Lobsang Drubjam Tsering, Medicine Buddha Palace

Filled with detailed illustrations of figures, buildings, and medicinal plants, this painting is meant to instruct medical students in Tibet.

Lobsang Drubjam Tsering, Medicine Buddha Palace (copy of first painting from the set of Tibetan Medical Paintings from Mentsikhang Lhasa), 2012–13 (Rebgong county, Qinghai Province, China), pigments on cloth (Rubin Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Elena Pakhoutova, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

Rubin Museum senior curator Dr. Elena Pakhoutova and Smarthistory’s Dr. Beth Harris delve into a painting of the Medicine Buddha—a reproduction of the first in a set of medical paintings commissioned in the 17th century by the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The Rubin Museum of Art has teamed up with Smarthistory to bring you an “up-close” look at select objects from the Rubin’s preeminent collection of Himalayan art. Featuring conversations with senior curators and close-looking at art, this video series is an accessible introduction to the art and material culture of the Tibetan, Himalayan, and Inner Asian regions. Learn about the living traditions and art-making practices of the Himalayas from the past to today.

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0:00:02.5 Dr. Beth Harris: We’re at an exhibition at the McMullan Museum of Art called “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” and it showcases the amazing collection of the Rubin Museum. And we’re looking at an image of the Medicine Buddha.

0:00:18.6 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: The painting is a reproduction of the first in a set of medical paintings commissioned in [the] 17th century by the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Desi Sangye Gyatso. And he compiled a medical treatise called “The Blue Beryl,” which this set of paintings illustrates. The reason this set of paintings was created is that the government was trying to systematize medical knowledge on one hand, and on the other, wanted to have some sort of management of the education about medicine. The paintings were meant to be used by medical students to help them memorize various chapters of the treatise. And this first painting sets up the whole set and explains who the Medicine Buddha is and situates him within his mandala palace.

0:01:12.7 Dr. Beth Harris: The Medicine Buddha is holding two objects.

0:01:15.8 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: In his left hand is a ball with ambrosia, and in his right hand he’s holding a stem of a plant called myrobalan, which is one of the main ingredients in Tibetan medicine. Technically speaking, this is the Buddhist palace on the mountain that has four different sides, filled with medicinal forest, and each different plant is inscribed and recognizable.

0:01:39.7 Dr. Beth Harris: So, this picture introduces this idea of the Medicine Buddha as a teacher, and also it provides a way of reminding you, “what does nature provide for healing?”

0:01:50.5 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: I’m reminded of the story about a medical student whose master sent him to find one thing that was not useful in healing. So this person spent long time searching and he came back and said, “I could not find anything that was not useful in medicine.” And then his master said, “Well, congratulations, you are now a medical practitioner because you realize that everything can be used for healing.”

0:02:19.2 Dr. Beth Harris: We see not just plants, but also buildings.

0:02:22.0 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: And it’s interesting that all these different buildings have different styles. Some look like Chinese, others look a little bit more like maybe Mongolian, and some look like huts. So there’s a diversity of styles. On the right corner, we have images of people that have long hair and they have this ascetic attire. Those are the sages who initiated the dialogue with the Buddha, asking about how healing can be done.

0:02:50.4 Dr. Beth Harris: And then opposite them, we see beautiful figures.

0:02:54.4 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: These are the images of the gods who are in attendance and listening to the teachings of the Buddha.

0:03:00.8 Dr. Beth Harris: And then on the right side, I see more figures, all attending to the Buddha in the center.

0:03:08.1 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: Those are bodhisattvas receiving instructions also from the Buddha. So all of these figures are attending the teaching that the Buddha is expounding.

0:03:19.3 Dr. Beth Harris: And directly below the Buddha, we see something very important.

0:03:23.3 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: This is an interesting element, which I think makes us relate what we see here to the general Buddhist worldview, because this image is still of a Buddha. We see here, just below his throne, is the Dharmachakra, or the Wheel of the Dharma. And so this teaching is not just on medical science, but it’s also instruction on how you transform yourself. To Tibetan medical practitioners, medicine is not just the things that you do to the body, but also things that affect your mind. So everything is interdependent, and this is part of the larger Buddhist teaching of interdependence.

0:04:04.5 Dr. Beth Harris: An important component of this painting is the long inscription that we see at the bottom.

0:04:09.5 Dr. Elena Pakhoutova: And this inscription says that, “At the center of an emanational abode…on the summit of a mountain endowed with potent and powerful remedies, within a celestial palace with four gates, the Teacher of Remedies (Bhaisajyaguru)” — which is the Sanskrit name of the Buddha — “explains the science of medicine to many assembled gods, sages, Hindu divinities, and Buddhists. The teaching is given in the form of a dialogue.” And then the last part, it says that “the mirror-like pristine cognition purifies delusion, the pristine cognition of emptiness purifies hatred, and the pristine cognition of sameness purifies pride, and pristine cognition of discernment purifies desire, and pristine cognition of accomplishment purifies envy.” And the last part here in the corner is a sign of the artist and his name.

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About the Rubin

The Rubin is a global museum dedicated to sharing Himalayan art through a dynamic digital platform, participatory experiences, exhibitions, and partnerships. Inspired and informed by Himalayan art, the Rubin invites people to contemplate the human experience and deepen connections with the world around them in order to expand awareness, enhance well-being, and cultivate compassion.

Images: ​​Medicine Buddha Palace (copy of first painting from the set of the Tibetan Medical Paintings from Mentsikhang Lhasa); Rebgong county, Qinghai Province, China; 2012–2013; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; SC2013.6

This work at the Rubin Museum of Art

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Learn more about the Medicine Buddha and medical and astrological sciences on Project Himalayan Art, a resource from the Rubin for learning about Himalayan, Tibetan, and Inner Asian art and cultures:

Medicine, Science, and the Everyday in Tibetan Art: Desi Saanggye Gyatso’s Medical Paintings

Medical & Astrological Sciences

This work in the Gateway to Himalayan Art exhibition

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”medicinebuddhapalace,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Elena Pakhoutova, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, "Lobsang Drubjam Tsering, Medicine Buddha Palace," in Smarthistory, April 4, 2024, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/lobsang-drubjam-tsering-medicine-buddha-palace/.