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Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan medical tradition is long established, and, because Tibet was not subjected to any European dominance in the age of empire, has been able to remain quite free of Western influence. Nevertheless, it is relatively recent in origin, as compared to Chinese or Indian medicine, and is believed to date back to about the 7th century A.D. The Tibetan ruler, King Songtsen Campo, who introduced an Indian-derived script to his country, is said also to have introduced medicine, summoning to his court physicians from China, from India, and from Iran.

Tibetan medicine is based on a unique synthesis of Indian and Chinese traditional medicine and Tibetan Buddhism, with elements of Arabic medicine. As with the Ayurvedic and Chinese systems, it is holistic and takes into account such factors as diet, lifestyle, environment, weather, attitudes, and emotions alongside any symptoms of disease. The theory of meridians or energy channels is particularly highly developed. There is also a strong folk and religious tradition relating to healing, which runs parallel to the more orthodox medical tradition.

In Tibetan medicine disease is considered to be the result of an imbalance in the three "humors" that exist in all living things and that control organ function in the body. They are

  • wind, relating to respiration and movement
  • bile, relating to digestion, complexion, and the temperament
  • phlegm, relating to sleep, joint mobility, and skin elasticity.

One root of disease is considered to be ignorance of the true nature of reality. As a result of this we fall prey to conflicting desires and emotions and these produce three types of mental state: attachment, aversion, and confusion, otherwise known as "the three poisons," which in turn lead to imbalance and disease.

Other causes of imbalance are factors such as the environment, diet, conduct in life, seasonal climatic influences, poison, and trauma, which act on the humors by their similar or contrary natures, causing excess or deficiency.

This theory differs from Ayurvedic theories in that the "three poisons" are said to develop within the growing fetus, generating phlegm, bile, and wind.

In Tibet itself, medicine is still closely linked to religion and magic. Prayers and rituals to protect from evil and prevent misfortune play their part in maintaining ans curing disease, and this aspect is not entirely separate from medical practice.

Diagnosis is based on pulse­taking, urine analysis (which is exceptionally highly developed and which may stem from medieval European medicine, as introduced by the Persians), tongue diagnosis, and observations. Treatments, which aim to restore the balance of the humors, include herbal medicine, accessory therapies (massage, moxibustion, acupuncture, dietary and behavioral advice, religious rituals, and purification techniques).

Tibetan medicine is practiced throughout Tibet, India, Ladakh, Nepal, and Bhutan and is now becoming more widely available through Tibetan physicians living in Western countries.

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