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  • Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet by Janet Gyatso
  • C. Pierce Salguero
Janet Gyatso. Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. xv + 519 pp. Ill. $45.00 (978-0-231-16496-2).

This long-awaited book is already much acclaimed. Janet Gyatso is best known as a scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist studies, and this work makes significant contributions to both of those fields. However, the author also has shown herself here to be equally adept at grappling with methodological issues in the history of science and medicine, modernity studies, art history, and gender studies. Her breadth of erudition is matched by the clarity and sophistication with which she frames and explicates her subject matter. With high production value, prolific color illustrations, and a modest price, this volume will be a most welcome addition to the [End Page 150] personal library of every historian of Asian medicine. The author’s comparative gestures connecting developments in Tibet with those in early modern Europe ensure that it will equally be of interest to historians of Western medicine.

The central premise of the book is that, independently of any European influence, early modern Tibetan medical authors increasingly challenged received wisdom and religious authority with a mixture of individualism, textual criticism, and empirical observation that seem to bear the characteristics of modernity. Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into three sections that explore these developments thematically. Part 1 (chaps. 1–2) introduces the works of Desi Sangyé Gyatso (1653–1705), who as regent for the Fifth Dalai Lama and architect of the independent Tibetan state was responsible for a period of remarkable innovation and development in medicine. The author examines the “critical mentality” she identifies in the Desi’s writings and medical illustrations as an entrée into the tensions between religion and medicine that is the major theme of the book. Part 2 includes a set of chapters (3–5, plus a coda) that examine the historical origins of this critical stance in earlier commentarial tradition, and that trace how the Desi both built upon and argued against his predecessors. In these chapters, Gyatso provides much detail about specific points of debate, particularly concerning the sacred status of the medical classics, the relationship between the Tantric subtle body and human anatomy, and conflicting understandings of the heart. Part 3 (chaps. 6–7) extends a close reading to medical debates over gender and sexuality, as well as over the ethics and professional identity of the physician.

Gyatso acknowledges that the divergence of Buddhism and medicine (or, as she frames it, of “religion” and “science”) was never complete in seventeenth-century Tibet. However, she argues that reading Tibetan medical texts for “processes … rather than positions” and attending to “what they are reaching for” suggest intriguing parallels with the Western scientific revolution (p. 18). She points out that “features normally associated with modernity can also emerge in very different forms and times and with very different upshots” (p. 10). Stated succinctly in the space of this seven-hundred-word review, such conclusions perhaps might sound overly blunt, but in the book Gyatso presents these arguments with the deftness and nuance of a senior scholar who has long thought about the slippery nature of such categories.

Wherever one stands on the broader questions of what constitutes modernity and the value of cross-cultural comparison with Europe, the reader who works through this complex and rewarding book will at the very least be convinced that seventeenth-century Tibetan medical authors associated with the court, though steeped in a Buddhist cultural and intellectual environment, created an intellectual climate that encouraged testing the boundaries of traditional epistemologies. In this regard, the context Gyatso discusses seems quite distinct from other times and places in Asian history where religion and medicine appear to have been more closely intertwined. How widely this critical stance was accepted beyond the small circle of elite authors she focuses upon remains an open question that begs for further investigation. One would like to know more about the perspectives...


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pp. 150-152
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