Tibetan Medicine

The Science of Healing

by Dr Tamdin Sither Bradley

Tibetan medicine is a complete medical system. It is one of the oldest surviving forms of ancient medical systems in the world and it has been in use for over 2500 years. For many centuries Tibetan medicine has been successfully practiced in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Buddhist regions of Russia and Central Asia, and the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh and Northern India.

Yutog Yontan Gonpo, the twelth century physician of Tibet, and lay practitioner of tantra, credited with composing the Four Medical Tantras, a four-book treatise on traditional Tibetan medicine.

Tibetan medicine is very much connected with Buddhist philosophy. The main cause of illness according to Tibetan medicine is ma-rigpa, or delusion, which in turn generates the three poisons of ignorance, desire and hatred. The three poisons manifest an imbalance in the three principal energies of Loong, mKhris-pa and Bad -Kan, or the Nyes-pa gsum. Tibetan medicine focuses on balancing both body and mind together, as we all know that mind is much more powerful than body. In Tibetan medicine the training of the mind of the physician is one of the most important aspects of the their overall training in becoming a fully qualified Tibetan doctor.


In the Tibetan medical tantras there is a special chapter on ethics and motivation. It focuses very much on compassion, for the physician to treat all patients as if they were treating their own mother. This mental training of the physician is based on the physician seeing the suffering of the patient, and then generating the compassion to help the patient to the best of their ability. If possible the Tibetan physician will also practice the six perfections of generosity, effort, ethical discipline, patience, concentration and wisdom.

Medicine Buddha

Tibetan medicine is called gSo-ba Rig-pa, or the science of healing, and is based on the four medical tantras called rGyud-bzhi. These are the root tantra, explanatory tantra, instructional tantra and the subsequent tantra. The root tantra which contains six chapters, gives an overall view of the rGyud-bzhi; the explanatory tantra contains thirty-one chapters and explains and describes in detail the human body, including embryology anatomy and physiology; the instructional tantra contains ninety-two chapters dealing with the causes, symptoms and treatment of many different kinds of diseases; the subsequent tantra contains twenty-five chapters which deal with diagnosis and pharmacology In addition to the four tantras there are two concluding chapters which condense all the preceding information. This gives a total of 156 chapters with 5900 verses.


To be a fully qualified Tibetan physician we have to study these four medical tantras for a minimum of seven years. The first four years are spent studying the Tibetan medical texts where we have to memorize approximately forty specific chapters. One month each year is also spent collecting herbs in the Himalayas. In addition to studying the medical texts we also have to study Tibetan linguistics, grammar, poetry and have a complete understanding of basic Tibetan Buddhist teachings contained in works such as Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. In the fifth year we have to take both oral and written exams on the four medical tantras and at the end of the fifth year we take the Medicine Buddha initiation both as a blessing and in order to enhance our powers of healing as practitioners of Tibetan medicine. Like a beautiful woman for whom jewels and fine clothes merely magnifies and reinforces her beauty, so the initiation magnifies and reinforces the healing powers of the practitioner. The sixth and seventh years are spent at a branch clinic of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute where practical training is given in pulse reading, urinalysis and dealing with patients.


Compared to other forms of alternative medicine in the West, Tibetan medicine is very new and this is because there are very few fully qualified Tibetan doctors here; there are no more than eight of us in both Europe and the United States. The uniqueness of Tibetan medicine is that it is based on Buddhist philosophical principles, astrology and the close relationship between the mind and body. The basic principle of Tibetan medicine is balancing the three principal energies or Nyes-pa-gsum. The three principal energies are Loong, mKhris-pa and Bad -Kan.

Medical painting depicting some of the energy channels of the body.

Loong (pronounced as loong) is the subtle flow of energy which circulates throughout our body and aids all movements and activities connected with mind, speech and body. mKhrispa (pronounced as tree -pa) is heat energy which circulates throughout our body and balances bodily temperature, digestion and vitality. Bad-Kan (pronounced as Bad - kan) is a fluid energy which circulates throughout our body. It keeps our joints flexible and aids the functioning of bodily stability and the lymphatic system.


When the three principal energies are in balance we are healthy and when they are out of balance we are sick. In the Tibetan medical texts the main long-term cause of illnesses and suffering is ma-rig-pa, or ignorance. This ignorance generates in turn the three poisons of desire, anger and closed-mindedness. The short-term causes are improper diet, unwholesome lifestyle and seasonal factors. A combination of these causes makes us sick and the physician first has to diagnose the illness through questioning and listening with a sympathetic ear. The physician then makes an overall observation of the patient, especially through tongue diagnosis and urinalysis (in which the practitioner looks at the colour, smell, bubbles, steam and sediments of the urine). Finally the physician reads the pulse of the patient, and for the Tibetan physician pulse reading is a great source of information.

Pulse reading

Once diagnosis is made treatment can begin. The main aim of the treatment is to balance and correct the three principal energies. For example, if one of the energies is in excess treatment is given to decrease it or if one of the energies is deficient treatment is given to increase it. Tibetan medicine is not based on any magic, mystery or miracle cures, rather it is based on an ancient system of medicine which has been passed down from generation to generation. Tibetan medicine today is the culmination of the experience and knowledge of enlightened physicians through the course of many centuries - just like honey collected in a pot cannot be produced from a single flower but is the sum of many flowers. There is no end to knowledge, and with the continual arising of new diseases Tibetan medical research goes on, and at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute there is a research department producing new forms of Tibetan medicine aimed at treating modern diseases.

Preparing medicine

The Tibetan physician aims to treat the patient first of all through dietary advice according to each individual's body constitution, and through advice on leading a wholesome lifestyle. If this is not enough, medicine is prescribed. Tibetan pharmacology is extremely rich in both depth and variety. It makes use of gems, minerals, metals, soils, saps, woods and herbal plants. Medicines can be a combination of as little as three ingredients or as many as 157. At present there are approximately 250 different types of medicine that are manufactured. One of these preparations is a medicine called Padma 28 and this is now commercially available. Middlesex hospital in London has performed clinical trials on it and it has proven to be effective for vascular diseases (a condition caused by hardening of the arteries in the legs) and there is the possibility it will help in the treatment of hepatitis B and C. When one considers that there are 250 other forms of Tibetan medicine to be explored it gives great hope for the potential of Tibetan medicine to help as many people as possible. Performing or physical therapies are used as a last resort in Tibetan medicine. At present we use moxibustion, cupping and golden needle therapy.

There is also an advanced form of Tibetan meditation known as tomo yoga which is practised by training the subtle flow of Loong energy. At the International Congress on Tibetan Medicine the researcher Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School gave a slide show of Tibetan monks practising tomo yoga. Dr Charles Raison from the University of California commented that tomo meditation may offer more understandmg about depression and open up the possibility of non-pharmacological self-help. The monks were meditating in conditions just a few degrees above freezing yet they were able to completely dry wet sheets that were wrapped around them. Researchers from the University of California in San Francisco have also discovered that raising the peripheral skin temperature during deep meditation accelerates the healing of wounds just as effectively as the use of antibiotics.

Astrology is also connected to Tibetan medicine. It is considered in the preparation of certain special medicines, during the time of herb collection and when performing therapies such as moxibustion. All medicines are then blessed and consecrated according to Tibetan Buddhist rituals. When I was studying at the Tibetan Medical College and also working at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute clinic, we would recite the Medicine Buddha prayers and mantra every morning before we began our day. We were also trained to visualize the medicines as nectar in order for the us to help eradicate the sufferings of the patient.

Tibetan medicine is beneficial for chronic diseases such as digestive problems, arthritis, asthma, skin problems, problems related to the liver and kidneys, sinus problems, insomnia, anxiety, heart disease and problems related to the central nervous system. Tibetan gSo-ba Rig-pa also treats the roots of the disease and not just the symptoms. The Tibetan medical texts give the following example: A failure to treat the roots or the cause of the disease is the same as having a poisonous tree and just cutting off the leaves and branches without pulling it out from its roots; if you just cut the leaves and branches the tree wifi stifi continue to grow.

A real-life example is a patient of mine who suffered bad migraines. She had been taking painkillers which helped, but when the effects wore off she needed to take more of them. My diagnosis upon seeing her was that she was suffering from chronic constipation and therefore I prescribed medicine to clear it. This was the root of her problem. As a result of treating her constipation her migraines were reduced over time. If a person is suffering from a chronic disease and expects a quick solution through taking Tibetan medicine, this will not be possible. The patient has to be prepared to take the medicine over a period of time before its positive results will show.

In the West there are many people at present who wish to study Tibetan medicine, but unfortunately the four medical tantras have not been translated into English. The contents of the four medical tantras are extremely condensed and just one sentence could take pages to be fully explained. To be successfully and accurately translated would require a group of people who have studied the four medical tantras and who also have perfect knowledge of English. It is vital there is no misunderstanding of the medical terms and that the meaning of the four medical tantras are not diluted in any way.

Tibetan medical knowledge is not just for the benefit of Tibetans but for the rest of the world. There is no doubt that practitioners of Tibetan medicine can learn a great deal from allopathic forms of medicine, and similarly Western medical practitioners can learn and benefit from gSo-ba Rig-pa. Both medicines are based on the same concepts of healing and relief of suffering.

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