On 29 March, Hong Kong’s government welcomed seven practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), one of several groups from mainland China sent to assist in the Special Administrative Region’s struggle with COVID-19. The fifth wave of the pandemic, consisting mainly of the Omicron variant, has hit Hong Kong hard. It has led to unprecedented infection numbers for the city—with the official count exceeding 50,000 cases on some days—and higher numbers of deaths than the previous two years combined, particularly among elderly care home residents. The comparatively low number of vaccinated people above 65 years old was a contributing factor, while Omicron’s lower lethality was offset by its much faster infection rate among the vulnerable and immunocompromised.
The chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, explained that the TCM practitioners had come to the city as part of a broader package of assistance from the central government: “As we all know, Chinese medicine is very effective in rehabilitation. So after COVID-19 patients have been cured, particularly elderly patients, then the use of Chinese medicine can help them with speedy recovery. That’s why we want to have more experts to come, to give us advice.” (RTHK)
Most users of TCM do not see it as a direct alternative or competitor to scientifically approved treatments. A senior practitioner of TCM, Zhang Boli, has argued that vaccination remains the one best hope to defeat COVID-19. TCM practitioners understand that “psychological and/or physical approaches used in traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, may help improve quality of life and certain pain conditions.” (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health) However, TCM doctors and patients acknowledge that herbal products may have mixed results in the direct treatment of medical conditions. Sometimes the quality of these herbal products can affect the medicine.
Inviting the TCM practitioners to Hong Kong could be interpreted by some—perhaps in a clichéd and overdone way—as the clash of East and West. But there are many places around the world, especially those with pre-colonial medical systems or remedial traditions that predate modern medicine, that take such systems seriously. In the middle of 2021, Ayurvedic solutions were in vogue, for better and for worse, as India was ravaged by its second COVID-19 wave and vaccines were running short. Meanwhile, on 18 March this year, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City opened an exhibition on how Tibetan Buddhism deploys a range of healing practices to promote balanced spiritual, physical, and emotional health. The theme and timing of the exhibition were significant in light of the pandemic, which has killed close to a million people in the US alone. Michelle Bennett-Simorella, the museum’s director of Curatorial Administration and Collections, said in a press release:
Healing is about confronting and transforming suffering and rebalancing the mind and body to equilibrium. It can be, at times, a seemingly unsurmountable process during which we gain a better understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us. This exhibition explores what the practices of healing in Tibetan Buddhism have to offer to individuals and society as well as the meaningful ways people move forward after a collective experience of trauma.(Lion’s Roar)
In the West, concerns about restoring mind-body balance can overlap with certain schools of psychotherapy and even mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which is more “Western” in its orientation and priorities than any Buddhist method. Nevertheless, what the Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian examples illustrate is that healing is not defined as simply a “restoration” to the “original” or earlier condition. In this narrow definition, modern medicine and treatments still constitute the most clinically sound methodology.
What true healing means, ancient Asian systems suggest, is the transformation of body and mind alike into something that is qualitatively different and superior. This is something that clinical systems neither do nor claim to do, and that is understandable: modern medicine is not a spiritual practice. But in the Asian systems, philosophy and transcendental thinking are not afterthoughts. They are at the core of the practice.
It is no coincidence that the Buddha famously declared himself a physician or a doctor, and his spiritual path as the ultimate antidote to all things. He makes this clear in multiple texts, with the Tikicchakasutta one of many explicit examples:
Mendicants, doctors prescribe a purgative for eliminating illnesses stemming from disorders of bile, phlegm, and wind. There is such a purgative, I don’t deny it. But this kind of purgative sometimes works and sometimes fails.
I will teach a noble purgative that works without fail. Relying on that purgative, sentient beings who are liable to rebirth, old age, and death, to sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress are freed from all these things.(SuttaCentral)
Not even the most expert surgeon can operate on the Three Poisons. The wonders of modern medicine cannot excise that which leads to rebirth in samsara, which renders all their solutions futile in the long run, even though they unquestionably save lives in the present. The Buddha would perhaps ask, but what about the next life? And the next? Only the Dharma can function as the “surgery” to sever completely the karmic bonds to future existence in samsara. In the grand narrative of the Tathagata’s life, the Buddha is recorded as dying from dysentery in the Mahaparinibbannasutta, a common ailment that plagued ancient societies with an incomplete understanding of hygiene and sanitation. The fact that such a painful and common cause of death was written for a religion’s founder, with the Buddha telling Ananda three times that he could prolong his life if Ananda just asked, indicates further that the Buddha never saw physical ailments as the true affliction of the human condition. Sentient beings needed transformation from within.
The Buddha never foresaw philosophical affinities with ideas such as India’s native Ayurveda, TCM, or Tibetan Buddhist medicine. What we understand today as alternative treatments are modern incarnations of systems that would have integrated ideas of inner transformation into a regimen of holistic recovery and health. As José M. Tirado ‘ö-Zér Jamgön Dorje has written in his article for BDG’s 2022 special issue: Buddhism at a Crossroad, the definition of healing must be broadened to healing this “broken world,” to “think about how we all participate in it and therefore we all must tackle not only the outer manifestations but also the root causes. These root causes lie within us.”*
What is also clear is the post-COVID age should not mean merely a return to business-as-usual. The “body” of Planet Earth, if it is to truly heal, cannot simply revert to the state of how things were before. The period before the pandemic was not only already problematic, but led to the very situation we are in now. The past few disruptive years are better seen as a symptom of a world already ill. We were fundamentally unprepared for not only COVID-19, but the knock-on effects that it unleashed on both the Global North and Global South. While a return to normality would be a step forward, it should not be mistaken for being the only step forward. Otherwise, we will likely only be buying time for a different crisis, possibly another pandemic, to plunge the world into a deeper state of crisis. Like the Buddha and the sages who did not separate the spiritual from the physical, human society must identify the root causes of its suffering, with true healing being the removal of those roots.
Seven Chinese medicine experts arrive in HK (RTHK)
TCM expert: Vaccination key to beating Omicron (China Daily)
Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need To Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
Indian doctors protest herbal treatments being touted for COVID-19 (National Geographic)
Rubin Museum debuts new exhibit, “Healing Practices: Stories from Himalayan Americans” (Lion’s Roar)
Related features from BDG
Buddhist Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Historical Perspective
Dr. Eliot Tokar: The Novel Coronavirus Through the Lens of Tibetan Medicine
Three Scenarios for Rebirth in the Pure Land in the Medicine Master Buddha Sutra
Medicine Buddha Sadhana: Interview with American Mantra Musician Lee Mirabai Harrington, Part Two