Medicine (bhesajja) is a substance applied or ingested to cure sickness. According to the Sāgaramatiparipṛcchā, the famous Buddhist physician Jīvaka said: 'There is nothing in the world that cannot be a medicine.' Ancient Indian pharmacology was based on the idea that medicines could be categorized according to their taste (rasa), their post-digestive effect (vipāka), their potency (viriya) and their specific action (parabhāva). The Buddha was knowledgeable in drugs and remedies and skilled in prescribing medicines. In the Vinaya he recommended numerous types of medicines and classified them as tallow, roots, astringent decoctions, leaves, fruits, resins, salts and ointments (Vin.I,198-250). Some of the medicines he recommended have been shown by modern research to have therapeutic value. Once, when the Buddha was suffering from an imbalance of the bodily humours, his physician Jīvaka prescribed for him oil massages and inhaling the perfume of water lilies (Vin.I,279). On another occasion when he had wind, he look molasses (phāṇita) in hot water (S.I,174)
The Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra mentions a physician travelling through the Himalayas collecting medicinal herbs. These herbs could be, the sūtra says, prepared by being pounded, parched, boiled together with other substances, or mixed with other drugs without being boiled, and they could be administered orally to be chewed, taken together with food, or inserted into the body with a needle.
In ancient times, providing medical care for the sick was considered a most meritorious act. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien was in India in the 5th century he wrote this of the Buddhists of Patna.’The nobles and householders of the country have founded hospitals within the city to which the poor, the destitute, cripples and the sick of all districts come. They are freely given help. Physicians inspect their diseases and prescribe for them the correct food, drink, medicine and treatment that will restore their health. When they are cured they depart whenever they like.’
What medicine is to health the Dhamma is to happiness and freedom and thus it is not surprising that the Dhamma is often compared to a potent restorative medicine. ‘The Buddha is like a skilled physician in that he is able to heal the sickness of the defilements. The Dhamma is like a rightly applied medicine, and the Saṅgha, with their defilements cured, is like those restored to health by that medicine.’ (Pj.I,21). See Healing.
Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery, Kenneth Zysk, 1989.