Buddhism and the Historicizing of Medicine

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.

2007. Buddhism and the Historicizing of Medicine in Thirteenth Century Tibet. Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity. 2 (2): 204-224.