By Bhikkhu U. Dhammajiva
Edited by: Swedish novice Dhammasami (Samuel Nordius)
"Glad at heart, I pay homage to the supreme sage- the giver of
blissful peace, the grate ocean of virtue, the physician for the samsaric
ills of beings, the sun that dispel the pitchy darkness of false views!"
– Lo-wáda Sangarava, 15th century Sinhalese poem
meditation-centers, as in monasteries in most Theravada-Buddhist
countries, you often find a peculiar kind of medicine: Yellow Myrobalan
nuts (in Pali: Hritaki, in Latin: Terminalia Chebula) pickled in cow’s
urine. The Burmese people calls it Pheya-se, ‘The Buddha Medicine’, since
it’s based on a recipe found in the oldest Buddhist texts, the Pali
Tipitaka. It’s considered to be a panacea for many diseases. But does it
really follow the original concept of the Buddha’s recommendation to use
muttam (urine) as medicine? That is what I intend to clarify in this
article by refering to four of the oldest Buddhist scriptures: 1.) The
Vinaya-Pitaka, the ancient collection of Buddhist monastic rules. 2.) The
Sutta Pitaka, the ancient collection of the Buddha’s discourses. 3.) The
so-called ‘Commentary’ and ‘Sub-commentary’, texts written by bhikkhus
(Buddhist monks) in the centuries following the Buddha’s death to clarify
the meaning of the texts found in the two collections first mentioned.
In an English translation of the Mahakkhandhaka (a text in
Mahavagga found in the Vinaya-Pitaka) the Buddha says:
"The religious life has decomposing urine as medicine for its
Thus you must endeavor to live all your life. Ghee, butter, oil, honey,
and molasses are extra allowances. "
An alternative translation says;
"Going forth [into the Holy Life] has fermented urine as its support. For
the rest of your life you are to endeavor at that. The extra allowances
are; Ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey, sugar. "
There are four such necessary supports/resources listed in the Vinaya
Pitaka. In Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist texts, they are
called "the Four Requisites", considered to be an absolute minimum for the
bhikkhus to be able to live the Holy Life in line with the
Buddha’s teaching. The above mentioned item, fermented urine, is the
fourth of these resources. All the four must be taught to the newly
ordained bhikkhu in the ordination hall immediately after his higher
ordination ceremony. It’s the responsibility of the preceptor to make sure
that all young bhikkhus knows them according to the following prescription
of the Buddha.
"I prescribe, O bhikkhus, that he who confers the higher ordination (on a
bhikkhu), tells him the four resources."
These are all the four resources listed in the Vinaya-Pitaka:
1. Robes: robes made of rags taken from a dust heap as a resource
2. Alms food: morsels of food given in alms as a resource
3. Dwellings: a dwelling at the foot of a tree as a resource
4. Medicines: decomposing urine as medicine as a resource
These four requisites/resources the Buddha described as being
indispensable or the bare minimum. Accordingly a Buddhist monk must
endeavor to live all his bhikkhu life dependent only on them. He who is
contented and satisfied with whatever comes across along with these bare
minimums is always phrased in the community, as well as in the Commentary,
as having contentment with whatever four requisites he has. Whatever extra
things he comes across beyond these four items is just a result of his
past good deeds, but they are usually also allowed for the bhikkhus. As
the founder of the Order, and therefore its first bhikkhu, the Buddha
assured all the bhikkhus that the prescribed bare minimums are quite
abundant. Besides, they were, at that time, free to find wherever a
bhikkhu would go.
In the Vinaya Pitaka, the books of monastic discipline, this medicine
(urine) is mentioned in several places. At one occasion, for example, the
Buddha recommend the yellow Myrobalan fruits pickled in urine for a monk
who was sick with jaundice (probably anaemia) to be taken orally:
"O, monks! I allow that urine and yellow Myrobalan be drunk."
At another occasion the Buddha included urine as an ingredient in a
mixture to be used as an antidote for poisonous snake bites. The other
ingredients are excrement, soil and hot ash. This quote is from the Vinaya
"For snake bite a medicine may be made of the four great filthy things:
excrement, urine, ash and clay. If there is someone present to make these
things allowable, one should have him/her make them allowable. If not, one
may take them for oneself and consume them."
The Commentary adds that this medicine is not only for snake bites but
also for any other poisonous animal bite.
Now, let’s have a look at the second ancient collection of Buddhist texts,
the Sutta Pitaka. According to the Ariyavaüsa Sutta in
Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha phrases four requisites of noble clans
(or lineages of traditions) in nine terms:
"Bhikkhus, these four [requisites] belong to the noble clan, were
recognized by those gone by, were honored from the past, recognized by the
clan, was not confusing in the past and will not confuse in the future and
are not blamed by recluses, brahmins and the wise. What four?" The
following four items are then listed:
2. Alms foods,
3. Dwellings and
4 . (delight in development of) Meditation.
In the two different lists so far mentioned the first one (quoted from the
Vinaya Pitaka) says that the four requisites for a monk are 1. robes, 2.
alms foods, 3. dwellings and 3. medicines. In the second list (which is
quoted from the Sutta Pitaka) the first three are identical to the first
list while the forth item in the first list, medicines, has been replaced
by (delight in development of) meditation.
The Commentary to the Ariyavaüsa Sutta says that even though the list, as
it appeares in the Sutta Pitaka, drops the forth item given in the Vinaya
Pitaka (medicines) that item should be included in the second item of the
Sutta (alms food). Furthermore, confirming the same idea, the forth item,
(delight in development of) meditation, is specified as "contentment with
whatever four requisites comes" in the same Commentary. It says:
"Among these four belonging to the Noble clan the first three items,
inclusive of thirteen austerities, are elaborated in the Vinaya pitaka
while the item of (delight in development of) meditation is elaborated in
the rest of the two baskets (pitakas or collections of Buddhist texts)."
To summarize, in the Sutta Pitaka you find only the first three of these
four requisites, with no urine or medicines mentioned, but the Commentary
says that the forth should be included in the list, in the alms food so
that all should be in completion to make delight in development of
Hence decomposing urine as medicine can claim for all the above mentioned
attributes, that is: urine was "recognized as a medicine by those gone by,
those honored from the past; that it was recognized by the clan; it was
not confusing in the past and it will not confuse in the future; and it’s
not blamed by recluses, Brahmins and the wise."
I would like to quote another translation of the same Sutta which goes as
"O monks, these four noble lineages pristine [including decomposing urine
as medicine], of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and
never before adulterated, which are not being adulterated and which will
not be adulterated, not despised by wise ascetics and Brahmins."
The authors of this translation added a footnote saying that in ancient
Sri Lanka this was a very popular Buddhist discourse among people of all
walks of life and that it became the inspiration for an annual festival.
In traditional Sinhalese translations, as in Burmese and Thai ones, the
medicine mentioned in the text has been taken to be cow’s urine or, more
specifically, Myrobalan fruits pickled in cow’s urine. Owing to this
translation some of the attributions of this medicine mentioned by the
Buddha doesn’t appeared to be very convincing or practical since it would
sometimes be hard for a bhikkhu to find both the Myrobalan fruit and cow’s
urine. However, in recent English translations we get some new practical
sense to this medicine.
Let me add here that it’s not only in Buddhism that we find urine as a
medicine but also in other denominations such as Christianity (in The Holy
Bible), Hinduism (in Damar Tantra) and, some claims, in Islam too (in The
Holy Koran). These traditions, however, have a somewhat different
interpretation than the Buddhist texts on how to use the medicine.
I can think of two reasons for why the usage of urine as medicine
resurfaced again contemporaneously in many traditions in our time. The
first is the increasing number of complications in the prevailing
allopathic or chemotherapeutic treatments of diseases which has made an
increasing number of people interested in alternative medicines. The
second is the general trend of searching for more holistic health systems,
even ancient ones based on different religious lines. Whatever the reasons
may be the urine-method has its own intriguing nature and might, I
believe, still find a growing group of followers.
A closer look at this therapy, under the current trend, irrespective of
creed, one finds a vast number of convincing testimonies and subjective
evidences on the benefits of the medicine. Buddhism can contribute in its
own way with its canonical and historical references on this subject –
provided that its ideas are presented in correct translations! So far
we’ve traced some quotations from the Vinaya Pitaka with relevant
information prescribed to bhikkhus. However, I think that the commentarial
text has interfered in a questionable and imperfect manner. In the
traditional Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Burma or Thailand, no
efforts have been made in resent history to get a clear idea of how the
medicine was intended to be used, or how it was used at the time of the
The increasing amount of literature on the subject, with testimonies and
evidences from the other sources, made me think twice and urged me to
renew the way I read the quoted passages in the Buddhist canonical
sources. I went back to the original scriptures, untouched by the
prevalent traditional translations. When investigating the Sutta Pitaka
with this inquisitive pragmatic approach I came across the following
quotation in the Majjima Nikaya (the Middle Length Discourses of
the Buddha), Sutta number 46 called Dhamma Samadana Sutta:
"Bhikkhu, a man would come along suffering from jaundice and he is told:
‘Friend, there is a drink made out of putrid urine, with various kinds of
medicines put in it. If you desire – drink.’ When drinking it would not be
agreeable to sight, smell or taste but drinking it you will get over your
illness. He reflects about it and drinks it. It would not be agreeable to
sight, smell or taste, yet he would get over that illness. I say this
observance of the Teaching is comparable to this, as it is now unpleasant
and brings pleasant results in the future."
The Commentary to this Sutta says:
"[The Pali word] Putimuttan means just ‘urine’. So it’s said, that even if
a person is golden in color his body is described as repulsive in the
scriptures. Even? born the very same day the vine called Galocilata is
also called Patilata (literary: repulsive creeper). Even so, extracted in
that very moment, the young (or fresh) urine is called just puti (usually
translated as ‘putrid’ or ‘fermented’)."
The Sub-commentary continues to explain:
"[The Pali word] Putimuttan means urine which is repulsive in nature.
Tarunan means fresh or young; as it flows out it is warm?. From that urine
the early part of the flow is meant here. The urine flowing out from the
genital? remains warm due to the body temperature."
These details indicate that the prevailing translations of the Vinaya
Pitaka might be incorrect. The Commentary and Sub-commentary leads us to a
more practical and pragmatic end, supported by the direct translation of
the Dhamma Samadana Sutta. Yet they’re often interpreted as meaning only
putrid urine from a cow.
Just by consulting the relevant Commentary and its Sub-commentary all
doubts regarding the real meaning can be cleared out. They state that
urine – to be specific: one’s own urine – would not be agreeable to sight,
smell or taste and accordingly has puti as an adjectival prefix. It is
puti not because it is rotten or fermented but because its intrinsic
nature is repulsive to the senses. If the common translations are changed
in line with this interpretation the basic idea of using urine as a
medicine becomes more palatable and, not to diminish, quite agreeable with
the current research and literature on the subject.
It’s also interesting to note that the medicine mentioned in the
Dhamma Samadana Sutta (one’s own urine mixed up with other herbal
medicine) is recommended to any individual who’s suffering from jaundice
rather than to a just to the bhikkhus as is otherwise the case in the
Vinaya Pitaka. This tells that the medicine was not seen as just a ‘last
choice’ but as a truly effective remedy.
In the light of this information we should look again at the very first
quotation in this essay. The main theme so far is that repulsive urine as
medicine, which is the last of the four requisites for bhikkhus, is
considered to be the absolute minimum of medicine that a bhikkhu will need
through out his life.
The Pali term Putimuttabhesajja is a compounded term made out of
at least three pali roots; puti, mutta and bhesajja.
As we’ve already seen this word has been translated as:
1.) Decomposing urine as medicine. Or as: 2.) Fermented urine as support.
The word puti literally means either decomposing or fermented,
sometimes translated as rancid or putrefied. Muttam means urine,
sometimes translated as cows’ urine, and occasionally as ammonia.
Bhesajjam means medicine.
In the Vinaya Pitaka, whether with the consultation of its Commentary or
not, there is little chance to find out what kind of urine is meant
because neither the Vinaya nor its Commentary adds any further light on
the subject. In the Sutta Pitaka, on the other hand, especially in MN.
Sutta No 46 and its relevant Commentary and Sub-commentary, there’s enough
evidence to suggest a more pragmatic meaning than that commonly accepted
today. "It would not be agreeable to sight, smell or taste" suggests that
the adjective putidoes not mean any decomposition, fermentation or
putrefaction but that urine is naturally disagreeable to sight, smell or
taste – a statement most people would agree with. The original
recommendation may not have meant any decomposition, fermentation or
putrefaction at all, as the translators’ has interpreted it so far. Nor do
the scriptures in any way indicate that it was cow’s urine that the Buddha
originally referred to.
The Sub-commentary says:
"As urine pass out from the genital it is warm due to the body heat".
There is not a word or clue justifying the assumption that cows’ urine is
The interpretation I prefer, on the other hand, is quite in line with the
Commentary and the Sub-commentary to the above mentioned Sutta and with
the contemporary idea of using one’s own urine. Hence the translation to
the first quotations could be rectified as follows:
"The religious life has your own (repulsive) urine as medicine
for its resource. Thus you must endeavor to live all your life. Ghee,
butter, oil, honey, and molasses are extra allowances."
Or: "Going forth [into the Holy Life] has your own (repulsive)
urine as its support. For the rest of your life you are to endeavor at
that. The extra allowances are; Ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey, sugar."
Likewise, all other quotations could be corrected accordingly. This should
give a radical new approach to the prescription given by the Buddha. It
certainly does give a new hope for a healthier lifestyle – not only for
the bhikkhus but for all who seek to live a more independent kind of