Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tara's Herbal: Fresh Lion's Milk in a Golden Rhino Horn Pitcher

Today I received a copy of a recently published and very interesting collection of Tibetan materia medica texts included in the sngo 'bum sman gyi gter mdzod i.e. The Herbal, a Treasury of Medicine, attributed to the elder Yutok (Beijing, 2005). The texts in this volume run from ancient to modern, concluding with a contribution from the last principal of Mentsi Khang in Tibet, the very famous physician and astrologer, Khyenrab Norbu.

One of the most interesting texts is one said in the colophon to have been translated by one Indian, Shantigarbha. The text in question is nicknamed the sGrol ma sngo 'bum i.e. Tara's Herbal. It is a companion of another text, purporting to be translation by Vairocana called the 'Jam byangs sngo 'bum i.e. Manjushri's Herbal

The actual name of Tara's Herbal is given in an Indian language as tsa sha pe du na ra sa 'jha sa ra u pa ni spa ra ta na na ma. This is rendered in Tibetan as gso dbyad sngo sna tshogs gyi man ngag rin po che'i 'khrungs dpe bstan pa zhes bya ba i.e.  The Intimate Instruction of Various Therapeutic Herbs called The Precious Demonstration of Source and Identification.

The term " 'khrungs dpe" is a widely used term in Tibetan medicine that refers to a text that describes sources ('khrung) and identifications (dpe) of materia medica. The current modern one in use in Tibetan medical colleges is authored by dGa' ba rDo rje, called 'khrungs dpe dri med shel kyi me long,  i.e. The Stainless Crystal Mirror of Source and Identification (. My introduction to this literature was through this text, and it is the main textbook we use for the Herbal Identification course at Shang Shung Institute. 

A few words on the purported origin of the text is warranted here. The colophon states that the text was translated by the great scholar Shantigarbha and the seven royal physicians ( I will be writing another post about these seven gentleman) by royal command. Khenpo Troru Tsenam adds that it was translated in order to prolong the life of King Trisrong Detsen. Shantigarbha himself is listed as the translator or author of several texts in the bstan 'gyur, including a commentary on The Recitation of Manjushri's Names and is connected in Blue Annals (Roerich, pg. 106) to the introduction of the sadhana cycle of Manjushri in the Eight Transmitted Sadhana cycles.

The text itself claims to be an an excerpt from a much longer text of one hundred and twenty chapters concerning herbal medicines (sngo sman) and medicines derived from trees (shing sman), which the text identifies as chapters eight and twenty. Of crucial import is the fact that text identifies itself as a tantra of therapeutics. While it is unlikely that this text is an actual Indian composition for obvious reasons (theoretically concerning only materia medica that grow in Tibet), since it is associated with the Yuthok corpus, it shows a clear continuity with the tradition in India that begins with the ur-Ayurvedic text, the Agnivesha Tantra that is embedded within the Carak Samhita. 

The text is, for the most part, composed in standard seven syllable verses, two of which generally would represent one line of Sanskrit verse in a corresponding meter. It is arranged in four chapters, a preamble introducing the text; a summary of the contents, the main portion of the text on the identification of herbs and trees, and a conclusion. 

It begins naturally with the title, a homage to the Buddha Bhaisajyaguru Vaiduryaprabharaja, our famous Buddha, the Guru of Physicians, The King of Sapphire Light; homages to three main bodhisattvas, medicine goddesses, and to the Indian seers (rishi). 

After the standard homages the text launches directly into its subject matter:
Thus have I heard at one time: The Bhagavan Bhaishajyaguru Vaiduryaprabharaja was seated in the samadhi called "Demonstrating the Meaning of Amrita" in the palace of the Nirmitavashavartin Heaven seated with an assembly of innumerable gods and goddesses, the lord of the god, Brahma, Indra, together with clairvoyant seers, and medicine goddesses.

At that time, the Bhagavan explained the herbal medicines growing in the land of Tibet. 

After that, when the clairvoyant seer, "Lha yi rgyal", included in that retinue was blessed by all the Sugata, he comprehended all phenomena, and was granted a prediction by the goddess Venerable Tara:

"You, Lha yi Wangpo,
who have been blessed by the Sugatas,
the profound concise essential meaning
of all divisions of the therapeutic tantras
is this Tantra of Precious Sources and Identifications,
pay it homage with devotion. 
Request this Tantra of Precious Sources and Indentifications
in order to benefit sentient beings."

As that was said, the Seer Lha yi rgyal
prostrated with devotion to the goddess, venerable Tara, and requested:

"Venerable lady who removes the illnesses of migrating beings,
in order to fulfill the hopes of sentient beings, 
teach the Tantra of Precious Sources and Identifications,
we, the whole retinue shall listen!"

After that, the Buddha Bhaishajyaguru blessed the venerable Tara and said:

"Mother who gave birth to the Buddhas of three times,
in order to remove the illnesses of sentient beings,
you must explain the Tantra of Precious Sources and Identifications,
I give you my blessing!"

The text then explains in great detail the whole range of Tibetan tree and herbal materia medica, describing the locations where these plants grow, their characteristics, their taste and their effect, as well as the illnesses for which they should be administered. 

The colophon to Yuthog's Herbal states:
This herbal that liberates upon seeing 
was compiled by Yuthog Gonpo in dependence upon
the devata Noble Manjushri's herbal,
and Venerable Tara's herbal,
and the oral tradition of the Great Seers.

Thus the importance of Tara's Herbal for Tibetan medicine cannot be overrated. It and the Manjushri's Herbal stand at the head of the 'khrung pde literature of Tibet. The conclusion of Tara's Herbal states:
Such an precious instruction as this
is like fresh lion's milk
in a golden rhino horn pitcher.
For the purpose of protecting the bodies of fortunate yogis
living the rough rocky snow ranges
of the border countries in the final five hundred years,
having hardened their bodies like vajras,
therefore, freed from harm,
may they have the good fortune of the illusory body!

I hope that thorough study of this subject of materia medica we who live in the "rough rocky snow ranges" of the post-industrial era will be able to take advantage of this advice as well, as chapter twelve of the phyi ma rgyud states:
Keep this intimate instruction of herbal preparations for the border lands in mind 
and use it with loving-kindness for the benefit of migrating beings.


Dan said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for that wonderful discussion of Tibetan botanicals. I wonder who first had the idea to make books out of what must originally have been an oral-practical transmission of knowledge. I understand there are some versions of the Tibetan 'khrungs-dpe works that have (mostly relatively sketchy) illustrations of the plants. There is an Indian materia medica (mostly herbal) in the Tanjur by Candranandana (supposed to be direct disciple of Vagbhata). Do you think these herbals/botanicals have anything to do with the one by Dioscurides?

is what I'm talking about (and btw notice the portrait of the seven physicians there... hhmmm).

Cheers! & Keep up the great writing!


Malcolm said...

Hi Dan:

Yes, there are illustrated 'khrung dpe texts, with line drawings, and of course, the famed medical thangkhas would fit that bill as well.

I am aware of Candrananda's text in the Tanjur, but I have not as yet examined it closely. Though Tibetan medical texts are dependent to a large degree on Indian antecedents for their overall content, they seem to be self-consciously composed as acceptable Buddhist alternatives to non-Buddhist or mundane treatises.

I think that Tara's Herbal is an older text than that rgyud bzhi, and I suspect that it may form the prototype for the elaborate gleng gzhi in the first chapter of the root tantra.

Speaking of the influence of Hellenistic medicine on nascent Tibetan Medicine, another text I received in the same batch of books is the bi ji po ti kha gser, published along with a new edition of sman dbyad zla ba rgyal po (Beijing, 2006) attributed to the Ta jig doctor, Tshan pa si la ha, of whom Khenpo Tsenam notes that he was one of the three "sons" i.e. disciples, of one Galenor (Galen), who was "...sent to upper Tsang".

Of course it is not possible for this Tshan pa si la ha to be an actual disciple of Galen's, but it is cannot be doubted that there were physicians in Central Asia who were within his school, and perhaps even bore his name, but we can imagine a respected local physician on those days be called a "Galen" much as Nagarjuna was termed "The Second Buddha".

Anyway, the Poti kha ser itself is likely to be the source of the treatments of weapon-inflicted wounds section [mtshon rma gso ba'i skabs] of the man ngag rgyud. The order of the topics is the same. The fact that it contains chapters also on treating the three humors and so on argues that the core of the book was supplemented another author. But I have not really looked at it closely. When I do, i think we may learn something about the state of anatomical knowledge not only in Tibet, but in the Hellenistic world in general prior to the fall of Byzantium since the chapters on wounds in the man nag rgyud have a much more detailed anatomy of the body then the anatomy chapter in chapter four of the explanatory tantra. Based on this text, Yang ga in fact feels that the wounds section of Tibetan is wholly dependent on Hellenistic Medicine.

The suggestion you make about the seven royal physicians is intriguing, and certainly Tibetan literati were not above adopting tropes from other cultures and adapting them for their own purposes.

Since Dioscurides was famous, I think it is a little impossible that his works would not have travelled to Central Asia where they could have exerted some influence on Tibetan physicians during the period of the greater occupied territories [khrom chen] of Central Asia during the latter part of the Tibetan Empire, especially since Trisong Detsen, like all emperor of the day, was fond of rounding up doctors, scholars and priests, especially from conquered areas, to enhance his prestige and authority. And from everything we can understand, he was always quite worried about his health.


Dan said...

Dear M,

As far as Byzantine-Tibet connections are concerned, I fear you may be in danger of 'preaching to the choir.' In coming months Warburg will publish their conference papers from their Islam-Tibet conference. I offered them a paper entitled "Greek and Islamic Medicines' Historical Contact with Tibet — A Reassessment in View of Recently Available but Relatively Early Sources on Tibetan Medical Eclecticism." In it, among other things (like who Tsan Bashilaha might have been), I end with a bit about how that Bi-ci'i Po-ti Kha-ser you mention, near the beginning as part of its discussion on head wounds (actually, it includes head traumas of all kinds, including concussion), gives a method for detecting hair-like fractures in the skull. This method involves exposing the skull and using a black substance (ink and the like) that will make the otherwise invisible crack show up.

This very certainly goes back to Hippocrates' treatise "On Injuries of the Head." Al-Zahrawi, the famous Islamic surgeon of the tenth century, used the same method (and unlike Hippocrates who recommended a black substance, he is explicit about using ink, as is the Tibetan text).

You might know that R. Yoeli-Tlalim has shown in a paper on the urinanalysis as found in the Somaraja treatise has a complicated outline of subjects that corresponds exactly with an earlier Middle Eastern book on the subject. (She gave this paper at the Königswinter conference a few years ago. It ought to be published by now.)

So there are some real connections between the Greek-Islamic medicine and Tibetan medicine, and I don't think all of them require India as an intermediary. Say hello to Yangga. I'm sure he will find more (and very likely more important things) to say on this subject. I think it's all quite fascinating.


Malcolm said...

Hi Dan:

Everything you say is pretty interesting, and since I have not really reviewed any comprehensive western scholarship on the links between Hellenistic medicine and Tibetan medicine (sort of coming at from the other end of things i.e. as a student studying Tibetan medicine as something to actually practice), I will be quite interested to read both your articles and that article you mentioned.



Dan said...

Bi-ci is also interesting. Of course it must be related (distantly, I'd say) with the Bhishaj/Bhishak contained in Baishajyaguru (the Medicine Buddha). Just like Vaidya, Bhishaj/k means 'doctor' in Sanskrit, so Bhashajyaguru actually means 'Guru of the Doctors.'

Some histories say this Bi-ci (also spelled Be-ci, Bi-ji, etc.) is a word from "his [Tsan Bashilaha's] own language" for 'doctor.'

The Persian word (as Chris Beckwith pointed out a long time ago) is bijishk. This Persian word is related historically speaking to the Sanskrit bhiṣaj, and it was borrowed into Armenian as b'zhishk.

When I was younger I also aspired to practice Tibetan medicine in some way, and not just learn about it. But I found it too difficult. Especially the pulse-taking. I do use a few things I learned from studying it though, so I guess that might count as practice (except I don't often give other people health advice).

I'm not sure if I was serious about connecting the seven royal physicians with the seven physicians in the Wiki entry, but why not? Still, I think the Saptarshi (Seven Rishis) of Indian lore would have something to do with it, too.

But then weren't the Caraka ayurvedic texts inspired by eight rishis/sages?

And isn't there a list of nine physicians at the Tibetan court, too?

Anyway, the Four Medical Tantras often mention drang-srong, which is Tibetan for rishi. Something to think about.

Write on!

Malcolm said...

Hi Dan:

On the subject of the name of the Guru of Physicians, there is another interesting tidbit: I am sure you know, there another text, frequently referred to as the pha khol rang 'grel, in the Tanjur listed as A.s.tnga hridaya naama vaiduryaka bha.syam or in Tibetan, yan lag brgyad pa'i snying po she bya wa'i sman dpyad bshad pa, translated by one Dharmashrivarman, and a team of Tibetan translators a bit earlier than the A.s.tnga Hridaysamhita, etc. which also happens to be in fact the Tibetan translation of the A.s.tanga Samgraha.

Now, given that vaiduryaka = sman dpyad, I wonder if somehow Vaiduryaprabaharaaja might similarly mean something like "The King Illuminating Medical Treatments".

From all this can we then translate "Medicine" Buddha's name as "The Guru of Physicians, The King who Illuminates Medical Treatments"?

In other words, I have wondered for some time if "Vaidurya" might actually be a play on words of the kind that might be obvious to a Sanskrit reader, but which would not make it through the filter of translation very easily.

BTW, this may shed some light on another problem some Ayurvedic historians have wrestled with i.e. is the Samgraha a commentary on the Samhita or not?

Well, certainly the Tibetan medical tradition would have that it was.

Anyway, thanks for your comments.


Dan said...

Dear M,

Actually what I said before about the meaning of bhai.sajya is probably not correct. Here's the entry from an online version of Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary:

bhaiSajya ——— m. patr. fr. {bhiSaj} , or {bhiSaja} g. {gargAdi} (Kåß.) ; n. curativeness , healing efficacy VS. ; a partic. ceremony performed as a remedy for sickness Kauß. ; any remedy , drug or medicine (“against” gen.) ÍBr. Sußr. ; the administering of medicines &c. MW.

It's a 'strengthened' derivative from this word:

bhiSaj — mfn. curing , healing , sanative RV. &c. &c. ; m. a healer , physician ib. ; a remedy , medicine RV. AV. Car. ; N. of a man with the patr. Ótharvaˆa L. ; of a son of Íata-dhanvan Hariv.

and/or this word:

bhiSajya —
1 Nom P. {-jyati} (g. {kaNDv-Adi}) to heal , cure , possess healing power RV. &c. &c. ; to be physician to any one (dat.) Bålar. ; to be a physician or remedy for i.e. to gain the mastery over anything (loc.) ib.
2 mf({A})n. sanative , healing , healthful Kå†h. ; ({A}) f. healing , cure , remedy.

I guess it's not entirely impossible that bhai.sajya could mean 'physician', but the Tibetan translation doesn't reflect it (it translates sman-gyi bla, shortened to sman-bla, not *sman-pa'i bla-ma).

Vai.duurya means a mineral that came from Vidura. Most likely explanation is it's the class of beryls. Here's what Monier-William says:

vaiDUrya ——— n. (rarely m. ; cf. {vidUra-ja}) a cat's-eye gem (ifc. “a jewel” , = “anything excellent of its kind” ) AdbhBr. MBh. Kåv. &c. ; m. N. of a mountain (also {-parvata}) MBh. VarB®S. &c. ; mf({A})n. made of cat's-eye gems MBh. R. &c.

There must be some confusion or punning going on in that title. Is it supposed to be vaiDUrya-ka or vaidya-ka?

The equivalence, vaiDUryaka = sman dpyad, that you see in that book title just cannot work, can it?


Malcolm said...

Hi Dan:

I too have my doubts about Vaiduryaka but as for vaidurya being beryl, modern physicians in Tibet definitely identify blue vaidurya as star sapphire, and only secondarily as cat's eye; with regular sapphire being identified as indranila. Lapis Lazuli (mu men) is definitely not Vaidurya, and in general natural blue beryl is unfortunately far too pale to match the color depicted as Vaidurya in paintings of Sangs rgyas sman bla.

And as you know, for any given name of a sman, there could be several botanical species to which it refers, for example gur gum (saffron) is both crocus sattiva as well as safflower (gur gum dman pa) or inferior gur gum. LIkewise, the same is true of camphor, which has three types, mang ga bur, stag zil and shel, which are derived from the resin of three different trees altogether.

Malcolm said...

BTW, Dan-- I just came across this comment by Yangga-la in my notes from last summer where he says:

"The sngo ‘bum literature is the real Tibetan medicine."


Dan said...

Dear Malcolm,

I'm sorry to say that I didn't believe you about the 'star water' you mentioned before. I'd never noticed it. And it just seems way out there. But then I noticed a use of it in a medical text.

In fact, it's mentioned in a text associated with the Tibetan medical lineage of Tsan Ba-shi-la-ha, the Khrom (Graeco-Byzantine or whatever) physician we were just talking about...

The passage is in the Byang khog dmar byang gsal ba'i sgron me, as published in Chengdu in 2007, at p. 29 (there's a beautiful facsimile of the text in the back of the book, which is something I wish these publishers would do more often).

It's about the bathing of wounds that have pus (rnag). It says that when the fever is high in bileous pus conditions you have to wash the wound with bamboo manna, saffron and star water (chu gang gur kum skar chus bkru).

I'll make a big mental note and promise to give you more credit in the future, and the benefit of any doubts!

Any ideas about how some kind of science may account for special effects of water treated with stellar radiations? I imagine there might be something out there, actually. Live and learn.


Malcolm said...

Hey Dan:

Here is another reference from the rgyas tshad chapter in the man ngag rgyud:

Water whip: using star water, when the face of the sun is warm, sit straight and naked on a flat seat. Give a handful of water internally, sprinkle the whole body with water from mouth, pour water on continuously until shocked [from the cold]. That removes the vapor of the heat.M

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