Tibetan Medicine - History, Applications and Integration - Whole Person Treatment

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Tibetan Medicine - History, Applications and Integration - Whole Person Treatment

Published on 05-12-2011

"ChadD" is an acupuncturist and lives in Minneapolis and has authored 366 other posts.

While Chinese Medicine is considered “new” by many - and doctors, politicians, and insurance companies are coming around to these “new” techniques, we all know that Chinese Medicine is anything but “new.”  Nor is Chinese Medicine simply a set of techniques that can be taken at will and “integrated” into western (or other alternative) medical practices.  Outside of the difficult work in garnering acceptance, licensure and coverage that has been done (with much left to do), from a practitioners perspective there are still huge bodies of knowledge to explore and experience to gather.  All in all there is tremendous room for development of mutual respect among practitioners of Chinese and Western Medicine and an open field for the future of health care. 

So what does all of this have to do with Tibetan Medicine?  Well if you take the strides that Chinese Medicine has made in opening educational opportunities worldwide, licensure, production of texts and clinical research, and more, and then say you want to start from scratch again - you would be where Tibetan Medicine is now; another ancient form of medicine with years of clinical efficacy that will be considered “new”, will have to vie for acceptance - again - , and will have to negotiate the difficult slopes of politics, money, and corporate influences. 

Having just returned from the Second International Tibetan Medicine Conference at the University of Minnesota I am excited for the future of Tibetan Medicine but am also painfully aware of the strides that must be taken which have proven so challenging (and are ongoing) for Chinese Medicine.  

With an introduction like that you are right to ask if this is all worth it?  Obviously I’m biased, but I believe the answer is a resounding yes.  The truth is that western medicine is extremely good at some things (surgery, emergency medicine, diagnostics, to name a few) and very ineffective at others (treating to *full resolution* of autoimmune conditions, psychological conditions, basic health issues such as allergies, asthma and lifestyle conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, etc.).  Outside of what they treat well, the most notable distinction between eastern and western medicine is the idea of prevention as opposed to reactionary care.  Prevention is a focal point of all eastern medicines and involves diet, lifestyle habits and other factors to, ideally, help the body heal before conditions develop.


What Makes Tibetan Medicine Unique?

Both Chinese and Tibetan Medicine have their roots in India, Ayurvedic Medicine.  What distinguishes Tibetan Medicine (and Tibetan Buddhism for that matter) is how relatively untouched the culture was until recently.  Their medicine is in some ways a snapshot in time where people were still very connected to their environment, the spiritual dimension, and each other.  I do not want to over glamorize past times or Tibetan culture as a whole but I feel we all know at some level that we have to be truly connected to our world and one another to know how to best care for ourselves and our communities.  Within the Tibetan Medicine sutras (buddhist scriptures) and within the lineages of practitioners these aspects have been well preserved.

While I plan to write more detailed articles in the future regarding Tibetan Medicine, I will briefly outline some of the unique characteristics from both a laypersons (patients) perspective and from a Chinese Medicine practitioners perspective.

Unique Characteristics from a Laypersons Perspective:


1) Tibetan Medicine has retained the spiritual dimension of healing.  With the law of cause and effect being a principle rule within Buddhism, Tibetan Medicine acknowledges this.  From a patients perspective this means that not all “diseases” can be treated with medicine or other techniques such as acupuncture - some must be remedied by changing your mind and remedying past bad thoughts and behavior.  In short if you change your mind your “disease” may heal without any other intervention.

2) Tibetan Medicine, like Chinese Medicine, has a very unique set of diagnostic tools that can not only be used to treat existing conditions but, properly applied, can be used to offset the likelihood of experiencing certain conditions in the future.  This is done primarily through pulse and urine analysis (future article will discuss these aspects).

3) Tibetan Medicine uses diet, lifestyle and spiritual recommendations as treatment (if necessary along with herbs, etc.).  While we are just now beginning to explore “mind-body” therapies what they have to guide us is which is best for which type of person/condition.  Without this information we would spend years recreating it in most likelihood. 

Unique Characteristics from a Chinese Medicine Practitioners Perspective:


1) Diagnostically there are some differences between Chinese and Tibetan Medicine but the tools may very well prove useful to us.  The primary diagnostic tools of Tibetan Medicine are pulse diagnosis (taken in a different location and with different meaning than in Chinese) and urine diagnosis.  What is similar is general observation techniques of skin, hair, nails, mannerisms, etc.

2) The theoretical framework is closer to Ayurvedic principles than Chinese at most levels.  Similar to Chinese Medicine, however, you first find the constitutional “type” of the patient which will help you to guide them for proper diet, lifestyle habits, and - another unique characteristic - helpful meditations/prayers.

What is most important to me from Tibetan Medicine is the treatment of the whole person.  Within Chinese Medicine we are often very close to this (certainly compared to western medicine) but because of the spiritual climate in China many of these associations have been “lost.”  We have learned all too well that we cannot live, or heal, well without an appreciation for us as part of something much larger (and not the most important part by any stretch!).  Neglecting our communities, our environment, our spirit - in essence our complete “selves” - will not lead us to health in any true meaning of the word.  Sometimes we need to look at the past to understand the present and plan for the future and Tibetan Medicine certainly offers us much to think about. 

I do plan more detailed discussions of Tibetan Medicine in the future, for now, I am happy to have had the opportunity to see and listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to hear from so many wonderful Tibetan Medicine practitioners, western doctors interested in integration and use of Tibetan Medicine, and the many professionals and interesting bystanders at the conference.

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