Ancient Buddhist Wisdom to Heal Modern Suffering

Tibetan medicine originated in the shamanistic culture of Zhangshung 4000 years ago. How can something so old possibly be relevant to us today? Especially when it comes to medicine. Here in the West we pride ourselves on having the best possible medical care with the latest scientific findings. As it turns out Tibetan medicine has a lot to offer.

There is increasing dissatisfaction with modern Western medicine due to the high cost of treatment and the impersonal nature of care. Common ailments such as chronic fatigue, anxiety, recurrent infections, digestive problems and food allergies, menstrual cycle irregularities, menopausal symptoms, insomnia and depression are examples of problems that Western medicine is often unable to treat at the root. Consequently, people go to multiple specialists and may spend years taking costly, strong pharmaceuticals in an effort to manage symptoms while never finding lasting solutions. Many modern drugs are addictive or have serious side effects that can be worse than the condition itself. All of these factors have been causing more and more people to turn towards alternative forms of healthcare.

Tibetan medicine is unique within alternative medicines because it has a long unbroken lineage and is a complete system of knowledge based on the mind/body/spirit connection. Several early medical texts date from the Tibetan Empire, between the 7th and 9th Centuries. The herbal formulas are effective, gentle and have few side effects. Treatments such as diet, kunye, horme (warm oil on points), baths and compresses are easy to do and readily accessible. Tibetan medicine’s focus on compassionate care and affordable treatment make it a valuable offering to both the public and the Western healthcare system yet very few people are aware or understand anything about this most ancient of medical practices.

Tibetan medicine combines influences from India, China, Persia, and Greece because Tibet was on the Silk Route and in the 7th century the 33rd Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo invited medical practitioners from around the world to come to Tibet and share their knowledge with Tibetan medicine practitioners known as Menpas. This was perhaps the first international medical conference in the world and they came together, worked and shared knowledge for months. A hundred years later King Tritson Detsen invited Padmasambhava and other Buddhist masters to Tibet which cemented Buddhism into Tibetan culture. It is said that Yuthog Yonten Gonpo, one of the first and most famous Tibetan Menpa, received the Four Tantras in a dream by dakinis and when he awoke it was retained fully in his mind. Tibetan medicine and Tibetan Buddhism are intricately entwined and the mind/body connection that is so prevalent in Buddhism is directly reflected in Tibetan medicine. Many of the commentaries over the centuries were written by high lamas who were also trained as Menpas. Buddhist yogis who spent years meditating in caves also added their knowledge of the subtle channels and energy flows in the body to the body of medical literature. The consequence of directly connecting mind and the body results in a comprehensive system that understands the interplay of mind and phenomena to both create and to cure imbalance or disease.

One way of describing Tibetan medicine is that it is based on the 5 elements and 3 nyes pa. Our external world and our body, cells, etc are made of the 5 elements: earth, water, fire, wind, space. The nyes pa are three basic energies that are connected to our bodies and associated with all the various functions of our body and organs.

Buddhism holds that all phenomena is impermanent and unstable and that this constant state of flux contributes to our suffering. The root cause of all disease is believed to arise from ma-rigpa or ignorance and the proximate cause of disease is the three mental poisons of attachment, hatred and delusion which manifest as the three nyes pa of loong, tripa and paykan. Sometimes they are translated as wind, bile and phlegm or humors, but I prefer to use the original Tibetan terms because the English is so misleading. Nyes pa are so much more complicated than wind, bile and phlegm. Each of the nyes pa has 5 types, each with their own pathways or places in the body and are responsible for different bodily functions.

For instance it is more accurate to understand loong as the energy of movement in the body rather than ‘wind’ or ‘air’. It has the qualities of being light, rough, cool, hard, mobile, and subtle. It is also associated with our mind which is said to move on the loong energy. There are 78 main loong diseases but loong also precedes all imbalances, it causes disease to scatter or pervade the body and it is present at the end of all disease. For this reason, loong is the first of the 3 nyes pa to be taught and is always to be considered in treatment.

Because of this basic understanding of how mind and body are connected it allows us to approach ill health in a very pragmatic but nuanced way. Here in the West loong imbalances are very common. In part because our lives are so busy, we work hard, often long hours and much of our work is so mentally stimulating and physically taxing. The energy of movement is all around us. Traffic, television, computers, radio, a constant barrage of noise and movement create an environment that can intensify the natural energy of movement in our minds and bodies and makes it easy to be thrown off balance. It is not surprising therefore that so many people suffer from insomnia, depression and digestive disorders.

Our lives are in constant flux, our bodies and minds are continually changing and although we are born with our own constitution, we are also continually going in and out of balance. The changing seasons, the day-to-day weather, our food, our lifestyle, all these impact our mental and physical health. When we begin to understand our personal constitution and how we react to the various external influences in our lives then we can also begin to take positive steps to keep ourselves in balance and in good health.

One thing I love about Tibetan medicine is the down to earth, common sense types of treatment that are often used. It reminds me of advice my grandmother may have given me; stay warm, eat fresh, nutritious food; wear a hat in the winter time and stay out of windy places, you get the idea. The difference is that Tibetan medicine has a deep and subtle understanding forged through centuries of empiric knowledge and fortified with the personal experience of ancient yogic practitioners of just what these simple things do to our bodies. For example in the case of loong, the light, rough, cool, hard, mobile, and subtle qualities of loong can be moderated by the opposite qualities of smooth, warm, stable and oily. Tibetan medicine practitioners also prescribe Tibetan style massage, ku nye, which uses various oils and pressure points to treat loong disorders as well as herbal formulas that include herbs with those qualities that counteract the qualities of loong. These include ingredients that are considered, warm, stable, smooth and soft.

At home you can look at your diet and behavior. For instance, are you having trouble sleeping at night? Are you doing things that get your mind racing right before you go to bed such as working on the computer, reading emails or stimulating books, watching the news, or exciting tv programs, arguing with a loved one? If so, relax, unplug and get in a hot bath, after a 20 minute soak put oil on your body. Are you drinking caffeinated drinks late in the day or lots of rough, raw foods? Instead have a warm bowl of hearty soup for dinner and before bed drink a glass of warm milk with nutmeg and a little raw sugar or honey. Listen to some relaxing music or read a book on loving kindness or meditation. Using ancient principles Tibetan medicine can help restore balance, health, calm and joy to our modern lives.