Being Human in a Buddhist World

An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet

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Janet Gyatso
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , February
     544 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


By critically examining a daunting amount of medical literature, Janet Gyatso’s latest book, Being Human in a Buddhist World, brings to light a heretofore much neglected side of Tibetan history. It is not simply hymn to the triumph of science—or an “alternative modernity”—in Early Modern Tibet, but a sophisticated analysis of the inner workings of human intellectual activities in the heyday of Tibetan medicine, or in Gyatso’s own words, “a study of self-positioning, fine distinctions, innuendo, and multiple levels of irony, not to mention fuzziness (intentional or not), sleight of hand, split differences, and patent self-contradiction” (17-18). Not only does this heavy tome familiarize the reader with Tibetan medicine and an alternative mode of medical thinking, it also trains the reader to heighten their sensibilities to appreciate various rhetorical strategies and intellectual tendencies.

This book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (chap. 1-2) showcases the medical star, Desi Sangyé Gyamtso (Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho; 1653–1705)—the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama—who authored the famous Blue Beryl and supported the founding of lChags-po-ri College of Medicine. In chapter 1, to the fore is the “Illustrations to the Blue Beryl,” a remarkable set of seventy-nine medical thangkas (“scroll paintings”) overseen by the Desi. Putting aside the didactic function, Gyatso samples the thangkas with a keen eye for the aesthetics and semiotics as well as political connotations. Chapter 2 reconstructs the “medical mentality” reflected in the Desi’s writings and the accompanying bellicosity, which to a certain degree, embrace evidential reasoning and encourage medical innovations.

Part 2 (chap. 3-5) takes on three points of contention that had been under debate for centuries before the Desi’s time, which attracted the attention of other giants of medicine, such as Zurkharwa Lodrö Gyelpo (1509-1779). The first dispute, detailed in chapter 3, revolves around the authority of the Four Treatises (rGyud bzhi), a root text of Tibetan medicine attributed to Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha. By reporting the back-and-forth seesaw battle, Gyatso illustrates how historicist and empirical attitudes developed and functioned in the medical tradition. Chapter 4 deals with how empirical anatomical knowledge interacts with and challenges Buddhist views of the human body. For example, the tantric channels were invoked and theorized in many medical writings—in juxtaposition with the channels of medical practices. Chapter 5 tackles the debate on whether the heart leans in two opposite directions in the male and female sexes. Despite the authoritative claim in the root text, prominent medical writers managed to push back against this notion with their skillful rhetoric devices.

Part 3 (chap. 6-7), focusing on the issue of gender and ethics, strikes a fine balance between full awareness of the contextual complexities and maintaining a critical distance. Chapter 6 examines the ramifications of the Four Treatises’s insertion of women’s medicine into the eight principal branches. This maneuver sets itself apart from its Indian precursor, and ironically, still reflects “the reigning Buddhist misogyny” (300). While acknowledging the social importance of women, the Tibetan science of fertility and sexology (ro tsa), as one of the eight branches, nonetheless reveals androcentric viewpoints and attitudes. Lastly, chapter 7 centers on applied ethics, or the so-called “human dharma” (mi chos) of medical learning and practices, as opposed to the ethics of the Buddha dharma. It adopts certain Tantric rhetoric and techniques, promotes book learning, and concerns itself overall with “managing realities and forces outside the physician’s individual power” (393).

As an engaging account about how medicine as a Tibetan knowledge tradition (Tib. Sowa Rikpa; Skt. cikitsāvidyā) advanced in a pre-modern environment, Gyatso’s book will be, no doubt, of great interest to Tibetologists, intellectual historians, and historians of science alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yi Ding is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University, where she serves on the faculty of the Divinity School, in the Study of Religion, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Inner Asian and Altaic Studies. Her writing has centered on Tibetan Buddhism and its cultural and intellectual history from the perspective of large issues in the humanities about human experience and its literary presentation. She is the author of Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary, as well as several edited volumes.


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