Tibetan Medicine is one of the world's oldest healing traditions that has been practiced for more than four thousand years in Tibet and the Himalayan region. Tibetan Medicine is called "Sowa Rigpa" in Tibetan, which means the knowledge and science of healing. "Sowa" means to heal the imbalance, and "Rigpa" means the knowledge or science of a particular subject. There are ten treatises of Tibetan doctrine: the five major fields are art and technology (Zo Rigpa), medicine (Sowa Rigpa), linguistics/grammar (Dra Rigpa), logic/philosophy (Tsema Rigpa), Buddhism (Nang Rigpa); and the five minor fields are poetry (Nyanngak), composition (Depjor), thesaurus (Ngonjod), drama (Dekar), and astrology/astronomy (Tse). Of all of these, Sowa Rigpa is regarded as one of the most important sciences of Tibetan doctrine.
The Fundamental Principles of Tibetan Medicine
The main content of Tibetan Medicine includes physiology (study of the body-mind connection), pathology (illnesses or imbalances), diagnosis, and treatment. The fundamental principle of Tibetan Medicine concerns the body and mind (physiology). The body is understood as rLung, Tripa, and Peken in Tibetan Medicine, as related to the principles of the five elements (earth, fire, water, air, and space). This approach recognizes that everything in the universe – plants, animals, and human beings, including all our body tissues, internal organs, skin, skeletal system and even emotions – are composed of these five elements. Each one of them plays a major role, both individually and in combination, as aspects of all matter.
The five elements maintain reciprocal relationships; when in balance, the result is healthy body, speech, and mind. However, if any one of these elements gets out of balance and changes its nature, either through excess, deficiency, or disturbance, not only does the affected element manifest disharmony, but the rest of the elements will lose their balance and manifest particular syndromes or symptoms. Since each individual disease is caused by disharmony or disturbances in one of the five elements, the treatment principle is to balance the elements through diet according to an individual's constitution and behavior, as well as to utilize herbs and other external therapies, such as Mey-Tsa (Tibetan Moxibustion), Hormey (Hot Oil Poultice), Dug (Hot Stones Compress), and Ku Nye (Traditional Tibetan Massage).
The Mind and Body Concept
In Tibetan Medicine, the mind and body are interdependent and cannot be separated. If the mind has a problem, the body shows symptoms, and vice versa. Therefore, Tibetan doctors always look at an individual as a whole to understand the status of their health. Tibetan doctors perceive the condition of the whole person first, then look at parts and problems of organs and body parts. The physical body is constituted with three Du-was, which are rLung, Tripa, and Peken. These three terms are academic Tibetan Medicine terms that are interrelated with the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. Tibetan Medicine uses the five elements to understand the functions of the physical body as follows:
Earth (Sa) - provides the hard and stable quality involved in the development of the flesh, bone, nose, and the sense of smell.
Water (Chu) - moisturizes and lubricates body tissues involved in the development of blood, the tongue, the sense of taste, and the fluid portion in the body during conception.
Fire (Me) - controls and regulates body temperature and provides maturation of the body tissue and organs, generates heat throughout the body, provides color of skin or complexion, eyes, and contributes to the growth and development of the body.
Air (rLung) - provides the ability to move and breath, an essential element for respiration, the skin, and the sense of feeling.
Space (Namka) - provides an empty space or place to allow things to grow, develop, mature, and is involved in movement, pores, the ears, and sound.
Air and space elements are equivalent to rLung, Fire element is equivalent to Tripa, and Earth and Water are equivalent Peken.
In Tibetan Medicine, the human mind also can be understood with the six dimensions of consciousness (Nam-shi Tsok-druk) as the main elements of mind, and the fifty mental factors (Sam-chuang) as the minor elements of the human mind. All those mental factors rely on the physical body to show their functions. For these reasons, in order to get an accurate view of a person’s health, Tibetan Medicine looks at both the mind and body as a whole.
Illness in Tibetan Medicine
A main principle of Tibetan Medicine is that of "cause and effect" – Tibetan Doctors look to identify the cause and effect of illnesses. There are two major divisions of the causes of all illnesses: long-term causative factors and short-term (immediate) causative factors. The long-term causative factors are results of the three poisons or negative energies of desire, hatred, and ignorance at work in our physical, emotional, and mental levels. Normally, desire is the root cause of rLung, hatred causes Tripa, and Ignorance generates Peken. In short, the three poisons are the causes and three Nyepas (disorder of rLung, disorder of Tripa, and disorder of Peken) are the effects. On the other hand, the short-term causative factor is due to physical trauma, injury, improper eating or behavior, and sudden or acute onset of illnesses.
Tibetan Medicine uses three diagnostic methods when examining a patient: observing, palpitating (feeling), and inquiring. One of the most unique aspects of the Tibetan medical observation method is to perform a urine analysis during a consultation, which the doctor is able to analyze immediately without sending the sample to a special lab. The most common method of palpation is to feel both wrist arteries of patients. Palpitation is done by the doctors' index, middle, and ring finger because each finger is able to detect characteristics of different internal organs. Detailed inquiry into a patient's health, symptoms and history is also a valuable diagnostic tool, giving the doctor greater context for the analysis of current health issues.
Diet/nutritional directory, behavior/lifestyle, herbal medicine, and external theory are four major treatment methods in Tibetan Medicine are classified by Tibetan doctors and teach major treatment methods have many detailed techniques based on individual health condition. Apart from these methods, Tibetan Medicine applies many accessory therapies to promote positive treatment results. The most applicable therapies in any culture and societies may include Golden Needle technique, Mey-Tsa (Tibetan moxibustion), heat or cold external therapies, natural hot springs or medicinal baths, enemas, vomiting, purgatives, and Ku Nye (Tibetan Massage). In addition, spiritual practice, five-element color therapy, and astrological configuration are treatment methods unique to Tibetan Medicine.
Tibetan Medicine Benefits the Body as a Holistic Medicine
Beyond treating symptoms, Tibetan Medicine concentrates on treating the whole person to promote healing through diet, lifestyle, using herbal formulas, and engaging in spiritual practices. When Tibetan physicians treat a patient, they focus equally on both the mental and physical states, because the mind and body are inseparable. Tibetan Medicine emphasizes the three poisons of attachment, anger, and ignorance as the fundamental causes of emotional disturbances and mental disorders. A Tibetan physician also considers how diet, behavior, and daily habits affect each individual patient. Therefore, Tibetan Medicine can be best described as a Holistic Medicine because it is designed to prevent and treat all diseases of our living being. In particular, Tibetan Medicine promotes the healing of:
many chronic illnesses
mental and emotional disturbances, such as anxiety, agitation, frustration, stress, and insomnia
indigestion and digestive-related disorders, such as jaundice, diabetes, hepatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, food stagnation, or food poisoning
acute or chronic skin problems
heart disorders, angina, stroke, poor circulation
neurological-related problems, such as nerve compression, spinal stenosis, sciatica, nervous system, multiple sclerosis, motor and sense impairment of the body or limbs
respiratory disorders, such as the common cold, asthma, cough, pneumonia, and bronchitis
sinus problems, such as congestion and sinus headaches
gynecological disorders, such as premenstrual syndromes, menstrual-related problems, menopausal discomforts, prenatal and postnatal care
preparation and healing before, during, and after chemotherapy, radiation and as a result of chronic disorders focusing on energy recovery, digestive-related problems, joint pain and more.
Arura Medicine of Tibet, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed to create a center for the study, training and practice of Tibetan Medicine (TM) and for the preservation and celebration of Tibetan culture in Charlottesville, VA.