Introduction to Tibetan Medicine
gSo-ba Rig-pa – The Science of Healing
Tibetan medicine is a complete medical system, it is one of the oldest surviving forms of ancient medicine and it has been in use for over 2500 years. It originated in the Bon era of Tibet. For many centuries Tibetan medicine has been successfully practised in Tibet, Mongolia, Buddhist regions of Russia and Central Asia, and the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh and Northern India.
It is called gSo-ba rig-pa or the science of healing and it is based on the four medical tantras called rGyud-bzhi; these are the root tantra, explanatory tantra, instructional tantra and the subsequent tantra. The root tantra which contains six chapters gives an overall view of the rGyud-bzhi; the explanatory tantra contains thirty one chapters which explain and describe in detail the human body, including embryology, anatomy and physiology; the instructional tantra which contains ninety two chapters deals with the causes, symptoms and treatment of many different kinds of diseases; the subsequent tantra contains twenty five chapters which deal with diagnosis and pharmacology. In addition to the four tantras there are two concluding chapters which condense all the preceding information. This gives a total of 156 chapters with 5900 verses.
To be a fully qualified Tibetan physician we have to study these four medical tantras for a minimum of seven years. The first four years are spent studying the Tibetan medical texts where we have to memorise around forty specific chapters, one month each year is also spent collecting herbs in the Himalayas. In addition to studying the medical texts we also have to study Tibetan linguistics, grammar, poetry as well as gaining an understanding of basic Tibetan Buddhist teachings contained in works such as Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. In the fifth year we have to take both oral and written exams on the four medical tantras, and at the end of the fifth year we take the Medicine Buddha initiation both as a blessing and in order to enhance our powers of healing as practitioners of Tibetan medicine. This initiation is similar to a beautiful woman; when she is dressed in fine clothes and jewels she looks even more beautiful. The sixth and seventh years are spent at a branch clinic of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute where practical training is given in pulse reading, urinalysis and dealing with patients.
Compared to other forms of alternative medicine in the West, Tibetan medicine is very new and this is because here there are very few fully qualified Tibetan doctors; there are no more than eight of us in Europe and the around 15 in the United States and Canada. The uniqueness of Tibetan medicine is that it is based on Buddhist philosophical principles, astrology and the close relationship between the mind and body. The basic principle of Tibetan medicine is balancing the three principal energies or Nyipa sum. The three principal energies are Loong, mKhris-pa and Bad-Kan.
Loong (pronounced as loong) is the subtle flow of energy which circulates throughout our body and aids all movements and activities connected with mind, speech and body. MKhris-pa (pronounced as tree-pa ) is heat energy which circulates throughout our body and balances bodily temperature, digestion and vitality. Bad-Kan (pronounced as Beh–ken) is a fluid energy which circulates throughout our body and keeps our joints flexible and aids the functioning of bodily stability and the lymphatic system.
These terms are being left as they are throughout this website as there are no equivalent translations in English for them, it is very important to get used to the terms Loong, mKhris-pa and Bad-Kan.
When the three principal energies are in balance we are healthy, and when there is imbalance we are sick. In the Tibetan medical texts the main long term cause of illnesses and suffering is ma-rig-pa, or ignorance. This ignorance generates in turn the three poisons of desire, anger and close mindedness. The short term causes are improper diet, unwholesome lifestyle and seasonal factors. A combination of these causes makes us sick and the physician first has to diagnose the illness through questioning and by listening with a sympathetic ear. The physician then makes an overall observation of the patient, especially through tongue diagnosis, and urinalysis which looks at the colour, smell, bubbles, steam and sediments of the urine. Finally the physician reads the pulse of the patient, and for the Tibetan physician pulse reading is a great source of information.
Once diagnosis is made treatment has to begin. The main aim of the treatment is to balance and correct the three principal energies, for example if one of the energies is in excess treatment is given to decrease it, or if one of the energies is deficient treatment is given to increase it. Tibetan medicine is not based on any magic, mystery or miracle cures, rather it is based on an ancient system of medicine which has been passed down from generation to generation. Tibetan medicine today is the culmination of the experience and knowledge of enlightened physicians through the course of many centuries; like honey collected in a pot which cannot be produced from just a single flower. There is no end to knowledge, and with the continual arising of new diseases Tibetan medical research goes on, and at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute there is a research department producing new forms of Tibetan medicine aimed at treating modern diseases.
The Tibetan physician aims to treat the patient first of all through dietary advice according to each individual body constitution, and through advice on leading a wholesome lifestyle. If this is not enough, medicine is prescribed. Tibetan pharmacology is extremely rich in both depth and variety. It makes use of gems, minerals, metals, soils, saps, woods and herbal plants ; medicines can have combinations of as little as 3 ingredients or as much as 157. At present there are around 250 different types of medicine which are manufactured. One of these preparations is a medicine called Padma 28 and this is now commercially available. Middlesex hospital in London has performed clinical trials on it and it is proven to be effective for vascular diseases (a condition caused by hardening of the arteries in the legs) and there is the possibility it will help in the treatment of hepatitis B and C. This gives great hope for the potential of Tibetan medicine to help as many people as possible when you consider there are 250 other forms of Tibetan medicines to be explored. Performing therapies are used as a last resort in Tibetan medicine. At present we use moxabustion, cupping and golden needle therapy.
There is also an advanced form of Tibetan meditation known as tomo yoga which is practised by training the subtle flow of Loong energy. At the International Congress on Tibetan Medicine the researcher Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School, gave a slide show of Tibetan monks practising tomo yoga. Dr Charles Raison from the University of California commented that tomo meditation may offer more understanding about depression and open up the possibility of non-pharmacological self help. The monks were meditating in conditions just a few degrees above freezing yet they were able to completely dry wet sheets which were wrapped around them. Researchers from the University of California in San Francisco have also discovered that raising the peripheral skin temperature during deep meditation accelerates the healing of wounds just as effectively as the use of anti-biotics.
Astrology is also connected to Tibetan medicine in the preparation of certain special medicines, during the times of herbs collection and also when performing therapies such as moxabustion. All medicines are then blessed and consecrated according to Tibetan Buddhist rituals. When I was studying at the Tibetan Medical College and also working at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute clinic, we would recite the Medicine Buddha prayers and mantra every morning before we began our day.
Tibetan medicine is beneficial for chronic diseases such as digestive problems, arthritis, asthma, skin problems, problems related to the kidneys and liver, sinus problems, insomnia, anxiety, heart disease, and problems related to the central nervous system. Tibetan gSo-ba Rig-pa also treats the roots of the disease and not the symptoms. The Tibetan medical texts give the following example. Without treating the roots or the cause of the disease it is the same as having a poisonous tree and just cutting off the leaves and branches without pulling it out from it’s roots. If you just cut the leaves and branches the tree will still continue to grow.
For example I have seen a woman patient with a bad migraine and for this she has been taking painkillers. These help her but when the effect wears off she needs to take more of them. My diagnosis upon seeing her was that she was suffering from chronic constipation and therefore I prescribed medicine to clear her constipation. This was the root of her problem. As a result of this her migraines were reduced over time. If a person is suffering from a chronic disease and expects a quick solution through taking Tibetan medicine, this will not be possible. The patient has to be prepared to take the medicine over a period of time before its positive results will show.
In the West there are many people at present who wish to study Tibetan medicine, but unfortunately the four medical tantras have not been translated into English. This problem is no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Tibetans no longer have their own country where the proper facilities for such works would have existed. The contents of the four medical tantras are extremely condensed and just one sentence could take pages to be fully explained. To be successfully and accurately translated will require a group of people who have studied the four medical tantras and who also have perfect knowledge of English. It is vital there is no misunderstanding of the medical terms and that the meaning of the four medical tantras are not diluted in any way.
Tibetan medical knowledge is not just for the benefit of Tibetans but for the rest of the world. There is no doubt that practitioners of Tibetan medicine can learn a great deal from allopathic forms of medicine, and similarly Western medical practitioners can learn and benefit from gSo-ba Rig-pa. Both medicines are based on the same concepts of healing and the relief of suffering.