Tapping the Body’s Nectar

Fire offering

This paper presents a set of thirteenth-century Tibetan texts that prescribe the consumption of human by-products, such as flesh, excrement or urine, and consider several discursive contexts in which these prescriptions may be understood. I argue that Tibetan tantric prescriptions to consume human by-products are in an important way “medical” in their language, and that this is particularly clear if we recognize that in Tibetan (and South Asian) contexts, “medicine” involves not only the healing of illness, but also the enhancing of health, vitality and power. I suggest that the thirteenth-century flourishing of nectar-oriented writings in both medical and religious circles shaped each of these traditions in important ways, and that this period configured Tibetan nectar practices in ways that are markedly distinct from their manifestations in Indian Tantra.

The paper begins with discussion of a constellation of Buddhist texts on Accomplishing Medicine (sman sgrub), a practice at the core of the early Nectar Tantras corpus (Bdud rtsi yon tan rgyud), and then consider the thirteenth-century codification of nectar practice in the Nyingma (Rnying ma) tradition, which occurred simultaneous with the development of the tradition of the Four Medical Tantras (Rgyud bzhi) (which became the dominant medical work of Central Tibet not long afterwards). I then examine several narrative, ritual and cultural contexts in which we may find the language of consuming human by-products to be significant, moving beyond the realm of the Highest Yoga Tantra sādhana practices in which they are typically contextualized, to consider their role in the intertwined languages of offering and generosity, eating and digestion, and alchemy and incorporation. My interest primarily is in the fact that these substances, whatever they may be, are to be eaten; and to be more specific, I am curious about the use of the language of consumption, a discourse which I will call gastronomic.

2010. Tapping the Body’s Nectar: Gastronomy and Incorporation in Tibetan Literature. History of Religions 49 (3): 300-326.