By Rahla Khan
Tibetan medicine believes the seed of sickness is formed at conception. Having accepted this, its practitioners do all they can to alleviate suffering
In his book Health Through Balance, DR Yeshi Donden, chief physician to the Dalai Lama, writes: ‘The root of disease is beginningless ignorance. Due to its force we are caught in cyclic existence… From obscuration, which is heavy, dull and cloudy, phlegm disorders arise. From desire, which has the nature of captivation of the mind, all types of wind disorders arise-wind being light and moving. Hatred is like fire; from it, bile and blood-bile disorders arise.’
These words underscore the deeply spiritual base of Tibetan medicine, one of the most misunderstood branches of alternative medicine. Tibetan medicine is an intricate balancing act of the body, mind and spirit to maintain equilibrium. Eating, drinking, bathing, working, sleeping, copulating and even religion work best in moderation.
According to Shakyamuni Buddha, propounder of the four basic tantras or treatises of Tibetan medicine, there are 84,000 afflictive emotions, such as desire, hatred, ignorance and obscuration. These emotions impel karma (action) and create potencies in the mind that may ripen later as specific diseases.
Going by this doctrine, Tibetan medicine lists 404 basic disorders, divided into groups of four. The first group comprises 101 disorders that result from the karma of previous lifetimes. These are usually fatal unless treated immediately through medication, confession of past sins and virtuous practice. In Tibet, for example, people afflicted with such disorders would renounce all worldly activities and engage themselves in spiritual practices.
The second group is of 101 disorders of this lifetime that have their causes in the early period of your life and manifest later in the same lifetime.
The third group has 101 disorders resulting from spirit activities. Tibetan medicine is based on the Buddhist belief that there are numerous unseen forces that can affect and even harm a person. These forces or spirits are suspected when there is no visible cause for a disorder. To cure such ailments, the spirit needs to be exorcised or, if it has gone out of the body, cajoled into coming back. ‘All this may sound like mumbo-jumbo to many people,’ states Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar, a Tibetan medicine practitioner in New Delhi, India, ‘but Tibetan medicine and Buddhist faith are based on believing without seeing.’
The final group comprises 101 superficial disorders, so called because they can be removed by simply following proper diet and behavior patterns. These are lifestyle disorders and are usually self-curing, if diet and behavior patterns are controlled.
The study of this 2,500-year-old science is an arduous task. A student of Tibetan medicine has to first memorize at least three of the four basic tantras. In the first year, the student memorizes the Root Tantra, which outlines the basic philosophy of Tibetan medicine with visual aids, called the Illustrated Trees of Medicine, which describe physiology, cause, diagnosis and treatment.
Next comes the Explanatory Tantra, which covers everything-from embryology to causes of various disorders. In the third year, the Last Tantra is studied which deals with diagnosis and the two most important precepts of Tibetan medicine—pulse reading and urine analysis. During the fourth year, or even much after that, the student spends time observing doctors treat patients and learns various medical commentaries including the Oral Tradition Tantra.
Tibetan medicine utilizes three levels of potency: the actual medicinal ingredients, the power of mantra and the power of stabilization. First, the physician gathers medicinal ingredients, puts them in a begging bowl or imagines they are in one, takes refuge in the Buddha, the Doctrine and the Spiritual Community and then generates an intention to become enlightened.
Every medicine is prepared after the completion of specific rituals. In these rituals, the lama or a physician imagines him or the medicine to be a deity and thus activates it.
In Tibetan medicine, physicians also double as pharmacologists. In summer, students accompany physicians to the mountains to study herbs and plants. In winter, they learn how to manufacture medicine. Despite, or because of its evolved status, surgery is not a popular choice among practitioners of Tibetan medicine. Although legend has it that an eighth-century Tibetan king prohibited surgery, practitioners cite a more spiritual argument against it. According to them, it is better to undergo illness and take medicine to cure it, rather than avoid the illness and be operated upon. They believe that if the disease is caused by your past karma, it is better for you to endure it now rather than carry it over to your next birth.
Although Tibetan medicine practitioners are not averse to the use of alternative therapies such as acupuncture, blood letting and letting of lymph from the joints, golden needle therapy or hammer therapy, they do not prescribe organ transplants, except for the eye. ‘If a person gives the gift of an eye or a portion of the eye with the wish that all sentient beings could attain the eye of wisdom, that person will attain great merit with great fruits,’ says Dr Yeshi Donden. Blood donation is also considered good for the body.
Ancient though it may be, Tibetan medicine encompasses all the trappings of modern medicine like vaccination, contraception and even bone setting. ‘It is easier to set a broken bone than a cracked one, although not many patients come to us for emergency treatment, preferring to go to surgeons instead,’ says DR Sonam Lhamo.
Indeed, most patients who visit the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute in New Delhi seek cure from chronic diseases. DR Geber Bittar, a doctor from the UAE who attended a 10-day course in Tibetan medicine recently, says: ‘This medicine, which deals with both body and mind and works with bodily energy, is very beneficial for such diseases.’
Precious pills or rinchen rilbu are also in great demand for treating chronic diseases. Made from herbs and precious minerals sourced from Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet, these pills are given at auspicious occasions according to the Tibetan calendar, such as Buddha Purnima.
In keeping with the changing times, Tibetan medicine is gradually joining hands with mainstream medical institutions. An example is DR Tenzin Namdul, a graduate from the medical college in Dharamsala, the northern Indian hill-town that hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile. DR Namdul has recently started a research center for diabetes in collaboration with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. ‘This is a six-month course of medicine for patients who have not been taking any western treatment and in whom the disease is in an early stage,’ states DR Namdul.
At a time when alternative therapies are increasingly gaining respect, Tibetan medicine may finally come out of the folds of obscurity and achieve a long-due recognition as a panacea for body, mind and spirit. The process has already begun.
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