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Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
SGI members often speak of “turning poison into medicine” when they describe how their Buddhist practice has enabled them to transform a difficult, negative or painful situation into something positive.
In its most fundamental sense, “changing poison into medicine” refers to the transformation of deluded impulses into enlightenment. The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, attributed to the third-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, compares the Lotus Sutra to “a great physician who changes poison into medicine.” This is because the Lotus Sutra opens the possibility of enlightenment to people whose arrogance and complacency had caused them to “scorch the seeds of Buddhahood.” In earlier sutras such people had been condemned as being incapable of becoming Buddhas. An important implication of this principle, thus, is that there is no one who is beyond redemption.
In his writing, “On First Hearing the Teaching of the Supreme Vehicle,” Nichiren develops this idea, stating that by using the power of the Mystic Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, one can transform the three paths of deluded impulses, karma and suffering into the three virtues of the Buddha, i.e., the Dharma body, wisdom and emancipation.
This can be understood to mean that any unfavorable situation can be changed into a source of value. More fundamentally, it is by challenging and overcoming painful circumstances that we grow as human beings.
How we respond to life’s inevitable sufferings is the key. Negative, painful experiences are often necessary to motivate us. One Buddhist scripture describes illness as awakening the desire to seek the truth. Likewise, people have been inspired to a lifetime commitment to peace and justice by their experience of war and injustice.
The process of changing poison into medicine begins when we approach difficult experiences as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to strengthen and develop our courage and compassion.
The process of changing poison into medicine begins when we approach difficult experiences as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to strengthen and develop our courage and compassion. The more we are able to do this, the more we are able to grow in vitality and wisdom and realize a truly expansive state of life.
Suffering can thus serve as a springboard for a deeper experience of happiness. From the perspective of Buddhism, inherent in all negative experiences is this profound positive potential. However, if we are defeated by suffering or respond to challenging circumstances in negative and destructive ways, the original “poison” is not transformed but remains poison.
Buddhism teaches that suffering derives from karma, the causes that we ourselves have created. The Buddhist teaching of karma is one of personal responsibility. It is therefore our responsibility to transform sufferings into value-creating experiences. The Buddhist view of karma is not fixed or fatalistic—even the most deeply entrenched karmic patterns can be transformed.
By taking a difficult situation—illness, unemployment, bereavement, betrayal—and using it as an opportunity to deepen our sense of personal responsibility, we can gain and develop the kind of self-knowledge from which benefit flows. Buddhism teaches that self-knowledge ultimately is awareness of our own infinite potential, our capacity for inner strength, wisdom and compassion. This infinite potential is referred to as our “Buddha nature.”
related article Good and Evil The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are innate, inseparable aspects of life. This view makes it impossible to label a particular individual or group as "good" or "evil." The original meaning of the phrase “to turn poison into medicine” relates to this level of self-knowledge.
In the “Belief and Understanding” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Subhuti and others of the Buddha’s long-time disciples respond to the prophecy that another disciple, Shariputra, will attain the ultimate enlightenment. The disciples admit that they had long ago given up on becoming Buddhas themselves, but that on hearing the teaching of the Lotus Sutra they renounced their earlier stance of resignation and spiritual laziness: “[T]heir minds were moved as seldom before and danced for joy.” Nagarjuna and T’ien-t’ai (538–597) therefore compare the Buddha to a good doctor capable of turning poison (the laziness and resignation of the aged disciples) into medicine (a sincere aspiration for the ultimate enlightenment of Buddhahood).
This teaching of the possibility of profound transformation makes Buddhism a deeply optimistic philosophy. This optimism propels Buddhists as they seek to transform the negative and destructive tendencies within their lives as well as those in society and the world at large.
[Courtesy January 2002 SGI Quarterly]