On the History of Refining Mercury in Tibetan Medicine

in Asian Medicine
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In this brief study, the origin and spread of the alchemical process of refining mercury in Tibetan medicine will be explored. Beginning with early sources from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, it will be argued that Orgyenpa Rinchenpel (O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal) caused a turning-point in the processing of mercury in Tibet by introducing a complex alchemical process previously unknown. This knowledge, including the manufacturing of new pills containing mercury, soon spread through Tibet and was incorporated into the medical expertise of local schools such as the Drangti school (Brang ti). Later it was most prominently practised by Nyamnyi Dorjé (Mnyam nyid rdo rje) in southern Tibet. This particular tradition was upheld by Chökyi Drakpa (Chos kyi grags pa) of the Drigung school, who taught it to his gifted student Könchok Dropen Wangpo (Dkon mchog ’gro phan dbang po). During the seventeenth century, two main transmission lines for refining mercury emerged, one associated with the Gelukpa school (Dge lugs pa) in Central Tibet and one with the Kagyüpa school (Bka’ brgyud pa) and the Rimé movement (Ris med) in eastern Tibet. Both will be discussed in detail, highlighting important proponents and major events in their development. Finally, the situation in the twentieth century will be briefly explained.

Asian Medicine

Journal of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine



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See, for instance, Men-Tsee-Khang (ed.) 2011b, p. 5.


Van der Kuijp 2004, p. 299.


For a full list of his works, see Li 2011.


Men-Tsee-Khang (ed.) 2011b, pp. 4–6.


Ibid., p. 5. Accidentals enclosed in square brackets are editorial.


Ibid., p. 43.


Ibid., pp. 43, 130–4.


Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 46f. Probably he is identical with Tserik Dzinpa Ngakwang Sangye Pelzang (Tshe rig ’dzin pa Ngag dbang sangs rgyas dpal bzang). On the latter, see Jampa Trinlé 2000, pp. 336ff.


Jampa Trinlé 2000, p. 377 and Sönam Bakdrö 2006, p. 39.


Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 41, 55, 362.


Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 48, 57. The biography of Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö did not reach the author in time. It could therefore not be checked.


Sönam Bakdrö 2006, p. 47.


Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006, pp. 230ff.


Cf., also Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 47, 56.


Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006, p. 241. The doctors and assistants were Tendzin Chödrak, Tupten Shakya (Thub bstan shakya), Jamyang Lhündrup (’Jam dbyangs lhun grub), Rindzin Wangyel (Rig ’dzin dbang rgyal), Yeshé Dorjé (Ye shes rdo rje), Tségyel (Tshe rgyal), Ngakwang Gyamtso (Ngag dbang rgya mtsho), and others. They produced 19 kg of refined mercury or tsotel (btso thal).


Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006, pp. 241f. In 1980, 19 kg of tsotel were produced at Mandal monastery under the supervision of the Derge Mentsikhang. Four years later, in 1984, the printing house and the Mentsikhang in Derge manufactured together Precious Cold Compound, Major Black Pills, ‘Wish-fulfilling Jewel’ (Ratna bsam ’phel), and ‘Precious Accumulation Pills’ (Rin chen mang sbyor). In 1987, the Tibetan clinic in Rebkong in Amdo made 51 kg of tsotel. Then, a year later, three clinics for Tibetan medicine produced tsotel. In the sixth month, the clinic of Gannan prefecture in Gansu province produced 50 kg and prepared precious pills such as Major Black Pills and Wish-fulfilling Jewels. The Tibetan clinic in Jyekundo manufactured 51 kg in the seventh month. In the tenth month, the clinic in Tsolho (Hainan) manufactured 52.5 kg. In 1995, the Tibetan clinic in Jomda County of the Chamdo Prefecture together with the Troru monastery (Khro ru dgon) made 37.5 kg and prepared some pills such as Tarima Pills. For the names of the doctors and assistans involved in it, see the cited source.


Troru Tsenam 2001.


Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 49f. Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006, pp. 244f.


Lappendum Lozang Lodrö 2006, p. 232. The transmission line goes: Orgyenpa Rinchenpel (1230–1309), Rangjung Dorjé (1284–1339), Sönam Zangpo (Bsod nams bzang po, fl. 14th cent.), Nyamnyi Dorjé (1439–75), Drapön Sönam Tashi (Phrag dbon Bsod nams bkra shis, fl. 15th/16th cent.), Tsojé Dharmä Tsenchen (’Tsho byed Dharma’i mtshan can, fl. 16th cent.), Kongmen Könchok Gyeltsen (Kong sman Dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, fl. 16th/17th cent.), Drigung Chökyi Drakpa (’Bri gung Chos kyi grags pa, 1595–1659), Könchok Dropen Wangpo (b. 1631), Dromrig Neljor Yeshé (’Bram [’Brom] rigs rnal ’byor Ye shes, fl. 17th cent.), Tsojé Karma Tenpel (’Tsho byed Karma bstan ’phel, fl. 17th cent.), Situ Chökyi Jungné (1699/1700–74), Dege Druntsho Gurupel (Sde dge drung ’tsho Gu ru ’phel, fl. 18th cent.), Choktrül Karma Ratna (Mchog sprul Karma ratna, fl. 18th cent.), Tsojé Karma Tsewang (’Tsho byed Karma tshe dbang, fl. 18th/19th cent.), Khewang Karma Tsepel (Mkhas dbang Karma tshe dpal, fl. 19th cent.), Kongtrül Yönten Gyatso (1813–99/1900), Mipam Namgyel Gyatso (1846–1912), Kesi Lama Atsang (Ke srib Bla ma A tshang, fl. 19th/20th cent.), Tachung Lama Tsering Chöpel (Rta chung bla ma Tshe ring chos ’phel, fl. 19th/20th cent.), and Troru Tsenam (1926–2004). See also Sönam Bakdrö 2006, pp. 49f.


Tenzin Choedrak 2005, p. 323; Kloos 2010, p. 80; Men-Tsee-Khang (ed.) 2011b, p. 5.


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