Category: Publications - page 2

“What children need”: Making Childhood with Technologies of Protection and Healing

In this article I explore the care of children in Tibetan culture as expressed through several works on the medical and ritual treatment and protection of children. These texts describe a remarkably broad range of technologies aimed and healing and protecting children, recommending the feeding of pills, soups, butters, beers, or texts to children, parents, or deities; physically manipulative techniques, such as as surgery, washing, annointing, fumigating or massaging; the wearing of all manner of amulets, talismans, strings, papers, ointments, or letters; and the theatrical staging of elaborate hospitality or ransom dramas. Some of the texts I will examine are old, but all of them are in use today, in some way, each having been recently reprinted in one or more editions; none of this material is therefore obscure or terribly esoteric. Anyone who has spent time around small children in Tibetan parts of Asia, particularly in rural areas, will have observed ample evidence of the kinds of therapeutic technologies we will see described in these texts: amulets hanging from children’s necks, mantras and diagrams posted on household doors, ransom effigies left at dusty intersections. Through an examination of the making and use of these therapeutic and protective objects, I will propose that we can describe a material culture of childhood that may in turn tell us a bit about the child as a category.

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.

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.

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.

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?