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  • Buddhism, Bodies, Medicine, and Spellcraft
  • James A. Benn
Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet by Janet Gyatso. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 519. $55.00 cloth, $30.00 paper, $54.99 e-book.
The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism by Paul Copp. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Pp. xxx + 363. $65.00 cloth, $64.99 e-book.
Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China by C. Pierce Salguero. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 245. $55.00 cloth, $55.00 e-book.

One of the most important sites for the interaction of Buddhist doctrine and practice is the human body. The body is also a place where Buddhist theories often encounter other systems of knowledge—medical, physiological, cosmological, ritual. These three books take up, in different ways, significant issues relating to the human body in various Buddhist contexts: the development of a Tibetan medical understanding of the body in a culture heavily suffused by Buddhist doctrines and concepts of authority; the movement of therapeutic information and practices of bodily care across distinct cultures, as transmitted through the medium of Buddhist texts; and medieval Chinese ideas about the power of Buddhist spells to protect and transform the body. [End Page 181] It is particularly refreshing to see books on previously somewhat marginal topics now taking their rightful place within the mainstream of Buddhist studies. But these erudite and well-researched volumes also make significant contributions to scholarship that far exceed the disciplinary boundaries of Buddhist studies. They deserve to be read and appreciated by much wider audiences.

In their examinations of the formation of a self-conscious Tibetan medical tradition, the translation of medical ideas and therapies across cultures, and the practical deployment of spellcraft, Janet Gyatso, Pierce Salguero, and Paul Copp offer important insights into the intellectual and cultural history of the human condition writ large. Readers of these books will find not only a great deal of fascinating new information presented in painstaking and vivid detail but also some quite bold visions of the greater significance of their topics for the study of culture and society. The authors have revealed profound meaning and acute insights in topics that earlier scholars had treated perhaps only as curious byways or dead-ends in the history of Buddhist literature.

These studies move far beyond simply recounting the classic descriptions and explanations of the human body and its functions found in commonly cited Buddhist scriptures. For Gyatso, the human body she discovers is a locus of reflection for premodern Tibetan medical thinkers who struggled to balance their own empirical observations against the normative claims made about the workings of the body found in Buddhist Tantric literature. Salguero explains how translators set about the challenging task of introducing to a Chinese audience some of the key metaphors of the body, its composition, and functions found in Indic Buddhist literature. In Copp's study, we learn that the human body may be perfected by being "adorned or infused with the stuff of a spell and transformed into it" (Copp, p. xxiii). All three studies raise critical questions about how the body was understood and cared for in premodern Asian societies.

The publication of these books perhaps heralds a tipping point in the field of Buddhist studies—a point at which we can regularly produce work intended to be read and appreciated by our peers in other fields without the aid of a Sanskrit-English lexicon and a crash-course in advanced Buddhist doctrine. Copp's The Body Incantatory and Salguero's Translating Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China are monographs that derive from their recent PhD dissertations and perhaps [End Page 182] are still approaching that tipping point. But Gyatso's accomplished study seems to have arrived safely on the other side to take its place alongside major works of intellectual history that focus on Europe or North America. Here are signs, then, of a new era in which scholars in Buddhist studies might reach out from the arcana of texts and doctrines produced within the Buddhist tradition, proffering works of scholarship that benefit both the small...


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