Being Human in a Buddhist World

By Janet Gyatso
Columbia University Press, 2015
544 pp., 51 illustrations; $45.00 (Cloth)

How is a devout Buddhist scholar to react when his or her allegiance to scripture and tradition is challenged by empirical, scientific knowledge? A version of this question was posed to the 14th Dalai Lama at one of the early Mind and Life gatherings, which bring Buddhist adepts and scientists into dialogue, but the issues that underpin it are far older than recent “East meets West” encounters. Navigating the contradictions between medical and religious wisdom, intellectuals of early modern Tibet found themselves in an epistemic struggle not unlike that of the protagonists of the European Enlightenment. Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School, studies the Tibetan struggle between early modern and religious values in her new book on Tibetan medicine, Being Human in a Buddhist World.

Tibetan medicine, believed to have integrated medical knowledge of the Indian Ayurvedic, Chinese, Tibetan Bön, and other Central Asian traditions, is not a subject that has received much attention in Western scholarship. Medical knowledge per se is not, however, the primary topic of the book. Rather, Gyatso gives a careful introduction to the complex history of knowledge about medicine in a world in which vested religious, political, and scientific interests vie for dominance and control.

Tensions between religious authority and scientific empirical findings appear even in the foundational text of Tibetan medicine, the Four Treatises, which claims to contain verbatim instructions from the historical Buddha, conferred to an audience at Tanaduk, the “city of medicine.” The 16th-century medical scholar Zurkharwa Lodro Gyelpo challenged the text’s status as “Buddha word,” implying that it must be of Tibetan rather than Indian provenance—a serious allegation in the Tibetan Buddhist world, in which scriptural authority is derived from the authenticity of its source. Gyatso gives a thorough account of the dilemma facing the scholars who had to play the double role of protecting science from having to defend statements that contradict empirical or historical realities while upholding respect and devotion for the transmission of authoritative scripture.

The picture is further complicated when political interests come into play. Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653–1705), regent of the 5th Dalai Lama, worked to consolidate the Great Fifth’s power by promoting him not only as a caring head of state but also as an embodiment of enlightened compassion and a patron of medical knowledge. Zurkharwa’s assessment of the Four Treatises as a Tibetan composition rather than the Buddha’s word tarnished the glorious image of the Great Fifth as a benefactor and cultivator of sacred Buddhist medical science. In an attempt to weaken Zurkharwa’s influence, Desi Sangye Gyatso launched a sharp critique of his scholarly work and halted its further publication.

The Desi is the central figure of Part I of the book, “In the Capital.” The reader is introduced into the world of Tibetan medicine via the extraordinary set of 79 medical scroll paintings (“thangkas”) that the Desi commissioned to illustrate his medical treatise, the Blue Beryl. Gyatso’s appreciative yet discriminating observations bring these paintings to life. Details of dress, hairstyle, and facial expression make the paintings more than medical models. A selection of exquisite details of the thangka paintings, presented in full color, complement Gyatso’s meticulous analysis. (The entire collection of paintings is published as Tibetan Medical Paintings, Illustrations to the Blue Beryl Treatise of Sangye Gyamtso, edited by Yuri Parfionovitch, et al.)

The Desi’s accomplishments include the establishment of the medical college of Chakpori in Lhasa and the block print publication of a definitive edition of the Four Treatises. Both feats were motivated by the view that medicine stands on a par with the Buddha’s teachings, and that the ruler is responsible for caring for his subjects by providing medicine “just as a bodhisattva or buddha does for sentient beings.”

In Part II, “Bones of Contention,” we leave the political arena and delve into discussions about medical issues in which scriptural knowledge and empirical observation clash. The chapters deal with several different topics: the debate on the root text’s origin; the relationship between tantric and medical channels; and the heart’s position and pulse as an early indication of an embryo’s gender. The protagonist of these chapters is Zurkharwa, portrayed as a man of integrity in the fields of science and religion. His work is brought into conversation with earlier medical discussions regarding tantric channels and their associated winds, drops, and chakras, the incontestable reality on which tantric yogic practices depend.

As doctors began dissecting bodies for medical research, these channels and chakras described in tantric practice manuals could not be found. With the medical mentality in Tibet shifting from theorizing to direct observation, some scholars insisted on privileging tantric truths, thereby “muddying the waters of medical practice with a tantric overlay.”

Zurkharwa’s exegesis, however, in what Gyatso describes as a “kind of postempirical turn,” allows tantric and medical knowledge to coexist without invalidating one another. Zurkharwa dismisses the possibility that tantric channels constitute verifiable physical phenomena, redeploying them as categories to explain other phenomena, like gender differences, instead. Sexual identity, in his view, is not a question of genital anatomy alone but the result of a complex interplay of dynamisms that find symbolic expression in the three channels. Zurkharwa thus finds an intelligent middle way between uncritical repetition of tradition and wholesale dismissal.

Part III begins with a chapter focusing in on the issue of gender. The study starts by pointing out the androcentric and misogynist statements we would expect from a patriarchal culture, but goes on to uncover refreshing insights into gender equality, the existence of a third gender between the poles of male and female, and the interestingly modern notion that gender is not necessarily identical with anatomy—just because you have a female body does not mean that you have a female personality.

The chapter that follows examines the professional ethics of physicians by juxtaposing human dharma with the true dharma of the Buddha. While medical doctors would ideally be completely devoted to healing their patients, they are also bound by considerations of reputation, income, and access to tools and medications—all part of the materiality of this world. Here, as in previous chapters, the author presents the fine interplay between the concepts of the classical, traditional thought of buddhadharma with the realities of the material, empirical, medical world—all of which she subsumes under the rubric of “being human.”

Gyatso’s book will interest not only scholars of Buddhism, Tibetology, and medicine but also those who find themselves pulled between the poles of scientific and religious thinking. Through the writings of early modern Tibetan medical scholars, Gyatso shows that “being human” requires the effort to reflect in a very nuanced way on reality, the capacity to make sense of inconsistencies, and the ability to benefit from tradition without being fossilized within it.

The current Dalai Lama embodied this spirit in his response to his Mind and Life interlocutor, holding that doctrinal statements should be revised when refuted by scientific data. He owes such finesse to the many, such as Zurkharwa, who came before him.

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