The first time I was enchanted by the Tibetan knowledge of healing was in Dharamsala, India. I took a friend to see a highly respected Tibetan physician, one misty winter morning. My friend had told me she had cancer and needed help. She was a visitor to this hill town where I lived, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in exile. After waiting since six in the morning, in line, we finally went into his consultation rooms. The Tibetan doctor took the sample of her urine and bustled into his courtyard to test it. He returned, without a word, looked at her kindly, and rather deeply, and seemed to scan her body visually. He then took her pulse for some time. What arose was astonishing.
“You have three small tumors, one here and two there,” the doctor said, pointing his finger to an area of her breast and two other spots, nearby. At the end of his consultation, he asked my friend how long she was staying in Dharamsala, and she said three weeks. He recommended she lengthen her stay to six, and that she stayed at a hospital. He said he would remove this one very quickly and the other two would take more time. But he would take care of her. And there should be success.
When we left the consultation, she told me that yes, that is where she knew she had breast cancer, and she would stay for his care. It was at this point that I was determined that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to know everything about this art and I must start right away. My spiritual teacher had in fact sent me to Dharamsala to learn Tibetan medicine, but this was for me the moment of inspiration. I knew that this study was for a lifetime, and if necessary the study would hopefully stay with me for several lifetimes.
The most important Tibetan masters of Buddhist medical science recorded a knowledge of healing that had been continually practiced over the centuries, and preserved it for posterity in written and pictorial form. Today there are still expert Tibetan physicians practicing this traditional form of medicine, and I have had the privilege to study under some of them in India, Nepal and also in the West. Nowadays the study is based on the text called the Four Medical Tantras, fundamental treatises that include the secret oral tradition for the eight branches of healing. These texts are studied and learnt by heart by today’s trained physicians. Traditionally the third part of the four sections is transmitted orally.
For myself, it has been and still is a life’s learning. A little similar to understanding the art of music by learning to play the piano. Firstly I had had the fortune of hearing a unique understanding from this Tibetan doctor and then I learnt the basic keys. Inspired by other great masters of the field, I have learnt to play a few songs, lyrics and chords, but little else. However, I would like to share a little of my understanding. With a little self-observation, we might be able to apply some of it to ourselves.
For instance, did you know that all plants and foods are divided into six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter and astringent. And that, depending on those tastes, and whether they are hot or cold by nature, different foods can be used for all ranges of disease. Wild ginger, hedychium spicatum, is for instance sharp and sweet, and the active force of hot and oily. This ginger is believed to increase heat in the body, to stimulate the appetite and overcome disorders from phlegm. Yet cinnamon has the taste spheres of sharp, sweet, astringent and salty. This is also used medically, and counteracts cold illnesses of the stomach and liver, as well as well as providing a good defense against disorders from wind.
This use of the six tastes is understood in the Ayurvedic and the Chinese medical knowledge and is always taken into account when preparing herbal prescriptions, accompanied with the use of therapeutic remedies, such as lifestyle, massage and dietary advice.
Western doctors, therapists, botanists and pharmacists have become increasingly interested in Tibetan healing arts. The spiritual and intellectual-psychological methods it utilizes have been an integral part of Western psychotherapy and physical therapies for many years now. Many scientists are fascinated by the science and convinced that Tibetan plant-lore can show us new paths of healing. When I say plant-lore I include all foods and herbs as healing agents as well as therapeutic therapies such as massage.
Like Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine is based on the teaching and understanding of the three body constituents, or the three body juices or fluids sometimes called the three constitutional energies, otherwise known these days as the three types, called humors or doshas, the latter being an Ayurvedic term. These three are wind, bile and phlegm. In Tibetan they are known as lung, tripa and bekan, while in Ayurveda they are called vatha, pitha and khapa.
When these three are in harmony and balanced, then we can say the physical and mental bodies are in sync. However, this is rarely the case, as we are seldom in balance, due to other factors. The other factors to be taken into account, are our own basic individual constitutions, from birth. We can also understand some of this from astrology, as we are all different in our basic constitutions, with regards astrological signs, for example if I am a Libra, then my basic element is air sign. And air is by nature cold, unless there is an element of fire element, which is hot. The country we live in also plays a part in our general health conditions for the future. For example I live in Scotland which is cold and damp and is often windy. And I have found many people here to be suffering from phlegmatic conditions such as flu and lung problems, in winter. The windy aspect can cause wind or air element disorders. The seasons are also taken into account. Some countries may have only three or less seasons. Personal lifestyle and diet, are further factors. Our mental behavior is also very important. The latter reminds us of our attitude towards our emotions and mental thinking mode. For example, here, it is understood in Tibetan Medicine, that thinking too much will affect the air element, the wind, which is connected to the balance of the nervous system and in the long term can cause many physical disorders. These three basic constitutions are the starting point. However, when unbalanced or sick we will show a different constitution or often a mixed constitutional imbalance, which depends on the factors mentioned above. It is this that the Tibetan Doctor observes, in order to bring about a balance or cure.
Let us begin by visiting a Tibetan doctor. He or she will firstly notice the way you look, the way you move and the way you present yourself. Both physically and mentally. When I say mentally, this means the observation by the Tibetan doctor of how you yourself individually describe your condition. This verbal relationship or expression, will offer the practitioner his first clue for prognosis. The physician will then ask you what your symptoms of dis-ease are. We will call the physician he for now, as it makes it easier to write. Next he will look at your urine. You should have brought along the first midstream urine of the day. If you are to do this, it is important that 24 hours prior to the appointment, you should avoid coffee, spicy foods, and sexual activity which may deplete your energy.
The physician will whisk the urine with a chopstick. He looks for the bubbles that arise, when he has whisked it, and sees what settles, ideally in a white cup. What will show on the surface, is your general current situation. The surface bubbles are either large, which indicate an air element at play, or many small bubbles, which is the fire element at the fore, of bubbles foaming like beer that stay on the surface. This last bubble formation shows a phlegmatic imbalance, or an earth and water imbalance at this time. The very advanced practitioner, will be able to read much more into the urine, as he divides the cup surface of urine into several squares, but this is more complex than we need to know at this point.
Having taken that information on board, the doctor now takes your pulse. The pulse is taken from the radial artery at the wrist, with his three middle fingers. The doctor will read the pulse from the two parts of his fingertips. The upper part of the finger reads the vital organs, and the lower part of the fingertips senses the vessel organs, such as intestine or stomach. The doctor is able to diagnose the condition of upper, middle and lower body. For our own understanding here, at this point, he will be able to ascertain as to whether the pulse reads the dominant element as being either air, which is read on the surface of the general pulse, the fire which is found beneath it, and one found deeper.
Then he will check your tongue, its color and roughness, discoloration, whiteness, and the lines displayed on your tongue. Each reading will give him another clue of your condition, depending on your imbalance of the three humors. Do look at your tongue and you will see it changes, depending on your health. The Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians, work with tongue diagnosis too. It is a complex and very profound way of diagnosis. For example if the tongue is red, dry and rough this indicates a wind disorder in place at this time. Ideally the physician will also ask about your lifestyle and diet. What time do you eat, when and what? This is important because certain foods and lifestyle can be a cause of sickness or can be contributed to the condition you have. Especially in the long term.
The digestion plays an enormous part in our health and depending on what we eat, and whether our foods are hot or cold, will have an effect on our health. What we eat and drink feeds our bones, blood, organs and the lymphatic system. If the foods we take are detrimental to our health, eventually these foods will effect our general well-being and can after a time cause havoc with our health. For example sweet foods are by nature earthy. If you take sweet foods in excess, this will effect your weight and may well cause phlegmatic conditions. As they say we are what we eat. BUT I have found that the diet taken in California should be completely different than the diet we eat in the cold countries of the West. California is much warmer and so the foods we eat there have a different impact on our bodies. In this new age of health and diet the Californians were at the forefront of media health books, and recommended raw cold foods. All very well for the Californians, but if you live in Scotland or colder countries, warm nourishing foods are recommended, due to the outer cold, so it is better not to take cold foods, but to warm the digestion, as the outer environment itself is cold.
In this way the doctor, will ask you where you live, to determine which foods are best for you, and whether they should be cooler or warmer. Depending on your answers and his observations of your pulse, urine, tongue and questions, and what he has read on you pulse regarding to the strength of your organs, the physician will recommend you to take certain foods in your balanced diet, and he will also suggest to you how to balance you mind.
The mind’s psychological state is a very important part of this meeting with your Tibetan physician, and needs to be listened to with great care as the physician seems to throw this vital information into the soup, often with only very few words and therefore can be missed! For Buddhists we are very lucky to be studying the effects of mind on our mental health, but for other people I have met, they are often surprised by the observations.
This advice which the physician may offer to you will depend on your present constitution. For example if your wind is greater, he might ask you to think or worry less, no small thing, but what he is actually saying is try not to dwell on thoughts too much. If he has seen that you have a bile or fire element problem might ask you to try to be more patient, and watch you anger. He may suggest to you to be less jealous if should you have a phlegm disorder. He may tell not to be too attached and to be a little less fixated. Within the Tibetan medical view, there is a great deal more help on offer in these areas of psychology studied in the profound Buddhist teachings. And therefore I suggest you study these more to get a greater understanding of how the mind affects the overall health. This information is readily available to anyone whom is interested.
However, my personal view is that if you have any doubts or need any clarifications on the advice you have had from your doctor, you need to ask your physician for more clarification so that when you leave, you are clear on your way forward, in terms of the herbs that have been offered, the diet and lifestyle which may have been suggested or any psychological advice. You need to know what you are doing, when you are doing it and why. In this way I feel we start to take an interest in our own well-being and healing.
One small thing to finish, when you do take herbs from a practitioner in Tibetan medicine, only take them at the time when he says so. If you miss a time, leave it until the next day. I will expain why I say this next time!More one the theory of the Tibetan tradition of Ayurveda.
Featured diagram of the human body from Russia.
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