Artatomical: Tibetan Thangka Medical Illustrations


Inside the mystical body. Werner Forman/Universal Images/Getty

In this installment of Artatomical, we turn to the pages of "Mirror of Beryl," a 17th-century commentary on "The Four Tantras," the foundational text of Tibetan medicine. The commentary was prepared by Sangye Gyamtso (1653 1705), regent of Tibet, as an attempt to codify Tibetan medical science.

The word tantra means "linage," and as discussed on A Buddhist Library, the four tantras in question break down as follows:

The First Tantra is called "Root Tantra" and it contains very briefly an explanation of all diseases. It is like a seed. The Second Tantra, composed of 31 chapters, is called "Explanatory Tantra". It explains all about the anatomy and physiology of our body; the process of birth and dying. The Third Tantra, composed of 92 chapters, is called "Oral Transmissions Tantra" and deals with the cause, the nature, the treatment of diseases and their classification. The Fourth Tantra, composed of 25 chapters, is called "Last Tantra" and it explains the 18 methods of diagnosis, pharmacology and support, or external treatments.
(Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Tibetan medicine or Sowa Rigpa is an expectantly complex and esoteric discipline, drawing on ancient Greek, Ayurvedic and Chinese medical traditions. ShangShung.org provides an excellent overview, but suffice to say that the philosophy of Tibetan medicine leans heavily on the Buddhist mind/body connection and uses pulse diagnosis and urine analysis to determine mental and physical imbalances.

When it comes to treatment, practitioners turn to Tibetan massage (Kunye), moxabustion, blood-letting and medicines produced from native Himalayan plants. The Swiss-produced herbal supplement PADMA 28 stems from this pharmacopoeia.

But back to these medical Thangka. I love Tibetan aesthetic, particularly its psychonautical and necromantic elements, so these visions of internal, semi-mystical systems and grinning skulls are right up my alley.

Let's explore one more example. I believe this one relates to the Explanatory Tantra, which deals with the anatomy and physiology of our body from the cradle to the grave. Be sure to click on the image and explore all the details in a super-large version of the file:

Click image for large version.
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.