Thursday, April 29, 2010

Xi Wangmu and Tibetan Medicine

We do not know precisely how or when medicine, as a formal discipline, was first practiced in the region of the world we now call Tibet, so we can only speculate. Tibet’s earliest physician was likely a shaman: what the Indians called gSan-wa-pa—secret ones. The oral traditions of Tibetan medicine, as we now understand it, probably began when the shamanic role became institutionalized in ancient medical traditions later associated with the tribal religion of Bön. We cannot be certain, but indigenous myth suggests this may have occurred some 3,800 years ago, well before the time of Buddha, in a kingdom called Zhang-zhung, centered on Manasarowar in far western Tibet.

These ancient traditions are, in one view, traceable back through Macedonia, to Persia, and to Mesopotamia, and may represent later synthesis with an eastward-moving transmission of ancient Greek medicine, as it assimilated traditions in the path of Alexander the Great. Among other means, we arrive at this assumption by comparative study of the mythologies associated with Himalayan medicine, ethnolinguistic study of medical terminology, and by ethnobotanical investigation of the early materia medica.

There is also compelling, contextual evidence that the Bön were indeed not indigenous to Tibet, and may be a foreign tribe originating in Persia. Then again, it may be that the Bön are indeed the original Tibetans in the way that Indians are the original Americans. In spite of centuries of investigation, and accounts of the Bön themselves, we still do not know who they really were, or are, and for this the blame lays squarely on the Tibetan monarchy. “Bön” is at once a people, a belief system, and the elements of a belief system. I hesitate to say this, but I sometimes think the fate that befell Buddhist Tibet at the hands of Communist China is in karmic consequence of the fate that befell the Bön at the hands of Buddhist Tibet. I have always yearned to examine Bön in its original state, devoid of Buddhist influence, but unfortunately, this is impossible.

Beyond these assumptions, we know very little of medicine in Tibet’s protohistory. Yet, we do know that a well-developed, indigenous form of medicine existed as early as 127 CE, distinguished from other ancient medicines by its extensive materia medica and use of surgery. One early regional name for Tibet was Men-Jong, or the “Land of Medicines,” and there was a Palace of Medicinal Plants in the Yarlung Valley, patronized by local kings. Artifacts of this tradition exist to the present, in the ancient names of some of the Tibetan medicinal botanicals. As an example: the Tibetan name for tinospora sinensis is sle-tres, said to originate in the ancient Bön language, thus indicating use of this herb may date back to c. 800 BCE.

According to Western scholarship, the earliest systematic medicine in Tibet realistically dates to circa 350-307 BCE and is known as Upper or Western Tibetan Medicine. Perhaps this date will be revised backward, as new records continue to be unearthed and translated.

The system is established as Bön with substantial Greco-Arabic influence, and first codified in three texts entitled Multicolored Collection of a Hundred Thousand Methods of Curing, White Collection of a Hundred Thousand Medical Cures, and Black Collection of a Hundred Thousand Medical Cures (dPyad ‘bum khra bo, sMan ‘bum dkar po, and sMan ‘bum nag po). These, in turn, are claimed by Bön-pos as the origin of the Tibetan rGyud bZhi [Four Treatises].

A Shaanxi tomb rubbing showing Xi Wangmu wearing her sheng crown, 
with the rabbits pounding medicine, and a three-legged raven nearby.

We also know Tibet’s early tribes were renowned for medicaments and mystics. As an example, the Daoist Golden Mother of the West, Xi Wangmu (西王母), noted in China’s Zhou dynasty (r. 1001-952 BCE), was according to some accounts an actual Tibetan shamaness famous for her longevity prescriptions. Records of a meeting between this woman and King Mu were discovered in 281 CE, and she was regarded by the early Daoists as the author of the legendary Ssu-t’ung-san longevity formula.

So, who was Xi Wangmu? Hsia, Veith and Geertsma, The Essentials of Medicine in Ancient China and Japan: Yasuyori Tamba’s Ishimpo. Part Two. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), p. 6-7, identify her as the matriarchal chieftain of what they call the Tso-Ngong-Bo tribe, which they translate as "Blue Sea."

Because we do not know what transliteration scheme they employ, we cannot dissect this. gTso-snon-po could mean Blue Lady. gSo-snon-po could mean Blue Physician. mTsho-snon-po is Blue Lake, or Lake Kokonor. gSto is the name of a tribe, so in theory this could be Sto-snon-po.

We regret we cannot trace this tribe with precision. This could be the gTso, one of the ‘bangs-rus-drug group, or the 6 clans of royal lineage. This could also be the sTong, hailing from the area the Sui Chinese knew as the Land of Women, or what the Han Chinese generally called a Ti Ch’iang tribe. In any case, the area is around the upper Nyag-chu River, well to the east of Zhang-zhung. If you want to pick up the trail, you can visit Ancient Tibet: Research Materials from the Yeshe De Project (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1986).

Lately, Max Dashu has given us a treasure trove with his Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China, an online resource wherein he pulls together everything he can find of her origins and history. As he points out, the first notice of a "western mother" is found thirty-three centuries ago. Maybe this points us to a race origin, but after thirty-three centuries, who knows?

When your Chinese amala says, "Eat your peaches! They're good for you!" she has thirty-three centuries to draw upon and quite possibly, a Tibetan ancestor.

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