It is critical in health care to understand the spiritual and religious needs of an individual. It is not only unethical to not follow religious requirements for a patient, but can cause them significant distress that leads to a worsening of their condition. The purpose of this essay is to explore the attitudes of practitioners of Buddhism and how it impacts on health care, including their requirements and needs as well as their attitudes towards certain facets of the caring profession. It will become clear that Buddhists have a strong belief in the sanctity of life and this affects how they wish to be treated in health care. The thesis is that Buddhists have a strong need to feel connected and aware of the world around them, even in treatment, and therefore prefer to be fully informed about negative health outcomes (including death) and are skeptical about the use of large doses of pain medications.
It is necessary to understand the concept of health and disease in Buddhist minds in order to understand the needs of the Buddhist in the health care organization. Buddhists believe that old age, illness, and death are central and inherent to life itself, which means that they are often frank about their health and their needs and require an open and honest discussion about their health in a professional setting5. Buddhism places a high values on helping others and relieving suffering, and therefore doctors and nurses are seen to be incredibly important and will be respected highly5. Medical advice should be clearly explained and take into account that Tibetan medicine is central to Buddhism, but there is no objection to the use of Western medicines as a whole. Tibetan medicine is based around the social ecologies of the country and this is reflected in the preference of many Buddhists to have a simple treatment plan3.

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It has also been noted that Tibetan medicine is fairly advanced in many ways, and this is likely to be one of the reasons why Buddhists are generally open to exploring more than one route of healing. Even in old medical writings “in Tibetan that were preserved at Dunhuang speak of regional differences in medical traditions and even distinguish physical medicine from religious healing”4. What this means is that to speak of a Buddhist medicine is factually incorrect, and that there has been a long history of Buddhists being accepting of the healing practices of others and the needs of their physical body. Returning to the thesis statement, it is also likely to be part of the reason why Buddhists are open and honest about the physical effects 0f health. The physical body is more of a vessel for their soul and therefore old age and infirmity are a natural part of life that should not be brushed over as it is in many Western cultures1.

One of the central concepts in Buddhism is that of Dukkha, or suffering. The Buddha taught that “birth is painful, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful, union with the unpleasant is painful, separation from the pleasant is painful, and unsatisfied cravings are also painful”7. This is key in understanding the Buddhist approach to health care. For Buddhists, the pain associated with each of these elements is not desirable, evidently, but is a key part of understanding themselves and the world around them. Pain and suffering are not something to be avoided, necessarily, but are something to be experienced on the path to enlightenment and reincarnation2. This spiritual perspective on pain has an impact on clinical practice as Buddhists may wish to have a frank discussion about their pain medication, as to avoid the pain completely may be against their own beliefs6.

Despite this, it is important to note that Buddhists do not completely avoid Western medicine. Practitioners of Buddhism believe all life to be sacred and thus promote the use of various types of medicine to keep the body and mind healthy. Many feel as though Western medicine can be used to treat diseases of the mind, whilst Buddhist or Tibetan medicine is more appropriate for dealing with the spiritual issues that arise, so a combination of two can be used8. As with other Eastern religions, Buddhists use meditation as a tool for healing and spiritual practice and this has been associated with the reduction of issues such as high blood pressure and stress-related illnesses, and those working in health care should be aware of the benefits of meditation as well the spiritual necessity of this practice for many Buddhists7.

In conclusion, there are several interesting elements that are central to an understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and health care. The first is that Buddhists separate the soul from the physical body and therefore are likely to be open to both spiritual healing methods like meditation and the use of modern Western medicines. This separation also encourages Buddhists to be more open and understanding about the eventualities of the physical body and therefore a frank discussion about the health outcomes that they face is a central part of providing good health care to Buddhists. Pain and suffering are also a central part of the Buddhist belief system, as they are believed to be associated with awareness and understanding of the physical environment. As such, pain medications that take away this experience are less likely to be accepted by Buddhists in terms of health care.

  • Cobb, Mark, Christina M. Puchalski, and Bruce D. Rumbold. Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
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  • Gyatso, Janet. Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet. New York: Columbia UP, 2015.
  • Mahanarongchai, Sumalee. Health and Disease in Buddhist Minds. Nordhausen, Germany: Verlag Traugott Bautz GmbH, 2014.
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