Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan medicine consists of philosophy, science, and healing practices that can help create and maintain a healthy mind and body. The Tibetan name for this holistic healing system is Sowa Rigpa, which means the science of healing.

What is the history of Tibetan medicine?

Tibetan medicine has roots in the ancient, indigenous culture of Tibet. In the 8th century, the first ever international conference about Tibetan medicine was held at Samye Monastery in Tibet. Physicians from India, China, Persia, and other areas attended. Most historians believe that after the conference, Elder Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, an eminent Tibetan doctor, synthesized the best theories and medical practices into the Gyueshi, the fundamental text of Tibetan medicine. The first Tibetan medical college was established in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1696. In the early 1900s, the two major medical schools in Lhasa were the Chagpori Medical College and the Men-Tsee-Khang (Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute).

In 1961, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama re-established the Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala, India. This medical college educates post-high-school students during a six-year intensive program to become a doctor of Tibetan medicine. After graduating, the new doctors work under the supervision of senior doctors. You can learn more about the history and practices of Tibetan medicine in a book published by the Men-Tsee-Khang listed in the “Where Can I Get More Information?” section (Fundamentals of Tibetan Medicine, 2009).

What is the philosophy of Tibetan medicine?

Tibetan medicine teaches that the purpose of life is to be happy. By using Tibetan medicine for self-care, you will become aware of how your thoughts and behaviors influence your health and happiness. Tibetan medicine can be part of any program of integrative healthcare.

According to Tibetan medicine:

  • Health is balance and dis-ease is imbalance.

Tibetan medicine is different from conventional Western medicine because it emphasizes finding and treating imbalance as the first step toward healing and health. Dis-ease or imbalance can be present well before physical symptoms appear or before symptoms are so severe that you seek attention from a conventional health professional.

  • Treating illness requires correcting the underlying imbalance.

So the goals of treating dis-ease are not about covering up a symptom or reacting to a single abnormality. Instead, each symptom and sign of dysfunction sheds light on the overall pattern of imbalance. Healing negative thinking and making healthy lifestyle choices can restore balance in your body and mind.  

  • Wellbeing is a lifelong process of living in harmony with your unique nature or constitution.

Tibetan medicine teaches that all living beings are made up of energy. You were born with a unique nature or constitution consisting of three primary energies: loong, tripa, and baekan. Loong is movement energy. Tripa is hot energy. Baekan is cold energy. Tibetan medicine is the art and science of keeping your primary energies in balance with your constitution in order to promote your health and happiness.

Your unique constitution has both strengths and weaknesses. By learning about your constitution, you can enhance your strengths and turn your weaknesses into assets, or at least keep them from sabotaging you.

What are the underlying principles of Tibetan medicine?

Himalayan mountainsTibetan medicine teaches four basic principles:

  • Karma refers to the universal law of cause and effect. Your individual behavior affects you, other people, and the environment. Sometimes your choices have an immediate and obvious effect, and sometimes the effects are not so obvious at first, or will affect you much later in a roundabout way. For example, choosing to eat a sugary cereal for breakfast may have both the immediate effect of pleasure (from satisfying a sweet tooth) and a delayed consequence of sluggishness and decreased metabolism in the afternoon. Tibetan medicine teaches the importance of being aware of both the immediate and long-term consequences of your choices so that you learn to choose what promotes health and happiness.
  • Suffering, which can be physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, is a universal condition of human life. In fact, most of human life is spent trying to avoid suffering or to relieve suffering in one form or another. Physical pain is not the same as suffering, although both can be present together. Tibetan medicine teaches that suffering results from interpreting life in a negative way.
  • Healing, according to Tibetan medicine, results from creating a healthy mind and making lifestyle choices that bring your primary energies back into balance with your inborn constitution.
  • Happiness is not simply temporary pleasures and accomplishments. True happiness is lasting peace, meaning, integrity, and wellbeing that result from positive thinking and balanced living.

How is Tibetan medicine different from Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and yoga?

Tibetan medicine is similar to other holistic healing systems, such as Ayurveda, a traditional healing system from India, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, a healing system from China. All three traditions teach the importance of living a balanced life. Moreover, each tradition describes characteristics of the physical world and physiology in terms of hot energy and cold energy. However, Tibetan medicine is closest to Ayurveda in principle and in practice. Both Tibetan medicine and Ayurveda teach that you are composed of three primary energies: movement energy (loong/vata), hot energy (tripa/pitta), and cold energy (baekan/kapha). In contrast, Chinese medicine only has two energies:  hot energy (yang) and cold energy (yin). Tibetan medicine and Ayurveda use different terms, but their understanding of the three primary energies is similar.  

Yoga, another ancient healing system from India, is an important part of Tibetan medicine. Yoga is a way of life that cultivates  union within oneself and with everything. Tibetan medicine, like Ayurveda, explains how to create and maintain a healthy body and mind in order to live a yogic way of life. Yogis in Tibet developed Tibetan Yoga, a form of yoga that focuses on breathing, purifying exercises, and healing the mind.

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