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.