#AsiaNow Speaks with Janet Gyatso

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs at Harvard Divinity School, and author of Being Human in a Buddhist World: An Intellectual History of Medicine in Early Modern Tibet, published by Columbia University Press and winner of the 2017 AAS E. Gene Smith Award for Best Book in Inner Asia.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is about the history of science and its interactions—and tensions with—religion in the context of early modern Tibet (1300-1800). It studies the intellectual history of medical thought in Tibet, and contrasts it with Buddhist thought in the same time and period. It is also interested in the ways in which medical knowledge borrowed from Buddhist practices and values, while still maintaining a certain distance from religious world views. It uncovers deeply humanistic values and practices that were developed in medical circles in Tibet. And it also questions assumptions that empiricism and certain kinds of modernity are distinctive to Western civilization.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I was excited by the fresh and candid writings that I found in Tibetan medical writing. I come out of a Buddhist studies background and it was fun for a change to think about kinds of empiricism, secularism, and science that could grow up in a predominantly Buddhist society. It also fed into my earlier interests in challenging common narratives about the uniqueness of Western identity and modernity.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

The primary materials are hard to read. On the one hand they have a lot of technical medical terminology and references to kinds of therapies with which I am not familiar. On the other hand, they are often written with a sophisticated rhetoric that simultaneously challenges cultural values of the time but also endeavors to disguise their controversial suggestions. On both counts I was greatly assisted by being able to read a lot of these materials with Tibetan medical scholars. This turned out to be greatly rewarding on its own terms. 

In addition it was great to discover all sorts of interesting clues in this material that these thinkers were really on a different page than Buddhist thinkers of the same time and place, as I had suspected at my first encounter with this kind of writing. It was fun to pick apart complex rhetoric, and to discover very distinctive concerns about evidence, historical truths, material accuracy, and especially human (as opposed to ideal or salvational) flourishing.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

That one of the leading doctors in the court of the Fifth Dalai Lama in Lhasa (17th century), Darmo Menrampa, went so far as to boil up four human corpses, one of an old man, one of an old woman, one of a young male, and one of a young female, in order to count the number of bones in the human body. He did this because the texts are contradictory and he felt that he needed to go to the material evidence itself in order to learn the truth. Apparently he did this with witnesses, in a park in Lhasa. This happened just around the time of corpse dissection for anatomy lessons in the Netherlands.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Besides the primary Tibetan sources, I’d mention

Ali Daud, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Patricia Ann Berger, Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (University of Hawaii Press, 2003)

Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-century England (University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000)

Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 (Harvard University Press, 2005)

Sudipta Kaviraj, “An Outline of a Revisionist Theory of Modernity,” European Journal of Sociology 46: 3 (2005): 497–526.

Yuri Parfionovitch, Fernand Meyer, and Gyurme Dorje (eds.), Tibetan Medical Paintings: Illustrations to the Blue Beryl Treatise of Sangyé Gyamtso (1653-1705) (Serindia, 1992)

James Wood, “The Blue River of Truth,” The New Republic, August 1, 2005, 23-27.

What are you working on now?

I am interested in animal studies, around ethics, animal communication, and the phenomenology of bodily knowing. My work in this area will probably not make much reference to Asian Studies, for a change. It will have little if anything on stories about animals from the past, although I might make some creative use of Buddhist insights regarding epistemological topics like attention. Most of all, it will be informed by recent “post-humanist” writing, and will also draw on my own experience and perceptions. I’m teaching my first course on related issues next semester, and am excited to see what forms the project takes.