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.

I suggest in this book that in Tibetan accounts of human development we can see many attributes of the narrative—a central subject, a well-marked beginning, middle and end, a narrative voice, a necessary connection between events—and that reading embryologies as narratives reveals them to illuminate the richly colorful ways in which Tibetans construct human identities. The embryological narrative allows Tibetan scholars to write about the body, about human identity, and about what it means to be human. I argue that the topic is a discursive tool for the articulation and promotion of acceptable models of identity, continuity and change. We see Tibetan authors wield this tool variously, and although stories of gestation may be controversial, all are stories of transformation that situate the seeds of change in the origins of the human body. In this book I consider Tibetan embryological narratives as aesthetic objects, rather than as statements of scientific or empirically observable fact. Stories of human development comment on embodiment, gender, sociopolitical hierarchy, religious ontology and spiritual progress. Buddhist scholars embed doctrinal messages into human identities using the discourse of embryology, narrativizing religious aspirations into human lives.

As I assess these stories of human development, questions of cultural transmission and adaptation also surface. How did Tibetan writers adapt ideas inherited from India and China for their own purposes? What original views did they develop on the body, on growth, on gender, on creation, and on life itself? In this book the transformation of narratives of human development over several centuries sheds light on key turning points in Tibetan religious and medical intellectual history. Through the lens of embryology, the book examines how these concerns shift as Tibetan history moves through its formative renaissance period.

2008. Religion, Medicine and the Human Embryo in Tibet. New York: Routledge. Critical Studies in Buddhism series. See book reviews in Traditional South Asian Medicine and Religions of South Asia.