Health as Buddhist Practice

Subject Overview

This subject begins with an exploration of the notion of “Health as Buddhist Practice as Health”, reflecting the spiral pattern of open spiritual engagement.

The various modern categories of health, happiness, illness, wellness and cure will be considered first, both individually and socially, before reviewing life in the historical Buddha’s time. Both the pervading philosophies and practices concerning life, illness and treatment (Ayurvedic, Shamanistic and similar) at that time, together with relevant Buddhist suttas will be presented. The Buddhist understanding of medicine will also be covered, including illness in the physical, psychological and spiritual domains, and the Five Aggregates. The belief in the Buddha as “The Great Physician”, the appearance of the Vejjavatapada (the doctors’ oath) and the various health-related items within the Vinaya Pitaka will be analysed. The course will also cover aspects of spiritual health, namely the related concepts of the Three Characteristics of Existence, teachings related to Birth, Life and Death, the soteriological exegesis of Samsara and the Four noble Truths (Tasks), including the Eightfold Path, Karma, Dependent Arising, the evolution of Bodhicitta and the Bodhisattva, and teachings on happiness.

The deficiencies and dilemmas of modern biomedical healthcare, despite “evidence-based care”, will be presented, together with the emergence of effective Buddhist insights and principles, notably a broad spectrum of mindfulness-based interventions, which are subject to ongoing research. Increasingly, mindfulness and a variety of meditational approaches are being taught to the “well” and the suffering, to children, students, stressed or depressed adults, employees (notably health professionals, the police, the military) and to the elderly.

There will be presentations of the experience of seriously ill people to demonstrate the vital role of Dharma-informed treatment. There will be frequent opportunities to practice meditation, of various styles, partly guided, to develop some stress-management, self- understanding and self- compassion, to cultivate happiness and self-transformation.


Learning Outcomes

  • Develop an understanding of one’s “self”, particularly one’s health, experiential and emotional qualities, history, inner world, reactivity to the outer world and sense of potential for transformation in various domain
  • Interpret relevant health-related terminology and reflect on one’s personal views in relation to such terminology.
  • Critically examine early Indian approaches to health and illness including associated concepts, the various treatment systems and assessment that followed, as well as how Buddhist approaches may have differed.
  • Critically evaluate the Buddhist concept of the “Great Physician”, both in the early period and today, together with important aspects that may have a role in the modern world.
  • Analyse the way “spirituality” benefits those in life or illness or facing mortality.
  • Critically analyse contemporary health concerns and examine the way Buddhist teachings might address these.

Content and Structure

The course will begin with a private systematic assessment of our own current life circumstances and “inner world”, including our emotional realm and our spiritual beliefs. This will include our understanding of our health, freedom, purpose, role, expectations, relationships, agency, and our future. We will discuss and define the relevant terms. We will ask: how do we react to illness in others and within ourselves, whether physical, psychological or spiritual or combinations?

The focus will then move to Ancient Gangetic India to learn of life at that time, notably the great differences but, equally, the similarities, with individuals leading lives of difficulty, uncertainty, bereavement, experiencing dukkha, but also enjoying love, happiness and surprise. We will note the arrival of the Buddha (not yet Buddhism) with his largely mobile sangha, and will learn of his “spiritual” discoveries, thus shifting away from established dogma. We will learn of the vast Tripiṭaka (Pāli Canon), containing more than 1000 suttas.

Through these documents we will learn in detail of the Dharma, the all-pervasive explanation of the phenomenology of life and death, dukkha and its understanding, the instructions to follow a particular path, the emphasis on anatta and anicca. We will learn also of the four brahmavihārā , bodhicitta and the bodhisattva’s Way of Life as an example to all of us.

With this new-found knowledge we now return to the modern world and look again upon its health needs, its struggling and arguably inefficient medical system, within which science alone fails to relieve most suffering. We will study the emergence of “biomedicine” over the last century, together with ongoing critical evaluation from within. We will note the increasing permeation of valuable Buddhist practices, many in secular form, including mindfulness and other forms of meditation. We will examine the findings that repeated analysis has confirmed the major therapeutic role of supervised meditation, in part complementing the existing biomedical system.

There will be a presentation of seriously ill people receiving Dharma-informed care within the existing system.
Finally, there will be selected guided meditation throughout the course.
The lectures and discussions will follow this sequence:

  •  Introduction.
  •  Ancient northern India, 2,500 years ago, and the “Axial Age, including Vedism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Brahmanism, notably Ayurvedic medicine.
  •  The appearance of the Buddha, his encounter with the Four Sights, his experience of samvega, his eventual enlightenment.
  • The Buddha’s early teaching of the Dharma, his views on suffering, and Buddhist soteriology.
  • Further analysis of Buddhist teaching (related to health).
  •  Buddhist teachings of happiness and the four foundations of mindfulness, clear awareness, and the jhānas.
  • The development of Mahāyāna Buddhism – suttas, bodhicitta, the bodhisattva. Emptiness and health. Pure Land practices.
  • Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism (from 9th century CE) – health and medical practices. The emergence of Zen from Mahāyāna China (12th century CE) – practices and health benefits.
  • The modern Western diaspora to India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Korea. Health benefits – psychological and spiritual. USA, UK elsewhere.
  • The modern experience with the plurality and multifariousness of Buddhism – academic study, application in daily life and health and secularisation.
  • The remarkable modern French experience of Buddhism. The international health impacts of TNH and his former novitiates.
  • The origins of scientific “biomedicine” in the West (and now universal). Can Buddhist practices help?
  • What are the great inequities of health care in the modern world? How did this happen? Can Buddhist practices (mostly meditation) improve the situation?
  • What aspects of “total health” are not addressed by modern medicine, nor other social institutions? Can Buddhist practices prove valuable in correcting this neglect?
  • A series of recently published studies on mindfulness meditation.
  • A further set of interesting recent studies of mindfulness in many different scenarios.
  • Potential adverse reactions to meditation. Ethical concerns in the application of mindfulness meditation – the military and other groups.
  • Two recent seriously unwell clinical cases (de-identified) to illustrate the beneficial role of Buddhism-based approaches in different aspects of care.
  • Buddhist bioethics and the COVID 19 crisis. The role of meditation and compassion in supporting populations in the COVID 19 and climate change crises.
  • A detailed review of territory covered and an in-depth discussion of any matter that arises.

Subject Structure

This subject runs for five weeks, with the following structure:

Week 1: Review essay on short article(500 words)
Week 2: Summery of Reflective Journal(500 words)
Weeks 3 : Assignment on issues related to health practice (1,500 words for ABS923)
Weeks 5 : Research paper (2,500 words)




Offering a high degree of flexibility, our online courses can be studied full or part-time. Our courses are designed for health and wellness professionals, counsellors, educators, and other leaders who are balancing a work schedule and already have an undergraduate degree. Enrol now or at a time that suits you.