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  • Writer's pictureJoan Rothchild Hardin

The Value of Traditional Tibetan Medicine in the 21st Century

A major flaw in modern Western Medicine is its focus on diagnosing illnesses and then treating them with pharmaceuticals or surgery rather than on the prevention of diseases – maintaining health. We hear procedures such as mammograms and colonoscopies being referred to as ‘preventative’ when their function is really to diagnoses a disease process already under way. Disease: an impairment of the normal state of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that interrupts or modifies the performance of the vital functions, is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms, and is a response to environmental factors (as malnutrition, industrial hazards, or climate), to specific infective agents (as worms, bacteria, or viruses), to inherent defects of the organism (as genetic anomalies), or to combinations of these factors. (Merriam-Webster, 2014) Put in simpler terms: disease = dis-ease.

In the practice of modern medicine, we are mostly viewed as our symptoms, not as a whole system that has become out of balance. We are largely treated by specialists for the  various symptoms of our imbalance – a dermatologist for our skin problems, an ENT for our allergies, a rheumatologist for our arthritis, a cardiologist for our heart problems, a gastroenterologist for our digestive issues, a urologist for repeated urinary tract infections, mental health practitioners for our emotional problems … and many more specialties and sub-specialties. Physical illness in the body and emotional well being have unfortunately come to be seen as separate.

HEALTH If we truly want to be and feel healthy – and greatly reduce the cost of our health care system, we would do well to get re-acquainted with some of the ‘primitive’ healing modalities which emphasize balance in the whole system.

Modern Western Medicine – Traditional Folk Medicine


Tibetan Medicine considers diet, nutrition, behavior and life-style as essential elements of successful treatment. Tibetan Medicine, one of the world’s oldest healing traditions, has been practiced for more than four thousand years in Tibet and the Himalayan region. Tibetan Medicine, called Sowa Rigpa in Tibetan, means the knowledge and science of healing. Sowa means to heal the imbalanced and Rigpa means the knowledge or science of a particular subject. Sowa Rigpa is regarded as one of the most important sciences in Tibet. (Tibetan Wellness & Healing Center) Tibetan Medicine is a fully holistic system, highly esteemed throughout Asia for its subtle and accurate diagnoses and effective treatment. It focuses on treating the root causes of symptoms unique to each person and seeks to restore a healthy balance to body and mind – in contrast to Western Medicine’s focus on alleviating the discomfort caused by the symptoms. Tibetan Medicine recognizes how combinations of dietary, psychological, lifestyle and environmental factors can cause imbalances in the body and mind, what many call the ‘body-mind’. Tibetan sages integrated the finest elements of Indian Ayurvedic, Chinese, Persian, Mongolian and indigenous Tibetan systems of medicine into a unique medical science evolving over centuries. Tibetan Medicine can be used alone or in conjunction with Western Medicine.

Channels in Tibetan medicine PRINCIPLES OF TIBETAN MEDICINE (Tibetan Wellness and Healing): The fundamental principle of Tibetan Medicine is that the body, the disease, and treatment, all share common principles and are comprised of the five elements, earth, fire, water, air and space. This approach recognizes that every thing in the universe – plants, animals and human beings (including all our body tissues, internal organs, skin, skeletal system and even emotions) are composed of these five elements. Each one of them plays a major role, both individually and in combination, in all matter. The five elements maintain reciprocal relationships. When they are in balance, the  result is a healthy body, speech and mind. However, if any one of these elements becomes out of balance – in excess, deficient or disturbed, not only does the affected element manifest disharmony but it also  causes the rest of the elements to lose their balance and manifest particular syndromes or symptoms. Since each individual disease is caused by disharmony or disturbances in one of the five elements, the treatment principle is to balance the elements through diet according to an individual’s constitution and behavior, utilize herbs, and other accessory therapies such as blood letting, Mey-Tzar (Tibetan moxa), external therapy (heat or cold), natural or medicinal bath, enema, and Ku Nye (Tibetan Massage).

Map of Ancient Tibet

The Tibetan Plateau, home to many herbs and rare plants used in Tibetan Medicine

TRADITIONAL TIBETAN MEDICINE – AN OVERVIEW (International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007) Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) is a natural and holistic medical science, which addresses the individual’s needs of body, mind and spirit, in an integrated way. Dating back to antiquity, TTM has a genesis, history and development of its own, rooted in the Tibetan landscape, the indigenous culture and the spirit of the Tibetan people. Traditional Tibetan Medicine contains a comprehensive philosophy, cosmology and system of subtle anatomy with associated spiritual practices. The study of TTM contains a wealth of knowledge on anatomy and physiology, embryology, pathology, diagnostics and therapeutics, including a huge herbal pharmacopoeia and a large variety of external therapies which are little-known in the Western world. Despite being one of the world’s most ancient healing systems, Traditional Tibetan Medicine continues to be effectively practised in contemporary society. Modern research is now confirming the extraordinary benefits of this ancient knowledge. The aims of TTM are two-fold:

  • Preventive aspects: Prevention of illness through correct lifestyle and diet are fundamental to TTM. In this modern age, most chronic diseases arise as a result of imbalance of mental attitude, incorrect lifestyle and incorrect diet. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are well-known examples of this.

  • Curative aspects: Once imbalance arises, overt disease becomes manifest. It then becomes necessary to re-create balance through working on the underlying causes and effects. This means, in the first instance, attending to dietary and lifestyle factors, and then secondly making use of herbal therapies and external therapies.

What is meant by Balance and Imbalance? Balance refers to harmony between body, energy and mind. Of these, energy is the most important, as it is the vital link between body and mind. When this vitalising energy becomes imbalanced, the physical body and the mind also lose their balance resulting in ill-health . Good balance results in a healthy body, a clear calm mind, and abundant energy. Imbalance arises as the effect of negative causes. In TTM, negative causes are classified as primary or secondary. Primary causes always arise from negative or destructive mental attitudes such as anger or aggression; lust, unhealthy attachment or desire, and ignorance. Secondary causes are the perpetuating factors such as incorrect diet and life style, or acute precipitating factors. THE TIBETAN MEDICAL PHARMACOPEA In the Tibetan pharmacopea, natural herbs, plants and wild-flowers are employed for their therapeutic effects. A variety of mineral and a smaller number of animal-derived substances are also used. Many of these substances can be found all over Asia; however some specific, particularly powerful herbs and minerals are found only on the Tibetan high plateau. Due to the pristine nature of this environment, the ingredients of the Tibetan Materia Medica is particularly pure. Tibetan medicines are formulated according to two guiding principles – Taste and Potency. Doctors examine the tastes of substances and compound a combination of medicines. Each substance of the Materia Medica has a natural potency which is independent of taste and services to guide the compounding. Using ancient texts and generations of Tibetan Medical recipes, Tibetan doctors are still producing both of these types of medicines. A simple remedy might contain 10 substances, whereas a more complex formula might contain as many as 70 ingredients. Remedies may be given as pills, powders, decoctions, concentrates, creams or lotions. There are approximately 500 medicinal formulae currently in common usage. These remedies have the function of restoring the balance of the three Humors. Scientific studies are now demonstrating the efficacy of these Tibetan formulae. (International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007)

A Tibetan Medical Apothecary

Examples of Traditional Tibetan Medicines: The medicines are made according to an age-old tradition, which follows strict methods and uses sophisticated processing techniques. BODIES IN BALANCE

If you’re in the New York City area and interested in learning more about what  ancient, traditional medicine has to offer us today, I highly recommend a visit to The Rubin Museum’s exhibit Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine before it closes on September 8, 2014. Here’s information about the exhibit. The Rubin’s website also has an interesting interactive section about Tibetan Medicine in the 21st century. See: Exhibition Preview Video Are You In Balance? Take the Quiz:  According to Tibetan medical knowledge, the human body is composed of three forces (called nyepas in Tibetan) that are responsible for physical and mental well-being. Maintaining the balance of these forces ensures good health. To discover a patient’s dominant force or forces, a Tibetan doctor would perform a variety of diagnostic procedures, including an interview and observation of the body. Take this quiz to answer a sampling of the questions a Tibetan doctor might ask you to determine your dominant force or forces. For each of the questions select the responses that best apply to the way you feel. For some questions more than one response may be possible, and you can select all of the responses that apply. If no responses apply, you can skip the question. Nourish, Practice, Know:  A series of events and workshops that explore the power of food, contemplative practice, and life-long learning to help us balance our bodies.  Through outings to Jackson Heights kitchens, yoga and meditation classes, and our signature conversation series, we will hear from ethnobotanists, Tibetan doctors, chefs, aromatherapists, and others about the path to wellness. Tibetan Medicine in the World Today : Tibetan medicine has long been practiced far beyond the Tibetan Plateau. As early as the seventh century, hagiographic accounts of the practice’s beginnings recall an international gathering of eminent physicians from India, China, and Persia that provided the initial momentum for its emergence. The term used for Tibetan doctors in many regions (amchi) is a Mongolian word and a Tibetan pharmacy relies extensively on raw ingredients not found on the Tibetan Plateau. Basic ingredients used in the majority of Tibetan formulas, such as chebulic and beleric myrobalan and the Indian gooseberry, as well as many other highly valued materials are not native to Tibet and have to be imported from other climate zones. We invite you to explore the videos and photos gathered on this site to see how Tibetan medicine has continued to spread across the world, namely how it is practiced today throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. TIBETAN MEDICINE IN THE MODERN WORLD Here’s some information from the Rubin Museum’s website about the current study and practice of Tibetan Medicine in countries around the modern world: PADMA, INC.:  A Swiss pharmaceutical company called Padma Inc. now  produces registered Tibetan pharmaceuticals according to Western standards of pharmaceutical safety and efficacy. The company was established in 1969 by a Swiss businessman and a Polish doctor of Buryat origin. The first two products registered under Swiss law were based on formulas from Aginsk Monastery in Buryatia.

PADMA Circosan is a medicinal product produced in Switzerland according to a proven recipe of Tibetan medicine. This product is used for disorders with symptoms such as; tingling sensation, formication, feeling of heaviness and tension in the legs and arms, numbness of the hands and feet and calf cramps.

According to the tradition of Tibetan medicine, the product has circulation-stimulating and anti-inflammatory effects and antibacterial properties in respiratory-tract infections. This is due to the multi-target concept of the formula with its many active substances.

Aginsky Datsan of Buryatia in the Amur Basin of Eastern Siberia, 1914. ROYAL EDINBURGH BOTANICAL GARDENS: The  Royal Edinburgh Botanical Gardens has a horticulture training aimed at helping Tibetan doctors face the challenge of cultivating medicinal plants that are quickly disappearing from the Tibetan Plateau. One of these plants is the blue Himalayan poppy, a plant that also grows in Scotland.

Himalayan Blue Poppy SHANG SHUNG INSTITUTE SCHOOL OF TIBETAN MEDICINE:  Originally established in Italy in 1989 by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, the Shang Shung Institute School of Tibetan Medicine launched a branch in the United States in 1994 in Conway, Massachusetts. The Institute offers public programs to “deepen the knowledge and the understanding of the Tibetan cultural traditions in its religious…and medical…aspects in order to contribute to the…preservation of this culture.” The school is the first in the United States to offer a four-year curriculum in Tibetan medical practice.

There’s also an excellent – and beautiful –  book based on the exhibit, Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine, edited by anthropologist Theresia Hofer, curator of the Bodies in Balance show. From the preface to the book: Tibetan Medicine had likely been the most complete, codified, and learned medicine that existed prior to the development of conventional Western biomedicine. It contained the knowledge of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine concepts, complementing them with indigenous diagnostic and therapeutic methods and practices. … The exhibition is entitled Bodies in Balance, which suggests that the major aim of Tibetan medicine is to heal the sick and suffering by restoring a lost balance, mentally and physically. This implies that behind the symptoms of disease there can be a wide variety of causes for the imbalance. … The state of the mind is as important as that of the body when healing is concerned, a holistic view that transforms the scope of diagnosis and treatment. – Jan Van Alphen, Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Research, Rubin Museum of Art

The book is available at the Rubin and also from Amazon. Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine is the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary exploration of the triangular relationship between the Tibetan art and science of healing (Sowa Rigpa), Buddhism, and the visual arts. This book is dedicated to the history, theory, and practice of Tibetan medicine, a unique and complex system of understanding body and mind, treating illness, and fostering health and well-being. Rooted in classical Indian medicine, Sowa Rigpa has been influenced by Chinese, Greco-Arab, and indigenous medical knowledge and practices and further developed within the context of Buddhism in Tibet. It adapted to new geographic, socio-cultural, and medical environments on the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, and Mongolia and survives today as a living medical tradition whose principles are at the heart of many complementary therapies now widely used in the West. (Amazon, 2014)

Tenzin Nambul checking a patient’s right and left pulses. Pulse reading is a very important and complex method of diagnosis in Tibetan Medicine. It is done differently from other oriental traditional medicines. There are two major aspects of Pulse Diagnosis: Pulse reading to establish the individual’s underlying typology and Pulse reading to ascertain pathology. (International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007)

Ancient Tibetan Medical Painting

The Tibetan Medicine Buddha: The “Atlas of Tibetan Medicine” or “Tibetan Medical Thanka” is preserved in the Museum of History in Ulan-Ude in Eastern Siberia.


Hot Stone Therapy

Acupuncture: The knowledge of Tibetan acupuncture was lost for many years. Tibetan acupuncture differs from Chinese acupuncture. (International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007)

Tibetan Massage: Ku Nye is the traditional Tibetan medical massage used for the prevention of disease as well as to treat disease. Specific acupressure points and meridians are used as well as specific therapeutic herbal oils.

(International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007)

Tibetan Moxa:  Moxibustion is a heating therapy utilizing the herb leontopodium which is dried, crushed and formed into a cone that is burned and applied over specific points in order to provide heat. This is one of the most important external therapies used for cold conditions – such as digestive problems, poor circulation and dull pain. Specific points are used for different conditions. There are 20 different types of moxibustion in Tibetan Medicine, each using different materials. (International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, 2007)

Vibrational Sound Therapy: Tibetan Singing Bowls: Here’s a video of a Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation

Healing Spices Used in Cooking

Cupping Treatment

Tibetan Yoga

Tibetan Meditation OTHER TRADITIONAL MEDICAL SYSTEMS There are many other traditional medical systems that developed around the world before the advent of modern medicine. They also regarded the mind and body as one and focused on healing imbalances in the system. Some examples: TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE

Traditional Chinese Medicine Aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine are acupuncture, Chinese herbology, massage, exercise and nutritional therapy. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a 3000 year old tradition still used today by a quarter of the world’s population. It is based on the concept of Qi (pronounced chee) – the life force or vital energy. Qi is the animating force that serves to warm us, protect us from external pathogenic factors, promote the functions of the body and hold our organs and tissues in place. As with Traditional Tibetan Medicine, the goal of Traditional Chinese Medicine is to guide the body back into balance. Traditional Chinese medicine is holistic, treating the whole person (mind, body, spirit), not just the illness. (San Francisco Natural Medicine, 2009) AYURVEDA

Ayurvedic Principles Ayurvedic Healing, the science of life, is a system of therapies developed in India over 3,000 years ago and still practiced today. It’s concepts of health and disease include the use of herbs, nutrition, acupressure massage, Yoga, Jyotish (Vedic astrology), and panchakarma cleansing (a cleansing and rejuvenating program for the body, mind and consciousness, known for its beneficial effects on overall health, wellness and self-healing). (The Ayurvedic Institute, 2011) SHAMANISM

Shamanism is a term used to describe “energy medicine” around the world. Shamans are individuals within a tribe, village or region who assist people in assist people in their community with matters of health – physical, psychological or pertaining to the larger questions of life. Shamans are wise healers, medicine men or women who possess deep knowledge of the preparation and uses of healing plants. They use this knowledge in conjunction with the forces of nature to effect cures. Unlike the focus of Western Medicine, from the shaman’s perspective, medicine is more about healing the person than curing a disease. Shamans in the jungles of Amazonia and elsewhere around the world have passed their wisdom of the medicinal value of indigenous plants down from one generation to the next. The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest, is home to a quarter of earth’s botanical species – as well as to hundreds of Indian tribes whose medicinal plants have never been studied by Western scientists. A fascinating introduction in the ancient wisdom of shamans is Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest. Aspirin, the world’s most widely used drug, is based on compounds originally extracted from the bard of a willow tree. More than a quarter of our pharmaceutical drugs contain plant compounds. Western Medicine, now faced with the health crises of AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and cancers, has begun to look to the healing plants used by indigenous peoples to try to develop new pharmaceuticals.  Plotkin is an ethnobotanist and plant explorer, an expert on rainforest ecosystems, an active advocate for rainforest conservation, and also quite a good writer. I also highly recommend an award-winning documentary film about Plotkin’s adventures with shamans in the Amazon: The Shaman’s Apprentice: the search for knowledge in the Amazon rain forest. It’s 54 minutes long.


Homeopathy is a system of medicine that treats the individual with highly diluted substances, given mainly in tablet form, with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing. Based on their specific symptoms, a homeopath will match the most appropriate medicine to each patient. The principle of treating “like with like” dates back to Hippocrates (460-377BC) but in its current form, homeopathy has been widely used worldwide for more than 200 years. It was developed by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), who was shocked by the harsh medical practices of his day (which included blood-letting, purging and the use of poisons such as arsenic) and looked for a way to reduce the damaging side-effects associated with medical treatment. (Society of Homeopaths, 2014) Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia was founded in 1885 to teach homeopathy to American students. It is now a center for Western Medicine. REFLEXOLOGY

Reflexology Chart: Soles of the Feet Reflexology, or zone therapy, is an alternative medical practice involving the application of pressure to the feet, hands or ears with specific thumb, finger and hand techniques.  Reflexology is based on a system of zones and reflex areas that reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands to effect a physical change on the corresponding part of  the body. Practices resembling reflexology have been documented in the histories of China and Egypt. Zone therapy was introduced to the United States in 1913 by William H. Fitzgerald, M.D. (1872–1942), an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and Dr. Edwin Bowers. It was modified in the 1930’s and 1940’s by Eunice D. Ingham (1889–1974), a nurse and physiotherapist.  Ingham mapped the entire body into “reflexes” on the feet renaming “zone therapy” as reflexology. Modern reflexologists use Ingham’s methods or similar techniques developed by the reflexologist Laura Norman. (Wikipedia, 2014) QUANTUM HEALING

Human Energy Field Quantum Healing evolved from the scientific principles of Quantum Physics. Everything in the universe is made up of only matter and energy. Matter describes the physical things around us: our earth, the other planets, the atmosphere, trees, water, our bodies, etc. Matter is actually energy condensed to a slower vibration that converts it to a more visible state.  Instead of disappearing after the conversion, energy particles continually transform in a never-ending process.  All reality exists on a subatomic level.  Even the Greeks had already conceived the atomistic nature of matter and the concept was raised to a high degree of probability by the scientists of the nineteenth century.  But it was Planck’s law of radiation that yielded the first exact determination – independent of other assumptions – of the absolute magnitudes of atoms. More than that, he showed convincingly that in addition to the atomistic structure of matter there is a kind of atomistic structure to energy, governed by the universal constant h, which was introduced by Planck.– Albert Einstein

In the early 1900’s, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein postulated a formula of relativity, E=mc², in which E=energy. m=matter, and c²=the speed of light multiplied by itself. This formula states that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content – ie,  that mass and energy are two forms of the same thing. In the right condition (the near-to-light speed), mass can turn into energy and energy can turn into mass.

Albert Einstein

This relationship applied to our bodies and energy forms the basis of Quantum Healing.

All our physical and emotional difficulties have a counterpart in our energy system – and they can be treated at that level. The focus of Quantum Healing is on correcting the flow of blocked energy or energy that is out of harmony. This addresses the cause of the difficulty, not just its effect. This kind of healing holistically transforms the cause. Most other approaches only try to treat the symptom. A good introduction to Quantum Healing is The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing. Here’s its trailer.

REFERENCES Ayurvedic Institute. (2011). See:

Becker, G. (2010). The Living Matrix: Film on the New Science of Healing.  See: Hofer, T. (2014). Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine. See: International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine. (2007). Traditional Tibetan Medicine – An Overview.  See: Merriam-Webster. (2014). Disease.  See: Plotkin, M.J. (1993). Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest. Penguin Books. Miranda Productions. (2001). The Shaman’s Apprentice: The Search for Knowledge in the Amazon Rain Forest. Film. Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. (2014). Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine. See: San Franciso Natural Medicine. (2009). Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) & Acupuncture.  See:

Society of Homeopaths. (2014). What is Homeopathy?  See: Tibetan Wellness & Healing Center. (no date). See: Wikipedia. (2014). Reflexology.  See:

© Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

How’s this for fascinating? Amazing Resonance Experiment – The Sacred Geometry Of Sound This experiment is the Chladni plate experiment. It uses a tone generator, a wave driver (speaker) and a metal plate attached to the speaker. First add sand to the plate then begin playing a tone. Certain frequencies vibrate the metal plate in such a way that it creates areas where there is no vibration. The sand “falls” into those areas, creating beautiful geometric patterns. As the frequency increases in pitch the patterns become more complex.

“Cymatics” reveals a strange & beautiful symmetry at work in nature. Inspired by the work of Dr Hans Jenny, the images mirror the symmetries found throughout the natural world, from the hidden shapes buried within snowflakes to the massive hexagonal cloud formations found

on Saturn. “If you want to understand the universe, think of energy, frequency, and vibration.” – Nikola Tesla

Joan Hardin


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