SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

Buddhism & Medicine


Date: 13 January 2022Time: 12:00 PM

Finishes: 13 January 2022Time: 2:00 PM

Venue: Virtual Event

Type of Event: Webinar

Banteay Chhmar temple panel
Banteay Chhmar temple panel, Western Gallery, shows Jayavarman VII [upper right] offering herbs (?) to the medical Buddha Bhaiṣajyaguru for blessing, before a pile of sacks for distribution to the chain of 102 hospitals.

‘The Grief of Kings is the Suffering of their Subjects’

As the Covid-19 pandemic makes us acutely aware that our survival depends on medical services and medical science, what better time to reflect on how the ancient world coped with medical emergencies? The first large national health service we know about was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Empire. A well-supplied, country-wide network of 102 hospitals, open to all citizens, some 250 years before Europe's first hospice for the poor was founded at Beaune in France in 1443. Having taken to the throne after driving out of Angkor a military occupation force from neighbouring Campā, part of Jayavarman VII’s strategy for reassuring the people after four years of strife and the first ever attack on their capital, and legitimizing his accession, was to promote compassionate Mahāyāna Buddhism through the powerful Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and, in a deft political stroke, the Medical Buddha Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Master of Remedies, whose image was raised outside each hospital.

The skill of the ancient Cambodians with medicinal herbs is first attested in the mid-seventh century. Indian Tantric Buddhist master Puṇyodaya ('Na-t'i'), who had carried a large collection of sutras for translation to Chang'an, was sent to the Khmer country by the Tang emperor to collect rare herbs known to be used there.

The APSARA National Authority in Siem Reap is now undertaking an excavation and restoration programme to deepen our knowledge of this extraordinary early health innovation at the service of the Khmer people. From inscriptions we know that precise quantities of medicinal herbs and minerals, duly blessed by the monks, were distributed quarterly to the hospitals, manned by doctors and nurses and mantra specialists. Built in wood around a stone temple to Bhaiṣajyaguru, the hospitals were sited in quiet spots outside the walls of cities across the country.

In this webinar, scholars who study the ancient medicine in China, Vietnam, Tibet and India will address the long background of humanity’s development of medicines and the distribution systems that spread the time-honoured cures and the new scientific discoveries through the world.

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Buddhism & Medicine


Welcome from Rachel Harrison head of the SOAS Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, and from Tineke Water who will introduce the University of Puthisastra (Health Sciences), Phnom Penh.

In order to include experts from multiple locations from highly diverse research backgrounds, we have adopted Pecha Kucha (ぺちゃくちゃ) style presentations: maximum 20 slides each & 30 seconds commentary = 10 minutes. 

Part I: 12th century Khmer hospital service

Chair: Chhum Menghong Deputy secretary-general of Cambodia National Commission for UNESCO & SOAS.

1. Rethy Chhem, historian, founding president of the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia Society, introduces the major Khmer 12th century medical care system – the first recorded in the world – and the ongoing hospital site excavations, supported by the University of Puthisastra, Phnom Penh.

2. Peter Sharrock, SOAS: the dedication stelas outside 102 hospitals, the Khmer Bhaisajyaguru triad & the medical herb gathering and distribution role of Banteay Chhmar temple

3. Im Sokrithy APSARA (ANA), hospitals and the royal road to Phimai

4. Pheoung DaraChea Sarith (ANA & SOAS), new hospital excavations in Angkor

5. Kyle Latinis, (ISEAS-NSC Singapore) director of Tonle Snguot hospital site at Angkor Thom

10 minutes Q&A

Part II: Buddhism and medicine in Tibet/Nepal, China and Vietnam

Chair: Pierce Salguero

6. Pierce Salguero (Penn State Uni): Buddhism and medicine across Asia, highlights of the Columbia handbooks

7. Michele Thompson (Southern Connecticut State Uni): Vietnam Tran Dynasty and the celebrated monk Tuệ Tĩnh

8. Colin Millard (Newcastle Uni): ancient Tibetan herb blessing ceremony 'Mendrub Oser Kyilpa', witnessed in Nepal

9. Bill McGrath (Manhattan College, NY): early Tibetan texts and schools

10 minutes Q&A 

Organiser: SOAS Centre of South East Asian Studies, Puthisastra University, and APSARA National Authority (ANA)

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