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? This paper will suggest that embryology in medical and religious texts alike, particularly from around the fifteenth century onwards, is quite centrally a venue for discussing doctrines of Buddhist morality and religious belief, and for promoting specific attitudes about human identity and the possibilities of and mechanisms for change.

2007. Embodiment and Embryology in Tibetan Literature: Narrative Epistemology and the Rhetoric of Identity. In Soundings in Tibetan Medicine: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Mona Schrempf, 411-426. Leiden: Brill Publishers.