Tibetan System of Medicine

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Chapter: Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry : Alternative System of Medicine

Tibetan medicine is an ancient synthesis of the art of healing, drawing on the knowledge of medical systems existing in a wide region of Southeast and Central Asia.



Tibetan medicine is an ancient synthesis of the art of healing, drawing on the knowledge of medical systems existing in a wide region of Southeast and Central Asia. The history of Tibetan medical system dates back to some 3,800 years to the time of the non-Buddhist culture of Tibet’s native religion. It has continued to evolve since then to the time of the strong emergence of Buddhist culture in India. The Tibetans made use of their countries abundant natural resources of flora and fauna to fight against diseases. The seventh and eighth century observed the real development in the field of Tibetan medicine. Ayurveda has contributed a great deal in enriching Tibetan medicine. The Gyudshi or the Four Great Tantras is the most authoritative classic of Tibetan medicine,and bears ample proof of its loyal allegiance to Ayurvedic classics like Charaka, Susruta and Astanga hydra of Vaghbhata. One of the unique features of Tibetan medical system is its ideological structure of medical theory and practice in the image of a tree known as Allegorical Tree.


Like the phenomena of conditioned existence, diseases are also the product of causes and conditions. There are two main causes of the disease: a long-term cause and short-term cause. Ignorance or unawareness is the ultimate cause of all diseases. Because of ignorance or delusion, one cannot see the reality of the phenomena and thereby clings to personal self or ego which in turn gives rise to the three mental poisons: desire, hatred and stupidity. So ignorance and three mental poisons constitute the long-term cause of disease. Secondly, the short-term causes of disease are the three humours: wind energy (Tib. rlung), bile energy (Tib. mkhris pa) and phlegm (Tib. bad kan). They are produced by the three mental poisons: desire gives rise to wind, hatred to bile and stupidity to phlegm. These three humours constitute the basic energy system in the body. They are interrelated to all vital functions of the body, organs, seven constituents and three excretions. Seven constituents of the body are: food (nutrition), blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow and semen. The three excrements are sweat, urine and faeces.


When the three humours, seven body constituents and the three excrements are balanced, one is healthy; when they are unbalanced one becomes sick. There are four factors responsible for the imbalance; they are improper climate, influence of demons, improper diet and improper behaviour. Since everything is interrelated, imbalance in one organ or one of the humours affects the rest of the organism. Because of the interdependence of humours and body constituents, etc., their imbalance can be diagnosed by the methods specially used by Tibetan doctors. The methods are:




Considering the patient’s history.


Visual Examination


Visual examination consists of examining the patient’s physical structure, eyes, tongue, urine, etc.


Tactile Examination


This method of diagnosis is concerned with things such as temperature, inflammations, etc. Most important here is diagnosis by pulse.




There are four methods of treatment. They are diet, behav-iour modification, medicine and physical therapy. The most important therapeutic technique is to restore the balance of the three ‘NYES-PA’ (humours) and to ensure that the seven constituents of the body are always in a healthy state. These seven constituents are: essential nutrient (dangsma), blood (khark), fat (tsil), muscle tissues (sha), bone (rus), marrow (kang) and regenerative fluid (khuwa).




The first treatment involves the prescribing of a proper diet. For example, if the patient is suffering from a bile disorder, he should not take alcohol and should drink cool boiled water.


Behaviour Modification


For example, a patient with a bile disorder should not do heavy physical activities. He should rest in the shade, and not sleep during the day. If these two factors fail to bring about a positive result, further treatment should be carried out.




Prescription of natural drugs. Here again the physician starts with less-potent concoctions and turns to stronger forms, if necessary. The drugs can be classified in 10 forms: decoction, pills, powder, granules, medicinal butter, medici-nal calxes, concentrated extractions, medicinal wine, gem medicine and herbal medicine.


Physical Therapy


Apart from natural drugs, the physician may also have to depend on other therapeutic techniques, like massage, hot and cold compresses, mineral spring bath therapy and medici-nal bath are the gentle techniques. Blood, letting, cauteriza-tion, moxibustion, cupping and golden needle therapy are considered as rough techniques. There is also some minor surgery such as the draining of abscesses.


Tibetan medical philosophy is a holistic philosophy involving the harmonious operation and balance of all the energies that constitute the human psycho-physical being. Theses energies are the psychologically originating three ‘NYES-PA’ or humours, which correspond to the three mental poisons and the five cosmo-physical energies that are at the basis of all phenomena. If all the factors that influence these energies (seasonal factors; diet and nutrition, life style and mental attitudes) are positively disposed, then these energies remain in balanced operation, and health is experienced. It is the objective of Tibetan medicine that the balance in these energies should be maintained.


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