“Then he [The Medicine King Bodhisattva] put on many kinds of incense—sandalwood, kunduruka, turushka, prikka, aloes and resin incense—and drank the fragrant oil of gardenia and other kinds of flowers for fully twelve hundred years. With his body anointed with fragrant oil and wrapped in jeweled heavenly robes, he went before Pure and Bright Excellence of Sun and Moon Buddha, anointed himself again with fragrant oil, and, making a vow by his divine powers, set fire to his own body.
“The light illuminated worlds as numerous as the sands of eight billion Ganges [rivers]. The buddhas in those lands all praised him at the same time, saying: ‘Well done, well done, good son; this is true devotion…”
–Lotus Sutra, Chapter 23 “Previous Lives of Medicine King Bodhisattva”, Gene Reeves Translation
Earlier today I donated blood at the local blood bank. I have been going to the blood bank for years, starting in high school when I wanted to impress a certain girl, to my later years when I had more mature reasons to do it. Today, they were low on A- red blood cells, so I offered to do a double red-cell donation. Since it was my first time doing that, and it was scary at first because they use a special machine to separate your blood cells from your blood, but as I sat there donating my own blood, I remembered this story above from the Lotus Sutra.
In fact, each time I donate blood, I often reflect on this story. I’ve always been fascinated by the total devotion of the Bodhisattva Medicine King (薬王菩薩, yakuō bosatsu in Japanese) toward his teacher, a Buddha named Pure and Bright Excellence of Sun and Moon (日月浄明得, nichi gatsu jō myō toku). Especially because later in the chapter they meet again, when the Bodhisattva is reborn and becomes the Buddha’s teacher once more and receives the Buddha’s final instructions before he passes away.
Somehow this notion of totally throwing away one’s body for the greater good, self-sacrifice in the most noblest sense, is something that really interests me, and I think that’s why I like donating blood sometimes. It’s the most direct way I can sacrifice my flesh, and directly save lives. Of course, I am not a bodhisattva,1 but when I reflect on the Bodhisattve Medicine King’s sacrifice, it really inspires me.
The path of a Bodhisattva is extremely long, involving countless rebirths until perfection is acheived. In the Flower Garland Sutra’s 40th chapter, the famous Gandhavyuha Sutra, Sudana is confronted by teachers and bodhisattvas who speak of sacrificing one’s self countless times, infinite numbers of times for the greater good of all life. Even in the Jataka Tales, the stories of Shakyamuni Buddha’s former lives, it tells the tale where the Buddha in a former life sacrificed his body to feed a starving tigress and her cubs.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, he writes:
The bodhisattva [Medicine King] wanted to offer something more, the most precious thing—his own body. He had realized a level of non-fear and non-attachment, no fear and no death. This body was not his only body. When the cloud changes form it becomes rain, and when the rain transforms there is snow. (pg. 114)
In the same way, even when I am scared of the needle, or the blood flowing out of me, I tried really hard to remember over and over, “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am“. I was still nervous, but I tried to remind myself that the body wouldn’t last anyway, regardless of how well I maintain it, so better to use it to help others.
But this notion of self-sacrifice isn’t limited to medical means. Anyone who devotes their time toward the welfare of others is also sacrificing themselves. The holy Buddha taught us how to see ourselves for who we really are, and with this knowledge, we turn outward toward people around us who suffer as we do, and strive to help them however possible. If this body dies, we come back and help again in a new form, and again and again, all the while accumulating countless merit and perfecting the Buddhist teachings.
So time is not an issue, and neither is one’s body. With every effort we make, it benefits those around us, and takes us one more step along the great path to Buddhahood. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Namo Shaka Nyorai
P.S. The double red-cell donation went fine. I was a big chicken.
1 I still struggle with the basic, Five Precepts (五戒, gokai in Japanese for reference).