It’s doubtful that the American Medical Association would choose the beings we see in the Rubin Museum of Art’s remarkable new exhibition, “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine,” as guardians. One protectress of the healing arts in a 19th-century painting rides a nine-headed bird through the sky. She has the head of a wolf, the label explains, with three large, round eyes and matted, disheveled hair. She holds a curved knife, a hook and “a freshly severed head with a lasso of intestines.”
But such figures, which in Buddhism serve as spurs to enlightenment and as custodians of venerable knowledge, surely have Western counterparts that are less picturesque and more institutional: entities overseeing certification, say, or promoting research. And here and there throughout this extensive exhibition, an assemblage of around 140 artifacts and artworks associated with Tibetan medicine since the ninth century, the curious viewer can find analogues of familiar Western things: evidence of rigorous training, lancets for cutting flesh, a diagram of fetal development, instructions for binding broken bones by using willow branches.
These artifacts almost reassure the novice outsider that, yes, we are dealing with the same human body and attempting to heal similar ailments. We are simply seeing the same things from different perspectives.
But that would be an illusion. What the Westerner learns is that we are seeing very different things in very different ways. Tibetan medicine, known as Sowa Rigpa or the art of healing, seems to shape an alternate universe, one that may remotely resemble ancient Greek or medieval models but that scarcely overlaps with the world we know.
From the mandalas featuring the Medicine Buddha, the source of healing knowledge, to paintings of trees used in Tibetan medical schools to diagram diseases; from bottles of exotic botanicals like lotus flower pistils, to protective amulets created in line with astrological readings, we look around and are unable to easily make sense of things.
Yet the curator, Theresia Hofer, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo who specializes in this subject, has made efforts to induct the uninitiated. There are, we discover, three forces called nyepas at work in the human body: wind, bile and phlegm. They are associated with colors in Tibetan imagery: pale blue, yellow and white. Imbalances create illnesses that are treated with medications or through modifications in behavior or diet.
A glimpse of this approach is provided in a multiple-choice quiz about bodily functions and sensations provided to visitors. The queries range from the seemingly eccentric (“What does your tongue look like?”) to the disarmingly intimate (“How would you characterize your bowel movements?”). You fill out the chart: Are you prone to excess gas? Do you dream in particular colors?
The scores tell you which of the forces is dominant or out of balance. This rough self-diagnosis can provide a path through the exhibition as you follow color-coded signs. The do-it-yourself approach even incorporates a video station where visitors learn to take their pulses in the Tibetan fashion, counting, for example, beats per breath. And the Rubin cafe has offerings suited to your condition. (Himalayan-spiced vegetables are recommended for excess bile.)
This is fine, but as the pulse video tells us, these techniques require many years to master, and we get no sense of the intricacies involved; the quiz risks making it all seem cursory.
The exhibition itself tells us otherwise: While it may leave the subject cloaked in mystery, we do begin to glimpse the scale and complexity of Tibetan medicine. The show will also surely lure the cognoscenti, some of whom will come to see the ghostly image of the paradise of the Medicine Buddha painted on silk in A.D. 836, although its details have faded over the ages. (It was discovered in the early 20th century in a cave in western China and is on loan from the British Museum.) Well-versed visitors might be drawn to an illustrated manuscript of the Last Tantra, an early text in the Tibetan medical tradition, written before the 12th century and still memorized by Tibetan medical students.
Contemporary advocates of holistic medicine will also find the source material here for their conviction that illness and its treatment involve the whole being, both body and mind.
I wish, though, that the exhibition had been more solicitous of newcomers and presented a cross-cultural history of Tibetan medicine or surveyed its doctrines more thoroughly. We also need more guidance in interpreting the important tree paintings. And a contemporary rendering of a 17th-century painting analyzing bowls of urine for “color, vapor, odor and bubbling” is just too strange to leave unexplicated.
We do come to understand, however, that through the examination of such bowls, the study of the tongue’s surfaces and minute attentiveness to variations in pulse, trained healers have made diagnoses for more than a millennium. (As an accompaniment to the show, the Rubin is offeringinteractive workshops with a Tibetan doctor with sessions on pulse, urinalysis, dreams and astrology, along with other programming.) We get an even larger understanding — including a discussion of contemporary Tibetan pharmacology, the history of Tibetan surgery and the global influences of Tibetan healing — in the imposing exhibition catalog, edited by Ms. Hofer.
But how does this ancient practice connect to contemporary Western medicine? Is a translation possible? Is interaction? The Rubin, unfortunately, bypasses this rich subject, but for most visitors, it will be unavoidable.
To begin to explore it, you can turn elsewhere. In the 1976 book “Mortal Lessons,” for example, the surgeon Richard Selzer gives a compelling account of how Yeshi Donden, then the Dalai Lama’s physician, diagnosed a hospital patient’s heart ailment, to the surprise of Western observers; Dr. Selzer and Dr. Donden also figure in a 1981 article by John F. Avedon about Tibetan medicine in The New York Times Magazine. And a contemporary collaboration between Emory University scientists and Tibetan scholars hasdrawn broad attention.
Since there is agreement about the presence of certain diseases and their cures, there is some common ground. But the differences are profound. I am wary of the magical invocations of astrology, for example. Yet it becomes clear that the magical is really central. An astonishing 16-foot-long 18th-century scroll here combines images of the Buddha, astrological diagrams, exotic animals and a monk-doctor reading a patient’s pulse: The exhibition label leaves the meaning cryptic, but the medical, the spiritual and the magical are unmistakably intertwined. And what is the name of the 20th-century medical college established in Lhasa, Tibet’s administrative capital?The Institute for Medicine and Astrology.
If this is magical thinking, it is not magic as we commonly understand it, wielding seemingly impossible powers. It is magic that relies on a conviction that different realms are images of one another: Metaphors are literally true; this really is a version of that. Medicine is astrology because the forces governing the body are the forces governing the heavens. Similarly, medicinal herbs are characterized as hot or cool partly because of where they grow, and that is directly related to their warming or cooling effects. Act in one realm — the heavens, the body or the botanical — and you also act in the others.
Western medical thinking, on the other hand, focuses on causes and effects, conditions and probabilities. These are starkly different ways of thinking, not just different ways of treating. Is there a meeting ground? Perhaps, if we could find the right metaphors. …