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Phlegmish Art: Can Tibetan Medical Paintings Cure Your Cold?

In conjunction with its upcoming survey of Tibetan medical artworks, the Rubin Museum will offer diet tips, urinalysis, and other suggestions for healthy living

Fierce Yuthog Protector, Red Wolf-Headed Protectress underneath a Blue Medicine Buddha, Central Tibet, 19th century, pigments on cloth. COURTESY RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART.

Fierce Yuthog Protector, Red Wolf-Headed Protectress underneath a Blue Medicine Buddha, Central Tibet, 19th century, pigments on cloth.


“What does your tongue look like?” reads a sample questionnaire issued by the Rubin Museum of Art, the New York institution that showcases art from the Himalayas and their surrounding regions.

“What is your mental disposition?” the questions continue. “How would you characterize your bowel movements?”

The survey isn’t part of an overly invasive application for museum membership, but rather, it is a tool that will help visitors engage with works in the Rubin’s upcoming exhibition. Titled “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine,” the show will feature a selection of nearly 150 Tibetan medical sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, drawings, and devices. Through a series of participatory activities, tours, and events, “Bodies in Balance” will demonstrate the ways in which these ancient healthy-living practices can be applied to visitors’ everyday lives. The show, which is curated by Elena Pakhoutova and Theresia Hofer, opens March 15.

The foundations of Tibetan medical practices are laid out in a poetic treatise called the Four Tantras, which dates back to the 12th century. The text, which is still used by Tibetan doctors today, describes a method of living and healing that is not only based on medicine, but also on diet and personal actions. “It’s a philosophy of behavior,” says Tim McHenry, Director of Public Programs & Performance at the Rubin. “You can treat something with antibiotics, but how did you get there in the first place?”

Left: Medicine Buddha Bhaiṣajyaguru and Entourage, Central Tibet, 12th century, pigment and gold on cotton. Right: Medicine Buddha Bhaiṣajyaguru, Central Tibet, 15th century, gilded and painted copper. Click through each image for more information.

To begin to understand how this system works, museumgoers will have the option of taking the Rubin’s survey before entering the exhibition. Answers will dictate with which of the body’s three humors—wind, bile, and phlegm—their body is most closely aligned with. As described in the Four Tantras, a person’s age, emotional disposition, and digestive habits dictate their dominant humor.

Several of the medical drawings on view indicate that the processes of diagnosis and treatment are aided by the humor system. In an undated medical drawing titled Tree of Diagnosis, for example, the branches of a tree are color-coded to correspond with the humors. Blue, yellow, and white represent wind, bile, and phlegm, respectively. Certain ailments appear to only be wind disorders, while phlegm and bile disorders seem to share more symptoms.

Left: Tree of Diagnosis, Lhasa, 17th century, pigment on cloth and brocade. Right: Tree of Treatment, Lhasa, 17th century, pigment on cloth. Click through each image for more information.

Using this same color system, the Rubin will set up designated paths around the exhibition, allowing visitors to focus on artworks that address their specific body types. The museum café will even offer meal choices that coincide with these humors.

The Rubin is also presenting programs that advise on the spiritual and meditative aspects of Tibetan medical practices. In an event called the “Living Mandala,” an image of a medical mandala will be projected so that it appears three-dimensional. Participants can step inside the painting, and, with instruction from a lama, envision themselves navigating their way toward Medicine Buddha at the center. “You have to overcome walls of fire, steep staircases, and guardians,” says McHenry. “You have to overcome what’s in your mind in order to be the embodiment of health.”

Left: Moxibustion Chart, Tibet, 19th century, ink and pigment on paper. Right: Sinpoi Tsomo Jigje Mar, Zombie-Riding Protectress, Central Tibet, 19th century, pigment on cloth. Click through each image for more information.

And for those looking for the full Tibetan medical experience, the museum is offering the option to participate in a traditional diagnostic practice—urinalysis. In a typical medical consultation, Tibetan doctors place great emphasis on a patient’s urine sample because it is an effective measure of health and diagnostics. The museum will provide urinalysis cups in the restrooms for visitors who want to try replicating this experience.

The Rubin’s staff is aiming to make this exhibition as immersive as possible in the hopes that visitors will make use of these core ideas. “A 12th-century painting actually has relevance to you today,” explains McHenry. “Wherever you come from, you can actually apply some of these principles and do good in your life.”

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