Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Humors

Often translators struggle with the proper way to translated the nyes pa gsum, the so called "three humors". They also struggle with nyes pa.

Well, I have a suggestion: instead of trying to preserve the clumsy terminology of transliterated Tibetan like "Loong" and so on -- we just ought to use the three words from which the Tibetan terms are derived, which are easy to say, and are more widely known and used in English.

Those three words are vata, pita and kapha, known to us from Ayurveda.

Everyone also complains about the term "humor" in English as being an inaccurate term for nyes pa -- itself based on the Sanskrit term "doṣa". Since this term, doṣa, is also widely used now in English, let's just call a doṣa a doṣa. Let's face it, the term "humor" is inaccurate for the terms doṣa and nyes pa. Doṣa is a perfectly good Buddhist word too, and is widely used in the Vipassana community when its practitioners are experiencing emotional afflictions or kleṣas.

Tibetan Medicine is not going to lose its identity if we use the medical terms from the mother language of Tibetan medicine, Sanskrit, no more than Tibetan Buddhism loses its identity when we use Sanskrit terms when back-translating Tibetan terms like chos sku as dharmakāya and so on.

For example, there are many Tibetan medical terms that don't mean anything in Tibetan, since they are corrupted pronunciations of Sanskrit words. For example, asafetida is called shing kun in Tibetan. If we were to translate this it would literally mean "all trees". But when you understand how certain syllables are mispronounced in Tibetan, it becomes immediately obvious that asafetida (an imported herb), which is called hing gu in Sanskrit, was called "shing kun" in Tibet because Tibetans have a hard time pronouncing the "hi" phoneme and variation, "hri" without adding a "sh" sound to it. Hence in Tibetan Medicine, hing gu was transformed in shing kun. There are many other examples of this. So, Tibetan medicine is in no danger of losing its identity if we call "shing kun nyer lnga" "hing 25".

Back to my main point: Tibetan Medicine is structured on the basis of the Indian Buddhist medical tradition embodied in the Aṣṭāñga hridāya samhita of Ācarya Vagbhata. It does not matter if you believe that the rgyud bzhi was translated by Vairocana Lotsawa in the eighth century or composed by Yuthog in the 12th, this is an undeniable fact to anyone apart from those Tibetan scholars of nationalist persuasion who adhere to the narrative proposed in the colophon of the rtsa ba thugs 'bum of the Bon recension of the rgyud bzhi, the 'bum bzhi.

If we recognize the predominantly Indian Buddhist origin of Tibetan Medicine then we can make available to ourselves the whole host and range of technical terms with which important medical concepts are already being communicated in English via Ayurveda.


Julie said...

I know that "hing gu" or asafoetida is used in Indian cuisine by the adherents of Krishna who eschew garlic and onions but what is it's application in Tibetan medicine, Malcolm Lotsawa?

Malcolm Smith said...

The main use of hing in both Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda is controlling vata disorders. Such preparations as shing kun 25 are widely used for vata illness.