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Tibetan Medicine: Transforming Our Assumptions About Healing

We often do not realise how deeply our assumptions about the nature of human beings and the nature of the world determine how we approach illness and medicine. The unspoken assumptions of Western medicine, such as…

– That treatment means introducing specific chemicals to the body
– That all patients are more or less interchangeable as far as treatment is concerned
– That medical knowledge depends on breaking things down to the most microscopic level
– That the mental state of the physician has even less to do with treatment than the mental state of the patient
– That side-effects are a normal part of treatment

…seem conventional to us, but in the context of traditional Tibetan medicine, they seem utterly ludicrous.

Tibetan medicine is a unique blend of the Indian Ayurvedic tradition and Chinese medicine with native practices. As such, it represents the fusion of the two most comprehensive medical systems of the ancient world. Its approaches to patient care and treatment hold surprising insights which can help us to re-examine our own approach to illness and healing.


Approach to the Patient

In Western medicine, diagnosis results from questioning the patient about symptoms, physical examination, chemical analysis and radiological imaging methods. The Tibetan approach also makes use of the first two methods, but based on their understanding of the makeup of the human being, the underlying approach is quite different.

Tibetan medicine regards the patient as a complete, integrated being, in which the body, mind, emotions, energy system and spirit all affect each other. It regards the interplay of the body’s energies and substances with environmental influences as critical, and regards the patient’s lifestyle and mental state not only as contributing causes of disease, but as the main causes.

For that reason, the patient is questioned about their life in broad terms, including behaviour, diet, relationships, their living and working environments, their spiritual life and so on. Physical examination is not simply a search for symptoms, but catalogues the patient’s manner, build, posture, speech and everything that can tell the physician about the patient’s own elemental balance, mental and emotional state. After this, the physician can proceed with checking pulses according to the Chinese method, which tells the physician about the state of the energy system in relation to the major organs.

The following video gives you an idea of the preparations and mindset of the practitioner:


Approach to Treatment

The Tibetan approach to medical treatment is just as distinct as their approach to the patient. No treatment is solely physical or solely psychological- the patient’s personality and emotional life are known to affect their physical health. Likewise, the balance of elements in the constitution of the specific patient is unique, and knowing which elements to enhance and which to inhibit, knowing how a particular patient will react to a medical substance are essential. All of this means that every treatment is calibrated to the particular patient.

Treatments involving physical medicines are most often complex formulas designed to work together, the opposite of the Western project to break down the pharmacopeia into individual chemicals. The character of the ingredients is known to change depending on the time of year, where they are found and other factors.

For the Tibetan tradition, the mindset and intention of the physician are just as important as the medical substances themselves. Before gathering or compounding medicines, the physician prays and practices identification with the Medicine Buddha. Everything is done with calm mindfulness, a positive mental attitude, a compassionate intention and respect for the ingredients. Because Buddhism does not recognise matter and mind as fundamentally different, the physician’s intention and spiritual development plays an important role in the effectiveness of any treatment.


The medical substances are regarded as an offering to the Medicine Buddha, and are thought of as a mandala, an arrangement representing the different interrelated forces and properties of the cosmos. The means of physical treatment are varied, including incense, herbal baths, medicinal oils and butters for massage, bloodletting, moxibustion, acupuncture, ingestion of medical compounds and so on. But the most important vehicle for physical treatment is changing the diet and lifestyle of the patient, which is essential not only to treat disease, but to make sure the patient stays healthy into the future.

Although all of these methods involve the patient’s energy system, they approach it through the physical body. Tantric medicine treats the energy system directly, and through it the mind and the body. It is especially used for psychiatric diseases and those that are believed to be of karmic origin. The two basic kinds of tantric medicine are the healing of others by a cultivated practitioner and self-healing.

Tantric rituals use the complex Tibetan map of the energy system to transmute the body’s energy into the healing power of the Buddha-power through the generation of compassionate energy, the visualisation of healing deities and the projection of healing light. The practitioner sees himself as the Medicine Buddha and the world as the medicine mandala, which purifies the perceptions of self and world and encourages both to transform into their Buddha-nature.

In order to heal oneself, it is necessary to view illness as an indication of imbalance within one’s own life and an opportunity to readjust one’s own life and relationship with the world. It is also necessary to have complete trust and confidence in the practice and compassionate intention toward other beings.

This compassion is the central theme of Tibetan medicine. The physician is “expected to practice compassion at all times and equally toward all beings”. He is expected to cultivate his own spiritual practice in order to develop the wisdom to correctly see and treat his patients. His practice of medicine and spiritual development are therefore more than complementary, they are the same.


As we re-learn the implications of the interconnectedness of the human body-mind organism, and as we begin to realise once again the influence of our mental states on the reality we experience, traditions like the Tibetan medicine can give us the tools to critically examine the mindsets we have received about health and disease.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Best of the Web: Traditional Medicine

While most of the focus on traditional medical practices on this site has been on Traditional Chinese Medicine, and, to a lesser extent, Ayurvedic and Sioux medicine, this only scratches the surface of what’s out there. This post is intended to provide a jumping off point for some of the best resources on the web encompassing a number of ancient medical traditions from around the world.

Benefits of Traditional Approaches

Although the Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions are by far the most comprehensive, representing as they do thousands of years of continuous recorded experimentation, equivalent traditions have existed in almost every culture, and these are slowly being explored and documented. The common denominators among these traditions include not only their concurrence with Hippocrates that food is medicine, but an understanding of the human organism as an integrated physical, energetic, mental, emotional and spiritual being.

From this ancient knowledge comes not only a vast and elaborate pharmacopeia capable of addressing almost any problem the human body can come up with (see the video above for a taste of that), not only a library of other techniques, but an approach which seeks to prevent illness by supporting the immune system and strengthening the body, mind and energy system in a systematic way.


Exploring Traditional/Alternative Medicine

Because of the seeming difference in theoretical assumptions and terminology between Western and traditional medicine, exploring alternative medicine can seem like a chore. Determining whether any practitioner is competent or not is often more than a question of a degree hanging on a wall, though there are many recognised degree programs in the field. There is also the question of distinguishing between real knowledge with centuries of practical validation behind it, and worthless folklore of the type that funds poaching of rare animals for supposed aphrodisiacs. For all of these reasons, it is important to read, compare, get second opinions and at least begin to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the medicine you use. You and only you can ultimately be responsible for your health.


Traditional Chinese Medicine
Articles and information on acupuncture and all aspects of TCM.
Information and articles on the theory, practice and application of TCM. The information ranges from accessible primers for the novice to practitioner-oriented material on diagnosis and treatment.
Site of Daniel Reid, the author of some of the best practical books on health and lifestyle from a TCM perspective.
The Journal of Chinese Medicine, one of the foremost professional publications.
Site of Shou-Yu Liang, prominent and learned exponent of health qigong traditions.

Site of Robyn Landis, coauthor of the excellent traditional health primer Herbal Defense.
Site of Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, Landis’ teacher.

Other Traditions
African Networks on Ethnomedicines, a South Africa-based organisation dedicated to research into local medical knowledge on the continent of Africa. The organisation also runs a peer-reviewed journal (
Tibetan Medicine resources.
Site hosting the texts of a number of classics of the Western herbal tradition.
The Center for Traditional Medicine supports research into indigenous medical traditions of the Americas.

General Sites
In addition to an extensive range of articles on Chinese medicine, the Institute for Traditional Medicine provides information on a range of other Asian traditions, including Ayurveda, Japanese, Mongolian and Southeast Asian traditions.
The Institute of Traditional Medicine (different from above) teaches a range of traditional and integrative approaches, and provides a vast selection of links and resources.
The Centre for International Ethnomedicinal Education and Research is an umbrella organisation for research into local medicinal knowledge worldwide.

The (Crass) Westernisation of Eastern Wisdom

There is a notion among some Western students of Eastern disciplines that they need to seek the approval of the Western scientific community. Because of this, some Western Buddhists deny the reality of bodhisattvas and the continuity of consciousness, Western acupuncturists deny the existence of the energy their discipline was developed to deal with, and everything is about finding and verifying the physical, scientific truths obscured by these ‘metaphors.’

This approach, which surrenders three thousand years of scientific and spiritual development to a naïve, Newtonian Western materialism without the slightest regard for the integrity or aims of the traditions being deconstructed, can best be described as ‘craven.’ More importantly, it is the surrender of one worldview to another entirely incompatible with it, discarding the core of the traditions in question and leaving the shell so ephemeral as to be a waste of your time.

Why Does Modern Acupuncture Hurt?

If you’ve ever experienced acupuncture from an experienced practitioner qualified in China, chances are it didn’t hurt all that much after insertion, perhaps with the exception of one or two tender points. With many Western-trained practitioners, however, it feels like a nerve is being pinched at each and every point.

There’s a reason. The Western ‘scientific’ version of acupuncture, which doesn’t believe that the body’s energy pathways exist, has decided that acupuncture works by stimulating the nervous system and increasing blood flow to various parts of the body. They therefore seek out the nearest nerve ending to every acupuncture point and stab it, sometimes twisting the needle after insertion, just to make sure those nerves are well and truly stimulated. The original tradition, of course, sees the nervous system as a secondary actor in acupuncture, and sees no need to assault it.

One acupuncturist of my recent acquaintance had the gall to stand up and tell a room full of his patients that the word ‘qi’ should be translated as ‘vital air,’ meaning, in his opinion, oxygen, and that acupuncture is not a form of energy healing. For someone educated in the far larger tradition of which acupuncture is only one part, a tradition that includes qigong and its vast array of energy cultivation methods, the energetic understanding of disease and of the formulation of medicines, the extensive Taoist tradition of inner alchemy, the insight of Chinese medicine into the energy-psychology relationship and much more, this notion was painfully laughable. If nothing else, anyone with the slightest acquaintance with this terminology should know that oxygen, like food, water and sunlight is jing, not qi. Jing fuels the energy system, giving rise to qi, and it’s obviously comical to say that “oxygen gives rise to oxygen”.

This is the net result of a trend that seeks to scour Taoism’s three thousand year old scientific tradition for tidbits that are deemed acceptable by current scientific dogma (which automatically rules out anything that sounds in any way spiritual or has to do with a non-materialist understanding of the universe) and reframes the rest in the most unapologetically silly ways.

What is the Sound of One Brain Farting?

Something similar has happened to Buddhism in the West, where alleged Western ‘Buddhists’ have gone to extraordinary lengths to reframe Buddhist teachings as a psychological system that does not require belief in, well, Buddhist teachings.

A classic example is the Western treatment of the bodhisattvas and dhyani-buddhas of Mahayana and Tibetan teaching. Identification with these enlightened beings is a key element of Buddhist practice, an aspect that many Western ‘experts’ would like to discard as primitive and out of step with the modern world. Others, however, think they have found a workaround, arguing that since these enlightened beings are emptiness (sunyata), and part of the undifferentiated consciousness, which is why the practitioner is able to identify with them in the first place, that they are therefore ‘not real,’ merely imaginary visualisation tools for psychological purposes.

Well, the bad news is that you and I are sunyata just as much as the enlightened beings are in Buddhist teaching, so either both we and they are real, or neither. This absurd argument highlights the futility of pursuing Buddhist teachings for psychological purposes in this life, divorced from the larger purpose. If living more happily in this life is all you’re interested in, there are a thousand easier ways than trying to live according to Buddhist teachings. But I forgot, all that fasting and vegetarianism and long nights spent in meditation and meritorious deeds is just so “last millennium”. Why do all that when we can just read the Lotus Sutra every now and then and bliss out for a few minutes a week with some nice calming meditation music?

The real question here is what it is in Buddhist teaching that the Western mindset is so afraid of. Why all these intellectual gymnastics? If it’s simply the idea of the continuity of consciousness after death, then the next logical question is why on earth would you waste time on Buddhism? Buddhism, after all, is the direct result of Siddhartha seeing a sick man, an old man and a dying man, and realising that this too was his destiny if he did not change it. This experience gave rise to the Four Noble Truths, the central doctrine of Buddhism. Sure, there are elements of Buddhism that could be attractive to secular psychology, but in the end, if you don’t acknowledge the possibility of Enlightenment through direct contact with the undifferentiated consciousness, all that effort is ultimately meaningless.

But what if the problem is more basic? What if the Western mind simply cannot countenance the very foundation of Buddhist cosmology, the idea that all physical worlds are simply mental aggregates of consciousness? But then, the Western mind, including much of its own scientific establishment, has yet to catch up with the last century of sub-atomic physics, so this is hardly surprising.

The Eastern Worldview

Let’s look at what is really happening here. At a fundamental level, the worldview common to Buddhism and Taoism and all Authentic Ancient Traditions, that the world in all its aspects is the creation of consciousness and energy, is being uncritically replaced with a Newtonian Worldview in which matter gives rise to energy and consciousness. This is the central, unacknowledged cause-and-effect dilemma of the present age. The mindset behind the very scientific materialism that these people are attempting to appease is itself scientifically obsolete. Quantum physics, examining matter at the most minute level, has found what? Energy and probability- probability actualised by consciousness. That which we experience as matter is not matter at all..

This is exactly what the East has known for millennia. Let’s take the example of a Chinese herbal remedy. The doctor examines the patient’s energy state in detail, and formulates a compound of herbs to support whatever elements of the energy system are deficient and calm whatever parts are acting up. The scientist takes it and breaks it down into its constituent chemicals and looks for reactions that might be pharmacologically interesting. No doubt, there are some. But then the scientist makes a concentrated formula of whatever discrete elements he’s been able to show have a chemical impact he believes is useful.

But this new, concentrated formula is a non sequitor in the context of Chinese medical theory. It was never interested in the operation of discrete parts of the medicine, but the synergy of the whole. While it is certainly interested in chemical reactions, these reactions are simply one manifestation of the energetic action of the medicine, since matter is energy. The concentrated formula is not only flawed theoretically, it is potentially dangerous, as its energetic and chemical effect will be untempered by the ingredients it was supposed to work with.


The most dangerous thoughts in any age are the unquestioned assumptions, the ‘truths’ and ways of thinking we take in from childhood which we never stop to seriously question. Therefore, one of the most difficult requirements of objective investigation of the science of another culture is the ability to put yourself in the worldview from which it comes. If you can’t do that, it will prove impossible to understand the purpose, the guiding principles, the integrity and inner coherence of the whole system. More to the point, if we in the West cannot get over the engrained materialist worldview, there is very little that any of these traditions can do to help us.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Healing Power of Light – What You Didn’t Know About Your Anatomy…

Following up on last week’s post highlighting the 12th Annual Energy Psychology Conference in Toronto, I’m planning to present some interesting facts about your body and how you can heal yourself more effectively.

As you’ll remember from that post, many of the world’s top scientists agree on one thing – when it comes to the universe “out there” and the universe of our body-mind organism, we know squat!  To be more precise, every time we hit the next “Eureka” moment and discover something new, we suddenly realize just how much of the related information we have no clue about.  It’s very humbling and points to the incredible mystery of existence.

Your DNA – Not Just Chemicals…

Recent research has proven that your DNA doesn’t operate exclusively on the chemical level.  It also operates on the level of light.  In other words, your DNA stores and emits light – biophotons – that interact with the energy fields all around you and transmit information throughout your body.  

It’s long been know that sunlight, for instance, is vital to the production of vitamin D, although it’s only in the last couple of years that the importance of vitamin D and therefore of sunshine, have been understood.

Well, it turns out that when light enters your eyes or your skin, it gets transmitted to your body’s crystalline structure.  Yes, the fascia layer of whitish, thin, tough tissue below your skin, the tissue that wraps your muscles, organs and more, actually has a crystalline structure that allows it to transmit light throughout your body.  Bet you didn’t know you had a fiber-optic network inside you?  

This crystalline connective tissue is highly conductive and appears to function in a way similar to the semiconductor chips in your computer.  Not surprisingly, the 12 main energy meridians of Chinese Medicine appear to flow through this tissue and the specific acupuncture points are more electrically conductive than any of the surrounding tissue.  Moreover, when you stimulate an acupuncture point, the body starts to release endorphins, which doesn’t happen when other locations are stimulated.  

So it looks increasingly as if you and I are truly “beings of light” in the literal sense.  So what should you do about it?

You Can Use This to Improve Your Health

Here are some basic suggestions for you to improve your health based on what we’ve discussed:

  1. Get more sunlight exposure and don’t wear sunglasses to do it!  Your body needs more sunlight in order to boost your production of the vitamin D that’s vital to so many of your metabolic processes.  For those of us in temperate climates, that’s especially important in winter.

  2. When indoors, do what you can to get full-spectrum lighting and avoid florescent lighting.  In other words, you need to care about the quality of the light you’re getting. 

  3. Master “normal abdominal breathing” – that’s the method devised by the same people who discovered your body’s energy pathways millennia ago.  Abdominal breathing clears blockages out of your energy pathways and builds up your energy supply so that you keep your personal “fiber-optic network” humming along nicely.  If you need help mastering abdominal breathing and other exercises to maximize your energy health, just go to

  4. Be sure to take your fascia layer through its complete range of motion on a regular basis, so that it doesn’t fill with fat cells or otherwise atrophy.  This is not only vital to your posture, but also to your energy circulation system, as we’ve just seen.  If you’d like more details on how to do exactly this, just go to:

So, as you go about your day today, take some time to think about the light coursing through your body and what a great mystery all of us really are. 

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger