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Religion, Medicine and the Human Embryo in Tibet

This book examines representations of the human body in pre-modern Tibetan literature. The work links aspects of Tibetan religion, medicine, art and literature through a study of embryology—descriptions of the development of the human body from conception to birth. Accounts of embryology are found in all forms of Tibetan religious literature, as well as in medical texts and in art. What is it about gestation that so intrigued Tibetan scholars? As it turns out, a study of medical commentaries during the renaissance period shows that even for medical writers, the problems of gestation are fundamentally Buddhist problems. In other words, knowing about embryology is knowing about religion. In scholarly writing on the religious path, gestation serves theorizers of the path perfectly: When the exoteric path teaches suffering, gestation is about suffering; when the esoteric path teaches liberation through bodily practices, gestation is about rebirth into an enlightened body. Contemplative practices such as that of ‘closing the womb’s door’ require knowledge of conception and gestation; in the meditative practice of ‘bringing the three bodies to the path’ too, knowing embryogenesis is knowing religion. Gestation is scripted to serve religious ideology, I argue, and as an exemplar of the religious path, gestation is ultimately about growth and change.

Embodiment and Embryology in Tibetan Literature

In this article I focus on the presence of embryology in Tibetan literature as it occurs from the twelfth century through the sixteenth century. First I summarise the sources for embryological information that Tibetan writers had available to them in the eleventh to twelfth centuries. Where did they learn about how humans are conceived and grow, and what sources influenced them most? After introducing a few Tibetan literary sources in which we find embryology addressed, I discuss the relationship between how we read such embryological narratives, and what we understand them to say. I preface this by noting that embryology, physiology and anatomy, as sub-branches of the discipline of biology with specific definitions and histories in Euro-American thought, have no direct terminological or conceptual correlative in Tibetan. What I am calling ‘embryology’ in this article is in Tibetan literature simply the ‘formation of the body’ (lus kyi chags tshul or grub pa lus gnas), a topic that begins with a discussion of conception and typically ends with the moment of birth. Similarly, in Tibetan literature there is no single, unambiguous term for ‘embryo’: that which we call the ‘embryo’ and the ‘foetus’ is in Tibetan literature referred to as the ‘body (lus) forming in the womb’, as ‘that which resides in the womb’ (mngal gnas), as the ‘womb’ itself (conflating the term for womb, mngal, with the embryo), or simply as the ‘child’ (phru gu). Despite this, the phenomenon of the ‘embryological narrative’—that is, the detailed description of the developing human body in the womb—is widespread from the early days of Tibetan literature to the present. Although today we consider embryology to be unambiguously a topic of biology, science, or medicine—hence the appearance of this paper in this volume—how appropriate is this in the context of Tibetan literary history?

Buddhism and the Historicizing of Medicine in 13th-c. Tibet

The earliest commentaries on the Four Medical Tantras date to the time of the twelfth-century G.yu thog himself and are found in a collection of medical works known as the Eighteen Additional Practices (Cha lag bco brgyad). This anthology of short texts includes some of the earliest indigenous Tibetan medical works still extant, and it provides us with a glimpse of a time in Tibetan history when borders between intellectual disciplines and literary genres were ill-defined. For later historians, both inside and outside Tibet, these texts are evidence of a struggle among medical scholars to articulate the boundaries of their discipline and its relationship to the increasingly dominant Buddhist worldview.The Eighteen Additional Practices collection as a whole is commonly attributed to G.yu thog yon tan mgon po himself. Most of these texts appear rather to have been authored by G.yu thog’s students or teachers, dating the collection to a period of two generations from the mid-twelfth to the mid-thirteenth century. The eighteen texts, summarized in this paper, are important to our understanding of the history of medicine in Tibet, as the teachings of G.yu thog and his students dominated Central Tibetan medical scholarship for several generations and thus had a shaping influence on the trajectory of medicine. Offering some of the earliest expressions of medical historiography found in Tibetan literature, several of these texts display an explicit concern to show medicine to be part of Buddhist history. Other texts in the collection exhibit the heavy influence of religious practice on the work of medical healing. It is clear that the collection is an important early reflection of a form of medicine that, by our own standards at least, extends well into the realm of religious practice. It thus brings to mind critical questions about our understanding of disciplinary boundaries in this period of Tibetan history, which cautions us to proceed carefully in the application of classificatory systems in currency today to ancient bodies of knowledge and literature.

Critical Methods in Tibetan Medical Histories

This paper addresses the development of scholastic medical traditions in Tibet through examination of lists of physicians. I consider debates that such lists and their accompanying narratives engender for Tibetan historians and reflect on contributions they make to the identity of the medical tradition. By examining the structure and content of classificatory methods in medical histories, I consider how temporally-organized lists document the place of medicine across time, geographically-organized lists document the reach of medical knowledge across space, and thematically-organized lists document the intertwining of medical knowledge and skill with other aspects of intellectual and civil life. In making these lists, medical historians painted a portrait of the Tibetan medical tradition that evoked connections to Buddhism and the strength and cosmopolitanism of the Imperial Period. Medical histories thus emphasize a picture of Tibet in the context of Asia more widely, a Tibet whose Empire lives on culturally or intellectually, if not militarily.

Hybrid Methodologies in the Lhasa Mentsikhang

A number of studies have been published in the last decade documenting the practice of Tibetan medicine in Tibetan regions of the People’s Republic of China. Many of these articles have focused on the effects of “modernization” on the practice of medicine in the Mentsikhang in Lhasa. The present article announces the presence of new multimedia resources for the study of Tibetan medicine, based on a series of videos shot in the Lhasa Mentsikhang. These resources, freely available online, used along with the growing list of scholarly publications by ethnographers who have worked in Lhasa, greatly enhance the richness of materials available for teaching about Tibetan medicine in the university classroom.

Ordering Human Growth in Embryology

Buddhists throughout history and across Asia considered knowledge of embryology to be an important aspect of both medical and religious thought and practice. Embryology has been historically, and is still today, a forum for Indian and Tibetan scholars and practitioners of different traditions to set forth their own philosophical views, and the widespread effects of these debates point to the prominence of embryological thinking in the greater Buddhist milieu. Although in much of the modern world embryological details are now scientific questions, in the ancient Asian world “scientific” details such as these were often quite centrally religious or philosophical issues. This essay discusses writings embryology as they begins to appear in Tibetan texts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, focusing especially upon the contentious issue of the sequence of fetal development.