Traditional Tibetan Medicine is a unique and holistic medical system. Treatment includes the prescription of herbal pills prepared according to traditional medical texts, and modifications to the patient's diet and behaviour.
The effectiveness of Tibetan Medicine has been demonstrated in its simple treatment of complex long-term conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, jaundice, and certain forms of cancer.
Tibetan Medicine is actively practiced in the Tibetan communities in Tibet and overseas. In India the Dharamsala based Tibetan Astrological and Medical Institute (TAMI) works to maintain the traditions of Tibetan Medicine by training doctors, and producing the necessary pills for its 42 branch clinics in India and Nepal
As part of its Art and Culture programme, Tibet Foundation brings a Tibetan Doctor to the UK approximately quarterly to give talks on Tibetan Medicine and private consultations.
Tibetan medicine is over 2,000 years old and said to originate from medical teaching given by the Buddha around 500 BC. It is based on the religious and medical traditions of Bon and Tibetan Buddhism but also incorporated medical ideas from Greece, Persia, India and China. In the 18th century it was formalised in four great medical texts, the Four Tantras (the rGyud-bzhi - pronounced 'gyu-zhee'). These comprise 156 chapters and 5,900 verses on concepts and causes of disease, diagnosis and treatment and are still used for medical teaching today.
The guardian deity of Tibetan medicine is the Medicine Buddha who is often symbolically depicted with a bowl of long-life elixir and a myrobalam fruit - a potent medicinal plant said to cure all diseases.
Concepts of the body
Three 'humours' are said to make up the physical body and regulate physical and mental processes. Each has particular qualities and functions:
- Loong (vital energy or 'wind') is light, moving, and dry and influences respiration, thinking, digestion, reproduction, physical movement and vitality.
- Tripa (body heat or 'bile') is hot, oily and odorous and influences appetite, thirst, digestive function, skin quality, joint lubrication, vision and tempestuousness.
- Peken (moisture and fluids or 'phlegm') is cold, heavy and sticky in nature and regulates sleep, joint mobility, digestion, excretion and mental alertness.
When the humours are balanced there is good health. However imbalance can be caused by lifestyle factors, unhealthy diet, negative thoughts, environmental factors and spirit influences, leading to disease.
At the root of all diseases are three mental 'poisons': desire, hatred and confusion. Desire (characterised by attachment, greed, pride and cravings) disturbs 'wind'. Hatred (including anger, aggression and aversion) disturbs 'bile'. Confusion (characterised by indecision, mental lethargy and listlessness) affects 'phlegm'.
Tibetan Medicine classifies 84,000 types of diseases divided into four main types: due to early life, present lifestyle, past life (karma) and spirit influence.
Diagnosis & treatment
Diagnosis is based on pulse taking, urine analysis, observation (of tongue, skin, eyes, ears, gait etc) and questioning. The best Tibetan doctors are said to be able to diagnose using pulse alone. Pulses for each internal organ are taken on the radial arteries of the wrists and there are also seven 'wondrous' pulses for determining pregnancy and spirit influences. Astrological charts may also be used to determine predisposition to disease and underlying cause.
The aim is to restore the balance of the humours. This is achieved through dietary modification, behavioural change, medicines, external treatments, religious rituals and purification techniques.
Diet and lifestyle changes are always recommended and are based on the effects of different types of food and behaviour on each humour. Medicines are herbal, made from the roots, leaves, flowers, bark and fruits of different plants, minerals and occasionally animal products. The remedies are given as pills, powders, decoctions and ointments. External therapies include moxibustion (a form of heat treatment), massage and bone-setting. Spiritual healing involves prayers and rituals by the physician and/or the patient and often the healing power of the Medicine Buddha is invoked.
What is it good for?
Tibetan medicine is widely used in the East and increasingly in the West to treat a wide range of disorders. Research has shown that certain formulas are particularly effective for digestive and circulation problems.
Finding a practitioner
Qualified Tibetan physicians make regular visits to the UK on the invitation of the Tibet Foundation in London.
Health Through Balance by Dr. Yeshi Donden (Snow Lion, N.Y. 1986).
Eastern Healing: The practical guide to the healing traditions of China, India, Tibet and Japan by Jacqueline Young (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2001).