Saturday, 7 December 2013

Buddhist Toxicology

Buddhist Toxicology

[Two previous notes put together and hence some redundancies!]

§1. “Toxicology” (in a dictionary) is defined as “the branch of science concerned with the nature, effects, and detection of poisons.” But I will use the term here in the sense of “theory or conception of poison,” and “Buddhist toxicology” in the sense of “the theory or conception of poison that one finds in Buddhist sources.” Our concern here is not so much whether the nature, types, and effects of poison were properly understood by those authors behind our sources but rather what they thought about poison and poison-related issues. If we will, we might even call our topic “Buddhist meta-toxicology.” 

§2. Alex Wayman seems to one scholar who has been interested and engaged in Buddhist toxicology: See Wayman 1987 and Wayman 1957. I have not yet seen the latter. It goes without saying that any further study of Buddhist toxicology should presuppose our knowledge of previous studies. But this is not the actual purpose of my small entry here. What I intend here is to record a small reference to the theme before I lose it. 

§3. In Rong-zom-pa’s commentary on the Sarvabuddhasamāyogatantra (pp. 608–609), there is an interesting passage that contains four types of dug gi las (lit. “poison activities,” i.e. techniques or methods of curing/treating/detoxicating poison): 

(a) Detoxicating poison by [setting it] ablaze (’bar bas) by just looking at it.
(b) Detoxicating poison by curbing (’dul bas) it with magical formula.
(c) Detoxicating poison by binding (’ching bas) it with mudrās.
(d) Detoxicating poison by consuming (zos pas) it.


(a) By setting it ablaze, it would be burnt.
(b) By curbing, it is transformed into something else.
(c) By binding, it is neutralized.
(c) By eating, it is caused to vanish.

A typology of poison: 


(a) that which affects through being seen by oneself and others? (bdag gzhan gyis mthong bas ’dzin),

(b) that which seizes by coming in contact with breath (kha rlungs phogs pas ’dzin),
(c) that which seizes through touch (reg pas ’dzin), and
(d) that which seizes when bored with fangs and wounded (mche bas phug cing rma srol dod pas).

The bKa’ sde lnga (pp. 59–60) discusses dug rigs rnam pa bzhi and their antidotes.   

Some venues of thoughts:

§4. Is there anything intrinsically lethal or medicinal? Mādhyamikas are likely to argue that nothing is intrinsically lethal or medicinal. Anything can be lethal or medicinal purely in terms of its instrumental value. There is no poison that can kill anybody at all times is there any medicine that can cure everybody at all times. “One man’s poise is another man’s poison” is true also here. While poisons would cause most of us to perish they are said to nourish peacocks! (But please don’t feed peacocks with Potassium cyanide!) Even fake poisons can kill someone sometimes but even real poisons cannot kill some people sometimes. Poison is not what it is but what it does to certain sentient beings under certain circumstances and in certain doses. The idea that poison is poisonous only so long as one does not understand the true nature of poison is very important here. The idea of dug gsum and dug lnga has been discussed by Wayman? There can be said to be mental or material poisons. And also verbal!


§5. If Buddhists maintain that their religion can be tonic or toxic, depending on many factors, what about other religions? Would they also see other religions in a similarly way? One would assume so. That is, even Buddhist teachings might turn out to be detrimental to some human beings, whereas even non-Buddhist teachings might turn out to be beneficial.
§17. But would Buddhists still make a distinction Buddhist teachings and non-Buddhist teachings with regard to their efficacy to kill or cure. I assume they would. First of all, there would be for them a clear-cut distinction between ambrosia and venom. The main point here is that for some, even venom might turn out to be medicinal and even ambrosia might turn out to be lethal. For them Buddha’s teaching would be like ambrosia that might turn out to be lethal for some.


§6. I feel that Buddhism presupposes two kinds of “medication,” namely, one that treats the root-cause of the illness, and another that merely treats the symptoms. Although the ultimate goal is to uproot the cause of the disease, one may resort to any means, any religion, so long as it is efficacious in alleviating one’s immediate pain (i.e. as a kind of palliative). Listening to songs may be seen as a distraction to one’s meditation but if listening to songs helps one to relieve one’s crucial physical pain or mental distress, it would be permissible to listen to songs. 
Just some late-night thoughts.

§7. Somehow the ideas of poison and medicine used in Buddhist sources fascinate me, particularly as used in the context of healing and salvation (curation et salvatio), as already confessed in Wangchuk 2007: 34. Here are some random ideas that can be explored.

§8. The idea that the Buddha should be seen as a healer, Dharma as medicine, and so on. Cf. sDong bkod rgya dpe, pp. 13, 1523).

§9. One of the epithets of a buddha or the Buddha is ‘one who has annihilated poison’ (hataviṣa: dug bcom pa) (Mahāvyutpatti, no. 44).

§10. Four methods of treating poison is mentioned in the Buddhasamayogatantra (NyG, vol. 18, tsa, p. 238). Great detail in B, vol. 47, 1294. See also  B, vol. 47, 1309, 1349. English 2002: 397, n. 64, where the Mahācaṇḍaroṣaṇatantra is cited.

§11. The Black-Snake Analogy. See g.Yung-ston, rGyud don gsal byed (vol. sa, pp. 180.2–184.6), cf. also p. 531ff. Lha-rje Glan is supposed to have used black-snake analogy (gSang bdag zhal lung, p. 28, 33). Was he before or after Rong-zom-pa? No black snake is mentioned but see Nyi-seng, p. 532: only four kinds.

§12. Saṃvṛtiparamārthasatyanirdeśa (D, fol. 254a7–b1): lha’i bu ’di lta ste | dper na sbrul kha gdug pa’i rigs sngags ’don pa des ni sbrul kha gdug pa’i gdug pa rab tu zhi bar byed do || lha’i bu de bzhin du gang nyon mongs pa rnams kyi rigs rab tu shes pa de’i nyon mongs pa rnams shin tu mi dmigs pa’i tshul gyis rab tu zhi bar ’gyur ro ||.

§13. Ratnāvalī 3.63–64: gang la dug ni phan ’gyur na || de la dug kyang sbyin par bgyi || kha zas mchog kyang mi phan na || de la de ni sbyin mi bgyid ||.

§14. sbrul gyis zin la ji lta bur || sor mo bcad la phan bshad pa || de bzhin thub pas gzhan phan pa || mi bde bar bya bar gsungs ||. Cf. Hippocrates (ca. 460–370), Aphorisms 1.6: “For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure, as to restriction, are most suitable.” This is according to the translation of Francis Adams.

§15. Ratnāvalī 4.72: viṣeṇāpi viṣaṃ hanyād yathaivoktaṃ cikitsakaiḥ | duḥkhenāpy ahitaṃ hanyād ity ukte kiṃ virudhyate  || add. Tib.

§16. Slob ma la springs pa (B, vol. 96, p. 697). For concept of dug, see also Vanaratna’s Bla ba 50 pa’i ’grel pa (B, vol. 41).

§17. One would think that poison or medicine would be seen as having an intrinsic potence to kill or cure and that it is totally independent of whether one believes in their inherent potency or not and whether one knows their true nature or not. For example, the highly toxic Potassium cyanide would kill anyone including a Chemist. But it seems that in Buddhism, a substance in itself and by itself is never considered a poison or medicine. A substance is poison or medicine only by  its function. In other words, what one calls poison or medicine has no intrinsic value as either poison  or medicine. The same substance, however, can well have an instrumental value, either as poison or medicine. For example, a Sūtric citation states that even Buddhist teaching can be the supreme of all medicines or supreme of all poisons. See dPal-brtsegs, gSung rab rin po che (P, fol. 259b5–6): sangs rgyas kyi bstan pa … bdud rtsi’i mchog kyang yin no || dug gi mchog kyang yin no ||. Some textual problems here. Must check!  

§18. The idea that one who knows the true reality of poison would be immune to its harmful effects is also widespread.

§19. The belief that a peacock nourishes in poison and flourishes.     

§20. Saddharma has been compared to medicine or poison  By extension “religion,” too, can be compared to medicine or poison. It can cure or kill. Claiming that religion by all means and for everyone is poison would be as wrong as claiming that religion is always and for everyone medicine. And of course just as there are all kinds of herbs and chemicals that may or may not be tonic or toxic, so are there all kinds of religion. Tendentially, followers of one religion may consider religion of another as being toxic whereas one would consider one’s own religion as tonic. Notably, this does not seem to be always true in the case of Buddhism (see above). Buddhist religion is not always seen as being inherently tonic or toxic.

1 comment:

  1. thank´s, your notes are interesting and farsighted; some brooding remarks; here we become involved with the fundamental soteriological functionality of philosophical or religious methods of transmission, namely skillful means (upayakausalya); what seems good for one person (medicine) could be catastrophic for another (poison) and vice versa, hence the „pedagogical dilemma“.
    We all know the famous didactic example of „the finger pointing at the moon“ but nonetheless (in the buddhological sense) without the finger (Dharma) who will or can see the moon (Buddha)? This is the appearing problem. The finger quite simply represents the pedagogical measures used to bring someone to see the moon for oneself. Now, since we all have multiple dispositions and tendencies, therefore the applicable pedagogical measures will become a repertory of infinite possibilities (84000 dharmas…); a further „trouble“ of pedagogical means is that it implies „calculation“ – normally that would be considered as sincere or well-orientated advice, however, it could also deemed „necessary“ to use „white lies“, more or less „fantastic, extraordinary promises“, etc.; then pedagogical direction becomes very delicate and „complex“ and therefore claims a strong and trusted relationship between an unselfish, large-minded, experienced teacher and an eager, open-minded student, naturally equipped with both a curious searchingly temperamental disposition and a cool, relaxed, confident attitude (but, most probably, again, we refind us in a too wishfull thinking pedagogical situation of an ideal „guru (teacher)-disciple (student)“ relationship where those indicated and other not mentioned „qualifications“ will be indispensable…)
    The „calculation-problem“ implicitly lies in all kinds of pedagogical methods because the propulsion of pedagogy at all lies in the vigor of intentionality – intention determines calculation (thought strategies) as such. Here already begins the possibility of the interdependent, pedagogical orientation viewed either as medicine or poison.
    But what makes me particularly saddened concerning the relation of wisdom and pedagogical measures is the problem (or it appears to be so in my own folly) of how to avoid a fall or subtle sliding in political more or less (personally) unwanted „working atmosphere…“; how to detach pedagogical measures from political decisions and consequences…; a „philosophical headache“ – I, melancholically feel, that it´s unavoidable…; ahhh, damn! Surely we could debate endlessly about this topic…; best wishes; sincerely, mikael.

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