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The History of Tibetan Medicine in Exile

Final Report Summary - TIBETAN MEDICINE (The History of Tibetan Medicine in Exile)

Tibetan medicine is becoming an increasingly popular complementary medicine around the world. Yet, while there are dozens of books describing its medical theory and a growing number of academic studies about its clinical practice or epistemology, little is known about the causes and conditions of its global spread or its recent history. This project aimed to produce the first in-depth critical history of Tibetan medicine in exile from 1960 until the present, focusing particularly on the dynamics of its globalization, commoditization and pharmaceuticalization. The investigation used a combination of historical and ethnographic research methods in order to document the past half-century of exile-Tibetan medicine’s development at the interface of traditional knowledge, modern science, the global market, Buddhist ethics and nationalist politics.
The central trope informing Tibetan medicine in exile and its entire development in exile is that of ‘cultural preservation.’ After the traumatic experience of occupation, exile and loss, the Tibetan diaspora community concentrated all its efforts on preserving their culture and national identity in exile. Tibetan medicine, as one of the most important ‘traditional’ Tibetan sciences (next to Buddhism), played a central role in this, both as an object and agent of cultural preservation and nation building. In line with the Tibetan nation it was meant to help imagine, Tibetan medicine needed to be defined as singular rather than plural, as ethical rather than political, and as authentically Tibetan rather than foreign or adulterated. Since it originally was none of these things, however, its ‘preservation’ in exile entailed a radical reinvention of the nature, if not the content, of Tibetan medicine.
This, then, is the main conclusion of this project: based on this study’s analysis of the particular cultural, political and historical context of Tibetan medicine in exile, the process of Tibetan medicine’s ‘preservation’ and development can be understood as passing through three distinct phases from 1960 until today: 1) recovery and re-assemblage; 2) diffusion and cultural encounter; and 3) standardization and official recognition. Each of these phases lasted for about 20 years, marking distinct steps in Tibetan medicine’s development in exile. The dynamics of pharmaceuticalization, commoditization and globalization can be traced through all three phases, connecting them as parts of one larger, continuous process. It is foreseeable that the next phase of Tibetan medicine’s development will revolve around the issues of ownership and intellectual property rights.
The results of this project constitute original and groundbreaking insights into contemporary Tibetan medicine outside of China. They are freely accessible to the public in the form of 4 articles in international academic journals (3 of them peer-reviewed), 1 book chapter (plus one in preparation), and 4 published book reviews. Substantial progress has been made on a book manuscript, and a book prospectus submitted to Cornell University Press has received a favourable reply. Furthermore, the project results have been actively disseminated in 6 paper presentations/ lectures (3 of them invited) and two invited panels on international conferences and symposia. There was also some media coverage of the project scientist’s work. A project website finally offers open access to all publications resulting from this project (as well as most other publications of the fellow), and has so far received over 2000 unique visitors from over 90 countries, especially from Austria, USA, India, Germany, the UK, Canada, France and Switzerland.
This project has made considerable impact on several levels. The publication and dissemination activities constituted a significant boost for the fellow’s host institution, the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), whose award of permanent institute status in 2011 was to a large part due to acquiring and hosting this project. Overall, the study has significantly improved the international visibility and academic performance of ISA. It also led to the award of an ERC Starting Grant for fellow, which constitutes not only a big career step for the fellow, but also a considerable achievement for ISA, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the field of social and medical anthropology in Austria and Europe at large.
As part of this project, the project scientist has also co-founded an academic and professional network called “Vienna Dialogues in Medical Anthropology” in 2012, which is regularly hosting international, interdisciplinary guest lectures and discussion forums in Vienna. So far, more than 10 such guest lectures have been organized or co-organized by this network, including visits by internationally renowned scholars such as Margaret Lock and Vincanne Adams. This network is also actively fostering collaboration between its participating institutions, including ISA, the University of Vienna’s Department for Cultural and Social Anthropology, the Medical University of Vienna, and UMIT University in Vienna.
Another direct impact of this project was the election of the project scientist into the council of IASTAM, the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicines, in September 2013. Also as part of this project, he has joined two international research networks (PharmAsia at CNRS, and the South Asian Medical Heritage at IIAS at University of Leiden), thereby connecting ISA to cutting-edge research on the European level. Furthermore, collaborations have been initiated with the Austrian Tibet Center in Hüttenberg, the Dharamsala Men-Tsee-Khang (Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute), the medical faculty of the Central University for Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, India, and the Central Council for Tibetan Medicine based in Dharamsala, India. These collaborations will provide a crucial basis for future Austrian research on the topic.