Visual Hierarchies in Tibetan and Mongolian Medicine
(55th Meeting, 2012)
The paper will introduce an example of hierarchy in the arrangement and presentation of traditional medical knowledge. The rgyud bzhi is the most important treatise in Tibetan medicine consisting of four parts. For each of these parts different hierarchic structures are employed which are described in depth in the second chapter of the first part called rtsa rgyud or “root tantra”. The contents of the chapters on physiology and pathology, diagnostics and therapy of this part are described with the help of the metaphor of an “unfolded tree” (sdong vgrems). Thevisualisation of these concepts is famous through a set of thangkas illustrating the so-called “Blue Beryll” which is the most famous commentary of the rgyud bzhi. This paper will focus on visual hierarchies of the bshad rgyud, the “tantra of explanation”. It forms the second part of the rgyud bzhi and outlines mainly preclinical knowledge. Due to the complexity of its contents, no historical visual representations in form of an unfolded tree could be found so far. However, the physician Blo bzang Chos grags (1638-1710), an elder associate of Sangs rgyas Rgya mtsho (1653-1703) and head of the famous medical institution at the “Iron Hill” (lcags po ri) in Lhasa, wrote a text which gives detailed directions for the creation of a tree structure illustrating the content of the bshad rgyud. A visual realisation of these instructions was only found in the inner courtyard of the medical faculty at Labrang Monastery where a series of nineteen murals can be found showing a total of 37 trees. I will concentrate on the largest and one of the most beautiful trees depicting chapter four of the bshad rgyud, the chapter on anatomy. The hierarchy is expressed by four stems, 47 branches and a huge amount of leaves in different colours, each symbolising an anatomical structure. (FWF Project: 22965 G21).