A Buddhist Innovation - The Sauna

by Bhante S. Dhammika, The Buddhist Channel, 8 July 2023

Sydney, Australia -- The teachings of Buddha encompass a wide range of philosophies and principles, but one aspect often overlooked is his emphasis on good health. Buddha recognized the significance of maintaining and nurturing one's well-being, both physical and psychological.

The Buddha's central concern was suffering (dukkha) and its causes. He categorized suffering into physical and psychological aspects, acknowledging that sickness and disease are obvious sources of physical suffering.
However, the misconception that all illnesses result from past moral failings (kamma) is refuted by the Buddha. He criticized this notion, emphasizing that not every cause has a moral dimension. While everything has a cause, most effects we experience are not kammic. This understanding allows for a more nuanced view of health and illness, separating them from notions of moral judgment.

Recognizing sickness as a source of pain and suffering, the Buddha emphasized the importance of cherishing good health. He defined good health as a state of well-being, balanced digestion, and conducive conditions for striving.

Buddha regarded good health as one of the "five good fortunes" and identified it as one of the factors for striving. This emphasis led Buddhist monks to have a close involvement in medicine and healing throughout history.

An unexpected outcome of the Buddha's emphasis on good health was the development of saunas. Saunas, designed to induce sweating for hygienic or medical reasons, found mention in the ancient Buddhist scriptures known as the Tipitaka.

The Buddha provided detailed instructions on sauna layout and usage, including aspects such as flooring, drainage, and steam control. These instructions aimed to ensure cleanliness and optimal sweating conditions. The saunas mentioned in the scriptures were often referred to as "hot houses" or "fire rooms."

Indian Buddhist monks introduced saunas to China, where the practice spread to Korea and eventually Japan. The Daito Seiiki Diary of Genjo Sanzo mentions Chinese Buddhist temples with saunas accessible to the public. These temples also provided medicine and food for the benefit of the poor and sick. Saunas became integral to many larger temples in Japan, evolving into the modern Japanese baths known as sento.

Initially intended for monks, these baths were occasionally open to others. Records even mention the compassionate act of Emperor Shomu's wife, who personally washed the sick as an act of piety. The tradition of temple baths continued, and public saunas and baths were often built in a temple-like style, which continues to this day.

The influence of saunas spread westward to Iran and eventually Turkey. Interestingly, the Finnish and Mexican Mayan saunas developed independently from Indian influence. However, with the decline of Buddhism in India, saunas also lost popularity. Possible reasons for their decline include the prevalence of ritual washing in sacred rivers in Hinduism or societal concerns regarding the mixing of different castes.

The resurgence of saunas in India occurred with the arrival of Muslims in the 12th century. The Qadimi Hammam in Bhopal, established in the early 1700s, stands as the oldest operating sauna in India today.

While the Buddha's philosophical teachings often receive primary attention, his emphasis on good health is an important and often overlooked aspect of his legacy. The Buddha's understanding of suffering and his encouragement to cherish and maintain good health has had a lasting impact.

The development of saunas, originating from the Buddha's teachings on health, demonstrates the practical application of these principles across cultures and centuries. From ancient Buddhist scriptures to the spread of saunas in different parts of the world, the influence of Buddhism on the concept of health and well-being is significant and enduring.
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