, and present tathagatas of the fortunate eon, and now I have spoken them as well. Akasagarbha, you must uphold these root verses of the secret mantra.
If someone bears in mind, recites, or masters them, they will not be harmed with a weapon, affected by poison, affected by poisonous brews, or infected with plague. They will not drown, die of unnatural causes, or suffer a lowly death unless these are karmic obscurations that result from a previous lifetime. Any monk, nun, or lay person who rises in the morning, washes their head, and recites this secret mantra 108 times before an image of the Tathagata will be able to purify all of their karmic obscurations.
Once the ¿haram has been spoken to any hostile beings or kings, you will have power over all of them. You will master all fears. Wearing a white protection cord incanted with the mantra will guard against all manner of quarrelsome men and women as well as any argument and dispute. An incanted protection cord made with fiber from a date tree can be used against diseases of the eye and hung on one's ear. To paralyze an army, perform a fire offering one hundred and eight times with incanted popped rice that has been soaked in yogurt and honey while reciting the following mantra each time:
rajanam rajamatram va vast karotu kamena
To purify all your own and all beings' obscurations and misdeeds and to obtain great prosperity and wealth, recite the dharan! while offering sesame seeds one thousand times into a fire alter that has been kindled with date palm branches.
To purify all your misdeeds, master all vidyaTmantras, or to ritually cleanse yourself you should wash with dill, spikenard, foxtail millet, sirisa, valerian, saffron, nut grass, bitter gourd, bodhi tree, and mango flowers. Next, fast for an entire day in front of a Buddha image, and then place these ingredients in a fresh vase. On the full moon, bathe in front of an image of the Buddha while reciting the heart mantra one thousand and eight times. To neutralize poison, sit before an image of the Buddha and use a ladle made of teak to offer cow dung onto a ritual fire while reciting the victim's name one hundred and eight times. The poison will then be neutralized. This mantra protects one from seizers and works for any rite related to spirits and the like. It will pacify them.
The demonological orientation of the Visvabhu's spell is clear in its concluding imperative phrase “destroy the clans of all the seizers” (kulotsaTdanam. kuru sarvagrahaTn. aTm. ), but as with the Tatha!gata Sikhin's spell, its applications represent a range of apotropaic and soteriological concerns. Visvabhu's spell and instructions also provide some interesting insights regarding the tension between Buddhist medical pathologies that stress the primacy of the doctrine of karma and those that offer more apotropaic solutions to averting disaster, curing illness, and exorcizing or repelling spirit beings.
The line in this excerpt that reads “[t]hey will not drown, die of unnatural causes, or suffer a lowly death unless these are karmic obscurations that result from a previous lifetime”, perfectly captures the rupture that occurred in Buddhist ritual theory as Buddhists developed and implemented their own form of medical demonology. The line seems entirely out of place within the text, and one strains to understand precisely why, in this case, the spell will not prevent the unwanted results of one's past karmic obscurations from coming to fruition. This dissonance is even more pronounced given that the very
next line provides ritual instructions on how to use the spell to purify one's karmic obscurations. To make matters more confusing, two more sets of instructions on how to use the spell to purify one's own and others' karmic obscurations and misdeeds appear just a few more lines down in the text. Finally, a very similar line appears in the instructions for using the Tathagata Kanakamuni's spell with no mention of the spell not working if the
subject's unnatural death is due to karmic obscurations from a previous life. The issue cannot be completely resolved based on the information provided in the text alone. It is possible, for instance, that the intended meaning of Visvabhu's instructions is that his spell can purify any karmic obscurations and misdeeds that have been generated in this life, but not those from a past life. But this falls short of a truly convincing resolution to the problem—after all, a karmic obscuration is the roughly the same whether or not it results from the current or a past life, and as long as it has not yet come to fruition, it should be subject to the same rules of potential expiation.
Even if there is some resolution to the issue, as I am sure an emic commentator invested in resolving the problem could no doubt find, it is far more productive for the purpose of this study to preserve the tension that this line introduces to the text. Here, we have a set of instructions for using a spell for eliminating all of the classes of seizers (graha), the same demonic, disease causing beings with which Ayurvedic demonology is concerned, that places a limit on the efficacy of demonological means for preventing unnatural death. That limitation, the line that this text (at least in this instance)
draws around the efficacy of its own medical demonology, outlines the contours of the tension between karmic and demonic pathology. Thus, while The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas is a work that is overwhelmingly in favor of promoting a system of Buddhist medical demonology, in this one instance it seems that its compiler, author, or perhaps some other party expresses some hesitation around allowing that system to completely undermine the logic of the Buddhist doctrine of karma.
The remaining sets of instructions in The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas from the tathagatas Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa, and Sakyamuni contain the same blending of elements from the Mahayana sutra, dharani, and kriyatantra literature to produce what I have argued here essentially constitutes a text on Buddhist medical demonology. It should be noted, however, that while the instructions for each of these tathagatas' spells contain applications for warding off or curing illnesses brought on by demonic possession, the spells themselves do not contain any imperative phrases that explicitly mention the subjugation or destruction of various classes of known demonic beings.
In this essay, I have highlighted the deficit of scholarship in the field of Buddhist studies, particularly among scholars of Indian Buddhist traditions, that pays serious attention to the impact of Buddhist traditions' dialogical relationships with localized popular religious cults. I have pointed to the fact that, as a result of this deficit, very little serious attention has been given to the development of Indian Buddhist systems of demonology. I have also argued that the same situation applies to the modern academic study of Ai yurvedic demonology. The reasons underlying just why scholars have marginalized such a critical aspect of these traditions are no doubt numerous, but I have suggested that in the context of Buddhist Studies the
perpetuation of this lacunae is an outgrowth of an overt bias against Buddhist demonology established early in the field's history combined with a lack of effort on the part of contemporary scholars to adopt a truly affirmative revaluation of this pervasive feature of Indian Buddhist traditions. This is symptomatic of a larger problem in the Human Sciences, which promote hermeneutic systems founded upon the broad-reaching fallacy of what Josephson-Storm so skillfully identifies as “the myth of disenchantment.”
In response to this problem, I suggest the following two arguments that affirm the importance of demonology as a subject of study. First, in traditional South Asian medicine, demonology is a viable medical science, complete with its own advanced systems of symptomology, diagnosis, and treatment. Presentations of traditional South Asian medical systems such as Ai yurveda that ignore this fact misrepresent their own subject of study. Second, Buddhist demonology is likewise a legitimate branch of South Asian Buddhist medicine that is worthy of serious scholarly inquiry and study. The devaluation of
systems Buddhist demonology as a field of study is particularly pronounced in the study of Indian Buddhist traditions. Buddhist studies scholars who work with Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Korean Buddhist traditions, and those who work within these cultural-geographic regions on the subfield of Buddhist medicine, demonstrate far greater sophistication in their approach to the dialogical assimilation and synthesis of local spirit religions and Buddhist systems of demonology. Those of us who focus on Indian Buddhist traditions could learn a great deal from their example.
The essay then explored possible evidence for an emic bias among Indian Buddhist traditions against fully integrating elements from localized popular religious cults of various spirit beings and their demonologies into Buddhist doctrine. Here I presented a number of examples from the KarmaHataka, a collection of avadanas organized around the central theme of karma that dates from the first century CE and likely preserves material that is much older. The Karmiaiataka takes a rather dismissive approach to the issue of demonic possession in favor of presenting karma as the sole viable explanation for the various illnesses and afflictions that beings endure. The dismissal of demonic possession in the Karmaiataka indicates that, at least for some Indian Buddhist textual communities, the development of a Buddhist demonology may have been seen as a disruption or contradiction of one of the tradition's central and defining doctrines.
Finally, the essay examined The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas, a text that I argue exhibits all of the characteristics of a Buddhist medical demonology. This work's combination of elements from Mahayana sutra, dharam, and kriyatantra literature led Chinese and Tibetan doxographers to locate it in both the sutra and dharanT sections of their respective canons and, in the case of the Dege Kangyur, among the sutra, tantra, and dharant sections. This blending of Buddhist literary genres in The Sutra of the Seven Buddhas and the text's own statements that its spells are effective for all rites provides some preliminary evidence of a correlation between Buddhist medical demonology and the culture of ritual eclecticism that characterizes the Buddhist kriyattantra literature.
Funding: This research received no external funding.
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