Jīvaka Across Cultures

Pierce Salguero

Dr. Salguero is an interdisciplinary humanities scholar interested in the role of Buddhism in the crosscultural exchange of medical ideas. He has a Ph.D. in History of Medicine from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and teaches Asian history, religion, and culture at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia. He is also a long-time practitioner and teacher of Buddhist meditation, yoga, and traditional Thai medicine. More information about his research and publications is available at www.piercesalguero.com.
Pierce Salguero

Jīvaka — called the “Father Doctor” by healers in Thailand, and the “King of Physicians” in Mahayana Buddhist traditions — is a vibrant example of a crossculturally transmitted Buddhist medical symbol. Tradition holds that Jīvaka was the personal physician of the Buddha, and a biography of Jīvaka is found within the Buddhist scriptures in multiple languages. It is said that Jīvaka was an orphan who was raised by Prince Abhāya. When he came of age, he studied medicine with a well-known master in northwestern India, apprenticing with this teacher for a period of many years before returning back home. Different versions of the biography relate dozens of cases where Jīvaka healed different individuals, including instances of major surgeries like the opening of the abdominal and cranial cavities. Among Jīvaka’s patients were merchants and their wives, kings, and in some versions even the Buddha himself, whom he treated with a purgative of powdered lotus flowers. Regional legends of the King of Physicians have grown around this core narrative:

Southeast Asia

Jīvaka is enshrined in the national temple of Thailand (Wat Phra Kaew).
Jīvaka is enshrined in the national temple of Thailand (Wat Phra Kaew). Photo by the author.

In the Theravada Buddhist canon, the biography of Jīvaka is found in the eighth Khandhaka of the Mahāvagga section of the Pāli Vinaya, the monastic “basket of discipline.” In addition, other Pāli scriptures mention Jīvaka as the donor of a mango grove called Jīvakarama, which he donated for the use of the Buddha’s order of monks as a retreat for the rainy season. He also on occasion is mentioned as a listener of the Buddha’s preaching, including in one text named for him, the Jīvaka Sutta.

Though he is not widely revered in other countries, in contemporary Thailand, Jīvaka is the “patron saint” of traditional Thai healers and is propitiated for assistance in healing client’s ailments. Jīvaka is viewed as a powerful ally in the Thai spirit cosmology, whose presence can be invoked by a healer in order to dispel disease. Many Thai practitioners believe that Jīvaka discovered traditional Thai herbal medicine, therapeutic massage, and other healing practices himself, and treat him as the progenitor of their lineage. Stories abound in the oral tradition about Jīvaka’s teachings and travels in Thailand, although these are not found in the canonical Pāli literature.

Central Asia and Tibet

Detail from Tibetan mandala of patriarchs of medicine. (Jīvaka is in the far upper right corner).
Detail from Tibetan mandala of patriarchs of medicine. (Jīvaka is in the far upper right corner).

By the late first millennium C.E., Jīvaka was being worshipped at Dunhuang and Turfan along the Silk Road. A medical text attributed to him (the Jīvakapustaka) written in Sanskrit and Kohtanese discovered in this region demonstrates his importance to medieval medicine in India and Central Asia as well.

Jīvaka’s biography also appears in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, where he is said to have been an expert in trephination (the surgical opening of the skull) for the extraction of parasites. He came to be considered an important patriarch of the Tibetan medical tradition, for example being depicted in the Medicine Buddha mandala from the Blue Beryl commentary along with other important medical figures from Buddhist and Āyurvedic tradition.

East Asia

Detail from a children's book containing a story about Jīvaka (published by Dharma Drum).
Detail from a children’s book containing a story about Jīvaka (published by Dharma Drum).

In East Asia, where Jīvaka is known as Qipo 耆婆 or Qiyu 耆域 (among other terms), he is said to have been born with acupuncture needles in his hands and to have performed various Chinese medical diagnostic procedures. (Note that he is not to be confused with the second- to third-century monk or lohan who is also called Jīvaka.) The biography of the “King of Physicians” is found in different Chinese recensions dating from between the fourth and fifth centuries.

Several medical formulas were named after Jīvaka in the traditional Chinese medicine formularies compiled in the medieval period by the famous doctor Sun Simiao, and his name appears in numerous medical texts from across East Asia. Although historians long have considered Jīvaka’s biography to be an important example of the introduction of Indian medicine to East Asia, in Chinese translation the purposes of the story were clearly hagiographic rather than medical. The texts mobilize language and literary tropes from popular literature, and transform the “King of Physicians” into a familiar Chinese miracle-healer (fangshi or shenyi). Portraying the famous Buddhist healer in such a light was important to Buddhist proselytism in China. Consequently, the Jīvaka story became a well-known tale retold for centuries in China, and still makes an occasional appearance in popular retellings and children’s books.

Bibliography

Source texts in translation:

  • Chavannes, Edouard. 1962. Cinq cents contes et apologues: Extraits du Tripitaka chinois et traduits en français. Paris: Libraire d’Amerique et d’Orient, 3:325–61. [French translation of a Chinese version.]
  • Horner, I.B. 2000. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Piṭaka). Oxford: Pali Text Society, 379–98. [English translation of the Pāli.]
  • Schopen, Gregory. 2017. ” The Training and Treatments of an Indian Doctor in a Buddhist Text: A Sanskrit Biography of Jīvaka.” In C. Pierce Salguero (ed.). Buddhism & Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 184–204. [English translation of the Sanskrit.]
  • von Schiefner, F. Anton. 1906. Tibetan Tales Derived from Indian Sources: Translated from the Tibetan of the Kah-Gyur. London: Kegan Paul, 75–109. [English translation of the Tibetan.]

Scholarly works:

  • Salguero, C. Pierce. 2009. “The Buddhist Medicine King in Literary Context: Reconsidering an Early Example of Indian Influence on Chinese Medicine and Surgery.” History of Religions 48(3): 183-210.
  • Salguero, C. Pierce. 2017. “Honoring the Teachers, Constructing the Tradition: The Role of History and Religion in the Waikrū Ceremony of a Thai Traditional Medicine Hospital.” In Hans Pols, Michele Thompson, and John Harley Warner (eds.), Translating the Body: Medical Education in Southeast Asia. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.
  • Zysk, Kenneth G. 1982. “Studies in Traditional Indian Medicine in the Pāli Canon: Jīvaka and Āyurveda.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5(1): 70-86.
  • ———. 2000 [1991]. Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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