Turning poison into medicine

The concept of turning poison into medicine (Jpn hendoku-iyaku) through one’s Bodhisattva practice is a strong thread that runs throughout many Gosho. It is common material for discussion amongst Nichiren Buddhists, and is one of the primary doctrines of the SGI, forming a major part of the SGI’s contemporary definition of one’s Human Revolution.

For the sake of clarity the poison/medicine metaphor relates life’s challenges, or rather one’s unenlightened attitude towards them, to poison – and the function of the Mystic Law, having been revealed and realised within one’s life, to the transforming power that subsumes this poison, turning it into beneficial medicine.

The idea for this metaphor, at least within Nichiren Buddhism appears to come from Nagarjuna’s treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (location within the text unknown), where Nagarjuna states:

[The Lotus Sutra is] like a great physician who can change poison into medicine.

Nichiren quotes this passage repeatedly in the Gosho. This shouldn’t be confused with the parable of the [good] physician in Ch16 of the Lotus Sutra, which is more about simple ignorance of good medicine when it is before us.

The poison-into-medicine metaphor is often explained in practical terms through:

  • the daily practice of chanting Daimoku to harness the Buddha’s (the great physician’s) wisdom
  • having the faith that whatever course of thought or action subsequently pops into one’s minds will be the transformative medicine and,
  • ultimately to manifest the courage and conviction to “see it through” – to transform our sufferings into enlightenment.

This approach is typical of Nichiren’s shock and awe methodology to trounce whatever besets us. This is not to say this understanding of his approach is wrong, but it may be limited.

The relative wisdom that one derives from a good campaign of Daimoku might bubble into the conscious mind a little more easily if another aspect of this metaphor were considered. To focus meditation and contemplation on one’s attribution (realisation of the causes) of suffering rather than focussing on the final effect (an end of the suffering) one wishes to achieve may produce a more satisfying medicine (i.e. longer term) than attempting to fire-fight the immediate dilemma.

The Blade Wheel

I’m not sure if Nichiren would have been aware of Dharmarakshita, a 10th century Mahayana teacher who composed a wonderful text called (in Tibetan) blo-sbyong mtshon-cha ‘khor-lo. This is often translated as Wheel of Sharp Weapons, but as Dr Bob Thurman (Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University) asserts, it is more accurately translated as Blade Wheel of Mind Transformation.

Bodhisattva Manjushri

Bodhisattva Manjushri – courtesy Ella Brewer

The metaphor of the blade wheel refers to the cutting edge that returns to us (like a boomerang) following our negative behaviour to slice away the delusion and ignorance at the root of our wrong doing. Thurman speculates that the blade wheel may have a basis in the flaming-tipped sword of critical wisdom (prajna) wielded by the Bodhisattva Manjushri.

The text opens with a comparison between crows and peacocks. Crows are likened to arhats, who can still pick nutrition from carrion (the suffering of samsara), but essentially keeping themselves to themselves, seeking wisdom without cultivating compassion – essentially living a monastic existence which is removed (as far as possible) from samsara.

Peacocks on the other hand are said to thrive on the essence of poisonous plants (such as the roots of the Belladonna plant). It was once thought peacocks used the poisonous compounds to produce their beautiful iridescent plumage – thus representing the transformative power to turn poison into medicine, or beauty (not merely in the visual sense). Early verses declare that the peacocks avoid the medicine gardens, instead bravely accepting the poisonous plants:

Now, desire is the jungle of poisonous plants here.
Only brave ones, like peacocks, can thrive on such fare.
If cowardly beings, like crows, were to try it,
Because they are greedy, they might lose their lives.

and

And thus bodhisattvas are likened to peacocks:
They live on delusions – those poisonous plants.
Transforming them into the essence of practice,
They thrive in the jungle of everyday life.
Whatever is presented, they always accept,
While destroying the poison of clinging desire.

Unlike the arhat-like crow, the peacock-like Bodhisattva doesn’t try to avoid the poison of desires. Knowing that to maintain bodhicitta (our bodhisattva vow), rather than avoiding it, one must consume and transform the poison into enlightenment. It goes on:

All of our sufferings derive from our habits (Karma)
Of selfish delusions we heed and act out.
As all of us share in this tragic misfortune,
Which stems from our narrow and self-centered ways,
We must take all our sufferings and the miseries of others
And smother our wishes of selfish concern.

Here is the ultimate goal of the Boddhisattva – to smother selfish concern with compassion for all. The text goes on to around stanza 48 describing a great many examples of karmic retribution, the possible causes and corrective antedotes which in each case is a means to preventing future suffering.

After this, the syntax changes subtly to be more accusative, but then ends with a more ontological examination of our sufferings, again, reinforcing the causality of all phenomenon and the interdependence of one’s happiness and sufferings with those of others. I challenge the reader to find nothing here that relates to their own lives!

I think this text makes a valuable addition to our practical understanding of turning poison into medicine. As a result of my own understanding of it I have found myself chanting for those I have caused similar suffering and have even remembered events I had forgotten. Chanting, and meditating upon these issues can help awaken new depths of compassion that might otherwise not have been accessed while simply trying to fix the current problem at hand.

The Buddhist Apology – Zange

Turning poison into medicine is, I feel, closely related to the practice of zange – the buddhist apology – although apology is perhaps not the best way to describe what is going on. The Japanese term zange literally translates as confession – but to who? The Buddha, the Mystic Law?

Confession in the buddhist context simply means declaring to one’s self what is true (and perhaps less than desirable) regarding our thinking and conduct.

Indeed, another Mahayana writer, Shantideva, in his Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (Way of the Bodhisattva) devotes the whole second chapter to this spirit of self confession. We simply cannot begin to transform poison into medicine until we realise where we are going wrong and, crucially, change our thinking and not simply our behaviour.

The SGI’s Zange is something that can be worked through as one chants, and goes something like this, but I’m sure there are infinite variations:

APPRECIATION

For having the Gohonzon.
For being able to change my Karma.
For being alive at this time.
For all the people around me.
For everything being a teacher for me.

SELF-REALIZATION

Realise again that for every External cause
there is first an Internal cause.
Every hurt, anger, frustration, irritation or painful situation
that occurs to me is my responsibility and my karma.
Hendoku Iyaku – I can turn poison into medicine.
Become aware of my own internal hooks that drew such
an experience to me.
I alone am responsible for raising my life-condition.

APOLOGY

For current slander in thought, word and deed,
let me not want to do that anymore.
Daimoku of altruism – Chant for the health and well being of the person(s) involved,
and that they may deepen their faith.
Ask the Gohonzon, “What can I do to rectify the situation?”

DETERMINATION

To work harder for widespread propagation.
To create value in the areas
of family relations, school or work.

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8 Responses to Turning poison into medicine

  1. David June 27, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    Wow. Wonderful explanation of Dharmaraksita’s text. I remember reading about it years ago and never got around to investigating it further. Now I simply have to. Great find!

    I suspect the idea of changing poison into medicine predates Nagarjuna and probably has something to do with the initial concept of the bodhisattva who takes on the mass of sufferings and evil karma of all living beings and somehow through that act of sacrifice, purifies them.

    I am still doubtful about that statement by Nagarjuna and the Lotus Sutra, at least to the extent that some folks have interpreted it to imply that Nagarjuna was saying the Lotus Sutra was superior to the Prajna-paramita Sutra. One reason is that I don’t think Nagarjuna was the kind of guy who into the idea of one Mahayana sutra being superior to another, although he he was pretty keen on the concept of prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) itself. In his treatise, Nagarjuna says “prajna-paramita is most profound . . . In it all the three kinds of poison and all kinds of prapanca (“proliferation of erroneous concepts”) come to an end and therefore it is called peace . . . Therefore this prajna is called excellent.” This is somewhat similar to the idea of changing poison into medicine. But, it’s not a big deal. I just hate to see prapanca proliferated.

    • steve June 27, 2012 at 10:56 am #

      My explanation in the context of poison-into-medicine was entirely inspired by a couple of remarks made by Dr Thurman during one of his retreats (podcast number 27 http://bobthurmanpodcast.com/the-bob-thurman-podcast-27 I think on his website). I love this imagery, and can only assume it didn’t reach Japan during Nichiren’s time, or that some of the later focus on emptiness might have made it less palatable by the Daishonin – a notion perhaps supportable by his failure to mention the wonderful prajna-paramita in any other way than to acknowledge it’s existence. I will keep trying to ascertain where this statement of Nagarjuna came from, because I think it would be useful to see it in context.

  2. Jakob November 1, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Hi there

    Can you tell me where the ending quote comes from – I have had it on a printed copy for some months, but without any indication of who wrote it or where it was written.

    Thanks a lot for an interesting site.

    • steve November 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

      Hi Jakob, thanks for writing. If you are referring to the Zange, then it is a slightly “de-SGI’d” version of what Vice President Tsuji was teaching in the late 80’s. I can’t remember where I found the original source material I’m afraid, although if you google for Tsuji and Sange or Zange you will find plenty of links. Steve.

  3. Richard June 22, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    What a beautiful way to explain poison into medicine, can’t believe I’ve never heard this explanation before. It makes the poison into medicine teaching make perfect sense! Glad I started reading the article a friend of mine posted on facebook, that’s what led me to find the site. I’ll definitely be popping back to see if I can find anymore paramitas of wisdom.

    • steve June 23, 2013 at 7:43 am #

      Hi Richard – I’m not sure my writing is paramitic (is that even a word?) but thanks for the praise, you’re most welcome. What was the article on Facebook about that led you here?

  4. Richard June 26, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    Duality is to capitalism was what led me to your site. Didn’t realise it was yours until I spotted the t-shirts. It’s great you’ve created a forum to dicuss buddhism.I’m a fan of studying more than Nichiren Buddhism, so it’s nice to find somewhere to talk a little more freely away from SGI & what is for me an intense & sometimes painful process of human revolution. What do you think of human revolution? Sometimes I wonder if it has to be so physically draining.

    • steve June 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

      Hey Richard, welcome 🙂 Human revolution is like Hotel California… You can never leave once you begin. It transcends individual Buddhist paths, or any religious path. If it feels draining, then you have to ask yourself why – and then meditate 🙂 Remember, internal transformation comes first. Chanting a million Daimoku and then marching up Everest on faith alone is a perilous path for most – so don’t let the few who have succeeded make you feel “less than” if you struggle. It’s the struggle and how we face it that counts. Take care Richard, and stay well.

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