The Rubin Museum of Art, located at 150 West 17th Street in New York City, is from now through September 8, 2014 presenting an exhibition, Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine. Tibetan medicine, at this time in history, is one of the most comprehensive medical systems in the world. In fact, there are a number of Tibetan doctors who have been trained in Traditional Tibetan medicine living in the US today, many of whom reside here in NYC. While not accredited by the US health care system, some American doctors do teach about Tibetan medicine and have limited practices as alternative medical practitioners. They can be found by searching the web. Cultural institutions such as Shangshung Institute, or Sorig Institute also represent Tibetan medicine. Both of these institutes are located here in the US. And finally, the Rubin Museum itself has many programs throughout the duration of the Bodies in Balance exhibition in which Tibetan medical doctors participate and share their knowledge with the museum’s visitors.
The show focuses on the visual repre- sentations of Tibetan medicine beginning with its earliest applications dating back to antiquity to its present place in modern societies. According to Elena Pakhoutova, the Rubin Museum’s Assistant Curator, “We intended to present Tibetan medicine through its visual history as a comprehensive tradition of medical knowledge and practice dating back to over 1,000 years which is thriving at present and is very to our 21st century visitors.”It does this by illuminating the connections between physician and artist, Buddhist ideas alongside medicine and the visual arts, and healing traditions with present-day ideas of well-being.
Not only is Bodies in Balance an art show, it is also a hands-on exhibition.In addition to its approximately 140 paintings,manuscripts, sculptures, and works on paper and in wood and metal,there is a pulse station that teaches visitors how to feel their pulse according to Tibetan practice. This is important because pulse taking is a fundamental tool in Tibetan medicine that identifies several character- istics of our mental and physical health. The exhibition also features a multimedia installation that shows the different ways in which Tibetan medicine has thrived and been adapted in today’s world. It does this by displaying medicinal compounds and graphic cards throughout the gallery spaces. These compounds and cards help to decode complex paintings and illustrations, and provide additional details for understanding Tibetan medical concepts and the ingredi- ents in medical compounds.
For instance, my favorite part of the exhibition was not the artwork, but rather a little pamphlet with a quiz that was given out for the visitor to fill out in order to determine which of the 3 bodily forces called “nyepas” in the Tibetan language. These“nyepas,” phlegm, wind and bile, according to Tibetan medical knowledge, compose the human body and characterize the individual force or forces that each of us is made of.This practice suggests that through understanding the dominant force or forces of one’s constitu- tion it is possible to make decisions that will help the individual move toward the ideal inner balance. Diet, conduct, medicines, and external therapies are the primary methods used to lower elevated forces and help to achieve that inner balance.
However, the artwork in the show itself is spectacular. Amongst the most common and beautiful murals, paintings, and statues are the depictions of the Medicine Buddha. The Medicine Buddha, an immensely popular figure in Tibet is typically shown with blue skin, holding a bowl of healing nectar in one hand, and a fruit or leaf of the cure-all remedy myrobalan plant in the other hand. For Tibetan doctors, the Medicine Buddha is the divine source of knowledge for the classical medical text known as the “Four Tantras,” and is a model for a calm demeanor and restorative powers. These qualities are considered essential to the Tibetan healing professions.
Related to the Medicine Buddha is the treatise about his teachings known as the Four Tantras or Gyushi. Created in the 12th century, it describes the interaction between the body and the mind and Buddhism’s 5 cosmological elements and 3 bodily forces. The elements consist of water, fire earth, wind, and space. As mentioned before, the 3 bodily forces, nyepas are comprised of wind, bile, and phlegm. Both elements and force are included in this text and picture. The text describes basic ideas about the body’s formation, structure and functioning. It also lists a large number of diseases, symptoms, and medicinal ingredients. Specifically, it offers behavioral, dietary, and medicinal approaches to balancing the constant flux of the body’s elements and forces.
In addition to the Medicine Buddha, there is a selection from hundreds of fierce figures that have the responsibility of pre- serving the Tibetan medical tradition. These deities were most likely invoked at a Tibetan medical institute or a monastery for empow- erments and initiations of Buddhist and lay medical practitioners. There are 5 paintings out of a set of 9 in the show. They all display each fierce figure, known as a protector, riding a powerful nine-headed animal. Now, small cards made from these pictures are commonly used during these initiations.
For those of you who like astrology, there is a close relationship in Tibetan medicine that is traceable to sources in the Tibetan language dating back to the 9th century. There exist texts, from this period, that offer instructions on how to calculate the daily movement of the life force, in the Tibetan language known as “la,” through different body parts. In fact, in medical institutions in Tibet, astrology and medicine are intertwined. Furthermore, consulting horo- scopes and wearing amulets are pervasive in many Himalayan societies today. Their functions of protecting and maintaining health, fostering longevity, as well as avoiding life’s obstacles are acknowledged in Tibetan medical and Buddhist texts. They come with the caveat that a particular person’s karma, or accumulated actions, ultimately determine the outcome of any celestial occurrence. One important visual foundation of Tibetan astrology is the Great Golden Turtle. This turtle is viewed as being a manifestation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. This Buddhist deity is credited as being the divine source of astrological knowledge. Here we have still another example of Buddhist teachings and Tibetan medicine merging.
Finally, giving an aerial view of the whole show, Pakhoutova says, “We have 25 lenders from Europe, Asia, as well as the US. Many of the objects are from our own col- lection. This visual variety of the exhibition is steeped in rich content which we made accessible and engaging, and will interest anyone who visits this exhibition and the museum.”
Helen Weisman is a freelance science journalist living in New York City. She has taught writing at The City University of New York.