Global Resilience Solutions > Category:Tibetan Medicine

Tibetan Medicine: Getting to the Root of the Problem

When we feel ill, the first thing we think about is reducing the symptoms.  That’s natural.  No one likes suffering.  But sometimes, it’s an alarm bell trying to tell us something about our lives.

Western medicine, operating on the microscopic scale of individual chemical interactions, has found many clever ways to mask particular symptoms.  In fact, the development of drugs for that purpose far outstrips all other efforts of the pharmaceutical industry in both budget and financial returns.  But this approach and the microscopic scale on which it operates leads to dangerously cavalier attitude toward the irreducibly complex balance that is the whole human organism.  From this come the side effects and interactions that are so problematic with many drugs.

By neglecting the macroscopic, Western medicine also has difficulty addressing the epidemic of chronic disease.  That is where Tibetan Medicine, a fusion and development of thousands of years of Ayurvedic and Chinese experimental knowledge, can most help us.  Its diagnoses seek to account for the root causes of disease found in the emotional, psychological, spiritual and bioenergetic realms, lifestyle, diet, the state of the immune system, traumatic experience, core beliefs and so on.  It also takes seriously the vast healing power of the mind, and understands that mental, spiritual and bioenergetic states impact our physical bodies.



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