Turning Poison into Medicine—the Buddhist Way

Turning Poison into Medicine—the Buddhist Way


Buddhism offers both ancient and modern solutions for turning life’s challenges into great blessings.

“Changing poison into medicine begins when we face difficulties with the confidence that we have within us the full resources to overcome them.” —Daisaku Ikeda, Japanese Buddhist philosopher and teacher

The phrase “turning poison into medicine” was first articulated by Nagarjuna (c. 150-250), an Indian Buddhist teacher often described as the “second Buddha.” In his Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, Nagarjuna presents the truth that any person can become “a great physician who can change poison into medicine.” His principle is astonishingly contemporary, optimistic, and hopeful because it specifically teaches that, with right effort and right thinking, a negative can be converted into a positive, suffering can be transformed into flourishing, and pain can be refashioned into power.

Here are four Buddhist ways of turning poison into medicine.

See Potential in the Problem

“The power of positive thinking undoubtedly works. But so does the power of negative thinking,” observed Indra Devi, a pioneering yoga and meditation teacher. Her insight is a reminder to carefully and skillfully choose our attitude toward difficulties. That’s how poison is turned into medicine. One famous woman who did so was the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Tina Turner.

In her book Happiness Becomes You, Turner explains how she learned this Buddhist teaching and was able to overcome a deeply challenging time in her life. Her realization took place at the conclusion of a group meditation session she was participating in. Turner was approached by a “few older women who glowed with a peaceful air of joy” who asked her: “Tina, you say you have too many problems to list. What sort of problems do you mean?”

Turner recalls that she was normally uncomfortable publicly complaining about herself, but “something about the high life condition of these women opened [her] up.” So, she explained how her divorce complicated her life in a variety of ways (including intimidation, harassment, and arson from people associated with her ex-husband) and shared about her deep debt and the challenges of being a Black woman restarting her life in her 40s.

Interestingly, when Turner concluded her sorrowful list, the older women enthusiastically clapped for Turner, telling her she was fortunate because now she had an ideal opportunity to turn poison into medicine. They reminded Turner that “when you raise your life condition, you are capable of transforming all the negative energy in those unfortunate situations into the opposite: positive energy of good fortune.” Turner wrote that she experienced a great relief to hear this wisdom. “I went from seeing a pile of negatives to recognizing a treasure trove. As intensely bad as the problems are, that’s how intensely good the benefits can be, I repeated to myself.” With that attitude shift, Turner began to experience increasing happiness and success.

Cultivate Optimism

Modern psychology researchers consistently reveal that optimism is linked to better physical and mental health outcomes, as well as promoting a sense of well-being during difficult times. This would be no surprise to Eastern spiritual teachers who have, across the ages, promoted and endorsed maximizing the positive and minimizing the negative.

Be like the sages and cultivate optimism. Motivate yourself by reading and reciting wisdom statements about optimism and positive thinking such as these:

  • “People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”—Thich Nhat Hanh

  • “I have no such words as ‘cannot,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘impossible,’ and ‘weakness’ in my dictionary. Those who are attempting to strengthen their will-force should remove these words from their dictionary.”—Swami Sivananda

  • “Buddhism is a path of supreme optimism, for one of its basic tenets is that no human life or experience is to be wasted or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of wisdom and compassionate living.”—Taitetsu Unno

  • “It is a great advantage to be able to face life with a positive and balanced spirit.”—the Dalai Lama

Embrace Acceptance

“You have to learn to accept the good and the bad, just as you do with the weather. You can't change it. So it's better that you fit yourself into the weather.” This wisdom is offered by Sivananda Radha, a yogini, author, and founder of Sivananda Ashram in Burnaby, British Columbia. Her wisdom is a reminder that it is not at all unusual for us to find ourselves in situations we simply can’t change. Rather than deny the reality and avoid it as much as possible, a healthier approach is to apply radical acceptance. When that’s applied, we give the issue less power over us, and a path for moving forward emerges. An example of this taking place is provided by Brenda Shoshanna, PhD.

In her book Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen, Shoshanna tells of being a new student to meditation and attending her first meditation retreat led by a Zen master. The retreat took place in the winter; the center had no heat, and all the first-time visitors were required to sit near the back of the meditation hall where the doors were intentionally kept wide open to promote strong meditation concentration. Though Dr. Shoshanna wore three sweaters, she recalls: “I was shivering and angry, unable to concentrate on anything but the cold.”

Finally, a monk came to the back, telling the new students it was time to meet the Zen master, so they marched in a single file upstairs to the interview room. Seated before the Zen master, there was “dead silence” for a time before he finally asked, “Do you have any questions or comments?” When no one said anything, Dr. Shoshanna spoke out saying: “It’s freezing down there!” His answer was strong and fierce: “Then freeze!”

His response delivered this important lesson to Dr. Shoshanna: Accept reality rather than trying to change it or run from it. “When you are cold, freeze. When you are hot, burn. When you are sad, grieve. Whatever comes, welcome it 100 percent. Do not escape your experience. Do not avoid it in any way. This is mindfulness taken to its fullest extent.” It is the desire for things to be different that creates suffering. When that struggle is dropped, then the energy of living becomes calmer and more peaceful.

Place Yourself in the Presence of Spiritual Friends

David Viafora, an author and former monk in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, defines a spiritual friend as “someone who uplifts your path to a higher level of ethical and spiritual well-being.” The Buddha strongly stressed the importance of surrounding ourselves with a few spiritual friends when he made these comments: “One who has spiritual friends abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome.” And, “when you have spiritual friends, spiritual companions, spiritual associates, you live supported by their diligence and skillful qualities.”

Among the best places to make spiritual friends are yoga classes, meditation groups, and spiritual book clubs. If these are unavailable in your community, then an online search can put you in touch with like-minded people. Tina Turner offers this additional thought about finding spiritual friends, saying that “if we don’t have access to a mentor (spiritual friend) in person, we can experience the wisdom of a mentor through the written word.”

Let go of anger the Buddhist way.

Turning Poison into Medicine the Buddhist Way

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