Buddhism and Disability: An Exploration of Selected Texts

In Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, José Ignacio Cabezón notes that little attention has been given to the role of gender when studying the functions of religious systems.1 As a person with a disability, I see a parallel, for there is also little attention given to the role of disability in religious systems. The assignment for an independent study provided an opportunity to investigate this area. As a foundation, I have adapted the following areas of investigation from the structure which Cabezón uses to understand gender as a variable in Buddhist thought:2

1. What is the role of religion in the creation of social concepts of disability?

2. What existing social norms about disability are used in the texts, or adopted by

the religious system, and how?

3. How does the Buddhist tradition, both at particular historical times and today,

conceive of disability?

4. How does a reader with a disability respond to all this?

To deal with these questions, I intend to first examine general Buddhist thought, especially how it differs from Western ideas, focusing on the area of disability. Then, I survey two primary texts for information or attitudes that relate to these questions. After this, I consider these findings in the light of some recent works on Buddhist ethics. In the juxtaposition of how things are, and what these writers say should be, I take up a personal engagement of selected areas, seeking to learn from the wisdom of another tradition.3

Throughout this paper, I comment on the experience of persons with disabilities. It is difficult to document this experience in the traditional manner. The sources are my own experience as a disabled person (personally and as a pastoral counselor), conversations with others who live with disabilities, and times when I have been able to live among communities of disabled persons. Particularly significant for the latter were two weeks with the L’Arche community of Erie, Pennsylvania in May 1996 and a return visit for several days in June 1997.

I feel that I should also say something about my statements in relationship to Christianity. It is my conviction that the New Testament records a church that affirmed the value and life of all persons, including those with disabilities. That church has often wandered from this ideal, much as some Buddhists have from theirs. Unless specified otherwise, references to Christianity deal with observations of contemporary practices, not to the New Testament record.


It is worth mentioning at the outset that disabilities are largely ignored by all of the surveyed sources. This does not mean that there is nothing relevant to disability issues in them, especially in the light of the above questions. Also, this problem is not exclusive to Eastern traditions. Although there is more direct contact with disabled people in the Gospels than the Dīgha Nikāya, later Christian traditions have largely shut out such contact from their everyday concerns.

As one starts a survey of Buddhist thought, a significant difference is immediately noticeable. Many strands of Western tradition have sought to deny the reality of suffering (especially in treatments of the question of evil which claim that it is, in some way, not real) or to make it an exceptional case (either by denying that all suffer or by holding up some one person who has overcome a disability). Buddhism, however, is frank in its admission that suffering is a universal human experience. While a given kind of suffering has a specific cause, suffering as such is common to all.4 Suffering includes physical or psychological pain (dukkha-dukkhatā), as well as that which is part of general existence (sankhāra-dukkhatā), and change (vipariņāma-dukkhatā).5 Any study of the role of disability in Buddhist thought needs to keep in mind both the universality and variety of suffering.

The specific cause of suffering, which is of great concern in relation to disability, is paticca-samuppāda, or dependent origination, which leads to the chain of cause and effect. It begins with ignorance, and leads to suffering as a result of craving for sensual phenomena. It is ongoing, producing results in accordance with what has gone on before.6 This product is the karmic cycle, whose pattern is stated by Gautama as:

These beings, on account of misconduct of body, speech, or thought, or disparaging the Noble Ones, have wrong view and will suffer the kammic fate of wrong view. At the breaking-up of the body after death they are reborn in a lower world, a bad destination, a state of suffering.7

While such a view, in which a distressed or disadvantaged state of any kind is the just retribution for previous wrong-doing, would seem to justify widespread inequity, it is tempered by openness and compassion — for suffering, as we recall, is universal. Because suffering is universal, there is no reason to deny its existence, and all are in need of relief. This openness is expressed in the ideals of the earliest strains of Buddhism, where everyone was believed to have the potential, and the need, for salvation.8 We may add to this that the teaching of the universality of suffering could reduce pressure to conform to some real or imagined ideal condition. This would result in more openness about themselves from people with disabling conditions.

Early Buddhists also seem to have understood that compassion required action in favor of the disadvantaged. Compassion may be seen most notably in the acts of the legendary king Aśoka, who established institutions for disabled persons in the third century B.C.E. These institutions are known to have existed until at least the fifth century C.E. (An unknown factor is whether these institutions were either warehouses or isolation units, but the idea that all should strive for enlightenment would make it likely that there was some emphasis on development.) This practice continued, although there were changes. In the twelfth century, disabled persons were provided free food. However, by this time there were restrictions, such as social exclusions and sanctions against receiving inheritance. These changes were not limited to people with physical disabilities: at this time, being female was also regard as a limiting condition.9 These changes have continued to widen their influence: in modern Japan, an emphasis on cause-and-effect (and diminution of the idea of universal suffering) has brought widespread forms of discrimination against (among others) people with disabilities, even to the point that some are disowned by their families.10 Thus we see an historical tendency to move from openness and compassion to restrictions of various kinds. As we shall see, modern Buddhist ethicists have sought to recover the meaning of that original openness and compassion for today’s society.11


To arrive at a better understanding of these claims about historical tendency, it seems appropriate to survey some Buddhist texts with an eye toward understanding what they might have to say about disability. I will concentrate on two basic, early texts: the Dīgha Nikāya, a collection of Gautama’s discourses and, and the Dhammapada, a Theravāda collection of the sayings of Gautama. It should be noted that there are many lessons in these readings; the focus here on disability issues is not meant to exclude the validity of other viewpoints.

First, outside of those texts, I wish to examine a story in the Buddhacarita, a record of the life of Gautama. While many of the incidents are of doubtful historicity, the directions to which they point are of great significance. This work tells us that young Gautama’s life was a privileged one, and he could well have ignored the problems of suffering of others. His birth was accompanied by auspicious omens. As a result, he was shielded from all view of human suffering. The intention of this shielding was to insure that he would become an earthly ruler before retiring in search of salvation, instead of turning to the religious life first. One day, desiring to experience nature, he left the palace. All persons with illness or disabilities were cleared from his route. But the gods stepped in, and placed an old man in the path. A second excursion, with the same attempt at shielding, brought the interposition of one struck by disease. A similar third excursion brought a meeting with death, and a fourth, labor. These experiences wrought an initial response of revulsion, but after a time of meditation and then a meeting with a monk, Gautama resolved to seek enlightenment. That enlightenment came in the knowledge of how to break the chain of causation, and brought a response of compassion to all things.12

This passage provides answers to several of our questions about disability. We see an initial social norm that exposure to disabilities, along with other sufferings of life, is avoided. The young Gautama was shielded from them, and his initial reaction when he was confronted with them was revulsion. This is also a common reaction. But, to turn to the role of religion in creation of social concepts, we find that the experience of meditation produced a change of heart. We are taught to overcome these feelings, for the sufferings of humanity are something we cannot escape. As we recall, the Buddhist tradition claims that various disabling conditions are universal, and the response to such suffering is to be compassion. Presumably, this response would bring some mitigation of suffering. The bonds of karma are still present, and there are (at this point) no healing miracles or other release from present suffering, but there is a means of, and hope for, improvement through a suitable life bringing karmic rewards.

A reader with a disability will certainly be aware of the avoidance with which Gautama almost instinctively responded at first. It is positive that this feeling is expressed openly, for only then can it be overcome. We may also note that efforts to conceal the various disabilities of humanity from him were ineffectual. This story would seem to indicate that disabilities should not be concealed, but ought to be brought into the open, so that their causes and effects may be dealt with. There is no need to be isolated or to hide one’s condition, both of which are common occurrences for disabled people. These changes would relieve the social isolation that is the typical effect of many disabilities — thus, we see the creation of new social norms. Further, the practice of compassion leads to a desire to improve the condition of all. How that desire should be acted upon leads to questions which will be discussed in the section on ethics.

The centrality of compassion is also expressed in the Dīgha Nikāya, where we find it placed as a personal ideal of Gautama:

Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword, scrupulous, compassionate, trembling for the welfare of all living beings.13

There follows, by way of explanation, a long list of qualities that the follower should practice. Included in a long list of amusements which are prohibited as “idle pursuits” is “mimicking deformities.” Also prohibited are “deception, . . . belittling, . . . and [being] always on the make for further gains.” This prohibition is repeated in another sutra which includes a charge to be actively involved in positive work and ethical conduct.14

There are several points here that a disabled person notes. First, Gautama affirms the value of life itself, both in refraining from taking it and being concerned about all beings. As contemporary society discusses legitimizing euthanasia, one concern of persons with disabilities is that those perceived by others to be incapable of a certainly quality of life (or for whom the costs of care outweigh their economic contribution) might become victims of “forced” euthanasia. The affirmation of the value of life in general, and especially the implication that it is above economics, is reassuring.

The ideal of conduct for the follower that is expressed here is also positive toward persons with disabilities. Disabled persons are often the victims of practices ranging from artificially high prices for services made necessary by their disability to outright fraud. Gautama will have none of this among his followers. And the compassionate person will not ridicule those who are different. The follower will seek the well-being of all people, regardless of social status. There is, as we will see in the ethics discussion, no explicit reordering of society expressed here, but the person who would practice these virtues will, by implication, effect its reordering. Thus, there is an effort to shape the norms of society that includes attitudes toward disability and the treatment of disadvantaged groups in general.

Sutra 3 tells of Ambaţţha, a well-educated but proud young man who, having traveled to visit Gautama, insults him by inattentiveness. Gautama tells Ambaţţha that his education will not be complete until he gets over his pride. We then hear Ambaţţha’s complaint that once he did not receive due deference from the Sakyans. In response, Gautama tells a story of a child born to a Sakyan slave. The child is black and able to speak immediately, both of which are negative omens. Then it is revealed that this child is one of Ambaţţha’s ancestors. Hearing the story, Ambaţţha, standing among his companions, is humiliated. Only after this do we learn that the child is considered a sage. Gautama then asks a series of questions about the acceptance of cross-caste offspring, which leads to a conclusion that upsets the social norms of caste hierarchy: “he with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.”15 Gautama then explains (among other things) how pride prevents enlightenment.16 A later sutra repeats that caste is no guarantee of doing right, and that “both dark and bright qualities, which are blamed and praised by the wise, are scattered indiscriminately among the four castes.”17

Such passages upset many social conventions, including views of disability. The slave-child’s social status, color and precociousness constituted a disability, which led to humiliation for Ambaţţha. After the impact of this, we are told that the child was a sage. This relieves the humiliation of disability, for the wisdom of the sage is more important than social status. What is first thought to be disabling is, on examination, only part of the larger whole, and the larger whole negates the disability. This is the claim of persons with disabilities today: ability is more important than limitations. This is significant in itself, but there is also a larger view, for this sutra is about pride. Pride is a form of clinging that prevents enlightenment. As a form of clinging, pride is one of the roots of discrimination; it is a way of saying “I didn’t do x, so I am not y, and therefore I am better than you.” This would be especially true in a culture where karma is such an important principle. Here we see some of the presumed effects of this principle undermined: the disadvantaged child is yet a sage, a person who is honored. Karma may result in disabilities, but it does not limit what a person can become. What one does with their life is more important than their birth status or physical features. Furthermore, a disability should not produce a disdainful attitude in others. The follower is not to belittle the status of any other person, and one needs to look beyond surface features to find the real value of a person. This is an example of religion creating a social concept of disability that reaches beyond the accepted social norms. To a person with a disability, it offers acceptance and potential.

It is also worth noting that good and bad qualities are “scattered indiscriminately.” Every person, no matter what their social status, may have good or bad attributes. No one is completely free of suffering, and no one stands absolutely condemned. In a similar vein, another Buddhist text presents a discussion between the Buddhist Nāgasena and the Greek king Menander. The king asks why people are different, such as “some [are] weak and some strong.” Nāgasena asks why plants are also diverse, to which the king replies that they originate from different seeds. Nāgasena replies that it is the same with people, because of karma.18 Karma is a source of diversity. It produces different qualities, but as with plants, we understand that they all have varying roles. These sayings undermine the social effects of karma. Its reality cannot be denied, but the differences it produces are causes of diversity, not stratification.

Many of the sutras deal with the nature of true wisdom. Ambaţţha thought he was wise because he was well-educated. But as the various discourses continue, we come to understand that wisdom is far more than learning. We are told that “wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom.”19 The practice of morality and wisdom is a guard against corruption as well as a way of attaining insight.20 These practices are a fruitful and profitable sacrifice, and there is nothing greater than doing these.21 Morality, the practice of the precepts in daily life, is an important part of one’s path. One is not allowed to be unconcerned about the daily lives of those in the world just because this world is not ultimately real. The goal of ending suffering, and the action of equal treatment of people without regard to status, are something to be sought in this world, it would follow, and not awaited only in a future life. This contrasts to some Christian thought which tells disabled persons to await their future reward, which will be great because their sufferings are great — and then sometimes goes forth to make certain that their sufferings are great.

This is a message that is favorable to the person with a disability. The follower of Gautama seeks to end suffering by practical means, not simply by praying for relief. Nor can the suffering be ignored because there will be redress in another life. These teachings attempt to create a social norm that requires active involvement in the lives of all who suffer. This is a compassionate message. The double guard, that wisdom watches morality and morality watches wisdom, would have a revolutionary effect on the method of compassion as well. To many disabled people, charity is practiced as a way of reinforcing status lines. The one who does the charity is held in esteem, and the one who receives finds a double dose of disadvantage. First, they are rarely given an equal share of the “goods” of life, but only a subsistence amount. Second, they are forced to humiliate themselves to receive that — for example, by enduring bureaucratic mazes or being publicly displayed as helpless. Wisdom, as guard, teaches that all are in need. Morality, guarding this wisdom, teaches that action is required.

The Kevadha Sutra deals with miracle-workers. The danger expressed here is that miracles point to the miracle-worker and are thus dangerous. It is the “miracle of instruction” that points beyond itself, and leads to the Buddha. This teaching shows others the ways of morality and thus leads to wisdom.22 Miracle workers are always of interest to disabled persons. We are often chided for a lack of faith in not making use of their curative powers. But the ministry of compassion is deeper than this simplistic resolution of what ails a body, while leaving the mind untouched. It might be said, then, that Buddhism rejects a ministry of miraculous cure in favor of a ministry of community and healing. The attributes one receives from karma are not to be disdained and removed, but neither are they to be an obstacle to one’s acceptance in the community. In this, we see the complexity of dealing with social norms, for they are accepted, but also overturned. I cannot speak for every disabled person (although I also know that many agree with me) that while my disability is painful and often limiting, it has become a part of who I am. I do not seek some cure that would thereby change everything that has been a part of me. So there is wisdom to karma: my condition is something I must learn to live with. The expectation of (and search for) miracles is misplaced; the better point of effort is the community and life which we all share. The alleviation of suffering in Buddhism is directed at a deeper level than in some Western thought: the effort is to remove the cause (ignorance) rather than to provide cures that do nothing to improve the whole of life. Finding the way to truth is more important, more loving, and of greater impact than finding a temporary way out. As the sutra Way to Brahmā says, the follower has a “heart filled with loving-kindness” and “dwells suffusing the whole world.” It is “by this liberation of the heart through loving-kindness he leaves nothing untouched.”23

A disability is part of earthly life, and as such is part of the cycle of birth. All birth is sorrow and suffering, and suffering is the result of the cycle of becoming, clinging, and craving which is overcome by ending the preoccupation with consciousness of mind and body.24 Here is a reminder that the general disability of the human condition is far more significant than any particular disability. The end of suffering does not come from a curative miracle-worker who eliminates some particular problem, but from the one who instructs that we all share a need, and leads us to eliminate the things which cause suffering. This aspect of the Buddhist message (as with others) would have upset conventional norms, and is very liberating to a disabled person. It is not encouraging, in a certain sense, to know that one’s disability is viewed as the result of past wrongs, but it is encouraging to know that no one is free of karmic effect. Suffering is the common lot of humanity, and suffering is not removed until it is removed for all. This is the positive message for a person with a disability.

In a conclusion to this survey of the Dīgha Nikāya, I would like to examine the role of Ānanda. He is presented to us as the follower who never quite understood Gautama’s message — until the very end. The motif of the fool, who never grasps what is happening, but becomes suddenly wise at the end, is common in literature, but its inclusion here, and Ānanda’s position as Gautama’s attendant, is what matters.

Physical disabilities are often quite obvious: a person cannot walk well (if at all), or a limb is misshapen. They are therefore generally readily recognized in literature. But it is difficult to delineate mental disabilities in ancient literature, for they are not often immediately physically obvious. In the ancient world, where literacy was not widespread, nor highly technical skills required, they would be even more difficult to discover.25 Therefore, it is difficult to say if Ānanda is learning disabled, mentally retarded, or could be placed in some other modern category, but there is some kind of problem with his mental functions. He misunderstands things that others have grasped.26 He does not realize the significance of places.27 When Gautama gives him a “broad hint,” he fails to understand.28 There is a general pattern here: Ānanda cannot make links between events, and cannot synthesize new understandings. But he can handle repetitive tasks,

and is a faithful attendant.29 He is strongly attached to the person of Gautama.30 These are all indicative of some kind of developmental deficiency. His position of attendant could also indicate this, for people with developmental disabilities often perform such work (witness today’s society, where they bus tables and clean buildings). Yet, for all this, he is addressed by Gautama before the monks as wise, for he is sensitive to people, and we are told that his preaching is pleasing.31

The specificity of this address would indicate that some correction of the views of others was required. They are being asked to look beyond Ānanda’s inabilities, and focus on what he does so well. In this, there are two important points. Gautama focuses on ability rather than limitations. Although Ānanda does not operate at a high intellectual level, he is still able to make a contribution. He may see the essence of Gautama’s teaching better because he is not constantly trying to complicate matters. We see that reaching enlightenment is a matter of attitude, not academic achievement. Second, that Gautama would include such a person in the group of the wise is a significant statement. Ānanda is not excluded because of his disability, and he is not relegated to menial work. His duties are defined so that he may accomplish them, and he is not slighted for his inability to do more. In Ānanda we see a practice of inclusion that is a model for all persons with limitations.

Turning to the Dhammapada, we find a series of sayings about cleansing. Hate cannot be overcome by hate, we are told. The commentary adds that spots cannot be cleansed by washing with the “same impurities,” but that one must remove hostility by the “clear water of patience.”32 This does not provide any direct information about disability, but does link to the train of thought in the Dīgha Nikāya that the follower’s life should be one of practice. Suffering will not be overcome by inflicting more suffering, and the person who seeks to end suffering must be patient in their work. This also strengthens the commands of the Dīgha Nikāya that a follower should not belittle or mock persons who are different. That persons are more alike than they are different would be the disability perspective of a couplet in Flowers: “knowing this body to be like foam / awakening to its mirage nature,” to which the commentary adds that there is an appearance of form, but closer inspection finds otherwise.33 The idea that a body is not the essence of the person is liberating for disabled persons. Their true nature is not in the limitation that the body imposes.

Not all of the images found are positive. The same section says that as a lotus can bloom in a heap of rubbish, so can the disciple shine among the “wretched, blinded ordinary folk.”34 Disabled people are sensitive to images of a disability being used as derogatory metaphors for undesirable conditions. The condition specified here is not physical blindness, but a distinction of awakened and non-awakened persons — but the image is still damaging. By referring to these people in parallel to trash heaps, it is even more derogatory. This is not an unusual use, of course. Many Christian images parallel sin with spiritual blindness. So while this text makes use of a disability as a negative symbol, it is not alone in the world’s traditions in doing so. There is a similar image in The Childish. A childish person is one who is not awakened.35 The force of the metaphor is much farther from mental disability than that of the above blindness, but there is still a danger that one might equate the two.

The Dhammapada also reminds us that all persons experience suffering. But it seems to say in places that one should be indifferent to suffering:

When through wisdom one perceives,

All saʼnkhāras are suffering (dukkhā),”

Then one is detached as to misery.

This is the path of purity.

When through wisdom one perceives,

All dhammas are without self,”

Then one is detached as to misery.

This is the path of purity.

The commentary says the point is that indifference arises when one realizes the true nature of existence. One is to turn from existence, which is unstable and full of suffering.36 This is a basic point of Buddhism. There would seem to be no intent, then, to allow one to ignore the suffering of others. It also highlights the role of upāya, the idea of right or skillful means in teaching. One does not approach a beginner in the same way that one approaches a follower with more experience. The beginner needs to be awakened to the realization of suffering, and the true nature of existence, and become detached from it. Only then can one follow the steps of the young Gautama of the Buddhacarita and experience true compassion. That someone, in writing the commentary, found it necessary to point out how this passage should be read, is an indication of the tendency noted for texts to be used to justify various forms of discrimination. The overwhelming force of the whole of the Dīgha Nikāya and the Dhammapada is positive for people with disabilities, although not completely so. The constant danger is that someone will emphasize those less positive portions and use them to justify oppression.

We may see this change of emphasis in the oldest Buddhist book in Japan, the sixth century Nihon Ryou Iki, which contains 116 stories. Twelve of these deal with disability, associating them with sin. One of these stories tells of a mother who is told by a famous preacher, Gyogi, to throw a disabled child into the river. When she finally did this, the child said “since your ancestor did not pay his debts, I will torment you for three more years” and sank. Gyogi told her that the birth of the disabled child was a direct result of an ancestor’s sins.37 One obvious change here is the reference to ancestors. The effects of karma have changed from personal. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine that change, but it points out the need to examine the roots of a system carefully before accusing it on the basis of its progeny.


It would seem from this survey that Buddhist teaching would lead the follower to an active role in compassionate dealings with others. But there is a counter-argument: if one is not to be attached to the world, why should it be important to be active in the world? Whether and how one should be active and concerned in society is of great importance to people with disabilities. To gain an understanding of how the implications noted from the texts might play out, I will briefly examine the highlights of some contemporary Buddhist ethical writings.

One of these writers suggests that to appreciate the need for social action, a better understanding of attachment is needed. This understanding is from the effect of attachment, which is to create separate objects which are held. Such a held object is called a “near-enemy.” When compassion collides with attachment, one holds to a near-enemy of self-worth or self-sufficiency, which results in indifference. Therefore, indifference to suffering is an expression of attachment to the world. Active compassion, manifested in relief of suffering, is compassion without attachment.38 There is also a fine line between compassion and attachment in one’s motive. Good deeds, in the Mahāyāna tradition, are to be done without expectation of return. However, the person who does them will receive a reward in accordance with the effects of karma.39 To be engaged for the right motives, one must again seek to relieve suffering, rather than to search for one’s own interest. This is significant to disabled persons, for it often seems that charitable actions are frequently done from the doer’s self-interest, rather than with a goal of relieving suffering.

A proper motive without attachment reflects Gautama’s teachings, which imply internal purity in thought, word, and deed. This is radically different from the Brahmanism of his time, which taught purity (and defilement) as externals.40 This is positive for persons with disabilities in a major way. Because one is not defiled by externals, the body itself is not defiling. Having a disabled body is not a limiting factor in terms of one’s value.

Furthermore, the precepts are a guide, not a set of laws.41 As such, they would not allow one to say “I did not steal, so I am on the right path.” Not taking that which is not given is more than not stealing. It would include unjust gain of any kind. As do most of these points, the result has a wide impact. Disabled persons are not the only ones who suffer from various sorts of unjust gains. Although disability issues are the focus of this paper, we cannot stop there.

The importance of not becoming too narrowly focused points to another justification for involvement in social issues: enlightenment cannot be complete until all have reached it. The interdependent relationship of all creatures requires one to exercise responsibility to relieve the suffering of any and all. Refusal to become engaged is a form of selfishness, a way of avoiding this responsibility.42 The earlier-related story of how young Gautama ventured from his palace, and saw the sufferings of the world moved him to action. So today should suffering move us to action. One writer says that believing in enlightenment without action is like keeping medicine in a bottle: it accomplishes nothing, until it is taken out of the bottle and placed into the body.43

It would seem, then that while the central point of the Buddha’s message is enlightenment, reaching that state is entwined with ethical practice. Furthermore, concern for others expressed in one’s praxis is not a consequence of enlightenment, but a part of the path. This would also mean that such practices are for all followers, not only the accomplished.44 The goal of the way is not itself social reordering, but such reordering will occur as the logical and inevitable result of right actions that are done on the path to enlightenment. Personal renewal is primary in the Buddha’s teachings, but that renewal has direct consequences for one’s attitudes and actions. The principle of karma guarantees that there will be distinctions among people. While these might not be eliminated, the effect would be limited.45 As an example, an employer is instructed to take care of his employees when they are ill and to pay a living wage.46 The employer and employee would have their status as a result of the karmic cycle, but one is not above the other when it comes to providing human needs.

This is positive for people with disabilities, as well as all who are oppressed. One contemporary Buddhist, Ken Jones, claims that the Buddha’s teachings were a force against social injustice, especially the oppression of women and discrimination of the caste system. Because social conditions have changed since then, one must study the implications of the Buddha’s teachings.47 This was the focus of the earlier part of this paper. At the start of that survey, I noted that disability issues have been largely ignored by most religious systems. This is also the case with modern Buddhist ethicists: although, as we have seen, there are many implications for disabled people, there has been no direct mention of such issues. Particularly disappointing is when Jones concludes by noting that social practice arises out of the desire to end suffering. He then gives us a list of oppressed and suffering groups: ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women, poor, political dissidents, and religious minorities.48 I would not contest that these are oppressed — but he has ignored the disabled. Although disability issues consistently fail to receive a hearing, the Buddhist message as a whole is positive to a person with a disability.


There are numerous Buddhist texts — far too many for any one person to deal with. I have focused on two major ones to show what the Buddhist attitude toward disability should be, and briefly examined modern writers to see how these possibilities are being handled. There is one more tradition in Buddhism that is of interest to a disabled person. We have noted that the Buddha’s teaching was about enlightenment. He was not a miracle worker, but as we have seen, this is not necessarily negative from the viewpoint of a disabled person. There is, however, a long tradition of healing in Buddhism, which is documented by Raoul Birnbaum in The Healing Buddha. This book is uneven, but a critical reading of its historical material yields much information. Buddhist monks apparently became interested in medical arts out of the need to care for those who were ill, whether among their own (often as the result of their rigorous life) or out of compassion for those they met in remote areas.49 The focus of this activity was not miraculous intervention, which is in keeping with Gautama’s teachings, but aiding natural processes. The intent was to heal the body so that one could have a vehicle in which to reach enlightenment.50 The most significant part of the book is its presentation of the Chinese tradition of Bhaişajya-guru, the Healing Buddha. Because of his vows, anyone who hears his name can be healed. The list of ailments includes most disabilities, as well as some interesting additions:

[those whose] bodies are inferior, whose sense organs are impaired, who are ugly, stupid, deaf, blind, mute, bent, and lame, hunchbacked, leprous, convulsive, insane, or who have all sorts of diseases and sufferings — such beings when they hear my name shall obtain proper appearances and practical intelligence. All their senses will become perfect and they shall have neither sickness nor suffering.

In addition, the Healing Buddha will hear the cries of women who are weary of their status, and ensure that they are reborn as men.51 This tradition, despite Birnbaum’s attempts to trace it back to Gautama,52 indicates a major change in attitude. Medical practice is a form of compassion that relieves suffering in natural ways, but if miraculous healing — whether of one’s inferior gender or disability — is desirable, the attitudes implied in a disabled person’s reading of the Dīgha Nikāya and Dhammapada have been reversed.


Aside from a better understanding of how a Buddhist might approach disability issues, what can one learn here? For one, Christians, even though they do not (traditionally) accept the idea of metempsychosis, might consider whether they could not accept something along the lines of the karmic principle. Christian theism has been consistently unable to provide a coherent reason for suffering. The Buddhist explanation of disability is not positive for the person who lives with it. But that does not make disability a negative experience. There is some benefit from the karmic principle: one has a workable explanation to deal with. As a principle, karma is impersonal — a natural flow of cause and effect. Traditional Christian theism, with its statements about the mystery of God’s workings, leaves a randomness that still leaves one wondering “why me?”

Furthermore, the karmic principle, considered in a wider sense, does not require that the cause of evil be one’s own wrong-doing. Buddhist ethicists, who have a great concern for how humans relate to their world, note that today, many people are suffering from chronic disease and other disabling conditions as a result of the self-centeredness of humans who seek their own good without regard to effects on the environment.53 The understanding that all things are interrelated prompts each of us to be concerned about how our lives affect others. Such an understanding of cause and effect is not unbiblical: Galatians 6.7 tells us that whatever we sow, we also reap. That this passage is about spiritual effort should not keep us from remembering that it has a practical, physical foundation. Buddhist ethicists who, by their concern about the link between environment and health, remind us that there is a real cause for every effect, imply that we cannot blame only the person involved for karmic effects. We do not have to believe that the thalidomide babies of the mid-twentieth century sinned in a past life: we can see that a system based on greed brought the introduction of a product before thorough and costly testing was completed. Likewise, today increasing numbers of children suffer from asthma as a result from exposure to pollutants that, in many ways, reflect a similar greed and lack of concerned foresight.

Using four questions about the role of disability, we have seen that, despite the lack of attention to disability issues as a specific area, selected Buddhist texts and contemporary writings carry, on the whole, a positive message for a person with a disability. There is an implication in the karmic cycle that one who suffers does so because of past wrong-doing, but several mitigating factors go with that: all people suffer, all suffering is to be dealt with compassionately, and modern writers are pointing out interdependent aspects of the cycle. One also understands that this is the way the world works for all. It is not the capricious or random act of an unknowable and mysterious God. The overwhelming force of the teaching of Buddhism strikes at the heart of unequal treatment of people with disabilities.

From a Buddhist viewpoint, more is required, for the knowledge gained from such a study is not simply a collection of interesting ideas. Such an approach constitutes attachment. New understandings must move one along the path to enlightenment. They also ought to be skillfully used to aid others in their path. This prevents one from focusing too narrowly on the matter at hand, making it a cause that is more important than the path to enlightenment. This interrelationship is a reminder that the concerns raised reach beyond only one issue. Disability issues are part of a larger whole. Disability is about all suffering, which means it is about all people. Disability issues are one possible focus in reading texts. Other foci can teach us about the role of women, or of specific philosophical and religious concerns. Together, they teach us about ourselves. Although there is a tendency to wander from those teachings, we are called back to them by modern voices — even when they do not deal specifically with our area of concern.


Birnbaum, Raoul. The Healing Buddha. Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 1989.

Bowker, John. Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Cabezón, Jose Ignacio, ed. Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.

Carter, John Ross and Palihawadana, Mahinda. The Dhammapada: A New English Translation with the Pāli Text and the First English Translation of the Commentary’s Explanation of the Verses, with Notes Translated from Sinhala Sources and Critical Textual Comments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Chakravarti, Uma. The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987.

deBary, William Theodore, ed. The Buddhist Tradition. New York: Vantage Books, 1972.

Eppsteiner, Fred, ed. The Path of Compassion : Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism. Berkeley: Parallax Press and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, 1988.

Fu, Charles Wei-hsun and Wawrytko, Sandra A. Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society : An International Symposium. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Haj, F. Disability in Antiquity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1970.

Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Kojima, Yoko. “Discrimination of the Disabled and Seeking Ways Out” Japan Christian Quarterly 42 (1976): 162-168.

Miles, M. “Disability in an Eastern Religious Context: Historical Perspectives,” Disability and Society 10 (1995) 49-69.

_____, “Some Historical notes on religions, Ideologies and the Handicapped,” Al Mushir 23 (1981): 125-134.

Ninomiya, Akiie Henry. “Japanese Attitudes Toward Disabled People--Religious Aspect” Japan Christian Quarterly 52 (1986): 202-206.

Reynolds, F. “Contrasting Modes of Action: A Comparative Study of Buddhist and Christian Ethics,” History of Religions 20 (1980): 128-146.

Tachibana S. The Ethics of Buddhism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926, reprint: Surrey: Curzon Press, 1992.

Walshe, Maurice (translator). Thus Have I Heard: A New Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, The Long Discourses of the Buddha. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

Reading List

(background and formative works, not cited in paper)

Buraku Liberation Research Institute. The Road to a Discrimination-Free Future: The World Anti-Discrimination Struggle and the Buraku Liberation Movement. Osaka: Liberation Publishing House, 1983.

Iida, Shotaro. Facets of Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991.

Kalupahana, David J. Ethics in Early Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Kumazawa, Yoshinobu and David L. Swain, editors. Christianity in Japan, 1971-90. Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1991.

Nakamura, Hajime. Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples. N.p.: Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, 1960.

Saddhatissa, Hammalawa. Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987.

Thompson, Laurence G. Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Belmont CA: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1969.

1José Ignacio Cabezón, ed., Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), vii

2Ibid., xiii-xvi.

3This pattern is outlined in F. Reynolds, “Contrasting Modes of Action: A Comparative Study of Buddhist and Christian Ethics,” History of Religions 20 (1980): 128-146.

4In an emerging parallel, recent Christian theologies of disability claim that living in the fallen body is always a disability; for example, Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 115.

5John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 237-238; Samyutta Nikāya 5, in William Theodore deBary, editor, The Buddhist Tradition (New York: Vantage Books, 1972), 16; Śikşāsamuccaya, in deBary, 84.

6Bowker, op. cit., 248.

7Maurice Walshe, translator, Thus Have I Heard: A New Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, The Long Discourses of the Buddha (London: Wisdom Publications, 1987), 2.95, p. 107, cf. 28.17, p. 423. (Hereafter cited as DN.)

8Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1, 31.

9M. Miles, “Disability in an Eastern Religious Context: Historical Perspectives,” Disability and Society 10 (1995): 54-55; M. Miles, “Some Historical notes on religions, Ideologies and the Handicapped,” Al Mushir 23 (1981): 126.

10Yoko Kojima, “Discrimination of the Disabled and Seeking Ways Out,” Japan Christian Quarterly 42 (1976): 163-167.

11A similar tendency is noted in relation to gender roles in Alan Sponberg, “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” in Cabezón, op. cit., 8-28.

12Buddhacarita, in deBary, op. cit., 55-72.

13DN 1.1.8, p. 68.

14DN 1.1.14, 20, pp. 70-71; 28.12, p. 421.

15DN 3.1.12-28, pp. 113-118.

16DN 3.2.1-10, pp. 119-122.

17DN 27.5-7, p. 408.

18Milindapañha, in deBary, op. cit., 25.

19DN 4.21, p. 131.

20DN 4.23, p. 131; cf 2.41-97, pp. 99-108; 10.1.7-29, p. 172.

21DN 5.27, p. 140; 6.16-17, pp. 146-147.

22DN 11.3-9, pp. 175-176.

23DN 13.76-77, p. 194.

24DN 14.2.18-21, pp. 211-212.

25F. Haj, Disability in Antiquity (New York: Philosophical Library, 1970), 164-165.

26DN 15.1, p. 223.

27DN 16.5.17, p. 266; 17.1.2-3, 279.

28DN 16.3.4, p. 246.

29DN 10.1.5, pp. 171-172; 16.3.40, p. 251; 16.3.47, p. 252.

30DN 16.6.1, p. 270.

31DN 16.5.15-16, pp. 265-266. NB: the best sermon I have ever heard was preached by a young man with Down’s Syndrome in Erie, PA, in June 1996, about the meaning of love.

32John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana, The Dhammapada: A New English Translation with the Pāli Text and the First English Translation of the Commentary’s Explanation of the Verses, with Notes Translated from Sinhala Sources and Critical Textual Comments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 5, p. 13; commentary pp. 95-96. (Hereafter cited as DP.)

33DP 46, p. 20; commentary, p. 134.

34DP 58-59, p. 22; commentary, p. 145.

35DP 60-75, pp. 146-160.

36DP 278-279, p. 59, commentary pp. 311, 312.

37Akiie Henry Ninomiya, “Japanese Attitudes Toward Disabled People--Religious Aspect,” Japan Christian Quarterly 52 (1986): 203-204.

38Jack Kornfield, “The Path of Compassion: Spiritual Practice and Social Action” in Fred Eppsteiner, ed., The Path of Compassion : Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Berkeley: Parallax Press and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, 1988), 24-25.

39Ryōjun Mitomo, “Ethics in the Bodhicaryāvatāra,” in Charles Wei-hsun Fu and Sandra A. Wawrytko, Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society : An International Symposium (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 18-19.

40S. Tachibana, The Ethics of Buddhism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926, reprint: Surrey: Curzon Press, 1992), 160-165.

41Ibid., 88-89.

42Kenneth Kraft, “Engaged Buddhism: An Introduction” in Eppsteiner, op. cit., xii-xiv.

43Sulak Sivaraksa, “Buddhism in a World of Change: Politics Must be Related to Religion” in Eppsteiner, op. cit., 9-10.

44Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1992), 73-75.

45Chakravarti, op. cit., 180.

46DN 31.32, p. 468.

47Ken Jones, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” in Eppsteiner, op. cit., 65-67.

48Jones, op. cit., 71.

49Raoul Birnbaum, The Healing Buddha (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 1989), 7.

50Ibid., 24-25, 142.

51Ibid., summary: 61-62, sutra: 152-156, repeated on 192-193; quote from 153.

52Ibid., 27-34.

53Padmasiri de Silva, “Environmental Ethics: A Buddhist Perspective,” and Cromwell Crawford, “The Buddhist Response to Health and Disease in Environmental Perspective,” in Fu and Wawrytko, op. cit., 173-193.


28 March 2011