Tibetan Medicine: The Most Beautiful Preservation of Culture

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!

For our last leg of the trip, we spent time in the village of Mcleod Ganj in Dharamshala learning about Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) . Sadly, we only got to spend two days out of our six day stay studying the ins and outs of TTM, but, fortunately, we got to get a lot of insight on the basic principles and what a typical patient visit is like! To my surprise, Tibetan Medicine had more similarities than differences when comparing it side-by-side to Ayurveda, Naturopathy, and Unani. The main difference between TTM and the other practices we learned about was that Tibetan Medicine revolves around Buddhist philosophy whereas its counterparts focus on Hindu principles. Apart from this, all of them are nearly identical. It should also be noted that Buddhism is a branch off of Hinduism, so even their seemingly contrasting philosophical beliefs are similar in some sense. I found TTM’s methods of diagnosis and ways of physiologically understanding the body to be the closest in resemblance to the other healthcare practices we have learned about on this trip. For instance, TTM takes into account the humors (which is something Unani also recognizes and uses for diagnostic purposes), the seven metabolic factors (which Ayurveda also utilizes to explain how the body functions), and the three different constituents that are used to describe how one behaves and appears physically (which almost directly imitates the Prakritis in Ayurveda, or what I like to call “The Indian Enneagrams”). Despite all of these, the most significant and overpowering overlap between all of the practices was, yep you guessed it, finding balance. They all recognize the five elements and seeing them as needing to be balanced to avoid disease. The TTM version of the Doshas from Ayurveda are the three Nyepa, which are the supposed cause of health and disorder (disease is considered a state of in-equilibrium of the three).

The three Nyepa are as follows:
Nyepa Elemental Aspect
Loong The mobile energy of life
Tripa The solar or fire energy of life
Badkan The lunar or water energy of life

As you can see each represents one element, just like the Doshas, and the imbalance of one of these in one’s body will be counteracted to restore equilibrium for treatment, just like it is done in Ayurveda and Unani. The prominence of these Nyepas make up the constitutions of each person, which can be compared to the Prakritis in Ayurveda. These constitutions can describe why someone behaves and looks a certain way and then can be used for more accurate diagnosis, understanding how to cure an ill person and maintain a healthy lifestyle that works best with the patient’s constitution of Nyepas.

I think the most distinctive part of Tibetan Medicine that stuck out to me was learning about how they got about diagnosis and treatment, which is something we didn’t really get to go into great depth in the other practices we learned about.

The general mode of diagnosis is as follows:
Visual observation
Palpation (radial pulse)
Interrogation and urine examination

Sure, checking heart rate and visual examination are aspects of a typical modern medicine check-up, but urine examination was something that really surprised me and caused me and my peers to do a double take. In the U.S., urine tests are only really used for certain occasions, not something that is fit into a routine visit. Just from our TTM instructor dedicating half of his presentation to purely explain urine analysis and what the color, bubbles, and noise mean told me enough about how significant this examination is for diagnosis. We learned that, in Tibetan Medicine, the urine is just as essential as the pulse in terms of determining what kind of condition the patient has and whether he or she is healthy or not. Supposedly, the pulse is used for a life or death situation. For instance, apparently, a Tibetan doctor can tell if someone is dying soon just based off of their radial pulse, but urine is seen as a mirror of whether a person is diseased or not. Even after learning all of this, I couldn’t begin to grasp how one person could come to all of these grave medical conclusions just from looking at the color of someone’s urine and feeling their heart beat from their wrist. I was quick to realize that it isn’t that simple. There is an appropriate time recommended for urine and pulse examinations due to the energies present in the body during that time of day, and there is a very particular method of examination for both practices. I also had to remember that Tibetan Medicine is a traditional practice, therefore, a lot of their methods, procedures, and principles haven’t really shifted. Like Dr. A told me back in Palampur, there are principles that were laid out a very long time ago that traditional health practitioners have been following for years upon years without any question. This is the key difference between traditional medicine and modern medicine: spirituality and the way it intertwines with diagnosis and treatment. This is why all traditional medicine practices all overlap in some sort of way. They all revolve around some sort of religious practice and use those static beliefs to guide their medicine. Although I am religious myself, I have always seen medicine and religion as separate entities. Even after this trip, I still think I stay firm in my beliefs; however, after our time in Dharamshala, I began to truly understand why the Tibetans latch so tightly onto TTM and are so reluctant to adjust its techniques and methods to keep up with the times. It’s all about preserving their culture. If you aren’t familiar with the story, let me give you a quick run down. For centuries, Tibet and China lived independently. It wasn’t until 1950 that the Communist Regime of China brutally invaded Tibet and stripped them of their freedom. Tibet was then forced to give up their independence and after a failed uprising in 1959, the 14th, and current, Dalai Lama (the political and spiritual leader of Tibet at the time) fled to Mcleod Ganj in Dharamshala, where he currently resides along with tens of thousands of his Tibetan followers. For the past 60 years they have been striving to gain back their independence that they righteously deserve. After this I became educated on the Tibetan history, it was made clear to me that Tibetan Medicine is their way of making sure that their culture doesn’t get lost. As our TTM instructor told us, Tibetan Medicine is “keeping their culture alive during this crisis”. He mentioned to us that when the British colonized India, a lot of the Indian culture was lost, whereas, the Tibetans are so heavily determined to prevent this from happening, and it is evident that they have succeeded at doing so. By being in Dharamshala, where His Holiness and his followers are living in exile, I have been able to see the true beauty in this preservation effort as well as the hospitality of the Indian people. It was definitely the most perfect way to end our trip.

I also have a travel blog that captures even more stuff from my trip! Go check it out at the link below!