Tibetan Medical and Buddhist Texts

May 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

Nancy Moltaji spent some time visiting Tibet in June 2012. Seeing manuscript libraries in Tibetan monasteries piqued her interest in past history of the printed treasures and present day attempts to preserve them.  Nancy presented a poster on the topic at the annual meeting of the Midwest Chapter/Medical Library Association this past fall and again at Mayo’s Festival of Cultures held in November 2012.

Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan medicine is an ancient holistic healing system, emphasizing balance in mind and body, that was developed over 1300 years ago and based on several medical traditions including Ayurveda, Western (Greek), Persian, Chinese, and the Buddhist and indigenous Bonpo religions of Tibet. In historical times, Tibetan medicine was taught only in Buddhist monasteries and practiced by Lama Physicians (Emchi). It has gained popularity throughout the world with increased interest in holistic and complementary medicine, and as Tibetan Culture spread since the 1970s.

Traditional Tibetan Library

Medical and Buddhist texts were stored in libraries similar to this one existing today.  The collection pictured represents a very small number of the numerous texts of Tibet. Many other texts were destroyed during China’s communist invasion of Tibet in the 1950s. China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s resulted in further destruction of recorded knowledge, places of learning and worship, and killing of people and their cultures.

Tibetan 1

Library at the main monastery in Gyantse,Tibet, southwest of Lhasa. Storage of a small collection of texts, individually wrapped in protective fabric and stored in colorful boxes with fabric index tags. June 2012.

Tibetan 2

Xylography or Wood Block Printing

Most Tibetan texts were produced using the process of xylography, the art of making engravings on wood, especially for printing. It is the oldest known relief printmaking technique, first practiced in China. Woodcut, or xylography, is a technique in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface, while the non-printing parts are removed. The areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ at the original surface level. The block is cut along the grain of the wood (unlike wood engraving where the block is cut in the end grain). The surface is covered with ink by rolling over it with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas. This is the rubbing technique, the most common method for Far Eastern printing on paper at all times. Two other techniques are stamping, used mostly in fabric design, and printing in a press, used in Asia only in relatively recent times. Multiple colors were printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks (where a different block is used for each color).

Xylographs of Tibetan medical and Buddhist texts are typically elongated shapes, imitating the form of ancient Indian Palm Leaf manuscript. The pothi style of book, loose leaves in cloth covers with wooden boards, is most representative of Tibetan books, independent of time period.

Tibetan 3A printer rolling or applying pressure to paper which takes up the ink on the raised part of the xylograph. Main monastery. Gynatse, Tibet, June 2012.

Notable Tibetan Medical Texts

The most notable Tibetan medical texts are the “Four Tantras” (rygud bzhi) and a history of Tibetan Medicine by Desi Sangye Gyatso (gso rig sman gyi khog ‘bugs), 1653-1705. The earliest surviving medical texts pre-date these more theoretical and systematic medical works, and were produced in the 8th-9th century CE or even earlier. Many Tibetan manuscripts, 24 of which are medical (currently in 2 libraries in France and Britain), were retrieved from Mogoa cave library in 1900 at Dunhuang, now in Gansu Province, People’s Republic of China. Dunhuang was formerly an important town along the Silk Road as the primary land passage and point of cultural exchange from the Chinese area toward the Western Regions, especially before the ‘maritime Silk Routes’ were established in the Southern Song (1127-1279). Trade developed, and culture was enriched with religious communities, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Zorastrianism and Manichaeism, which provided production and dissemination of new knowledge.

In addition to medical texts, an invaluable set of Tibetan medical paintings survived, with two copies currently in Lhasa, Tibet and one copy in the History Museum of Buryatia in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia in the south-central region of Siberia. A set consists of 76 plates, each with 90-274 images. The full set consists of about 10,000 drawings for The Atlas of Tibetan Medicine, generally dated by scholars to the 12th century CE. The sets illustrate material for “Four Tantras” and its encyclopedic commentary, ‘Lapis Lazuli’ (vaidurya sngon po –‘Vaidurya onbo’). Created by medical doctors and professional artists from 1687-1703, these medical paintings are still used for study of theory and practice of Tibetan medicine.

Tibetan 4

Tibetan 5

Tibetan 6

Efforts to Conserve and Digitize Tibetan Medical and Historical Texts and Illustrations

The International Trust for Traditional Medicine (ITTM), a public charitable Trust founded in 1995 and dedicated to the study and research of Indo-Tibetan and allied medical systems, oversaw the Tibetan Medical Digital Research Archive Project. Work began in March 1999 and focused on the study, translation and preservation of classical Tibetan medical texts, preparing electronic versions of key Tibetan medical works covering the 9th to 19th century AD. The ITTM also published a periodical on Indo-Tibetan and allied medicine cultures, Ayurvijnana, twice a year until 2002, and maintained trial plots of land for cultivation of traditional medicinal herbs. In August 2008 the ITTM in Kalimpong, India was closed, due to major political issues.

The International Dunhuang Project

The Silk Road Online is an international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artifacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use. IDP partners with other institutions which provide data for and act as hosts to the multilingual website and database. These institutions include the:

  • British Library for English versions – London,
  • National Library of China for Chinese versions – Beijing, and
  • Institute for Oriental Manuscripts for Russian versions – St. Petersburg.

The IDP 4D database, implemented in 1994, was initially designed on the basis of manuscript catalogs, using existing print and digital standards, but with added fields and functionality. The structure has been suitable for including details of artifacts other than manuscripts, such as paintings, 3D objects, textiles and historical photographs, as well as archaeological sites. The IDP database was intended as much more than a manuscript catalog. It was designed with three levels of use — and users — in mind:

  1. Curators and conservators in the holding institutions as a tool for managing the collections
  2. Scholars and others wishing to consult or learn more about the collections
  3. A broader range of users wishing to learn about the context of the finds.

The database continues to evolve and can be explored at IDP’s website.


Badmaev, V.  (2012). Principles of Tibetan medicine.  Adaptrin.com.   Retrieved  from http://www.adaptrin.com/principles-of-tibetan-medicine.html

Bolsokhoyeva, N. (2008).  Tibetan medical illustrations from the History Museum of Buryatia, Uland Ude.  Asian Medicine, 3(2):347-367. doi: 10.1163/157342008X307938 

Dharmananda S. (1999 Sep.).  Resource guide for Tibetan medicine.  Institute for Traditional Medicine (ITM).  Retrieved from   http://www.itmonline.org/arts/tibetmed.htm

Esaak, S.  (2012). Xylography.  In About.com; Art History.  Retrieved from http://arthistory.about.com/od/glossary/g/x_xylography.htm   

Helman-Wazny, A.   (2007 Spring).  A chronology of Tibetan bookbinding.  Recent IDP Conservation Initiatives, IDP News.  29.  Retrieved from http://idp.bl.uk/downloads/newsletters/IDPNews29.pdf

International Trust for Traditional Medicine (ITTM).  (2008 July 9).  Retrieved from http://www.ittm.org

Whitfield, S.  (2012 July).  The International Dunhuang Project:  The Silk Road Online. IDP International Dunhuang Project.  Retrieved from http://idp.bl.uk/idp.a4d

Woodcut.  (2012 Sep.)  In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodcut

Yan, Z. (2007 June 1).  rTsa in the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang.  Asian Medicine 3(2):296-307. doi: 10.1163/157342008X307893.

Nancy Moltaji
Reference Librarian

Entry filed under: Feature Articles.

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