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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tibetan Medicine

Air Date: Week of

Thanks to the popularity of the Dalai Lama, the politics and religion of Tibet have become familiar to many Americans. But not so with Tibetan medicine. This healing system, which is influenced by Buddhism, differs radically from its western counterpart. Living On Earth’s Diane Toomey reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been about two decades since alternative medicine first captured the attention of many North Americans. Since then, things such as Chinese herbs and acupuncture have become so popular, they're just about mainstream. Today, a lesser-known medical discipline is slowly gaining acceptance here. Tibetan medicine is a complicated system of treatments. It has survived invasion of its homeland, destruction of its medical schools, and the imprisonment and exile of its doctors. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey prepared our report.

ANNIE: So I just wanted to tie that.


ANNIE: And sometimes when I bend over like this, I feel a sort of squeezing here.

BHUTTI: Mm hm. Mm hm.

TOOMEY: This is Annie's monthly consultation with her doctor, a Tibetan physician practicing just outside of Boston. Annie says for the past five years, she suffered from a number of chronic conditions. She went to Western doctors, but failed to get better.

ANNIE: I get a lot of headaches. Migraine headaches. And I'm nervous.

TOOMEY: Her doctor, Keyzom Bhutti, is one of a handful of Tibetan physicians working in the U.S. Like all her colleagues, she has studied the four tantras, ancient texts that are the root of her discipline. Tibetan medicine charts a geography of the human body that differs radically from its Western counterpart. The tantras speak of health as a state of balance between three systems governing body and mind. The wind system deals with circulation, of blood, nerve impulses, even of thoughts in the mind. The system of heat deals with metabolism, liver, digestion. And the system of cold concerns itself with the structure and stability of the body. When these systems become imbalanced, illness results.

ANNIE: So, should I avoid mainly all greasy foods, do you think?

BHUTTI: Just for three days, don't take the greasy food. After three days you can have. Okay?

ANNIE: Okay. Thank you.

TOOMEY: Dr. Bhutti questions Annie about the effects of the medications she's been taking. It's a collection of large, earth-tone pills that contains ingredients such as pomegranate, pearl, and red sandalwood. Dr. Bhutti has designed a mixture which she believes will equalize Annie's specific imbalances.

ANNIE: When I take them, I definitely notice a shift.

BHUTTI: OK. Relaxation.

ANNIE: Yes, I do. I feel relaxed .

BHUTTI: Uh huh. Any questions?

ANNIE: No. I want you to feel my pulses. (Laughs)

TOOMEY: Pulse reading is the crucial diagnostic tool in Tibetan medicine. Through this technique, physicians glean clues as to which imbalances afflict a patient. Dr. Bhutti obliges Annie's request. She reaches over and places three fingers from each hand on the side of each of Annie's wrists. She applies varying amounts of pressure, as if playing a flute. She feels not for one pulse, but for a dozen. Each one is connected, she says, to organs such as liver, lung, and bladder.

BHUTTI: So altogether, two points. But that way I can take out the illness, which was not in the balance. It needs a lot of experience.

TOKAR: Really, if you work at it and perfect it, you can understand almost everything just through the pulse. Now, I'm nowhere near that point, but I've seen it done.

TOOMEY: Eliot Tokar is one of the few Westerners to have apprenticed with Tibetan physicians.

TOKAR: And the kind of interaction that's involved in taking the pulse, and the quality of that interaction, has a lot to do with the nature of the doctor's mind.

TOOMEY: And if the mind of the physician is sufficiently focused, such characteristics as depth, thickness, and regularity can be felt.

TOKAR: A lot of the analogies are to animals. And one of them is, let's say the pulse, it feels like a caterpillar. Does it just move up and down in a linear kind of way, or does it feel like it's kind of creeping across, because you're feeling with three fingers?

TOOMEY: A Yale surgeon observed the power of pulse reading firsthand. In his autobiography Mortal Lessons, Richard Selzer writes about his encounter with a Tibetan physician who is asked to examine a patient. The woman suffered from a congenital defect, a hole in her heart. But the Tibetan doctor had been told nothing of her illness. Through pulse diagnoses, along with an examination of her tongue and urine, this was his conclusion.

DOCTOR: There are winds coursing through her body, currents that break against barriers. These vortices are in her blood -- the last spendings of an imperfect heart. Between the chambers of her heart, long, long before she was born, a wind had come and blown open a deep gate that must never be opened. Through it charged the full waters of her river.

TOOMEY: Rather mystical-sounding language to describe a hole in her heart, but accurate nonetheless. Advocates of Tibetan medicine say these insights come from centuries of empirical observation. Again, Eliot Tokar.

TOKAR: So, Tibetan doctors are scientists who have developed this very detailed and complex understanding of what the human body is, how it's composed, and then how disease can arise and how it should be treated.

TOOMEY: But Tibetan medicine is influenced by more than science. Tensin Choedrak is the personal physician to the Dalai Lama. He says while Tibetan medicine is separate from Buddhism, the two intertwine.

CHOEDRAK: [Speaks in Tibetan]

TRANSLATOR: Of course, certainly if a person has this knowledge on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, it certainly helps you become a good doctor. Because in Buddhism, its main essence is to have love and compassion for other sentient beings.

TOOMEY: And Tibetan medicine has a distinctly Buddhist take on the true cause of imbalance and illness. These are known as the three poisons of desire, anger, and delusion.

BHUTTI: So sindu 35 [phonetic spelling] is to increase the heat in the stomach. Whatever you eat you will digest nicely.

TOOMEY: Today, Dr. Bhutti has prescribed a number of pills for Annie.

BHUTTI: And then, agar 35 [phonetic spelling] is very, very good for the relaxation, keeping you more relaxed and a happy mood.

ANNIE: Mm hm.

(Pills are gathered)

TOOMEY: As Dr. Bhutti prepares a prescription for Annie's stomach ache and her nerves, she says there are differences between her clients in India and her American patients.

BHUTTI: In India, I find many clients are coming with arthritis, and here I found that most of the, many clients, they come with their depression. (Laughs)

TOOMEY: In Tibetan medicine, pills are a last resort to be used only after changes in behavior and diet have failed. So in the case of depression, Dr. Bhutti's advice is simple, one might even say simplistic. But as Americans, perhaps it might do us some good to hear these guidelines. First, Dr. Bhutti says, maintain good family relationships.

BHUTTI: And sitting in a calm place, not listening to any bad news, drinking some wine, nice wine. That way, depression will less, less, less.

TOOMEY: Annie says after about a year of treatment, she's feeling better.

ANNIE: It is true that I am less depleted, and I am on the whole less emotional. I think they call it less wind. I have a ways to go.

TOOMEY: Both Annie and her doctor say they're pleased with her gradual progress. That's because in the philosophy of Tibetan medicine, it can take a long time to achieve balance. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

MAN: Some more chempo [phonetic spelling]?

BHUTTI: Yes, some more chempo [phonetic spelling], yes.



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