EVENTS

Recurring event:
Vienna Sowa Rigpa Dialogues

Organised by Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk and Isabella Würthner

Since Vienna has become a center for Tibetan medical research in recent years, both at the University of Vienna and the Academy of Sciences, we are delighted to host this recurring series of open-ended dialogues. This informal exchange platform is open to all interested researchers and scholar-practitioners of Sowa Rigpa, and will be held either online or live in Vienna, depending on availability and need. Our goals are to share work-in-progress and to get feedback on tentative ideas, to discuss current issues, to generate mutual support and collaboration, and to reflect on the trajectory of our field. All of this in a relaxed, collegial atmosphere.

UPCOMING DIALOGUES

* Timing details are provided in Central European Time

  • January 2023 (to be confirmed)

PREVIOUS SESSIONS

  • 15 December 2022, 2pm: young Sowa Rigpa scholars introduction continued
  • 1 December 2022, 1:30pm & 3:30pm, ISTB, Seminar Room 3 & 1: discussion on the formalization of teaching and learning Sowa Rigpa at University of Vienna + Hybrid lecture by Katharina Sabernig titled “Understanding Potency in Tibetan Medicine: Forms of nüpa in the Crystal Globe & Crystal Rosary and Related Texts” (follow link for online lecture recording).
  • 15 November 2022, 3:30-5pm: young Sowa Rigpa scholars introduction
  • 2 November 2022, 10am, Zieglergasse 66/6, 1070 Wien (in collaboration with Florian Ploberger)

2022

WORKSHOP ANNOUNCEMENT
Materiality, Agency and Power:
Crafting Potency in Sowa Rigpa and Ritual Practice

A two-day interdisciplinary workshop (July 12-13, 2022)

Organized by Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk, and Calum Blaikie
Seminar Room 1, Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB)
University of Vienna, Spitalgasse 2, Hof 2.7, 1090 Vienna, Austria

Grinding calcite stone powder
(Amchi Tsultim Gyatso, Leh, Ladakh)

ABSTRACT

As part of the three-year Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project on “Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Rituals,” we invite a group of dedicated scholars to spend two days together discussing the productive interrelationships between materiality, agency, and power both within and beyond Tibetan medical and ritual practice. How can we better understand how materials become potent, or powerful in other ways? What constitutes the agency of ritual objects and potent substances? How is potency crafted, generated, sculpted, infused, maintained or lost? What is the role of texts, lineage, and environment? In our project we primarily rely on Tim Ingold’s theoretical framework of ‘substances-in-becoming,’ which proposes skillfully working with the sensorial properties of materials as a source of their agency and power. We also draw on historical approaches to artisanship (e.g. Pamela Smith), and on STS methodologies of relationality and (nonhuman) agency (e.g. Actor-Network-Theory).

During this two-day workshop, we want to exchange ideas and expand on the hypothesis that potency emerges in fields of practice: medical and ritual practitioners approach substances as carriers of potency, which must be actualized and enhanced through skillful intervention (e.g. processing and/or consecration) in order to become suitably active. Potency is thus more than an inherent property; it is also crafted in practice, and can be ritually imbued. Through interdisciplinary discussions we also aim to bridge the gaps between anthropological (ethnographic), pharmacological, and historical (textual) research on these topics and ask what parallels and contrasts can be found in the way potency is approached, also outside the Tibetan cultural world.

Papers            Max. 20–25 min. + 20–25 min. of paper discussion

PROGRAM

TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2022

9.15 arrive at ISTB

9.30 (s.t.) – 10.30 Project Forum: Working & Thinking with Potent Substances
Introducing the Potent Substances Project: Interactive Discussion (Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk, Tawni Tidwell, Calum Blaikie)

10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break

11.00 – 12.30 Session 1: Crafting Potency
James Gentry (Stanford University): “Potency in the Making: Tracing Networks of Efficacy in Ratna Lingpa’s Maṇi-Pill Tradition”

Jan van der Valk (University of Vienna): “Beyond the Ethnographic Case Study: A Student-Practitioner-Anthropologist Learning (about) the Craft of Tibetan Medicinal Butter Preparation”

12.30 – 13.30 Lunch (catered for speakers in Seminar room 2)

13.30 – 15.00 Session 2: Potency as Potential
Katharina Sabernig (University of Applied Arts Vienna): “Forms of nüpa in the Crystal Globe & Crystal Rosary and related Tibetan Texts”

Tawni Tidwell (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “Developing nüpa in Tibetan medicine-compounding classics and related ritual from Yutok Nyingtik”

15.00 – 15.30 Coffee break

15.30 – 16.15 Session 3: Potency as Network

Herbert Schwabl (Padma AG, Switzerland): “Probing flexibility and stability – the materiality of Tibetan formulas challenged by biomedical semiotics”

16.15 – 16.30 Guided Discussion (discussant: William McGrath)

18.30  Dinner (not sponsored)

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13, 2022

09.00 – 10.30 Session 4: Protection & Purity
William McGrath (New York University): “The Potency of Champions: Protecting Tibetan Bodies from Epidemic and Military Invasions”

Stacey Van Vleet (University of California, Berkeley): “Potency and Purity at Labrang Medical College (1769-1800)”

10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break

11.00 – 12.30 Session 5: Landscape & Lineage 
Anna Sehnalova (University of Oxford) “Agency of Environment and Potency of Landscape in Buddhist and Tibetan Indigenous Cosmologies”

Barbara Gerke and Calum Blaikie (University of Vienna, ÖAW): “Continuity of Potency: Ethnographies of Lineage Substances (phab rta)”

12.30 – 13.30 Lunch (catered for speakers in Seminar room 2)

13.30 – 15.00 Session 6: Pharmacopolitics & Practice

Tatiana Chudakova (Tufts University): “Artemisian Dreams: The Pharmacopolitics of Essence”
(VIA ZOOM)

Elisabeth Hsu (University of Oxford): “What is not in a text? Potencies solicitating practice”

15.00 – 15.30 Coffee break

15.30 – 16.30 Audiovisual session

Donagh Coleman (University of California, Berkeley) “Extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist Death Displays and the Dynamic of Presence and Absence”
(including footage shot for his new film Tukdam: Between Worlds)

16.30 – 16.45 Guided Discussion (discussant: tba)

16.45 – 17.15 Round Table (Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk, Tawni Tidwell, Calum Blaikie)

PROGRAM WITH ABSTRACTS

TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2022

9.15 arrive at ISTB

9.30 (s.t.) – 10.30 Project Forum: Working & Thinking with Potent Substances

Introducing the Potent Substances Project (Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk, Tawni Tidwell, Calum Blaikie): theoretical ideas, fieldwork, textual studies, collaborations, points of friction.
An Interactive Discussion.

10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break

11.00 – 12.30 Session 1: Crafting Potency
James Gentry (Stanford University): “Potency in the Making: Tracing Networks of Efficacy in Ratna Lingpa’s Maṇi-Pill Tradition”

This paper considers how substances are attributed potency through examining the nexus of materiality, ritual action, expertise, and narrative at work in the maṇi-pill tradition developed by the fifteenth-century Treasure revealer Ratna Lingpa (Ratna gling pa, 1403–1479). Ratna Lingpa’s maṇi-pill tradition is a Buddhist medico-ritual tradition still practiced today whose roots lie in post-eighth-century Indian Buddhist Tantric literature. Operating at the interface between Tibetan medicine and Buddhist ritual, Ratna Lingpa’s maṇi pill comes embedded in Buddhist narrative traditions and incorporates as ingredients the flesh of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s emanations and other Buddhist special dead, along with other substances more commonly at use in Tibetan medicine. The pill also undergoes an elaborate communal ritual consecration process as part of its manufacture and public distribution. Analysis draws inspiration from actor-network theory and other theorists of human/non-human relationality to inquire into how material, discursive, sensory, and enacted features combine to imbue the maṇi pill with perceived potency. It also asks how this nexus of features might have contributed to the success of Ratna Lingpa’s tradition to the present.

Jan van der Valk (University of Vienna): “Beyond the Ethnographic Case Study: A Student-Practitioner-Anthropologist Learning (about) the Craft of Tibetan Medicinal Butter Preparation”

In line with Tim Ingold’s distinction between ethnography as producing a retrospective account of lived experience and anthropology as an open-ended inquiry into living with people, this paper argues that participant observation is a way of learning that goes beyond the problematic objectification of people into “qualitative data” and “cases” for comparison and generalisation. As a student-practitioner-anthropologist, I describe how I started learning the craft of making and consecrating Tibetan medicinal butter pills as part of a one-week workshop in the Swiss Alps in the Spring of 2018, alongside my teacher Arya Pasang Yonten and a dozen of fellow students. I frame this way of studying not just as a transmission of authorised knowledge, but as an opening up of paths of growth and discovery by attending to things. Learning this skilled practice is joining with the properties and activities of materials – including materia medica such as myrobalans, molasses, honey and milk – in an ecology of correspondence that transforms both the ingredients and the artisan. Notably, the correspondence between making and maker was taught explicitly through the lenses of Sowa Rigpa and tantric Buddhist practice: the grinding, boiling, sieving, and filtering mirror the steps of bodily digestion, whereas the ritual consecration of the prepared medicinal butter works by “extracting the essence” (bcud len) of the elements into the pills through self-identification with meditational deities of healing and longevity. I aim to show that mutual processes of becoming are an integral part of undergoing an education, which applies to learning a craft as well as practicing participant observation.

12.30 – 13.30 Lunch (catered for speakers in Seminar Room 2)

13.30 – 15.00 Session 2: Potency as Potential
Katharina Sabernig (University of Applied Arts Vienna): “Forms of nüpa in the Crystal Globe & Crystal Rosary and related Tibetan Texts”

The eighteenth-century pharmacopoeia Shel gong (Crystal globe) lists the names of individual source materials, which are specified by an elaborate autocommentary called Shel phreng (Crystal rosary). Both were devisedby Deumar Geshé Tendzin Püntsok (De’u dmar Dge bshes Bstan ’dzin phun tshogs, 1673-1743).Together theyform one of the most important contributions to the genre of trungpé (’khrungs dpe)literature. While the Shel gongincludes the principal indication of the individual substances, the more extensive Shel phreng provides further pharmacognostic details on pharmacodynamic concepts as well as subtypes, substitutes, synonyms, names in local dialects, and descriptions of their visual appearance. The pharmacopoeia expands on the twentieth chapter of the Explanatory Tantra entitled “Effect of medicines” (sman gyi nus pa). In the context of this chapter, the term nus pa is used as an umbrella term involving different pharmacodynamic concepts, including the specific concept of eight “potencies, as a homonym referring to the qualities that characterise an ingredient. A similar but more complex notion is the concept of seventeen “properties” (yon tan). However, the materials listed in the Explanatory Tantra are not classified according the specific idea of nüspa (nus pa), but following the “nature” (ngo bo) of the respective material. It was Darmo Menrampa Lozang Chödrak (Dar mo sman rams pa Blo bzang chos grags, 1638-1710?) who added the specific qualities to most of the individual names in his Explanation of the effect of medicines in the twentieth chapter of the Explanatory Tantra (Bshad paʼi rgyud kyi leʼu nyi shu pa sman gyi nus pa bstan paʼi tshig gi don gyi ʼgrel ba mes poʼi dgongs rgyan). His text can be considered as an important source and a precursor to Tendzin Phüntsok’s work. My presentation will analyse the relationship between these texts and their different manner of dealing with and connecting the pharmacodynamic concepts of nus pa, yon tan and ngo bo.

Tawni Tidwell (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “Developing nüpa in Tibetan medicine-compounding classics and related ritual from Yutok Nyingtik”

This presentation provides the textual foundations for characterizing potency in Tibetan medicine, focusing on the detailed presentation of nüpa (nus pa) in the Four Medical Treatises (Rgyud bzhi) and its most prominent relevant commentaries, including Crystal Orb and Rosary (Shel gong shel phreng) by Deumar Tendzin Püntsok. Specifically, this presentation will address the technicalities of how the classic eight potencies (nus pa brgyad) are understood in the Four Medical Treatises as related to the elemental dynamics (’byung ba lnga), tastes (ro drug), post-digestive tastes (zhu rjes gsum) and qualities (yon tan bcu bdun). I will select a few illuminating examples of formulas to demonstrate the theory. The presentation will touch briefly on relevant ritual references important to imbued aspects of potency through consecration from a related spiritual practice to Tibetan medicine, the Revealed Treasure text cycle Heart Essence of Yutok (G.yu thog snying thig), known as Yutok Nyingtik, from the Rinchen Terdzö (Rin chen gter mdzod), with particular attention to the rituals related to the protectors in consecrating medicine. Understandings of nüpa and its multivalent and complex transformations through harvesting, processing, compounding and consecrating will be explored.

15.00 – 15.30 Coffee break

15.30 – 16.15 Session 3: Potency as Network

Herbert Schwabl (Padma AG, Switzerland): “Probing flexibility and stability – the materiality of Tibetan formulas challenged by biomedical semiotics”

Tibetan formulas are predominantly compounded with ingredients of herbal origin. Modern phytochemistry describes each plant as containing a variety of active molecules, grouped into essential oils, flavonoids, polyphenols, alkaloids, etc. From this point of view, a Tibetan formula can be understood as an extreme form of a multi-compound mixture. The more ingredients are present in a given volume, the less their concentration. It is thus not surprising that their activity lies at the lower end compared to usual pharmacological textbook knowledge. Tibetan formulas can therefore not be understood through the activity of single and specific molecules, but more as a pleiotropic, unspecific mode of action. Such formulas can be interpreted as acting on the systemic level of the whole organism, or as adaptogens (with non-specific, usually tonifying activity). On the other side stands modern pharmacology, which relies on the paradigm of specificity. Medical indications are standardized via ICD-terms (the WHO International Classification of Diseases). For each defined medical indication exist specific pharmaceuticals, each based on mono-substances with defined dosage. The pharmacopoeia demands exact and normative values for each drug. This spills over to phyto-pharmacy, the field of pharmacognosy. Herbal ingredients also have to be standardized and are assessed using “theoretical” values, such as content of essential oils or certain patterns of flavonoids. Such differences open up a discourse of bio-medical semiotics. How does a formula interact or “speak” to the organism? If the specificity of a formula is connected to its molecular materiality, where to anchor an unspecific, pleiotropic activity? Ideally, Tibetan concepts of compounding or potency should help to conceptualize relations within the pleiotropic network.

16.15 – 16.30 Guided Discussion (discussant: William McGrath)

18.30 Dinner (not sponsored)

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13, 2022

09.00 – 10.30 Session 4: Protection & Purity
William McGrath (New York University): “The Potency of Champions: Protecting Tibetan Bodies from Epidemic and Military Invasions”

Following the establishment of Mongol-Sakya hegemony (ca. 1250–1350) in Tibet, an epidemic disease called the Black Triad (Nag po sum sgril) spread throughout the plateau. In line with its name, physicians and ritual specialists alike understood the Black Triad to be a deadly combination of three symptoms: fever, wind disorder, and the invasion of nyen-spirits. The Vase of Ambrosia (’Chi med bdud rtsi bum pa), a treasure text about the Black Triad that emerged during this period, describes nyen-spirits as entering the orifices of a sick person, traveling along their inner channels, and occupying their viscera. As such, the Vase of Ambrosia prescribes “champions” (gyad) that protect vulnerable orifices and “scouts” (zu gu pa) that attack nyen-spirits from within the patient. In this paper, I will analyze the parallel invasions of Tibetan valleys by Mongol armies and Tibetan bodies by nyen-spirits. In doing so, I shall argue that champions and scouts are no mere symbols for military figures (Douglas 1996), but instead represents techniques for teaching Tibetan bodies (Asad 1997) and protecting them from the copresences of epidemic and military invaders (Beliso-De Jesús 2015).

Stacey Van Vleet (University of California, Berkeley): “Potency and Purity at Labrang Medical College (1769-1800)”

In the year 1800, a scholar from Labrang Tashikhyil in Amdo compared his monastery’s recently-founded medical college to the model of Chakpori medical monastery in Lhasa (estb. 1696). In particular, the Second Welmang Pandita Könchok Gyeltsen (1764-1853) praised the precious pills (rin chen ril bu) produced at Chakpori as “enormously effective.” And yet – as documented in part by this same scholar – the Labrang medical college would deploy a new protocol for producing precious pills that deviated significantly from the Chakpori model. This paper will examine innovations in pill production at Labrang Tashikhyil monastery in the late 18th century, which subsequently began to rival the influence of Chakpori throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world. It will compare the ritual and material protocols for producing precious pills described by the physician Tsangmen Yeshé Zangpo (1707-1784) with a related set designed for “Ganden Pills” (dge ldan ril bu) by the Second Jamyang Zhepa Könchok Jikmé Wangpo (1728-1791). It will explore how reading these recipe and ritual texts together along with bca’ yig, gdan rabs, and chos ‘byung can help to situate these sources in relation to each other, as well as within the wider curriculum of a monastery, in ways that are otherwise not made explicit. It will show how different ritual and doctrinal frameworks for pill production encapsulated distinctive logics of potency and diverging protocols for making substances and subjects potent. At the heart of the debates shared across these texts were questions about the relationship between potency and purity. Labrang Tashikhyil scholars held different views – from their earlier Lhasa counterparts and sometimes each other – as to what constituted “very pure methods,” ritually pure ingredients, and acceptable bases for engaging in potentially transgressive methods of purification or the transformation of ritually impure substances and subjects through skillful means.

10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break

11.00 – 12.30 Session 5: Landscape & Lineage 
Anna Sehnalova (University of Oxford) “Agency of Environment and Potency of Landscape in Buddhist and Tibetan Indigenous Cosmologies”

This paper draws attention to the complex Tibetan cultural and religious backgrounds informing and co-producing various notions of potency – the entangled manifestations of Buddhism and Yungdrung Bon (g.Yung drung Bon), with their prominent tantric components, and indigenous notions of ritualised landscapes, mundane deities, and ancestral cults. Taking the example of natural environment and sacralised landscapes of the worshipped mountains of Nyenpo Yutse (gNyan po g.yu rtse) and Anye Machen (A myes rma chen) in East Tibet, I show the multiple and varied ‘layers of potency’ accumulating in certain places and materials, or individuals coming from these places. I study them and the area historically via written documents, through recent ethnographic fieldwork, and current oral history. These layers derive from intricate cosmologies, which serve as unities of sense-making of the world. They do not only inform different cultural and religious notions, but also political power and social structure, economies, and identities. All are inherent in the land, and are tied to different qualities of auspiciousness (such as bkra shis, rlung rta), prosperity (such as g.yang, sa bcud), vitality (such as bla), and spiritual achievements (byin rlabs, bsod nams). I argue that it is by understanding the foundations of the interacting cosmological frameworks at play, that we can decipher what constitutes ‘potency’ (nus pa) or ‘great potency’ (nus pa chen po). Both the historical, mythological, and present conceptualisations and experienced materiality of the land determine its agency, i.e. its ‘creative capacities’ (Jones & Cloke 2002:5), and potency in the light of people’s cosmological narratives.

Barbara Gerke and Calum Blaikie (University of Vienna, ÖAW): “Continuity of Potency: Ethnographies of Lineage Substances (phab rta)”

Sowa Rigpa formulas are often deeply enmeshed with ritual empowerment related to particular lineages of Buddhist and Bön masters. This presentation analyzes the way so-called ‘fermenting agents’, called papta (phab rta), enable certain forms of potency to continue both over generations and across batches of medicines in the same generation. Papta and the spiritual lineages through which medical knowledge and ‘blessings’ are transmitted affect the making of formulas, as well as their perception and circulation, in many areas where Sowa Rigpa is practiced today. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with small-scale cottage industry producers in Ladakh (India), we explore the use of papta in ‘accomplished medicines’ (sman grub) and other special formulas, as well as in essential medicines for everyday use.

We argue that papta substances can best be understood as operating both within and between pharmacological, spiritual, and social realms. They not only carry the potency of mantras and meditative practice into the medicines to which they are added, but also ‘perfect’ the ordinary substances comprising those medicines, thus further enhancing their efficacy. Papta carry spiritual traditions and potencies across generations, often bridging long periods of the absence of a highly trained and realized master. Their use confirms the association of individual practitioners to authoritative lineages, while also maintaining connections within larger groups of practitioners and with the wider lay community. The inclusion of several papta of varied origin also suggests forms of material expression as part of a larger communitas of both lineages and potencies that converge in medicines.

12.30 – 13.30 Lunch (catered for speakers in Seminar Room 2)

13.30 – 15.00 Session 6: Pharmacopolitics & Practice

Tatiana Chudakova (Tufts University): “Artemisian Dreams: The Pharmacopolitics of Essence” (VIA ZOOM)

This work explores how a genus of plants—in this case, artemisia—becomes reconfigured in relation to a single defining chemical compound, in different places in times. Contrasting this plant’s deployment in Buryat Sowa Rigpa with the ways in which this genus has, at different moments, captured pharmacological and industrial ambitions in Europe and the United States, this paper seeks to demonstrate how the production of value and values around a plant like Artemisia has depended, in Western scientific and medical imaginaries, on defining plants in relation to a singular, “essential” phytochemical component—essential in multiple senses, both as technique for extracting and concentrating volatile oils, and as the locus for the production of social values and their authorization. Threading together the moral panics around Artemisia absinthium in 19th century France; the reclassification of Artemisia astrahanica as a precursor to camphor in the production of celluloid during the Soviet 1920s and 30s; and the contemporary debates about the role of Artemisia annua’s potential for addressing malaria, and then COVID— this paper asks what preoccupations with essences might tell us about the politics of empires on the one hand, and about the politics of empiricism on the other—and how the two are entangled. I suggest that the disparate imaginaries of plant potencies often materialize infrastructural relationships and the political and social processes through which these relationships are enacted, as much as they reflect new discoveries about what constitutes a plant’s “active ingredients.”

Elisabeth Hsu (University of Oxford): “What is not in a text? Potencies solicitating practice”

This presentation begins with a reflection on an ethno-archaeological investigation into the use of qinghao (Artemisia annua L.) juices as antimalarial (see Wright et al. 2010), which highlights how important ‘common sense’ is to making sense of practice-oriented textual instructions (Hsu 2015). With this mindset it investigates information concerned with a formula’s potency (a) on dosage, and what this may imply, (b) on interdictions, and (c) on different sorts of efficacies in over 150 qinghao formulae that were recorded in Chinese medical formulary books in dynastic China. The presentation ends with asking what else, apart from ‘common sense’, we have to consider in order to make sense of practice-oriented textual instructions. For doing so, it foregrounds Antonio Gramsci’s understandings of ‘common sense’ and ‘practical knowledge’.

15.00 – 15.30 Coffee break

15.30 – 16.30 Audiovisual session

Donagh Coleman (University of California, Berkeley) “Extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist Death Displays and the Dynamic of Presence and Absence”
(including footage shot for his new film Tukdam: Between Worlds)

Tracing out an anthropology of the extraordinary, especially attending to Tibetan Buddhist death displays, my presentation takes as its framework the dynamic of presence and absence. From its beginnings, much of anthropology has been embedded in a kind of absence discourse when it comes to what appears “extraordinary” to a modern Euroamerican regime of truth and its attendant naturalist ontology. Classic subjects like magic, witchcraft, or spirits have been explained according to different rationalities, discourses, performativity, etc., in terms that are usually quite different to how such phenomena are perceived in the cultures under examination. For the human sciences, such phenomena do not, by and large, “really exist” in their own terms. More recently, anthropological literature on spirits has combined Latour and Actor-Network-Theory with William James’ pragmatism, looking at invisible entities in terms of a “pragmatics of effects,” granting them agency and presence in terms of the effects such entities engender in (social) worlds. Such an approach brings us midway between absence and presence, the latter articulated for example in Edith Turner’s work on spirit experiences and Anthropology of Consciousness literature, or the work of religious studies scholar, comparativist Jeffrey Kripal (from whom I borrow the absence-presence analytic). While Buddhism is often associated with negation and hence absence, a “positive” Buddhism is also evident already in early textual sources, gaining full articulation in the doctrine of Buddha-nature. (Some scholars have noted that the rangtong-shentong distinction in Tibetan Buddhism is unique in delineating these two approaches of a negative and positive Buddhism.) The Buddha-nature is seen to be imbued with presence, power, and indeed, potency, manifesting for example in spectacular death displays in the Tibetan Buddhist world. Challenging prevailing absence discourses, death displays like tukdam (post-mortem meditation) and phenomena observed after cremation such as relic pills (ringsel) or religious images engraved onto charred bones of cremated bodies offer striking examples of presencing. In this connexion, I consider phenomena which seem to emanate presence from their own side. Here potency or agency are not so obviously crafted or socially attributed, but rather seem to inhere in certain bodies, objects, environments, or encounters (some of which may nonetheless have been previously empowered through praxis or ritual). Illustrating themes of presence and absence – which can be construed as the very dynamic of life and death – my presentation will include ethnographic examples and related audiovisual material gathered in the course of my fieldwork and filming for the documentary Tukdam: Between Worlds. 

16.30 – 16.45 Guided Discussion (discussant: James Gentry)

16.45 – 17.15 Round Table (Barbara Gerke, Jan van der Valk, Tawni Tidwell, Calum Blaikie)


………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

CONFERENCE PANEL ANNOUNCEMENT
Responding to Epidemic Outbreaks in Tibetan Contexts: Medicine and Healing in Degenerate Times and More-Than-Human Worlds

IATS 2022: 16th International Association for Tibetan Studies Seminar
(July 3-9, Prague, Czech Republic)

Organized by Dr. Barbara Gerke, Dr. William McGrath, Dr. Tawni Tidwell,
and Dr. Jan M. A. van der Valk

PANEL ABSTRACT

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially deemed the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and since then the novel coronavirus has inspired diverse responses among communities worldwide. In addition to global health guidelines and biomedical approaches, many members of Tibetan communities have turned to religious and ethical narratives and sources for interpreting and dealing with the implications of epidemic disease, and to Sowa Rigpa for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. This panel will integrate research on these themes of medicine, healing, contagion, and prophecy during outbreaks of epidemic disease, with an emphasis on the roles of material, nonhuman, and spiritual forces in different environments and times of crisis. By integrating diverse methodological perspectives, we will explore the multitude of responses to epidemics in Tibetan communities and beyond.

This panel will be split into sections of diagnosis and treatment. The first section “Diagnosis: Understanding Epidemics“will explore methods for conceptualizing the origins and causes of epidemic disease in both the past and present. It will also consider questions regarding the history and meaning of epidemic disease in Tibet.  Many of these papers will explore concepts of epidemic diseases (rims nad) in Tibetan medical and religious texts. Reaching beyond the disciplinary divide that usually separates history and philology from anthropology and clinical studies, however, this section on diagnosis will also include presentations on ethnographic research and socioecological and political analyses of Sowa Rigpa in times of crisis, each of which will explore explanations of epidemics in cosmopolitan Tibetan communities and beyond. 

The second section “Treatment: Responding to Epidemics” will consider methods for treating epidemic diseases in Tibetan traditions. Adopting the same interdisciplinary approach described above, some papers will explore textual sources on textual instructions for specific therapies, upon which others will elaborate with ethnographic observations and theoretical analyses. This section will also include papers on the role of Sowa Rigpa in the clinical treatment of COVID-19 and other epidemic diseases. Finally, other participants will complement these clinical analyses with ethnographic and philological studies of petitions to and contemplations of supra-human forces in Tibetan traditions. From prayer, mantra recitations and deity visualizations, to alchemical transformation, apotropaic amulets, and clinical interventions, the treatment section will allow panelists to present the details of diverse therapies, while also analyzing the integration of these different therapeutic approaches.

Taken together, “Responding to Epidemic Outbreaks in Tibetan Contexts” will analyze methods for understanding and treating epidemics from clinical, philological, historical, and anthropological perspectives. By integrating these interdisciplinary approaches, we will discover differences in our interpretations of past and present epidemics. Rather than shy away from these conflicts, however, this panel will allow participants to reconsider monolithic explanations of epidemics and expand their interpretive horizons to include the perspectives and methods of multiple disciplines. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has elicited diverse understandings and therapeutic responses from communities worldwide, after all. By exploring these diverse responses to epidemic outbreaks from multiple methodological perspectives, this panel will expand understandings and treatments of epidemic disease in Tibetan contexts and beyond. 

2021

ECSAS 2021 Conference Panel (July 25-29, 2021):
Fluid Boundaries in Asian Medical Traditions:
Between Text and Practice

Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), University of Vienna, Spitalgasse 2, Hof 2.7, 1090 Vienna, Austria

Panel chair:
Dr. Barbara Gerke (barbara.gerke [at] univie.ac.at)
Co-chairs: 
Dr. Jan van der Valk (jan.vandervalk [at] univie.ac.at)
Dr. Calum Blaikie (calumblaikie [at] hotmail.com)

SHORT PANEL ABSTRACT

This panel considers the ways disciplinary boundaries both inform and challenge understandings of South Asian medical traditions. How do ethnography and philology as methods and skills both portray and shape the relationship between texts, knowledge, theory and practice in these traditions?

LONG PANEL ABSTRACT

This panel brings together contributors from various backgrounds to consider together how disciplinary boundaries define, shape and challenge understandings of medical traditions in South Asia. More specifically, we seek to explore the boundaries between philology and ethnography, as well as the many dynamic interactions between them. Closely related yet in some ways contradictory, these methodologies and perspectives prioritise quite different sources, skill sets, analytical approaches and writing styles, the boundaries between which may variously be considered productive, enriching, artificial or limiting.

How to better harness their collective strengths in order to further understanding of relationships between texts, knowledge, theory and practice in Asian medical traditions? How to overcome the Cartesian dichotomies that still inform our definitions of such categories? When, why and how do ethnographers read texts, or philologists observe/work with practitioners? How can these methodologies be combined so as to enrich our work as individuals, in teams, at conferences, and in co-authored publications? How to bridge the gaps between premodern writings and the (post)modern predicaments facing contemporary practitioners relying on such texts, as well as the researchers translating and interpreting them?