The Tibetan Medicine System
Principles of Tibetan Medicine
The basis of Tibetan medicine is the teachings on the five elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether, of which the human body as well as the macrocosm consist. Through these five fundamental elements everything is connected and the body, the mind and states of illness are in communication with each other as well as with the environment and natural medicines.
These five elements manifest themselves as three dynamic principles in the body and the mind:
- rLung (pronounced loong): also called Wind,. The principle of motion, associated with the air element
- Tripa: also called Bile. The principle of warmth, associated with the fire element
- Beken: also called Phlegm. The stabilizing and cooling principle, associated with the water and earth elements
Health is considered to result, when the three bodily principles are in a state of equilibrium. This balance is dynamic and the proportion of each principle is different in different individuals. External factors and disharmony on the mental level lead to imbalance and thus to illness in the physical body.
Ignorance is the cause of illness. The perception of “I” and “Mine” creates desire (attachment), hatred and ignorance which lead to an imbalance in rLung, Tripa and Beken. Healing in Tibetan Medicine therefore means to influence the three principles and to restore the individual equilibrium.
To restore the balance between the three principles in a patient an excess or a deficiency of one or more body principles is counteracted using different means. The therapy methods in Tibetan Medicine can be categorized according to the following groups:
- Advice on diet and behavior: In mild disorders a change in diet and behavior may already suffice to restore health. Such advice could e.g. be, to drink boiled water daily, to avoid raw vegetables or fatty food or to regularly exercise, e.g. taking walks.
- Internal therapies: In more serious disturbances of the balance of the three principles herbal remedies are prescribed. Such Tibetan formulas are fixed recipes and usually consist of at least 3-5 but mostly many more herbal constituents in the same remedy. Ingredients are e.g. leafs, roots, fruit, bark, wood and also to a smaller extent some minerals. The preparations are mostly applied as pills but can also be used in the form of powder or teas.
- External therapies: Additionally external treatments such as massage, baths, Tibetan acupuncture or moxibustion can be applied.
History of Tibetan Medicine
The origins of Tibetan Medicine, also called Sowa Rigpa (the knowledge of healing), date back to the pre-Buddhist practice of the Bon-tradition in Tibet. In the 7th century this naturopathic healing system was reformed and developed by the Tibetan King Song Tsen Gampo. Tibetan scripts were improved, medical texts were translated into Tibetan and the system of Tibetan Medicine was formalized and documented. Under the King Tri Song Detsen (755 to 797) physicians from India, China, Iran, Nepal and Kashmir were invited and the knowledge of these various medical systems was integrated. The Tibetan physician Yuthok Yonten Gonpo the elder documented this synthesis in the first version of the main medical textbook of Tibetan Medicine, the “Gyüshi”.
The second version of the Gyüshi, which is still used today as the main compendium of Tibetan Medicine was composed by Yuthog Yonten Gonpo the younger in the 11th century. It classifies 84’000 illnesses and describes 2293 medicines.
A new era in Tibetan Medicine was started with the foundation of the Chakpori Medical College in Lhasa by His Holiness, the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. His regent, Sangye Gyamtso, revised the Gyüshi and wrote the famous treatise Blue Beryl. To illustrate the medical knowledge 79 paintings (Medicine Thangkas) were made. These, together with the Blue Beryl and the Gyüshi form the basis of the study of Tibetan Medicine to this day. In 1916 His Holiness, the 13th Dalai Lama founded a medical school that was also open for laypersons, the Medical and Astrological Institute Men-Tsee-Khang.
Together with Buddhism the Tibetan Medicine system spread to a large region and today is practiced e.g. in Central Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, the Siberian Burjatia, and the northern parts of India.
Tibetan Medicine has also reached Western countries. In the 19th century Tibetan physicians from Burjatia were called to the court of the czar in St. Petersburg. Later they reached Poland and from there Switzerland and the USA. With the Tibetan diaspora also many Tibetan physicians immigrated to the West, namely Europe, USA and Canada. Because of legal situation they cannot practice as physicians in Europe although they may give health and diet consultation.
Today a main center for Tibetan Medicine is in Dharamsala, where His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama lives in exile and where he founded the Men-Tsee-Khang (the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute - TMAI) in 1961 (www.men-tsee-khang.org).