Science of Compassion - Tibetan Medicine
A few years ago, when Dr. Moses Judah Folkman found himself in the eye of a media storm, few Tibetan doctors were surprised. At the time, a New York Times cover story, quoting DNA co-discoverer James Watson, trumpeted that Folkman”s pioneering cancer treatment, originally discovered in the early 1970s, was so promising that it could cure cancer in two years. In fact, Dr.
Folkman’s research had found that, if two anti-angiogenesis agents called angiostatin and endostatin were introduced into the bloodstream, a tumor’s blood supply could be cut off and its growth halted. And, much to the hostility of the traditional medical establishment, Folkman deduced that this regression could mean the difference between a person living with a tumor and dying because of it.
Tibetan doctors, long-trained in Lhasa before the Chinese occupation of 1959, have been treating tumors with a variety of treatments that mimic these anti-angiogenesis factors over the course of its seven thousand-year history.
Now, with greater emphasis being placed on alternative medicines by everyone from the Dalai Lama to the American Medical Association, and the occurrence of the first-ever American-hosted Conference on Tibetan Medicine in Washington, D.C., it appears that the Tibetan system is poised to join with other medical disci plinesto advance human healing.
Ironically, Tibetan medicine was born from a similar cross seeding. During the 5th century, before the country was primarily Buddhist, the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo, welcomed Vijay and Gajay, two great Indian physicians, into his court. These doctors brought knowledge of Hindu Ayurvedic medicine, as well as Buddhist teachings which sought to cure all sentient beings from Samsara, or worldly confusion, and its manifestations in the three poisons of anger, greed and lust.
In the next three centuries, the various Medicine Buddha texts were translated from the Sanskrit into Tibetan, and then compiled for study. During the reign of King Trisong Deutsen (755-797), the first medical conference was held in Lhasa. Practitioners from Mongolia, China, India, Persia, Eastern Turkistan, Nepal, Kashmir, Dolpo and Afghanistan took part in this gathering, with each doctor expounding on the nature and efficacy of his own system.
After the conference, the King developed a code of behavior to be followed by all of his physicians. It was called The Four Vows, and specified that a doctor must be altruistic, abandon sloth and procrastination, abstain from intoxicating drinks and most importantly make a patient at ease and relieved through compassion and love. These Four Vows evolved into the Four Medical Tantras and The Eighteen Auxiliary Aids. This ancient form of medicine became known as Gso-wa Rig-pa, or the knowledge of healing.
Yuthog the Younger collected the texts that became the rGyud-bhzi in the 11th century and, six hundred years later, the 5th Dalai Lama had eighteen additional chapters added, to cover new diseases and treatments that had evolved over time.
In 1916, the Tibetan Astro-Medical Institute was founded by Khyenrab Norbu under the patronage of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Here, the Tibetan system of medicine was practiced unchanged until the Chinese occupation of the 1950s. When war broke out in 1959, only twelve doctors survived the shelling of the Chagpori Institute, their then-primary school for training new doctors.
Eliot Tokar maintains a medical practice in Brooklyn, New York that takes its name from the destroyed institute. He says of Tibetan medicine, It’s a very unified and organized system, so people can understand how their bodies interact with their spirituality and nature. [Instead of having a consumerist mentality], Tibetans think about things before they manifest as health problems. It’s complex, and very elegant.
To this day, the central Tibetan medical text is the Gyud-bzhi, an ancient book that divides each of the four tantrasinto a root, branches and leaves, which define a disease’’s source and subsequent treatmentsin ever greater specificity. However, to begin to understand Tibetan medicine, one must understand the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: a sentient being’s suffering is inevitable and inherent. A disease or malady is only the physical manifestation of that inner imbalance that causes us to suffer.
In response, Tibetan medicine seeks to help a patient alleviate this inevitable suffering by seeking balance between the physical and spiritual aspects of his or her body. As his Holiness the Dalai Lama recently stated, Tibetan medicine is most helpful for those disorders “on the cusp’ between the mind and the body, which would not be likely to show up on an ray.
Like Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine divides bodily natures using the five elements of air, fire, water, earth and space. According to Lobsang Rapgay’s Tibetan Book of Healing, a person’s body will tend toward one of the Nepas: lung, tripa or bad-kan. Lung roughly corresponds to the Ayurvedic Vata, and governs the workings of the fine consciousness or nervous system. Five types of Lung or air energy form the human body. The Life-Sustaining wind is located at the crown chakra and serves the head and chest area.
Its functions include swallowing, inhalation, salivation, burping and sneezing. Wind energy is also responsible for breathing, opening and closing of bodily apertures, and flexation of the limbs. The bile or fire humor is called Tripa, and corresponds to the Ayurvedic Pitta. Its five types are primarily focused around the digestive functions, and provide the body with heat and strength.
Tripa can also affect determination, self-confidence, and tendencies toward depression or discouragement. Bad-ken is analogous to the Ayurvedic Kapha, or phlegm. The main function of this water/earth energy is to provide the body with moisture and support with cohesive fluids. Bad-ken also affects the taste buds and the brain’s capacity for satisfaction. The three nepas are further classified by twenty attributes and individual characteristics that narrow the options for the doctor performing the diagnosis.
A person’s body can be predisposed to one humor over another, but most likely, it is an imbalance in the body that will cause it to display illness. In fact, the Tibetan word for humor is the same word for sickness or fault. Diseases arise asa result of the three poisons: delusion or ignorance, hate or anger, and greed or desire. These correlate with the three faults or doshas and manifest as the three ills, which prevent enlightenment from being attained. Delusion is the most primary of the three poisons.
This is an unreal sense of self that puts one in conflict with the world. One tends to see everything as unconnected, says Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, in describing how disease can manifest in the body. Greed causes the body to try and match up with and be bigger than the universe. Anger or hate is primarily mental. One basically doesnt want to go along with the universes plan for you. Despite the directness of this statement, the five elements can, theoretically at least, be combined to achieve Buddhahood or enlightenment on the physical plane.
According to the Tibetan system, diseases can also arise from changes in season and adjustments to behavior or diet. These diseases can be treated medically. Additional diseases caused by karma or spirits, cannot be addressed with traditional remedies. Instead, diseases of karma are treated with praying and religious rituals. In Westem terms, this category would be deemed genetic, and most likely, treatment would not be available.
Diseases of spirits are caused by ghosts or demons. Doctors usually prescribe some medications, and accompany this therapy with exorcisms or various shamanistic ceremonies.
Bridging the scientific and religious components of the medical system is astrology, which is studied alongside medicine at the Institute. Once trained, practitioners prepare medications using stringent guidelines, singing. In order to effectively diagnose each of these conditions, Tibetan doctors are sometimes trained for twenty years before they begin an extended practice. Tools for diagnosis, such as urinalysis and pulse taking, are studied alongside treatments like moxibustion and the gold rod.