General Approach to Treatment
We have now covered the classification of disease and its diagnosis. Let us talk next about its treatment. Treatment is made by suggesting the patient modify his or her diet and behavior, and then prescribing herbal medicines, as well as sometimes acupuncture, moxabustion or other external procedures.
It should be noted that although there are certain standard treatments for specific diseases, these are always modified according to the basic bodily constitution of the patient, as well as the season of the year. During the course of a treatment, the medicines are often changed, for instance from weaker to stronger. Sometimes the approach is to collect and concentrate the disease in one part of the body with one set of medicines, and then afterwards to eliminate the sickness from its root with either another set of medicines, moxabustion or whatever. This is why it often appears that at first a Tibetan treatment makes the symptoms of a sickness worse.
This is the opposite of what is sometimes found in an allopathic approach, which may just dilute and disperse a disease throughout the body in an attempt to suppress the symptoms. In this way, Tibetan medicine agrees with the approach found in the homeopathic system. Thus, it is necessary for a Tibetan doctor to monitor the course of a treatment. Also, it should be noted that Tibetan medicinal ingredients are detoxified during their preparation and so do not have any adverse side-effects.
Medicine and Diet
To discuss how diet is modified and medicine prescribed, it is necessary to introduce the Tibetan Buddhist system of classification of tastes. Foods and herbs are not classified according to the three qualities of rajas, sattva and tamas as is found in the Hindu Ayurvedic system. Nor are they classified according to the five Chinese elements or yin and yang as in Chinese medicine or Japanese macrobiotics. Rather, foods and medicinal ingredients are classified according to six tastes and six post-digestive tastes, as well as eight inherent qualities and seventeen secondary qualities. This is also found in the Ayurvedic system, with some minor differences, but there it is secondary to the classification scheme of rajas, sattva and tamas.
Thus, the environment a particular food is grown in affects its qualities. Sometimes, however, in the Tibetan system the six tastes are analyzed in terms of the five Indian elements.
- Sweet foods are a combination of earth and water
- Sour – fire and earth
- Salty – water and fire
- Bitter – water and air
- Acrid – fire and air
- Astringent – earth and air.
The space element is common to all tastes.
Tibetan medicine is prepared from different herbs and flowers, as well as dried fruit products, nuts, roots, the bark of trees, various animal products, metallic and mineral substances, precious gems and so on. Each medicine is composed of many different ingredients, sometimes thirty-five or more, none of which may be omitted. The ingredients are combined and ground up after each has been individually cleaned and dried in a manner fitting with its properties.
The ingredients of the medicines, as well as the dietary recommendations, are chosen in terms of their tastes and qualities. Certain tastes and qualities will cause an excess in a specific humor to decrease. The same principle is involved in determining which foods and drinks may cause a disorder of the humors to manifest or get worse. Some of the specifics with respect to diet have already been mentioned earlier in this lecture series. There is no need to repeat them.
Tibetan doctors, then, are trained in pharmacology as well. They learn to identify the various medicinal raw materials, and how to make the medicines. They go on expeditions to the mountains to gather medicinal herbal plants. The most skillful can identify them blindfolded, simply by the smell and taste. The optimal location for finding the plants used in Tibetan medicine is on the slopes of high snow mountains, above the tree line, at the point where vegetation just begins to grow right below the portion of the mountain that is only rock, and the ground is a mixture of rocks and slight growth. Different portions of the same plant have different tastes and are often used for treating different disorders.
The combined, ground-up ingredients of a medicine can be either brewed as a tea, taken as a powder or made into small pills, usually about one centimeter in diameter, although sometimes about one-fifth of that size. Teas act more immediately, like for a sore throat or asthma; powders are for rapid, deeper effects, as in the case of giving a diuretic. But pills are usually favored for long-term, deepest cures. Pills concentrate the essence of the medicines and maintain their freshness longer.
The present-day Mongolian treatment follows the older Tibetan custom of preparing powders of only the individual medicinal ingredients and then mixing these powders together for each patient at the time of prescription. Since the destruction of the medical monasteries in the late 1930’s, pills have not been prepared, since the whole system had to go underground. But the tradition of making pills will most likely soon be revived.
At present, three grades of fineness of powdered medicine are prepared in Mongolia:
- The coarsest grade is used for making teas. Among the Tibetans, medicinal teas are prepared only by boiling the powdered medicine with water. In Mongolia, some are brewed this way but, for certain diseases, the medicinal powders can also be boiled with black tea, milk tea, milk and butter tea, or with just milk, for instance for insomnia.
- The middle grade powdered medicine is swallowed with hot, boiled water.
- The finest grade is swallowed either also with hot, boiled water, or with a mixture of fermented sheep and cow whey, or even with vodka. The Four Medical Tantras do speak of taking medicines with alcohol for certain wind disorders. Although the Mongols practice this, the Tibetans do not do so at present since so many Tibetans have taken vows not to drink alcohol.
The Mongols also take some powdered medicines with horse milk, and horse milk itself is drunk in huge quantities medicinally, especially for tuberculosis and other lung diseases, and for general purification of the body. In fact, it is common for Mongols to follow a diet of only horse milk for one month each summer as a general purifying tonic. It is not the Tibetan custom to collect or drink horse milk, and so it is not used therapeutically among them.
In Chinese medicine, most often the various medicinal ingredients are not ground up and combined, but rather brewed whole, all together, with water as a tea.
Tibetan medicine is taken at least a half hour before or after meals, not with food, and if it is in powder or pill form, it is taken in the Tibetan tradition only with a glass of very hot, boiled water to help digest it. The pills must be crushed or chewed well before swallowing. Precious pills made from pulverized precious gems combined with other ingredients are light sensitive. They are wrapped in silk and must be prepared and taken in the dark, with a special diet to be followed that day. Medicinal butters are prepared by boiling butter, milk, honey and various combinations of herbs. These are then consumed and are helpful for such things as rejuvenation.
Occasionally, powders are taken as snuff, for instance for sinus problems or hay fever. Also, they may be mixed with various oils or butter, and rubbed on as ointments for skin diseases. Some powders are used dry as well, in the manner of a talcum powder.
The timings for taking the medicines are specific, since certain humors are more dominant at certain times of the day. Wind is most strong at dawn and the early evening, bile at noon and midnight, and phlegm during the morning. Also, two, three or even four medicines are prescribed at a time, to be taken at different hours of the day for one illness. In present-day Mongolia, however, usually only one medicine is prescribed.
Astrological Considerations for the Timings of Medicine
In the yellow calculation system used in Tibetan astrology, there is a chart telling which of the twelve two-hour periods of the day is the most auspicious or inauspicious for taking medicine for people born in each of the twelve possible animal-sign years. Thus, for persons born in the year of the monkey, for instance, certain two-hour periods of the morning, afternoon and night will be more effective than others, whereas for persons born in the year of the dragon or snake, etc., these sets will be different.
Also, there is a specific two-hour period of the day when medicines for each of the major organs will be most effective. One would try to take the medicine for that specific organ one hour before this period so that it will work the strongest then. If the two-hour period that is the best for one’s affected organ happens to be inauspicious for persons born in one’s animal-sign, one would choose the auspicious period for those of one’s birth-sign that is the closest to the period for this organ. Although these points from medical astrology are found in the Tibetan tradition, they are more prominent in Mongolia, but even there they are at present rarely followed.
In the Chinese system of acupuncture, as taught in the Chinese hospital in Ulaan Baatar, a much more modified procedure is followed for determining the time of treatment. The best hour is chosen by considering whether the patient is male or female; if female, whether she has had children or not; whether the patient is less than twenty years of age, or between twenty and forty-eight, or older than this; and whether the disease is a yin or yang one, in other words, a cold or hot disorder. If treatment cannot be done at this hour, then the length of time the needles are left in and the amount they are twisted during the session will be modified.
Tastes and Qualities of Medicines and Foods
One part of the theory of the treatment of disease, then, concerns the tastes of the medicines. This, plus the post-digestive taste, will often stimulate the body to react, for instance by secreting certain substances. Thus, it is important actually to taste the medicine, and not to hide its taste with more pleasant foods or drink. Furthermore, different tastes have different effects when they are taken in moderation or in excess.
The six tastes are:
- Sweet – like honey
- Sour – like lemon
- Salty – like salt
- Bitter – like quinine
- Acrid or spicey hot – like pepper
- Astringent – makes mouth pucker like betel nut.
The six post-digestive tastes and their effects are:
- Sweet – harms phlegm, pacifies wind and bile
- Sour – harms bile, pacifies wind and phlegm
- Salty – harms bile, pacifies wind and phlegm
- Bitter – harms wind and phlegm, pacifies bile
- Acrid – harms bile, pacifies wind and phlegm
- Astringent – harms wind and phlegm, pacifies bile.
Foods and medicines also have inherent and secondary qualities. These too affect imbalances in the body. The eight inherent qualities are being heavy or light, rough or soft, oily, acrid and either heating or cooling. Hot and cold foods, then, do not refer to temperature, or to their level of spiciness, but to their ability to have a heating or cooling effect on the body. For example, cauliflower and cabbage are cooling foods and they would be very damaging and difficult to digest if one has low digestive heat.
Here is a full list of the eight inherent qualities of foods and examples are:
- Heaviness or weighty – potato, corn, wheat
- Oiliness – eggs, fish, mango, banana, pomegranate;
- Coolness – cauliflower, cabbage, pork
- Soothing or softening – spinach
- Lightness – poultry
- Roughness – coffee, rabbit meat, carnivorous animals
- Heat – buffalo meat, pomegranate
- Acridity – hot chilies.
The secondary qualities also include being heavy or light, rough or gentle, oily or dry, heating or cooling, etc. But these are determined by the climate and location where the food or medicinal plant grows. For instance, food grown in a moist, windy environment will be gentle, but in a dry, windy one, rough. If it is grown in a cold, windy environment in general, it will be cooling, while in a hot, dry place, heating. This is why medicinal plants grown artificially in an environment different from their natural one will not have the same healing properties as those found in their native place. Refrigeration, freezing, reheating and preserving also seem to change the secondary qualities of foods.
The full list of the seventeen secondary qualities of foods, with examples, is as follows:
- Gentleness – food grown in moist windy environment
- Heaviness – marrow, potato, cabbage
- Warmth – chili peppers, pomegranate
- Oiliness – sesame and grain oils, yak meat
- Firmness – rabbit brain and other foods that counter diarrhea
- Coldness – food grown in a windy environment
- Softening – spinach and other foods grown in environments with strong element of earth
- Coolness – orange, vegetables in general
- Pliability – foods grown in water
- Thinness (of fluids) – foods grown in water
- Dryness – food grown in hot, dry places
- Fatlessness – pulses, etc. with no fat
- Heat – grown in sunny, hot places
- Lightness – grown in cool, windy places;
- Acridity – grown in sunny dry places
- Roughness – grown in dry windy places
- Motility – grown in windy places.
When treating a particular sickness, then, Tibetan doctors will recommend certain foods and drinks that will be helpful and others that should be avoided. Although this has been discussed already, one further point needs to be mentioned. One of the most general dietary rules is not to mix foods or liquids cold in temperature with those that are hot. To drink ice cold water with a hot meal destroys the digestive heat and may lead to digestive problems.
Modifications of behavior are also suggested. The types of actions that aggravate and alleviate the general disorders of the three humors have already been mentioned. Thus, for bile, one should stay out of the sun and so on. There is no need to repeat.
Current American Research in Behavioral Medicine
A new field of medicine has been evolving in the United States, called behavioral medicine. This involves the use of mindfulness meditation in stress-reduction clinics as an adjunct to medication in promoting healing and coping with pain.
In the Tibetan tradition, the medical texts do not specifically and explicitly prescribe meditation for improving health. But implicit in the discussion of the deepest cause of disease being confusion about reality and the disturbing emotions, is the medical benefit of meditation techniques to eliminate these causes.
With mindfulness meditation, one focuses on the sensations in the body by scanning each part of the body very slowly. One sees how pain is not something solid, permanent and always the same, but is changing. In this way, one does not become so frightened of the pain, and with a drop in anxiety, patients are much better able to reduce or even eliminate their pain. One can also focus on how the thoughts arise and fall, so that one does not necessarily have to believe the negative thoughts that arise, such as “This pain is killing me,” “I can’t take it anymore,” “I’m going to get a headache,” and so on. These techniques have been very successful with patients suffering from chronic pain, headaches, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, AIDS and so on. Mindfulness meditation might not cure a person of cancer or AIDS but seems to prolong their lives and improve their quality of life so that they are better able to cope with their sickness.
There are further types of treatments besides changes of diet, behavior and taking medicines. The foremost is moxabustion, which is the application of various degrees of heat at specific energy points along the channels of the body’s subtle energy system. The word “moxa” commonly used in English and other languages derives from the Tibetan word “metsa” (me-btsa’), meaning to apply heat. It is a technique developed in Tibet and Central Asia which then spread to other medical systems such as the Chinese.
In the Tibetan presentation of physiology, there is a detailed description of subtle energy channels, through which the various types of winds or subtle energies flow. These non-material channels, which cannot be found under dissection, have specific points at which blockages can occur and at which both moxabustion and acupuncture can be done. These channels and points are different from the subtle energy meridians and acupuncture points used in Chinese medicine. Moreover, the channels are slightly different as well from those specified in the Buddhist tantras and used in advanced meditation practice to gain control over the subtle energies and states of consciousness associated with them. There is no contradiction here, since many levels of subtle systems may coexist within each person.
The least severe type of moxabustion is done with either a piece of sandalwood or, more commonly, a special type of onyx stone found only in Tibet and Central Asia, called the “zebra stone”, in Tibetan “zi” (gzi), which is mounted into a wooden handle. The zebra stone or sandalwood is heated by friction, rubbing it back and forth with great force along a groove on a wooden board. It is then applied to the appropriate moxa points, often located by making precise measurements on the body in accordance with the bodily proportions. The burn usually produces a blister, which is no more severe than a cigarette burn.
I have had personal experience with this type of zebra stone moxabustion, having had it done to myself perhaps more than a hundred times. It was extremely effective for a joint disorder I had. I had a syndrome that the Tibetan doctor told me was going to develop into either arthritis or rheumatism. I do not know the exact European medical explanation, so please forgive my ignorance and naivety. I was experiencing stiffness in my shoulder and hip joints, and there were soft lumps beneath the skin at the joints that were painful when pressed. Perhaps they were inflamed lymph nodes or something like that. I do not really know. The burning was done exactly on the spot of those lumps and it would form a blister there. The way I conceptualized about it, and I may be totally wrong, is that whatever fluid was causing the difficulty in the lymph area around the joint would drain out of the lump and fill the blister that formed with the burning. Whether this is medically correct or not, I do not know. But, in any case, the burning instantly alleviated the pressure and got rid of the lumps at my joints. By having this treatment done repeatedly over several years, combined with taking herbal medicine, the lumps eventually stopped forming and now I no longer experience any difficulties with my joints. The moxabustion, I feel, was very effective and successful.
On another occasion, I had a case of ilio-tibial syndrome in which the tendon, I believe, at my knee was rubbing against the bone so that it was very painful to walk down hills or for long distances. Living in the mountains, as I do, this is a great inconvenience. I was out of India when this happened, and I tried massage, Chinese acupuncture and so on, but received no relief. The Western allopathic doctors had no remedy and simply recommended I wear an elastic bandage around my knee when hiking and learn to live with it. Once I returned to India, however, I had moxabustion performed with the zebra stone, and was completely cured. I was very impressed.
The next more severe type of moxabustion is done with a small-headed hammer-shaped instrument made of either iron, copper, silver or gold, the tip of which is heated in a coal fire and then applied at the various moxa points. It can be very effective, for instance, for correcting a curvature of the spine or a disc problem when done at several points along the vertebrae.
The most severe form is done by slowly burning a small cone of herbal moxa paste on a point directly on the skin, which takes about ten minutes. A variation on this is done in combination with a gold needle inserted into a point, most frequently into the soft cartilage on the top of the cranium. The cone of moxa paste is burned on the outside tip of the gold needle so that the heat is transferred to the point. These more severe types of moxa are most frequently done for paralysis, especially in association with a stroke, as well as for epilepsy, migraine headaches, severe depression and various other intense wind disorders. In all cases, the effect is to remove blockages in the subtle energy channels and stimulate the flow of energy.
In the Kalachakra texts there is a discussion of “life-spirit,” in Tibetan, “la” (bla). This is the type of energy that allows one to organize and sustain one’s life. In a healthy person, the point where this life-spirit energy can be most activated rotates around the body once every lunar month, parallel to the moon’s phases, so that on each lunar date it is located at a specific spot on the body. For instance, on the full moon day it is located at the top of the head. In medical astrology, this is sometimes taken into account when determining the best day to perform moxabustion on a specific point in the body.
In the Chinese tradition of moxabustion, herbal moxa paste is burned at the end of either a steel or silver needle inserted into one of the Chinese, not Tibetan, acupuncture points, or it is done by holding the burning paste with some instrument near the skin. It is not usually placed on the skin itself, and there is no use of gold needles, hammers or zebra stones.
Modern American medical research, although still controversial, seems to indicate the existence of an energy-signaling, rapid information relay system, especially in the skin, which sends messages throughout the body, much faster than through neural or chemical transmission, to activate and regulate the immune system. Although differences in tissue and cells cannot be detected under a microscope, nevertheless, there are certain cells in the skin that have higher concentrations of certain superconductive chemicals that would allow for high-speed flow of energy. It is unclear yet exactly what form of energy is transmitted, but these areas of higher concentration seem to correspond to moxabustion and acupuncture points. This research is still in its infancy stage.
Acupuncture, Acupressure and Massage
Acupuncture is also practiced on the moxa points. The needles are left in often for a half hour, which is generally longer than the technique used in the Chinese system. Furthermore, also unlike the Chinese form, iron, copper, silver or gold needles are used by the Tibetans for different disorders. The Chinese, in general, use only steel. Furthermore, the Tibetan needles are thicker than the Chinese ones. According to the Tibetan account, acupuncture was introduced from Tibet into Mongolia starting in the mid-thirteenth century at the time of Khubilai Khan. From Mongolia, it went to China, where it augmented the already existing Chinese form of acupuncture which had greatly declined. More research must be done to determine just what the Tibetan influence was.
Acupressure, as a form of massage, is also done. The moxa points are usually stimulated with the flat tip of the thumb and rubbed with clockwise motion; although at certain spots, for certain disorders, vertical or horizontal motion is needed. Sometimes other fingers, or several fingers together are used, or even the palm. Depending on the illness and its cause, some acupressure is done dry, while others with some type of oil or butter. Chinese acupressure does not seem to have all these variants, and both clockwise and counterclockwise motions are used.
At present, except for massaging certain vertebrae for easing and speeding childbirth, and for certain nerve disorders, the Tibetan tradition of acupressure is not practiced so extensively by the Tibetan doctors themselves. A variant of it is more widely found in Mongolia, where it is known simply as Mongolian massage. With the Mongolian technique, the pulse is taken several times during a session of treatment to check the energy flow. Certain points of the body, sometimes, but not always corresponding to the Tibetan moxa points, are pressed inwards with steady pressure. There is no rotation of the spot in the manner of either Tibetan or Chinese acupressure. Lines of flow of the winds and blood, from the center of the body outwards, are followed in the sequence of spots pressed.
Massage, although not practiced so frequently these days, is also done in the Tibetan system. Various types of oil are used for specific types of disorders. Sesame oil, for instance, massaged over the entire body, is helpful for wind diseases. Furthermore, it opens the pores, which can then be combined with rubbing in chick-pea flour. This is particularly effective for absorbing phlegm and fatty deposits for reducing weight. Massage is generally not used for bile imbalances.
The Tibetan medical texts do not have any type of massage analogous to the Japanese “reiki” technique of working with energy fields and auras by passing the hands over the body without actually touching it. In the Mongolian massage technique used with Tibetan medicine, there is sometimes, however, the placing of the doctor’s hand slightly above the sick area on the patient. With mantra repetition and certain visualizations, healing energy in the form of heat is sent to the area and the doctor takes on the pain of the disorder, often feeling it in his arms or elsewhere. Some Mongolian doctors locate the area of the sickness in this manner, by passing their palm over the general area and feeling for heat. The Tibetan doctors do not practice such techniques.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, however, called “giving and taking” (gtong-len, tonglen) in which one takes on the sickness of another person and gives him or her good health, but this is done solely by visualization and imagination. It only works if there is a special karmic relation with the patient, and if there is, there is no need for any gestures of the hands. It is not working on the basis of the energy of the healer’s body affecting the energy of the patient’s. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spiritual methods involve mostly mental practices, and very few physical ones. Thus, the powers of visualization, imagination and prayer are used for spiritual healing, rather than anything physical such as the laying on of hands.
There is also a tradition of using herbal enemas, emetics and purgatives. Various oils with herbal mixtures are either inserted into the rectum as an enema or swallowed to produce vomiting or diarrhea to cleanse the bowels. Bathing in various types of natural hot mineral springs is nowadays used as a substitute for specially prepared herbal baths, although both can be taken. Cupping with a metal cup in which a fire has been made to produce the suction or by sucking through a hollowed goat horn, combined with blood-letting and lymph-letting, is sometimes also performed, for instance in some cases of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and arthritis. It is only done, however, when the bodily constitution and diet is very strong. For this reason, it is not performed so frequently by the Tibetan doctors in India these days. It is quite common in Mongolia, although the goat horn technique is not used.
In the ancient texts there is mention of a system of surgery. But at the time of Emperor Tri Songdetsen, in the late eighth century, a heart operation was performed on a queen, which failed, and she died. After that, surgery was prohibited. All sicknesses and disorders are treated by medicines and the other procedures just mentioned, like acupuncture, moxabustion and so on. For instance, there is very good herbal medicine for appendicitis, tonsillitis, goiter and other thyroid disorders, and for kidney and gall stones so that in those cases an operation is unnecessary.
Furthermore, sometimes special water, butter or even tiny pills are prepared, over which a great spiritual master, or sometimes even hundreds of monks, have recited millions of mantras and then blown their breath. These substances are sometimes taken by patients for helping in certain very difficult situations. I have seen such consecrated butter taken by a woman during a particularly long period of labor during childbirth, and it facilitated the birth. I have seen such water taken by someone paralyzed with a stroke and it seemed to be effective. Certain pills of this type are even helpful for the common cold. There are many such instances.
Treatment of Insanity and Mental Disease
Insanity can be described in various ways. It is mostly considered an imbalance of the humors, particularly of wind. In such cases, it is treated with herbal medicines to bring the humors back into balance. Mental disease can also be caused by harmful spirits. Whether these are understood as actual spirits causing harm or possessing someone, or simply as beings in general who are doing much mischief to make someone crazy, the approach is similar. Such harm is seen as the result of one’s own previous destructive, cruel actions. One would have monks perform certain rituals aimed at appeasing and driving away these spirits, with the power of love and compassion for them and sympathy for their own miserable state. Such rituals are often done as an adjunct to the medical treatment of even purely physical sicknesses. The patient, if receptive, would also be advised to become more loving and compassionate, and if possible, to engage in spiritual practices, such as mantra repetition, with this altruistic motivation.
Insanity can also be due to the loss of one’s life-spirit energy (bla), mentioned before, which is like an organizing energy of life. For instance, people who witness terrible fighting and carnage in battle, with many people being mutilated and killed, or some awful natural or social disaster with much loss of life, may lose this organizing energy that would keep their life together. They simply give up trying to cope with their life, and do not do anything. This is a commonly noted syndrome among soldiers, known as “shell-shock” or post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and those who have a nervous breakdown and some concentration camp survivors. I think it has something to do with the autoimmune system but taken more on a psychological level. So, when someone cannot cope with life’s situations, the Tibetans would diagnose this as their having lost their life-spirit. In the Tibetan medical system, various rituals can be performed, known as “hooking back the life-spirit energy (bla-‘gugs). Moxabustion can be also be applied and meditation techniques be engaged in by the patient.
Thus, there can be many different causes for mental difficulties and many different treatments. But the deepest level of treatment is to try to see reality to overcome confusion.
I have not come across a specific medical treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. Mostly, patients would be advised to try to modify their behavior by considering how it negatively affects others and how it severely limits them from being able to realize their potentials and help others. Ultimately, they would be led to see through the confusion that is causing the problem. Once they have stopped drinking or taking drugs, there is Tibetan medicine for detoxifying the body, particularly for purifying the blood.
Bon Treatment of Disease
I have unable to get any information yet about the Bon tradition of medicine studied in the Bon monasteries today. There are certain elements from the ancient Bon medical tradition, however, that carry over into the present Tibetan system and that basically is referring to certain terminology that survives in the modern texts.
There is, however, a Bon approach to sickness within its own ritual framework. One of the basic principles of Bon is that in order to bring about a balance within the body, one must bring into balance the environment and elemental forces around one. By healing the environment, one can heal the patient.
This can be done in various ways, with rituals of appeasement of nature spirits and so on. But one of the most common techniques is in association with astrology. Certain elements, usually the Chinese set of earth, water, fire, wood and iron, are associated with everyone’s astrological chart. Each element has a color. Strings of these colors are woven together to form a type of so-called “space-harmonizing web,” the pattern and choice of colors of which is calculated from the patient’s chart. When such a web is hung outside the patient’s house, it acts to bring back into harmony the elemental forces around the patient. In so doing, it brings about the more conducive external condition that will help in the patient’s recovery. Such methods, however, are never a substitute for the use of medicine.
Tibetan medicine, especially its herbal remedies, moxabustion and acupuncture, is very effective for many diseases that are very difficult to cure with European allopathic means, such as hepatitis, rheumatism, arthritis, sciatica, high blood pressure, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, asthma, allergies and so on. Nevertheless, if these are present in the form of thoroughly established diseases, such as when inherited or genetic, then even Tibetan medicine will not always be successful.
Tibetan medicine has been effective with many types of cancer, and even when it cannot cure the cancer, it often diminishes the pain, prolongs the life and keeps the mind and senses clear up to death. At the time of the toxic chemical poisoning disaster in Bhopal, India, Tibetan medicine was extremely effective in countering the effects and preventing deaths. There is even quite good medicine for the common cold, with which one seems to go through the cycle of the cold very quickly and then is done with it.
No system of medicine can claim a perfect record of cures for any disease, and this is especially true in terms of the Tibetan approach in which each patient, being treated holistically, is an individual case and is given individual medication. But still people’s experience with Tibetan treatment is very impressive. One should not expect, however, miracle cures for everything. For some sicknesses, there are better allopathic medicines and preventives, such as for smallpox. But, even in the case of accidents, there is a Tibetan tradition of setting bones and giving medicines helpful for speeding the healing process and eliminating or preventing shock. Moreover, the Tibetan doctors treat animals as well, such as setting the broken leg of a horse. In Tibet and Mongolia, people do not shoot horses that break their legs!
Thus, it can be seen that the training of a Tibetan doctor is very broad and extensive. It is based on a strong moral ethic of benefiting the patients and never charging for examinations, only for medicines. Not only does it include human and veterinary medicine, and pharmacology, but Tibetan astrology as well. Tibetan medical schools always include an astrology division that trains not only astrologers, but also teaches specialized courses for the doctors. For instance, depending on the animal-sign of someone’s year of birth, there are certain days of the week that are conducive for life-force and life-energy, and others that are disastrous. A doctor would take these into consideration when choosing a day of the week to perform moxabustion and so forth on a specific patient.
In summary, the Tibetan Buddhist medical system has a long tradition of practice not only in Tibet, but also Mongolia, the Mongol and Turkic Buddhist regions of the Soviet Union and China, and in portions of Nepal and the various Himalayan areas. It has a great deal to offer and share with the European allopathic, alternative and other traditional forms of medicine. There are various programs being conducted these days at medical universities and clinics, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, to test certain Tibetan medicines, such as for cancer and AIDS. The Tibetans, on their side, are interested in learning medical techniques from the allopathic system, such as for smallpox prevention, first aid and so on. Thus, with mutual research, respect and sharing of resources, everyone can be benefited.