We are back from our two-week hiatus to continue this series on the Roots of Medicine. The last article before the break was a two-part look at Ayurvedic Medicine.
I continue today with a look at another traditional system of medicine, Traditional Tibetan Medicine.
I had my first in-depth look at traditional Tibetan Medicine a number of years ago, when I was living in San Diego and went to a presentation given by Dr. Yeshi Dhonden at the VA hospital in town.
Dr. Dhonden is a practitioner of Tibetan Medicine and the former personal physician to the Dalai Lama.
Dr. Dhonden was invited by the VA hospital to present and to do grand rounds. The grand rounds at the hospital that day took place in the auditorium, to a very large audience of health providers. The grand rounds consisted of doctors at the VA bringing some of their most difficult cases to the auditorium and having Dr. Dhonden give his professional opinion about their health status.
One of the primary tools in Tibetan Medicine is urine analysis, though not in the standard way as known in Western Medicine, as a UA. In Dr. Dhonden’s approach to urine analysis, the patient would pee into a cup, and Dr. Dhonden would then make his diagnosis by observing the urine.
I can’t remember what he diagnosed for the patients based on his urine analysis, but I recall the treating doctors, and the audience as a whole, sitting in awe of this man of such deep wisdom.
Besides his urine analysis, he also used pulse diagnosis, which is a form of diagnosis also used in Chinese Medicine. Once he formed his diagnosis, Dr. Dhonden then was able to make a prognosis and make recommendations as to what the patient could do to improve their health.
So what is Tradititonal Tibetan Medicine?
It is a centuries-old traditional medical system that employs a complex approach to diagnosis, incorporating techniques such as pulse analysis and urinalysis, and utilizes behavior and dietary modification, medicines composed of natural materials (e.g., herbs and minerals) and physical therapies (e.g. Tibetan acupuncture, moxabustion, etc.) to treat illness.
The Tibetan medical system is based upon a synthesis of the Indian (Ayurveda), Persian (Unani), Greek, indigenous Tibetan, and Chinese medical systems, and it continues to be practiced in Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Siberia, China and Mongolia, as well as more recently in parts of Europe and North America. It embraces the traditional Buddhist belief that all illness ultimately results from the “three poisons” of the mind: ignorance, attachment and aversion.
By synthesizing knowledge from various medical systems, Tibetans created a approach to medical science drawn from thousands of years of accumulated empirical knowledge and intuition about the nature of health and illness.
Centuries ago, before Buddhism entered Tibet, Tibetans like all ancient people had a significant degree of medical knowledge. According to traditional sources, in the beginning of the 4th century many new ideas regarding medicine began to enter the country. At first influences came from India in the form of what is now called Ayurvedic medicine, as well as more spiritual and psychologically based systems from Buddhist and other sources.
Around the 7th-8th centuries the Tibetan government began sponsoring conferences where doctors skilled in the medical systems of China, Persia, India and Greece presented and debated their ideas regarding health and the treatment of illness. Those with superior abilities in the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of illness were invited to stay and contribute to the country’s medical knowledge base.
In the 11th century, this knowledge was codified into a unique system containing a synthesis of the principals of physical and psychological medicine imbued with a Buddhist spiritual understanding. This understanding formed a foundation for Tibetan medicine and benefited patients and doctors alike. It acknowledged how health and illness resulted both from the relationship between the mind and the body and people’s connectedness to the natural world and sense of spirituality.
Next time: A Look at how Traditional Tibetan Medicine works.