Tibetan medicine differs from allopathic medicine in that it has no concept of illness as such, but rather the concept is of disharmony of the organism. Accordingly, this system of medicine, like many alternative therapies, seeks to achieve a harmony of the self.
Medicine is one of five branches of Tibetan science, and is known to the Tibetans as gSoba Rig-pa—the science of healing. The Tibetan pharmacopoeia utilizes many different elements in the treatment of disease, such as trees, rocks, resins, soil, precious metals, sap, and so on, but like Chinese medicine, to which it is related, it mainly relies on herbs for treatment.
Tibetan medicine, like its relative Chinese medicine, is an ancient art that has become associated with many legends and is surrounded by a cloud of mysticism. Although Tibetan culture is more recent, Tibetan medical practices can be traced back over 2,500 years. It is now practiced in secret or by those in exile since Communist rule has suppressed it in its country of origin.
The treatise of Tibetan medicine, which can be described as a manual compiled over thousands of years, is called the Chzud-shi. In addition to the medical theory, this manual also incorporates the Tibetan pharmacopoeia.
Tibetan medicine has been particularly successful at treating chronic conditions such as rheumatism, arthritis, ulcers, digestive problems, asthma, hepatitis, eczema, liver disorders, sinus problems, emotional disorders and nervous system problems. Like many alternative therapies, it is a holistic therapy that treats the whole person and encourages a healthy way of life that will promote well-being at all levels.
Harmony and the balance of all aspects of the human organism are the concepts that form the basis for Tibetan medicine. The three elements that must be kept in harmony are known collectively as the Nyipa sum, and they are rLung, mKhris-pa, and Bad-kan. It is said that the Tibetan words describing their medicine are very difficult to translate, rather an explanation of the meaning is attempted. Desire, hatred, and delusion are considered to be very harmful influences affecting this harmony, and illustrate the close connection between the Tibetan medical art and Buddhist teachings.
rLung is considered to be a "subtle flow of energy" that is most closely connected with the "air" element. However, since all five elements; earth, water, fire, air and space, in addition to the concepts of heat and cold play a complex role in the health of the individual, this is no simple matter. All elements and aspects are held to be interdependent.
Types of rLung:
- Srog-'dzin (life-grasping rLung). Located in the brain, this energy governs swallowing of food, breathing, spitting, sneezing, and the clearing and steadying of the mind.
- Gyen-rgyu (rLung moving upwards). Located in the chest, it governs speech, physical vigor, general health, and appearance of skin.
- Khyab-byed (all pervading rLung). Located in the stomach, it governs digestion, metabolism, and the seven physical sustainers referred to as lus-zung dhun.
- Thur-sel (downward cleansing rLung). Located in the rectum, it governs the elimination of waste products and reproductive fluids in addition to the birth process (for women).
Types of mKhris-pa:
- mKhris-pa is the heat of human nature, related to fire, described as oily, sharp, hot, light, pungent and moist. Its major function is to balance body temperatures. It governs hunger and thirst, and regulates skin condition. There are five types of mKhris-pa:
- Ju-byed. This is located between the stomach and the intestine. Governs digestion and assimilation, providing heat and energy.
- SGrub-byed. Located in the heart. Responsible for anger, aggression, and hatred, and is considered to lead to desire, achievement, and ambition.
- mDangs-sgur. Located in the liver, it is responsible for maintaining and promoting color and essential components of blood.
- mThong-byed. Located in the eye, it governs vision.
- mDog-sel. Located in the skin, it governs skin appearance and texture.
Types of Bad-kan:
- rTen-byed (supporting Bad-kan). Located in the chest, plays a supporting role to the other four types of Badkan.
- Myag-byed (mixing Bad-kan). Located in the upper half of the body. Mixes nutrients (liquids and solids).
- Myong-byed (experiencing Bad-kan). Located in the tongue, governs experience of taste.
- Tsim-byed (satisfaction Bad-kan). Located in the head. Governs the five senses and responsible for heightening their power.
- Byor-byed (joining Bad-kan). Located in the joints, it is considered responsible for their flexibility.
When these components of Nyipa sum are balanced, the seven bodily sustainers will also be in harmony. They are essential nutrients, blood, muscle tissue, fat, bone, marrow, and reproductive fluids.
A practitioner of Tibetan medicine will employ several diagnostic tools. Chief of these is a very complicated system of pulse reading, which involves 13 different positions with a possibility of over 300 different readings. This is similar to traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. The pulse is likened to a messenger between doctor and patient. For this diagnosis to be effective, it is necessary for the patient to be rested and relaxed.
Another tool of diagnosis is observation, which consists of urinalysis and examining the tongue. To examine the urine, a physician will assess the color, vapor, odor, bubbles, sediments, and albumin content. The color of urine is determined by food and drink, the seasons, and whatever diseases the patient suffers from.
The final tool of diagnosis is questioning. The physician will ask specific questions of his patient, and will include such questions as how and when the illness started, where pain is felt, and if the condition is affected by foods eaten.
Treatment is divided into four categories, which are dietary advice, lifestyle recommendations, the prescription of medicine, and if necessary, surgical procedures, according to the type of patient. Treatment proceeds in this order according to the seriousness of the disorder. For example, minor problems are considered to need merely a reassessment of dietary habits, but only in the most serious cases will surgery be considered.
A Tibetan physician prescribes medicines and recommends surgery as a last resort. When it is necessary, the prescription is likely to be made up from certain herbs in the form of a decoction, powder, or pills. The prescription will be made up at one of the branches of the Tibetan Medical Institute specifically for each patient.
The qualifications of any Tibetan physician should be checked before treatment proceeds.
As a natural therapy, Tibetan medicine, if administered correctly, is not known to be associated with any side effects. According to the primary Tibetan medical treatise, one of the criteria for medical prescriptions is that they should be absolutely harmless.
Research & general acceptance
The Tibetan system of medicine has roots in medical practices over 2,500 years old, so it can be considered well researched. Despite the Communist crackdown in Tibet, and the oppression and persecution of their physicians, the Tibetan people still prefer to seek the advice of a traditional physician rather than take advantage of "new" systems of medicine.
In 1994, the Natural Medicine Research Unit, (NMRU) of Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem began a double-blind randomized clinical trial of Tibetan herbal formulas which had been on sale in Switzerland for more than seventeen years. Previous trials had already demonstrated the harmlessness of these formulas. The aim of the unit is to compile a database of Tibetan formulas.
Training & certification
The headquarters of the main Tibetan medical institute is now in Dharamsala in northern India. Tibetan medicines are also manufactured there. The minimum period of training for a Tibetan physician is seven years. The first five years mainly consist of theoretical training, and for the sixth and seventh years, medical students are sent for a period of practical training under a senior physician at one of the Institute's branches, of which there are over 30 in India and Nepal.
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