Hidden Paradises of the Himalaya: Kangchenjunga & Beyul

“A distant view of a snowy range…has a strange power of moving all poets and persons of imagination,” wrote Douglas Freshfield in his 1903 memoir, Round Kangchenjunga. The British mountaineer was describing his vision of the 8586-meter Mt. Kangchenjunga from the hill-station of Darjeeling. Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world and has […]

Gesar’s Therapeutic Geographies

This paper explores how practices of healing or information about medicine operate in the Gesar epic. I begin with a discussion of a few relevant examples from commonly known Gesar episodes, proposing that beyond being of significant interest in themselves, these stories may be rich sources for questioning how the category of ‘medicine’ may be […]

Gold, Statue, Text: Mapping Movement in Tibetan History

A digital project with a collection of essays, art historical resources, textual databases, mapping, and architectural modeling, this website is a pilot project for an approach to visualizing the movement of people and things around culturally significant places. It is the product of a phase of research by a group of scholars, architects, and web […]

གླིང་སྒྲུང་ལས་བྱིང་བའི་བོད་པའི་གསོ་རིག་སྐོར་གླེང་པ། (Tibetan Medicine in the Gesar Epic)

2014. གླིང་སྒྲུང་ལས་བྱིང་བའི་བོད་པའི་གསོ་རིག་སྐོར་གླེང་པ། Gling sgrung las byung ba’i bod pa’i gso rig skor gleng pa (Tibetan Medicine in the Gesar Epic), published by Qinghai Nationalities University Gesar Research Institute Press (China) in 2014. Chopa Dondrup is primary editor; I am collaborator and producer. 226 pages plus 2 DVDs.

The Making of Medical History

This essay addresses the transmission of medical knowledge in Tibet spanning a period of roughly six hundred years. I begin with an overview of several of the major traditions of Tibetan medicine during this period, emphasizing both how intertwined they are with each other and how connected they are to contemporaneous Buddhist traditions. I then […]

Smoke and Sky, Faith and Fortune

This film documents a Buddhist ritual practice conducted in the home of the filmmaker’s family in an Eastern Tibetan region of China. The practice involves creating elaborate decorated sculptures out of dough, which are known in Tibetan as torma. In this film, these are offered as food for non-human spirits who may otherwise harm people or animals of the household. Enticing harmful spirits away from the house, monks and lay participants work together to create good fortune for the family in the coming year.

Making Prosperity

In this film, Buddhist monks prepare for a ritual in which they ask a deity for luck and prosperity. The ritual is performed in the filmmaker’s village in Eastern Tibet. The film offers a rare study of one of the most important tasks in preparing a Tibetan ritual, the making of torma, elaborate sculptures made from dough and decorated with colored butter. Depicting a variety of kinds of torma, from those that are used to expel harmful spirits to those that are made to be homes for deities, the film shows the integration of these objects into a family’s life.

Seeds in the Wind

This film documents traditional food collection, production and consumption practices in the filmmaker’s remote Tibetan village.

Narratives of Hospitality and Feeding in Tibetan Ritual

This essay proposes that many Tibetan rituals are shaped by a language of creating, giving and eating food. Drawing on a range of pre-modern texts and observation of a week-long Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub) ritual based on those texts, we explore ritualized food interactions from a narrative perspective. Through the creation, offering, and consumption of food, ritual participants, including Buddhas, deities and other unseen beings, create and maintain variant identities and relationships with each other. Using a ritual tradition that crosses religious and medical domains in Tibet, we examine how food and eating honors, constructs and maintains an appropriate and spatio-temporally situated community order with a gastronomic contract familiar to all participants.

Shaping the Illness of Hunger: A Culinary Aesthetics of Food and Healing in Tibet

This essay considers the relationship between eating and maintaining health or curing illness, as seen in Tibetan pre-modern texts. In particular, it focuses on selected “ritually” enhanced food practices that are aimed at treating illness and improving one’s psycho-physical health and power. It begins with a look at practices that model hunger as an illness for both humans and non-humans, observing a resulting blurring of boundaries between food and medicine. The essay proposes continuity along a range of “culinary” practices, focusing in particular on “ritual cake” (gtor ma) offerings and “nectar” (bdud rtsi) recipes involving creation of pills and healing foods. The essay posits a “culinary aesthetics” of healing and personal enhancement and introduces speculation about Tibetan understandings of food as medicine that may shape our understanding of the relationship between medical and religious thinking and practice in Tibet.

“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

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

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?

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.

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