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Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.

Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.

Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.

The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human.

I’ve noted before how spiritually important it is to recognize our own flawed human state. But it is all the more so for medicine. Susanne Mrozik and others have noted how buddhas are traditionally supposed to have perfect bodies. But the rest of us have messy, diseased, smelly, ultimately decaying bodies that we still have to figure out how to live with – and the practitioners of medicine in any society are the ones most charged with figuring this out. In the Four Treatises of Yutok Yönten Gönpo, the Tibetan medical text with which the book is concerned, this distinction is explicitly marked out – there is the “true dharma” (dam pa’i chos), but there is also something different, “human dharma” (mi chos).

All this forms the context for a treatment of the relation between Buddhist tradition and empirical natural science, specifically medicine (and biology). The book shows that the question of the relationship between Buddhism and empirical natural science is not merely a phenomenon of postcolonial Western influence; it predates what I have referred to as Yavanayāna. Tibetan Buddhist medical thinkers were working hard to think it through. To support the often polemical claims they made in their works, they would refer (among other things) both to sacred texts and to dissections they themselves had performed. Indeed they referred to all three of the most standard Indian pramāṇas, and not by direct translation of the Indian terms: Zurkharwa Lodrö Gyelpo, the Four Treatises commentator who takes up the greatest amount of Gyatso’s attention, invokes the three authorities of “scriptural quotes, reasoning, and what is directly evident.” (244)

“Scriptural quotes” are the words of authoritative past masters, which modern scientists too must rely on, in their way. And what I found most interesting in this book was its detailed picture of the history of science: one can observe in these debates that in Tibet there was no sharp break between science and not-science.

But then, the same is true of the history of the West! One of the fascinating things about Tibet is that it takes what began in another context as an apolitical tradition and invests that tradition with political authority, as well as becoming a great center of knowledge, art, and monasticism. I would say the comparison with the Roman Catholic Church is irresistible, except that Gyatso generally manages to resist it. I cannot do the same.

When Galileo observed what we now consider to be the moons of Jupiter, he was refuted by the seventeenth-century astronomer Francesco Sizzi as follows:

There are seven windows in the head, two nostrils, two eyes, two ears and a mouth; so in the heavens there are two favourable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury alone undecided and indifferent. From which and many other similar phenomena of nature, such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.

Sizzi’s reasoning seems so bizarre to us today that our first response is to laugh. Many atheists and science partisans love to do just that. In Peirce’s Pragmatism Phyllis Chiasson describes it as “an extreme example [of] the type of conclusions a non-experimentalist might end up with.”

But wait a second. Sizzi was a respected astronomer, not merely for his connections or even his theology but for his observations. He was one of the first to observe the variations in the paths of sunspots, and it seems very likely that Galileo himself learned of these variations directly from Sizzi (see G.V. Coyne’s article in Sonett et al., The Sun in Time, pp. 5-9). Sizzi was just as much of an “experimentalist” as Galileo himself. It’s easy to caricature Sizzi as an anti-science dogmatist who ignored empirical evidence, but to say that is to ignore the historical evidence about his own life. Rather, Sizzi was proceeding exactly as Thomas Kuhn’s description implies most scientists do: work within an existing paradigm, treating empirical anomalies as puzzles to be explained away within the system. This early in the scientific revolution, it was quite possible to remain informed by a theory stating that the universe was indeed governed by correspondences of the sort he describes.

Galileo himself wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine arguing why his heliocentric theory of the universe was compatible with Catholic doctrine. This was not for mere political reasons; as far as we know, Galileo remained devoutly Catholic through his life. Richard Westfall notes the Inquisition condemned him only for his heliocentric astronomy, not for any other “heretical theological views”. The distinctions between him and Sizzi are not so great. We should not forget that before Darwin, God’s design was the best available hypothesis to explain the tremendous adaptation of lifeforms to their environment.

It is just this sort of theoretical negotiation between tradition and observation – between śabda and pratyakṣa – that Being Human explores in great detail, in a Buddhist rather than Christian context. It shows us, among other things, just how hard Tibetan medical scholars tried to reconcile their empirical observations of anatomy with the official descriptions of tantric anatomy that one is expected to visualize within oneself. They wrote in the form of commentaries on the Four Treatises, so they had to reconcile their observations not only with previous tantric texts but with the Four Treatises as well.

So, when Tibetan medical writers knew the tantric picture of “a central axial channel with two side channels entwined around the flowerlike circles of knots along its length” (205), what did they do when they observed a dead body and did not see such a thing in its thoracic cavity? Yangönpa Gyeltsen Pel says that the tantric central channel has a “subtle” kind of materiality – invisible to the naked eye, as we would now say infrared energy is; only yogic practice allows us to perceive it. (Some of Ken Wilber’s writings suggest he buys Yangönpa’s version of the story even now.) Kyempa Tsewang identifies it with the main trunk of the “white vital channel” – which is in turn identified with the nervous system of the mature human body. Zurkharwa, in turn, says that it exists not in mature human beings but in the early development of a fetus, when it is (in Gyatso’s terms) “little more than a blob.” These three thinkers each come up with very different explanations, but none is willing to reject the traditional tantric concept – or the empirical evidence.

Gyatso shows us how tantric anatomy constituted a paradigm. It provided the theory through which Tibetan writers understood the empirical evidence, and as Kuhn might predict, it was never rejected; it merely required modification. Today’s scientists have many more writers’ accounts of their own observations than the Tibetans did, and it is those existing accounts of observation that serve the role of “scripture”. But the attempt to reconcile new observations with existing theory remains.