What is Tibetan Medicine?

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Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) is a healing system that can offer immense benefit to all people, whether they are suffering with disease, seeking to maintain optimal health or in search of greater spiritual clarity. It is one of the oldest and most diverse systems of health cultivation in the history of humanity and includes practices for diagnosis and treatment such as diet & lifestyle principles, urine analysis, tongue/eye analysis, pulse reading, acupuncture, massage, moxibustion, blood letting, astrology, yoga, herbal medicine, mantra healing and meditation amongst others… Of all the natural healing modalities I have explored and experimented with, Tibetan Medicine is by far the most precise, complete and profound. It is a truly life-changing path that has redefined the way I perceive health and wellness, and provides a deep spiritual sustenance that I have found nowhere else…

This ancient and vast system of Tibetan healing is known as “sowa rigpa” – a term which actually has two meanings; firstly it translates as “healing science” or “healing wisdom” and is concerned with the interdependent law of cause & effect. It’s second meaning however translates as “nourishment of awareness” and refers to the absolute balance of the mind – a condition which lies beyond the constraints of cause & effect and is only possible through deepening one’s connection to spirituality. TTM is indeed a profound and complete spiritual practice in itself…

5 Chakras, 3 Channels Thangka
The 5 primary chakras and 3 main channels according to TTM.

Through understanding the law of cause & effect it becomes clear that no disease or imbalance can exist without a corresponding ’cause’, and although treating symptoms is essential, identifying the cause of illness is of paramount importance in order to restore balance and equilibrium. Avoiding the cause of imbalance is also how we can aim at preventing disease in the future. However, true health results from a balanced relationship between body, energy and mind, so working on all of these levels simultaneously is the focus of TTM. Balancing these interrelated dimensions is how we can reach beyond this reality of cause & effect – of health & sickness – and embody a more awakened existence that is less affected by karma and duality. Ultimately, TTM imparts profound wisdom that can provide immense healing and health maintenance, while also nourishing and balancing those aspects of ourselves that persist beyond this lifetime. So TTM offers curative medicine, preventative medicine and also spiritual medicine…

But what are the origins of TTM? In truth nobody really knows exactly when it began, although it has its earliest roots in the shamanic Bön tradition – the indigenous spiritual tradition of Tibet that predates the arrival of Buddhism by many thousands of years. Originally, the Tibetan shamans lived a life that was inextricably close to nature. They were in constant communication with their natural environment, interacting with wild plants and animals as well as the non-physical spirits of nature. A medical system and growing herbal pharmacopeia emerged based upon this dynamic alliance with nature, however about 18,000 years ago the great master Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche recreated the shamans’ role as that of a physician, with more advanced methods of diagnosis and treatment, as well as the art of healing through dreams and divination.

Points & Channels Diagram
The main points and meridians of the body according to TTM.

As the millennia passed, Tibetan Buddhist Yogi’s contributed a significant influence on the development of TTM, expanding on the interconnectedness of reality with the central concept of “tendrel”. In Tibetan, “ten” means dependence and “drel” means connected. This foundational understanding led to the holistic view of the five elements of nature that constitute the fabric of the entire universe, both directly and indirectly. Everything in creation is made from the five elements, so there are clear connections between our health (personal constitutions, internal organs, mental state) and our surrounding environment (the seasons, plants, animals, spirits). Because of this, the five elements system is a foundational principle in diagnosis and treatment. Buddhism is also responsible for contributing the practices of mantra healing and advanced dream work/dream yoga amongst others.

Yuthok
Yuthok Yonten Gonpo (12th century).

In the 3rd century, a Tibetan master known as “Yuthok Yonten Gonpo” was regarded as the ‘father of Tibetan Medicine’ and has been ever since due to his profound understanding of the entire TTM system, and his unrivalled abilities as a healer. He re-wrote, extended and clarified all of the existing texts on TTM in the form of the Four Medical Tantras – the primary resource for all students and physicians of TTM to this day. Prior to his death he vowed to reincarnate in the 12th century to revise his works and further propagate the spreading of TTM. As his life ended Yuthok is said to have achieved the ‘rainbow body’ – the highest of all spiritual practices, whereby the practitioner returns themselves to the essence of the five elements, leaving no remains behind. Centuries later as he had foretold, Yuthok returned and was the leading medical physician in Tibet by the age of 8. During his life he updated the Four Medical Tantras and composed the spiritual practice of the ‘Yuthok Nyinthig’, a path by which practitioners could achieve the ‘rainbow body’ at the moment of their death. Yuthok lived to 120 years old before once again performing the rainbow body at the moment of his death, dissolving his physical body into the subtle lights of the five elements, leaving no mortal remains whatsoever. The rainbow body practice is not only something that we find in historical texts but is a practice that has been achieved by many contemporary masters in recent times…

From the 7th century onwards, extensive medical conventions took place in Tibet where medical scholars and healers travelled from afar to share their knowledge together. This led to the infusion of both Chinese (TCM) and Indian (Ayurveda) medical knowledge into TTM, and vice versa. There are a number of striking similarities between TTM and Ayurveda, although they are very much unique and different systems, and although TCM has contributed to the evolution of TTM, it is believed that the Chinese system has taken significantly more from TTM than it has given. An important point to understand though is that from its earliest origins over 18,000 years ago, TTM has been transmitted from master to student in an unbroken lineage to this very day. During the ‘cultural revolution’ in Tibet after the Chinese invasion last century, many Tibetan doctors were murdered and medical literature destroyed, but thanks to Champa Trinle – a highly regarded master of TTM and astrology – the lineage remains unbroken to this day. He assembled a secret school that continued to teach TTM and the Yuthok Nyinthig and helped to establish these teachings in Dharamsala, India – the home of the Tibetan government in exile.

Nida Yuthok Puja Rainbow
My TTM teacher – Dr Nida Chenagtsang – witnessing a nearby rainbow during a recent Yuthok Puja offering.

It is believed in TTM that deepening our connection with nature can provide everything we need to rebalance ourselves on every level – physical, mental/emotional, energetic and spiritual. Even though nature itself may experience an imbalance, through dynamic interaction there is still a valuable opportunity for healing to occur for ourselves as well as the natural world within which we live. Through understanding the principle of “tendrel” (interconnectedness/interdependence) we can see that in order to heal and attain a state of balance within, we must acknowledge and respect our relationship to the nature that exists ‘outside’ of us. There is always a chance for us to unveil the solution to our personal challenges – all we need to do is return to nature and start searching.

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