Tibetan Medicines

What is Tibetan Medicines?

Traditional Tibetan medicine, also known as Sowa-Rigpa medicine, is a centuries-old traditional medical system that employs a complex approach to diagnosis, incorporating techniques such as pulse analysis and urinalysis, and utilizes behavior and dietary modification, medicines composed of natural materials and physical therapies to treat illness.

The Tibetan medical system is based upon Indian Buddhist literature (for example Abhidharma and Vajrayana tantras) and Ayurveda. It continues to be practiced in Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Siberia, China and Mongolia, as well as more recently in parts of Europe and North America. It embraces the traditional Buddhist belief that all illness ultimately results from the three poisons: ignorance, attachment and aversion. Tibetan medicine follows the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths which apply medical diagnostic logic to suffering.

History of Tibetan Medicines

Tibetan Medicine is a complete medical system.  It is one of the oldest surviving forms of ancient medicine and it has been in use for over 2500 years. Legend says that, around 300 B.C., the first Tibetan king—the legendary Niecizanbu—was about to ascend the throne and asked the great legendary sage Zila Gmayoude six questions. The fifth question was in regards to “poison”. The sage argued that was considered “poison” in Tibet was actually medicine. According to Lunbogatang the Tibetan people at that time were already aware of the medical functions of some plants, animals and minerals and had knew some complex detoxification approaches.

During the A.D. first century the advancement of agriculture and animal husbandry facilitated the discovery of many new medical raw materials in Tibet: for example, ghee refined from milk could be used to stop bleeding. In the centuries theat followed the development of TTM never stood still, thanks to the incorporation of numerous foreign influences from India, Kashmir, China and Cong (in today’s Xinjiang, China).

In the A.D. eighth century, the famous Tibetan doctor, Yuthok Nyingma Yonten Gonpo went to India to study Indian medicine. This knowledge greatly accelerated the development of Tibetan medical science. This doctor learned a lot from Chinese and Indian traditional medical science and incorporated his knowledge into the system of Tibetan medical science.

In the 11th century, Tibetan Medicine was codified into a unique system containing a synthesis of the principles of physical and psychological medicine imbued with a Buddhist spiritual understanding.

Three Principles of Function

Like other systems of traditional Asian medicine, and in contrast to biomedicine, Tibetan medicine first puts forth a specific definition of health in its theoretical texts. To have good health, Tibetan medical theory states that it is necessary to maintain balance in the body’s three principles of function(often translated as humors): rLung (pron. Loong), mKhris-pa (pron. Tree-pa)(often translated as bile), and Bad-kan (pron. Pay-gen) (often translated as phlegm).

• rLung is the source of the body’s ability to circulate physical substances (e.g. blood), energy (e.g. nervous system impulses), and the non-physical (e.g. thoughts). In embryological development, the mind’s expression of materialism is manifested as the system of rLung. There are five distinct subcategories of rLung each with specific locations and functions: Srog-‘Dzin rLüng, Gyen-rGyu rLung, Khyab-Byed rLüng, Me-mNyam rLung, Thur-Sel rLüng.

• mKhris-pa is characterized by the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of heat, and is the source of many functions such as thermoregulation, metabolism, liver function and discriminating intellect. In embryological development, the mind’s expression of aggression is manifested as the system of mKhris-pa. There are five distinct subcategories of mKhris-pa each with specific locations and functions: ‘Ju-Byed mKhris-pa, sGrub-Byed mKhris-pa, mDangs-sGyur mKhris-pa, mThong-Byed mKhris-pa, mDog-Sel mKhris-pa.

• Bad-kan is characterized by the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of cold, and is the source of many functions such as aspects of digestion, the maintenance of our physical structure, joint health and mental stability. In embryological development, the mind’s expression of ignorance is manifested as the system of Bad-kan. There are five distinct subcategories of Bad-kan each with specific locations and functions: rTen-Byed Bad-kan, Myag-byed Bad-kan, Myong-Byed Bad-kan, Tsim-Byed Bad-kan, ‘Byor-Byed Bad-kan.

Traditional Tibetan Medicines

By one count there are 2,294 Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) medicines. About 300 are widely used, with approximately 70 percent of these coming from plants and herbs; 12 percent from animals and 14 percent from minerals. One third out of the commonly used TTM medicines utilizes the same raw materials as the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and more than half of the TTM contain plants and herbs native to Tibet.

TTM medicines are categorized in accordance to their distinct natures, tastes and functions including 8 natures, 6 tastes and 17 functions. In most cases TTM ingredients have substitutes if one remedy doesn’t work or some precious raw materials is too expensive or unavailable.

There are more than 1,000 wild plants found in Tibet used for medicine, 400 of which are medicinal herbs most often used. Particularly well known medicine plants. In addition, there are over 200 known species of fungi.