Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bon Origins of Tibetan Medicine

These days it is common to find people claiming Tibetan Medicine originated with Tonpa Shenrab (ston pa gshen rab) and his son, Chebu Trishe (dbyad bu khri shes).

We have no texts about Shenrab that can be dated earlier than the tenth century, when the Bonpos began to reconstruct their own history prior to the Imperial period. Our main sources for information about Tonpa Shenrab come from three texts, the gZi brjid, the gZer mig, and a third text, the mDo 'dus.

Our source of information about the relation between Tibetan Medicine and Tonpa Shenrab comes from the latest of these three texts, the gZi brjid, which was composed in the 14th century.

According to the standard modern text book on the history of medicine[gso rig lo rgyus Beijing, 2004] used presently in Tibet, the ancient scholar Shenton Yeshe Lodo (gshen ston ye shes blo gro) asserts that Shenrab was born in 1957 BCE i.e. 3,975 years ago. Some modern historians assert he was born 1917 BCE (this is Chogyal Namkhai Norbu's conclusion), i.e. in a male rat year, 3,925 years ago. It is based on these approximate dates, that one often hears the assertion that Tibetan Medicine is tradition that dates back 4,000 years.

The book also includes the interesting statement by the famed Zurkhar Lodo Gyalpo (zur mkhar blo gros rgyal po) in his shes bya khog dbubs or Encyclopedic Outline:
At the same time that Bhagavan Shakyamuni arrived in the world, the one called Shenrab Miwoche arrived in Purang (in Western Tibet).
Now, with this statement, there is a bit of an issue, if we accept Zurkhar's statement, we have to date the Buddha to date Shenrab. Our textbook continues by mentioning several dates for the birth of the Buddha: Atisha's date, 2,215 BCE; Sapan's dates, 2,213 BCE; the dates of the Phug Lug (phugs lugs) system of astrology, 961 BCE. The most recent, according to our textbook, would be the 2500 anniversary of the birth of the Buddha set by the Japanese as 1938 i.e. 562 BCE.

To these dates we should add the traditional Theravadin dates, 624 BCE, which is supported by the "traditional long chronology" based on the Dipavamsa, and so on, which holds that Buddha passed away 218 years prior to the coronation of Ashoka. Finally, on top of this are two more dates, that of "corrected long chronology" i.e. the traditional Pali account corrected by relying on Greek Historical records, which push this date up to the Japanese date given above. Finally, there is the so called "short chronology"(gaining currency because it is supported by much archaeology, Jain accounts of birth of Mahavira and so on forth) which put the passing of the Buddha a mere 100 years prior to the coronation of Ashoka, and this range of date now seems to be something the range of 484 BCE, but even here there are many options which can be seen on this paper on the issue: Notes on the Dates of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

It is difficult say when exactly Zurkhar thought the Buddha lived, as I have not been able to find a reference to a date in his works. So until further research, this is left undone. The main point is that he clearly thought the Buddha's dates set the dates for Shenrab.

So what does the gZi brjid say about Tonpa Shenrab and Medicine? It is as difficult to take the gZi rbjid seriously as a work on the purported life of Tonpa Shenrab as it is to take the Morte D'Arthur as serious history of King Arthur. The text contains the term Vaidurya i.e. in beturya 'od gyi rgyal po, Vaiduryaprabharaja, the eight Medicine Buddha siblings and so on that certainly cannot have entered Tibet any earlier that the eighth century. As it is represented to be an oral history of Tonpa Shenrab's career, and as it is a huge text, there is much work needed on this text before we can have an absolutely clear picture of it. One thing is certain though, it is a post-Buddhist text and uses all the conventional Buddhist terms for Buddhas imported from India.

The section on medicine in the chapter of phyva gshen is just a very brief summary of the most basic principles of sman dbyad, or medical therapy. One feature of this text is an unusual presentation of the humors: hot, cold, phlegm, bile and combination. The text goes on to say:

All heat is tamed by cool. All cold is tamed by warmth. All phlegm is divided by separation, all bile is extracted by collecting.

If there is a disturbance of the components ('du ba i.e. humors), it is tamed with balance. The affliction of ignorance is pulled out from the root by applying the twenty one thousand medical preparations to the twenty one thousand components.

There are four types of healing: healing of medicinal nectar; the healing of medicines that cure the body; the healing of skillful behavior, and neutral healing.

There are four treatments: pacifying with medicine, bloodletting, moxabustion, and the skillful mantras.

Apply whatever is necessary to the illness. Medicine's taste, effect, and post-digestive taste; those are warmth of taste, the intensity of effect, and the smoothness of post-digestive taste.

For illness, there is emetics, laxatives, and traces. Draw out with emetics, cleanse with laxatives, and pacify the traces for happiness.

There is no mention of Shenrab's son Chebu Trishe in this text. He first seems to appear in the Bon version of the Four Tantras, the gSo rig 'bum bzhi i.e. The Four Volumes of Healing Science. Virtually word for word identical with the Four Tantras apart from the introduction, it seems that this is the text that introduces Chebu Trishe. Further research is required to see if he appears in other Bon texts and from what era.

In general, Chebu Trishe is considered something like the Bonpo Jivakakumara, and Bonpos, as well as some Tibetan historians, would like the trace the history of Tibetan medicine from this personage.

Yeshe Lodo, mentioned above, composed a text on wounds, The Instructional Water that Revives the Dying, Healing Wounds asserting that Chebu Trishe condensed many medical instructions and so on about repairing cuts. The famed herbalist Tenzin Phuntsog (de'u dmar sge bshes bstan 'dzin phun tshogs) later repeats the same assertion in the Crystal Rosary ('khrungs dpe shel phreng). Also in his Deep and Clear Heart Essence (zab gsal snying thig), a text on the method of preparing bezoars he cites a text attributed to Chebu Trishe called The Whirling Swastika, Treating Poison (dug bcos gyung drung 'khyil). Other Tibetan physicians who have mentioned Chebu Trishe are Gong men Konchog Deleg (gong sman dkon mchog bde legs).

Whatever the truth of the matter, because of a rich cache of Bonpo medical literature, which for the most part has not been examined by western scholars, including this one, Tibetan physicians after the 14th century, the approximate date of the appearance of altered Bon version of the Four Tantras, paid respect to the Bon tradition of medicine because of the existence of texts atttributed to this perhaps mythological personage. But like everything with Tibetan history and medicine, indeed Buddhist history in general, there is lots more work to be done.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Who wrote the Four Tantras?

If you ask most Tibetan doctors who wrote the Four Tantras (rgyud bzhi), you are likely to receive the answer "Medicine Buddha". Some will say Yuthok Yonten Gonpo the elder, others might even say Tonpa Shenrab, the legendary founder of the Bon religion. However they may respond, the history of the literature around the composition of the Four Tantras is still shrouded in mystery.

In general, the official history of the four tantras is that they were taught by the medicine Buddha, passed on by Jivakakumara, through Nagarjuna, Vagbhata, and his grandson, Candra-ananda, who taught to them to Vairocana in the eighth century. Vairocana translated them into Tibetan, and they were concealed by King Trisrong Detsen in a pillar at Samye. Three hundred years later, they were revealed by the eleventh century treasure finder Trapa Ngonshe, and finally wound up in the hands of the twelfth century physician, Yuthog Yonten Gonpo, the author of the earliest commentaries on the Four Tantras.

However, when we examine the history of the Four Tantras, we find that it's authorship was shrouded in controversy from the very beginning.

The first historical works we have related to the Four Tantras are two texts found in the famed collection of early medical texts, called the cha lag bco brgyad i.e. The Eighteen Sections: the first is a text called the khog dbub khyung chen lding ba i..e The Historical Outline, Soaring Great Eagle, ascribed to Yuthog the younger. This text is of somewhat doubtful authenticity according to some scholars, but regardless of its provenance, seems to have set the tone for the later khog dbubs literature. The second text is a anonymous visionary account of the teaching of tantra and its entrustment to Atreya and Jivakakumara called the brgyud pa'i rnam thar med thabs med pa i.e. The Indispensable Liberation Account of the Lineage.

These two texts are critical for understanding how the group of 12th century doctors who edited the Four Tantras and their students viewed the formation of their lineage and are critical to latter khog dbubs literature by the sixteen century doctor and historian Zurkhar Lodo Gyalpo (Zur mkhar blo gros rgyal po) and Desri Sangye Gyatso (sde srid sang rgya rgya mtsho), the famed regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The Great Eagle is the source for one of clearest articulations of the uniqueness of the Tibetan Medical traditions. It lists eleven points detailing the superiority of the Four Tantra tradition over other medical traditions:

1) The superiority of being the pinnacle of all vehicles of healing science because all the Buddhaword and treatises of medical science is clearly shown in this text.
2) The superiority of being the king of tantras since it overwhelms the all other tantras of medical therapy
3) The superiority of being a general commentary upon all therapies of medical science since it clearly comments on all medical treatments without confusion.
4) The superiority of being the foundation of all medical science since all illnesses, symptoms and methods of treatment are completely covered.
5) The superiority of being the source of all medical science since all the divisions of systems of medical treatment spread from this.
6) The superiority of being the mirror of medical science because all illness are clearly seen without obstruction.
7) The superiority of being concise summary of all topics medical science because of gathering the essentials of medical treatment.
8) The superiority of being a stream of nectar because of remove the torment of illness.
9) The superiority of being the bestower of fearlessness and safety, protecting from the demon of death.
10) The superiority of being the crown jewel of all migrating beings since the hopes of all patients are fulfilled impartially.
11) The superiority of staying healthy, preventing illness, balancing the humors of the patient, lengthening life, and fame and longevity in this life.

After the introduction, The Great Eagle contains an account of the liberation of Dharmakaya Samantabhadra, and the formation of samsara. This arrangement sets the tone for later examples of medical khog dbubs literature, with Zurkhar following suit, albeit with a more sutra-based cosmogony.

The Indispensable Liberation Account of the Lineage is probably the earliest clear location where we have the assertion that the Four Tantras were a terma revealed by Trapa Nonshe.

Within the Great Origins of Treasures, (gter 'byung chen mo), the earliest systematic account of the terma traditon, the famed terton, Guru Chowang (chos kyi dbang phyug, 1212-1270) wrote in 1264:

The tantras of medicine were concealed in the mind, and revealed as Buddha word: eighteen major tantras were taught, rTsa ra ka's Tantra of Eight Divisions; The Tantra of the Crystal Mirror; The Tantra of the Drop of Nectar; and so on, The Great Seer Dungi Thorsug and Khe'u Kunjod Yiley Kye and so on gathered the teachings together and spread the teachings. Afterwards, in order to make them safe, concealed them as treasures in boxes of rhinoceros hide in India at the Sandal Groves of Vajrasana, the Sapphire Stupa of Oddiyana, the Asura Cave, and all the forests of Nepal, in the Go'u Deshan Cave of China, and so on.

Later on, Padma of Oddiyana and Nagarjunagarbha, and Muteg Thubgyal, and so on revealed these treasures and acted on behalf of sentient beings. In the end, having spread them in the country of Tibet, there were many discoveries of tantras concealed in many treasure caches.

In the later translation period, within the treasure cycles of dhakini medicine treatments, the omniscient revealed many treasures in the countries of Indian, China, the border lands, and the demon lands, and so on, many scriptures of Buddhaword, the tantra of the eigth limbs and so on; and many scriptures of treatises, the eight limb treatises and so on, and various intimate instructions, the eight limbs of intimate instructions and so on. [The Autobiography and Instructions of Gu-ru Chos-kyi-dbang-phyug, Voll II, page. 85]

A clear picture emerges that by latter half of the 13th century, Nyingma scholars were firmly asserting that systems of Tibetan Medicine depended on the gter ma tradition and that the ultimate origin of Tibetan Medicine was bka', vacana, or Buddhaword. The Great Eagle origin accounts are heavily grounded in Dzogchen cosmology, and that Four Tantras, whatever their ultimate origin, where being propagated in the 12th and 13th century by doctors with strong Nyingma connections. There are a number of features of the root tantra, undoubtedly the latest layer in the composition of the Four Tantras, which show clear influence of earlier Dzogchen tantras.

Now then, how were such claims received? Without going into the whole question of treasures and their authenticity, the ideas espoused in The Great Eagle and the Great History of Treasures were immediately rejected by another group of doctors, who were following the Indian tradition of the Ashtangahridayasamhita. These 13th century conservatives are well represented by Chomdan Rigpey Raltri (bcom ldan rig pa'i ral gri, 1227-1305), a famous Kadampa master. In his Flower Ornament of Medical Science (gso ba rig pa rgyan gyi me tog) he states quite unambiguously:

Some others claim that within the texts of medical practice, there are non-Buddhist and Buddhist i.e. non-Buddhist tantras and both Buddhist sutras and tantras. Within tantras, there is a root tantra, an explanatory tantra, an intimate instruction tantra, and a continuation tantra and so on. All of them are treatises written by Tibetans. Sutras and tantras are the discourses of the Tathagatas, medical science [texts] are treatises composed by persons.

One interesting facet that has not received much attention is the conflation of the term tantra as used in medicine and the term as used in Buddhist literature. Perhaps the earliest use of the term tantra is applied to the original text of which the Caraka Samhita is a commentary i.e. the Agniveshatantra. In Chowang's citation we see a clear reference to this text, "...rTsa ra ka's Tantra of Eight Divisions". Because of this incidental usage of the term tantra, the doctors who were involved in composing the Four Tantras, or so it seems, sought the opportunity to elevate their system of medicine over the competing, Indian system of Ayurveda which was then current and wide spread in Central Tibet.

Among Tibetans, the debate over the origins of the Four Tantras has continued right up to the present day, and there is voluminous literature on both sides of issues. I do not think that any serious text critical scholar can deny the fact however that the Tibetan scholars who argued for indigenous composition were completely correct in their assessments of the text as it stood in front of them.

Much more research is needed before we can say for certain by whom or when the Four Tantras were composed, but it is definite that they took their final form in the late 12th century, and that the adherents of this text began to make claims for its special status as bka' or vacana, Buddhaword nearly from the beginning.