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Mercury, Mad Dogs and Smallpox: Medicine in the Situ Panchen Tradition

Famous for his contributions to art and grammar, Situ Panchen is also claimed by Tibetan medical historians as one of the great figures of medicine. He was a major supporter of institutional medicine, sponsoring the reprinting of a number of important medical works, and establishing a medical college at Dpal spungs monastery. Not only did he support the medical tradition administratively, he himself was also an active student, teacher and practitioner of medicine. This paper discusses a few features of the Situ tradition of medicine, based on a study of several works attributed to Situ and to his students. I begin with a quick overview of Situ’s own medical practice and the state of institutional and textual medicine in Situ’s day, and I then comment on some distinctive features of the Situ medical tradition itself by examining the kinds of texts dominant in this tradition and the textual sources it considers authoritative. Where, among the vast body of Tibetan literature that had accumulated by the eighteenth century, did Situ and his students find authoritative information about healing illness? In the second part of this paper, I focus in particular on three topics – the use of mercury, the treatment of mad dogs, and remedies for smallpox. Our quick look at these three topics will allow me to characterize further a distinctive Situ medical tradition.

The Alchemy of Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub)

This essay examines historical and contemporary connections between Buddhist and medical traditions through a study of the Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub) practice and the Yuthok Heart Essence (G.yu thog snying thig) anthology. Accomplishing Medicine is an esoteric Buddhist yogic and contemplative exercise focused on several levels of “alchemical” transformation. The article will trace the acquisition of this practice from India by Tibetan medical figures and its assimilation into medical practice. It will propose that this alchemical practice forms the central nexus of connection between Tibetan medicine and the Buddhist Nyingma tradition, and that this little-studied link is not a marginal feature of Tibetan medicine but rather one that has had a significant shaping factor on each tradition throughout history.

Empowering the Medicine

This project focuses on Tibetan historical and contemporary ritual practice in the medical tradition, oriented primarily around a study of Empowering the Medicine (sman grub), a procedure during which doctors ceremonially bless medicinal substances. We are focusing on the textual documentation of this tradition and also conducting fieldwork in Tibet.

Interpreting Visual Representations of Tibetan Ritual

monks watching wedding

This project, ongoing now in Tibet and Toronto, is creating a cross-cultural collaborative model for the interpretation of visual media. Drawing on ideas and methods from Digital Humanities, Visual Anthropology, Religious Studies and Literary Theory, the project’s model is an innovative application of technology to visual anthropological and multimedia archival research. Following visual culture theorists, the project sees images as socially constructed forms of expression, rather than as empirical windows into “reality,” and thus emphasizes a critical perspective that cultural events may be understood from many different viewpoints. Our interpretive model puts this viewpoint into practice by utilizing a digital environment for collaborative analyses of ethnographic video. The ethnographic knowledge generated within this environment, shaped by concerns of voice, authorship and authority, offers a new and dynamic web of “truths” about visual representation and the cultural spaces it depicts.

Tapping the Body’s Nectar: Gastronomy and Incorporation in Tibetan Literature

Fire offering

This paper presents a set of thirteenth-century Tibetan texts that prescribe the consumption of human by-products, such as flesh, excrement or urine, and consider several discursive contexts in which these prescriptions may be understood. I argue that Tibetan tantric prescriptions to consume human by-products are in an important way “medical” in their language, and that this is particularly clear if we recognize that in Tibetan (and South Asian) contexts, “medicine” involves not only the healing of illness, but also the enhancing of health, vitality and power. I suggest that the thirteenth-century flourishing of nectar-oriented writings in both medical and religious circles shaped each of these traditions in important ways, and that this period configured Tibetan nectar practices in ways that are markedly distinct from their manifestations in Indian Tantra. The paper begins with discussion of a constellation of Buddhist texts on Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub), a practice at the core of the early Nectar Tantras corpus (Bdud rtsi yon tan rgyud), and then consider the thirteenth-century codification of nectar practice in the Nyingma (Rnying ma) tradition, which occurred simultaneous with the development of the tradition of the Four Medical Tantras (Rgyud bzhi) (which became the dominant medical work of Central Tibet not long afterwards). I then examine several narrative, ritual and cultural contexts in which we may find the language of consuming human by-products to be significant, moving beyond the realm of the Highest Yoga Tantra sādhana practices in which they are typically contextualized, to consider their role in the intertwined languages of offering and generosity, eating and digestion, and alchemy and incorporation. My interest primarily is in the fact that these substances, whatever they may be, are to be eaten; and to be more specific, I am curious about the use of the language of consumption, a discourse which I will call gastronomic.

Health, Medicine, and Modernity in Tibetan Contexts

New technologies at the Mentsikhang

The two Tibetan medical panels at the XIth seminar at Königswinter, Germany, in 2006 included thirty-four papers on a wide range of topics relating to Tibetan medicine. This volume publishes a selection of those papers in both English and Tibetan, with a preface by Geoffrey Samuel and an Introduction by Sienna Craig, Mingji Cuomu, Frances Garrett, and Mona Schrempf.

Eating Letters in the Tibetan Treasure Tradition


This paper discusses the presence of a practice referred to as “edible letters” (za yig) in Tibetan Treasure texts (gter ma) and medical literature. The eating of these small papers on which letters are written serves a wide range of practical needs, from increasing one’s wisdom or winning arguments, to protecting against disease, spirit possession or dog bite, and it is often combined with Buddhist visualization exercises. The paper presents the development of the tradition over several centuries, identifies possible connections with similar Chinese practices, and recommends that eating letters be understood as part of a broader embodied alchemy of the alphabet. As such, edible letters unite contemplative, devotional, occult, medical, astrological, cryptographic and dietetic realms of knowledge and practice, and recommend new ways of reading across geographic, sectarian, professional or doctrinal boundaries.

Tibetan Medicine Resources

This project focuses on the development of multimedia resources for the study of Tibetan medicine. The project is now hosted at Most materials were collected for the Tibetan and Himalayan Library (THL), primarily between 2000 and 2002, in Lhasa. While the project now focuses only on Tibetan medicine as practiced in Central Tibet, I am now in conversation with medical institutions in Amdo regions of China about developing a similar body of resources for the study of medicine in that area.

The Three Channels in Tibetan Medical and Religious Texts

This article comments on a centuries-old controversy in Tibetan literature: how the complex descriptions of the human circulatory system found in Buddhist tantric contemplative texts can be reconciled with descriptions of the circulatory system in Tibetan medical texts. In an essay translated within this article, the eminent twentieth-century Tibetan scholar of religion and medicine, Tsultrim Gyaltsen, addresses this problem with recourse to texts dating back to some of the earliest periods of Tibetan literary history. Tsultrim Gyaltsen’s voice thus adds a contemporary flavor to an ancient debate. In an introductory section, we contextualize the translation with a brief overview of Tibetan medical and religious views on the human circulatory system.

Buddhist Narratives of the Forces of Creation

In this essay I consider the mechanics of causation in Tibetan narratives of human gestation. Describing the most dramatic transformation we can experience, embryology is fundamentally about change. A venue for discussing what causes growth and how change occurs, it is about “becoming” as much as “being.” Buddhists throughout history have concerned themselves with describing how change occurs in the various realms of human experience. Defining such metaphysical concepts and integrating them into systems of thought and practice is central to Buddhism from its earliest origins in India, and embryological narratives were a compelling means of expressing these difficult concepts. From India these narratives traveled to Tibet with Buddhist literature, and they were embellished by Tibetans in religious and medical circles over the centuries to follow. This essay considers how embryological narratives interacted with each other and with their literary environments throughout Tibetan history, asking more widely what embryology may tell us about the intertwining of religion and medicine in Tibet.