History Museum Puts Spotlight on Tibetan Tangkas, Meditation

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is taking some time for meditation. On Tuesday, the museum invited the public to meditation sessions guided by Buddhist monks to celebrate its "Body and Spirit" exhibit of historical Tibetan medicine paintings.

The paintings on view, called tangkas, illustrate the holistic history of Buddhist medicine. In them, the heart represents a lotus flower or the lower intestine is an ocean. The depictions go back as far as the 6th century B.C.,  but anyone who remembers the medicinal "humors" from history class will recognize some of the same themes in the 16th century Tibetan works.

"We think of it in the Buddhist terms that body and spirit are the same," the show's curator Laila Williamson said. "In Tibetan medical knowledge, there must be a balance between the bodily and spiritual aspects of a human being before the person can be continuously in good health or recover from ill health," she added.

Aside from improving health with meditation, the museum will also host lectures where neuroscientists will discuss research connected to an exhibit in another wing of the museum, "Brain: The Inside Story." Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin will talk to audiences about the positive effects of meditation on the brain, a subject that was also the topic of a study released this week conducted by Harvard-affiliated scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital. Brain-friendly meditation and talks will continue through Sunday.

Professor Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University's Modern Tibetan Studies Program, says that the ancient practice of meditation is becoming decidedly more modern. "These kinds of meditation are getting to be accepted more and more by doctors in the west as ways of treating illness," he said. "This is all part of the same general increase in interest in these traditions—not just as religious practices, but in practical ways of helping western people."

"Body and Spirit" is on view through July 17.

This painting serves as an introduction to the Blue Beryl medical commentary. In it, Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha (6th century BC), in his manifestation as the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishajyaguru, sits in his heavenly palace in the center of the city of Sudarshana. He is teaching his entourage of Hindu and Buddhist deities and hermit sages, many of whom play a role in Tibetan medicine.

In Tibetan medicine, three “humors” are said to flow through the body and determine bodily functions—phlegm is cold and associated with the element water, bile is hot and associated with fire, and wind is either cold or neutral and associated with air. Here, color-coded branches show ways to treat diseases caused by an imbalance of humors.

Particular points along the channels, as well as particular body parts, are especially vulnerable to injury. This painting (along with a second of a view from the back) indicates 302 vulnerable points. The points are rated according to how serious an injury to them would be. Any doctor can treat an injury to a low-rated point, but only the best doctors should be called on to treat high-rated points.

The center section of this painting shows how dreams are seen to originate during sleep as the sleeper’s consciousness is carried by the wind humor through the channels of the body. Dreams can bring the sleeper to either the beautiful realm of the gods (top of section) or the ugly realm of tormented spirits (bottom right).

©AMNH\D. Finnin

The historical Buddha, born Prince Siddhartha around 560 BC, spent his early years in the Shakya principality on the present-day border between India and Nepal. As an adult, he renounced luxury in reaction to the suffering he observed beyond his palace gates and, for a time, practiced asceticism. He ultimately attained enlightenment through meditation and devoted the rest of his life to teaching Buddhism, his philosophy of compassion, peace, and the impermanence of the material world.


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Comments [1]

shadeed ahmad from New York City

New York City gets a spiritual and luxurious feather in its artistic cap with The American Museum of Natural History's exhibit, "Body and Spirit." It's perhaps the next best thing to visiting the mysterious, legendarily spiritual and culturally rich land of Tibet. Judging from the wonderfully rich and appropriately inviting and meditative gazing, initiated by the above slides of the show, I'll be in a transcendent state of remiss if I don't take advantage of communing with the positive vibes of this celestial show's visit to New York City. Buddha be praised.

Jan. 26 2011 12:30 PM

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