2018 Seminars

2018 Seminar Series







Sienna R. Craig, Dartmouth College

Trauma and Time: Tibetan Medical Responses to Nepal’s 2015 Earthquakes

It is often said that traditional medicine, including Tibetan medicine, succeeds in the treatment of chronic conditions, whereas biomedicine is a better option for acute care. This stereotype is voiced not only by biomedical practitioners and patients but also by Tibetan physicians themselves. Indeed, it is part of how Tibetan medical “neo-traditionalism” operates. Even as this view is embraced and validated by diverse social actors, it remains incomplete. The limitations of this dichotomy become particularly apparent when considering health care needs that are biological, psychological, and social, such as those which emerge during states of emergency, including natural disasters. Even so, determining how – or if – and to what ends traditional medicine should be deployed in such moments remains virtually absent in global health circles and under-represented in scholarship on medical humanitarianism. Yet Tibetan physicians (who may also be religious practitioners) are called to action in times of crisis. This talk focuses on Buddhist approaches to healing, health, and illness within the context of Himalayan and Tibetan communities. It is framed around an ethnographic exploration of how practitioners of Sowa Rigpa (gso ba rig pa), the Tibetan “science of healing,” responded to the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal – and specifically the destruction experienced in the Langtang Valley, Rasuwa District. By highlighting the roles of these practitioners—at once doctors and monks or tantric ritual specialists—in responding to individual and collective suffering, this talk will explore the relationship between medical and Buddhist practice. In turn, this allows for a rethinking of what traditional medicine is “good for,” particularly in relation to that human urge of “the need to help”, including similarities and differences between forms of secular humanitarianism and a Buddhist response to crisis.



Jim Rheingans, USYD

Meditation in Tibetan Buddhism: Mind, Mahāmudrā and the Rhetoric of Immediacy

Training the mind (often labelled ‘meditation’) is one of the various aspects of Buddhist practice. Among Buddhist traditions, those of Tibet perhaps stand out most for their blend of meditative systems, centred on specific instructions (gdams ngag) and their lineages. The Great Seal (mahāmudrā) practised in the various Kagyü lineages is one such meditative technique. Tradition claims that it contains instructions for achieving Buddhahood by directly perceiving the nature of mind. A similar rhetoric of immediacy can be recognized in other Tibetan contemplative systems. When examining such, we certainly must analyse their terminologies, doctrinal developments, and systematizations. Indeed, doctrinal classification and apologetics were carried out extensively in the writings of, among others, Karmapa Mikyö Dorje (1507–54) and Drugchen Pema Karpo (1527–92). But beyond doctrinal debates and systematizations, it is the teacher who often is mentioned as the necessary condition for any approach to the Great Seal. After offering an overview of key Tibetan contemplative systems, this paper examines the function of confidence (dad pa) and devotion (mos gus) in the Great Seal traditions of Tibet. Focusing on the formative period of 13th to 17th century Tibet, this presentation illustrates these elements with some concrete examples from so far unstudied instructions. It also suggests analysing Buddhist instructions for the acquisition of meditative insight, more specifically those of the Tibetan Kagyüpa mahāmudrā, as a pragmatic heuristic adapted to the needs of different disciples.



Akira Saito, International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies (Tokyo)

Facts or Fakes? Reconsidering Śāntideva’s Names, Life, and Works

Śāntideva (c. 690-750) was an Indian Buddhist monk, philosopher, talented Sanskrit poet, and thinker on the conduct of a Mahāyāna practitioner. His life, works, and activities in Nālandā are explained in detail in several Tibetan hagiographies as well as Vibhūticandra’s commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Bu-ston’s History of Buddhism(1322) speaks of the hagiography as follows: Śāntideva is known by his seven wonderful stories, i.e., stories of his (1) tutelary deity, (2) activity in Nālandā, (3) victory over the heretics in the east, (4) converting 500 adherents of the heretical teaching in the west of Magadha to Buddhism, (5) feeding thousands of beggars in that country, (6) help to a king in the east, and (7) victory over a heretic teacher called *Śaṅkaradeva in the south. According to the above two stories (1) and (2), first, Śāntideva or Zhi ba(‘i) lha is the name given when he took orders in Nālandā, who had two other names, *Śāntivarman as a youth and Bhu-su-ku as a nickname. Second, he is said to have written three works, i.e., Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Śikṣāsamuccaya, and Sūtrasamuccaya. Third, concerning the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, three different versions were transmitted. Of those three versions, the second story tells that Śāntideva regarded the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra of 1000 verses as an authentic text. Although slightly different stories appear in other Tibetan hagiographies and Vibhūticandra’s commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Bu-ston’s above stories are most detailed. However, in mid 1980s the early smallest version of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra composed of totally 702.5 verses was discovered in the Tibetan manuscripts from Dūn-huáng, which has driven us to reconsider at least the above three points regarding Śāntideva’s names and works. Therefore, based on the above materials and related studies, this paper reconsiders Śāntideva’s names, life, and works.



Jarrod Hyam, USYD

The Perfected Body: Healing and Bodily Praxis Among the Bāuls of Bengal

This paper explores the central role of embodiment among the Bāul minstrels of West Bengal, India.  Informed by ethnographic fieldwork and applying an interdisciplinary methodology, my research addresses the uniquely syncretic bodily praxis applied by Bāul practitioners, influenced by tantric Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi Muslim traditions.  The greater Bengali milieu of Vaishnava “Sahajiyas,” inspiring Bāul praxis and culture, derives from sahaja, a Sanskrit word literally meaning “born together,” often employed by the medieval Vajrayāna siddhas in their couplets or dohas. The yogic bodily discipline applied by Bāuls is particularly veiled, insofar as the practices are kept secret for initiates alone, yet the processes of bodily practice or sādhanā and theory of one’s body-map, dehatattva, are obliquely concealed in lyrics that are sung publicly.  I contextualize Bāul sādhanā as a modality of holistic healing, encompassing psychosomatic regimens that heal the body-mind as a totality.  Through a direct and intensive exploration of dehatattva and proper sublimation of potent sexual impulses, the human body is reconfigured and transformed anew as a divine body.



Geoffrey Samuel, USYD

Unbalanced Flows in the Subtle Body: Tibetan Understandings of Psychiatric Illness and How to Deal With it

Disorders caused by imbalance of rlung (wind, breath) form one of the main Tibetan explanatory categories for what Western medical science classes as psychiatric illness. How might we relate Tibetan ideas of rlung to Western ideas of the emotions and the autonomic nervous system? Could such a relationship lead to a productive encounter between Tibetan and Western modes of understanding and treating psychiatric illness?



Catherine Schuetze, USYD

Die a herder and be born a yak, die a yak and be born a herder: Traditional animal healing in Tibetan cultural areas

The title of this talk is a common Bhutanese saying. It exemplifies the unique relationship between animals and humans in the Tibetan cultural area, which is built, in part, on Vajrayana Buddhist understandings of rebirth, and on local shamanic traditions. In this context, relationships are conceptualized as entangled, extended, interspecies kinship networks that encompass multiple lifetimes, and they exist in an environment populated with human and non-human beings, both embodied and disembodied. Just as these beings share kinship networks and a physical environment, they are also connected through health and illness. Healing practices maintain homeostasis in this complex health ecosystem. All embodied beings share the same five Buddhist cosmo-physical elements and the disembodied beings are related through networks of reciprocity. This talk will briefly cover the history and current state of traditional veterinary regimes in Tibetan cultural areas, specifically Bhutan. It will also outline traditional animal healing practices where they inform explanatory models of illness causation, and various Buddhist and local rituals involving animals that serve to not only treat but prevent illness and injury in this interspecies nexus of health relationships.