Category Archives: Tibetan Medicine

Homage to the Spiritual Masters!

H.H. 34th Menri Trizin Rinpoche and H.E. Menri Pönlop Rinpoche visit the medical college at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown.

EMAHO!

To the lama who is the embodiment of all of the Victors and spiritual masters,

who acts principally through the accomplishment of Bön for sentient beings who are as limitless as the sky,

I offer prostrations with my body, prostrating with my arms, legs and head!

I prostrate with my speech, chanting with a joyous and inspired melody!

I prostrate with my mind, prostrating with single-pointed motivation and devotion!

May the negative actions and defilements of my three doors become purified!”

—Extract from Offerings for the Lama

All translations and content by Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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Sacred Signs

Handprint in stone of the one known as the Second Buddha, the 1st Menri Trizen, Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen. Photo credit: Unknown

The Six Excellent Substances

The Six Excellent Substances are added to the dry tsampa when making torma. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

A common group of ingredients needed for making torma,  and used in many Tibetan medicines is called Zang Druk, the Six Excellent Substances.  These six substances are: 1) Chu gang, 2) Gur gum, 3) Li shi, 4) Dza ti, 5) Suk mel, and 6) Ka ko la.  These substances are ground into powder and mixed together.

There are three types of Chu gang: 1) Tree Chu gang, 2) Rock Chu gang, and 3) Water Chu gang.   Tree chu gang comes from an Indian tree similar to bamboo.  It forms a milky white juice at the joints of the tree.  Rock chu gang is hard like a stone, and water chu gang comes from rivulets found on mountains such as Mount Tisé.

The plant which produces saffron is Crocus sativus.

The common name for Gur gum is saffron.  In general, there is low, medium and high quality grades of saffron. The common name for Li shi is cloves.  The common name for Dza ti is nutmeg.  The common name for Suk mel is cardamom.  This is also known as green cardamom.  The common name for Ka ko la is black cardamom.

Raven Cypress Wood© All Rights Reserved

Ancient Medicine for Modern Times

The Enlightened Lord Tonpa Shenrap in his appearance as the Medicine Buddha

Tibetan Medicine originated many thousands of years before Tibet was an autonomous kingdom.  In order to alleviate the suffering of sentient beings, the founder of Yungdrung Bön, the Enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche, taught medical science directly to his disciples over 18,000 years ago.  In his emanation as master of this knowledge, Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwoche is called Sangye Menlha, the Medicine Buddha. This knowledge is considered part of the First Way of Bön.  Responsibility for holding this medical lineage was given directly to the Buddha’s own son, Chebu Trishe.    This vast medical knowledge was written into a group of texts known as the Bum Zhi, The Four Volumes.  These four volumes are: 1) The Root which is the Mind, the Blue Sky Volume, 2) Completely Victorious Medicine, the White Volume, 3) Methods of Diagnosis and Healing, the Mixed Color Volume, and 4) Remedies for Curing Disease, the Black Volume.  These texts were translated into the Tibetan language in the 4th century but had to be hidden during the 7th century due to religious persecution of Yungdrung Bön.  One method of concealment involved changing the language so as to reflect Buddhist themes.  This modified text was renamed the Gyu Zhi.  The original Yundrung Bön Bum Zhi was thought to be lost until modern times when the eminent scholar Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche found the text within the Bön Kangyur.  Now, it is being widely distributed once again.

The studies involved in becoming an Amchi, or Tibetan doctor, are quite difficult and take many years.  In addition to knowing the causes and treatments for balance and imbalance within the human body, the Amchi must also devote themselves to spiritual practice and the cultivation of compassion and generosity, understand the intricate relationship between the conditions of the external environment and the internal environment of the patient, and be a master herbalist and pharmacist who gathers, produces and dispenses medicine.

Left: Herbal combination Center: Medicinal substances made into pills Right: Gem medicine, or Precious pills

Within this medical system, there are a multitude of medical treatments that must be mastered such as moxibustion, massage, cupping, precise physical movements & exercises, preparation of medicinal baths and the use of oral medicines.  Some methods have multiple kinds of applications which are determined by the illness being treated.  For example, within the category of administering medicine, there are ten different categories: decoctions, powders, pills, medicinal paste, medicinal butter, medicinal ash, concentrates, medicinal wine, gem medicine and herbal combinations.  Some of these have multiple variations and many of them take days to months to prepare.  The Amchi must determine which method to use and how to properly administer it to the patient.

Left: Amchi Yuthok Tsewang, Amchi Nyima’s father. Right: Amchi Nyima preparing medicine. Photo credit: Unknown

The practice and knowledge of this ancient medical system has remained uninterrupted from the time of Lord Tönpa Shenrap until this very day.  Amchi Nyima Samphel Gurung is a doctor, or Amchi, within the Yungdrung Bön Tibetan Medical tradition.  In 1968, he was born into a medicine lineage of the Jara clan.  This clan had been the personal physicians to the kings of Dzar Dzong, Mustang.  For at least nine continuous generations, and perhaps many more, this family have been the physicians for their region.  Amchi Nyima first studied medicine with HH Menri Trizen Lungtok Tenpa’i Nyima Rinpoche at Menri Monastery.  Returning to his home in Mustang, Nepal, he then studied under the guidance of his father, Dr. Yuthok Tsewang.  Following the advice of HE Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, he went on to study medicine at the Medical School of the Four Tantras in Dhorpatan.  In 2001, Amchi Nyima graduated during a ceremony at Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Left: Men gyal, the main medicine bag. Right: Men khuk, medicine pouches

At the Medical School of the Four Tantras in Dhorpatan, Nepal, Amchi Nyima studied under Ragshi Tsultrim Sangye.  At the conclusion of his studies, this special teacher made him a men gyal, or medicine bag.  Traditionally, these bags were used when a doctor traveled or visited patients at their home.  The medicine bag would be filled with smaller medicine pouches that contained the various medicinal combinations that might be needed for the patients.  Amchi Nyima’s medicine bag is made of an animal hide chosen for its energetic properties to contain the power of the medicines as they are being carried.  The outside of the bag has symbols representing the Medicine Buddha and his retinue as well as the sixteen powerful khandro and each of the four directions.  Today, it is less and less common for a Tibetan doctor to use one of these traditional medicine bags.

Amchi Nyima currently lives in the village of Muktinath located in Mustang, Nepal.  He also frequently travels to both Europe and the United States in order to treat patients.  Although he has complete knowledge of the many methods of treatment, his specialty is medical massage known as kunye.  When giving a medical massage, Amchi Nyima first generates himself as the Medicine Buddha.  At the conclusion of the massage, he dedicates the activity for the benefit of all beings.

Amchi Nyima reading a patient’s pulse during a consultation

From his experience treating Westerners, Amchi Nyima has observed that there are a few recurring imbalances caused by the Western lifestyle.  The prevalence of raw food such as salad and reliance upon food that has been frozen has contributed to digestive ailments for many people.  He has also noticed that many Westerners believe that they are ‘fat’ and therefore either severely restrict food or skip meals entirely.  He comments that this is a big problem and causes deep imbalance within the body.  In general, he has seen that the tendency to worry and think too much places great stress upon those in Western countries.

Preparation for an appointment with Amchi Nyima begins the day before.  Patients need to refrain from strong physical exertion, sexual activity, and stressful situations.  Also, the patient should not have caffeine such as coffee or strong tea the evening before their appointment.  All of these things affect the pulses.  After the patient has gone to bed, it is important for them to collect the second urine, usually in the early morning, in a clean, dry, glass container.  Ideally, the patient is seen in the morning before eating or drinking anything.  However, this is not always possible.  Therefore, the patient should at least not drink caffeine and eat very lightly until their appointment.  Amchi Nyima relies upon the three techniques for obtaining a diagnosis: 1) Looking, 2) Touching, and 3) Questioning.  He will look at the general presentation of the patient including their face, eyes and tongue.  He will look at the urine’s color, movement, and qualities.   He will touch the patient’s wrists and thereby feel their skin tone, temperature and also read their pulses.  during this time, he will also question the patient concerning their concerns and experience of symptoms.  The entirety of the patient is taken into consideration including their emotional, mental and spiritual condition as well as their external environment.  From this, he is able to ascertain the root cause of illness as well as its branch symptoms.  He will then determine a proper course of treatment.  Tibetan medicine has no negative side effects and is especially ideal for those patients who are weak and have low vitality.

Amchi Nyima Samphel Gurung gathering medicinal plants. Photo credit: Unknown

Traditionally, a Tibetan doctor’s home is also his office.  Patients arrive at any time of day or night and are treated regardless of whether they are rich or poor.  In fact, the services of a Tibetan medical doctor are free and considered part of their practice of compassion.  However, the community understands the importance of supporting the doctor and continuing his ability to serve.  Therefore, patients offer whatever they are able in exchange for medical treatment.  In modern times however, Amchis have needed to adapt to the Western idea of setting a fee for service due to the growing dependence upon a monetary economy as well as the increase of Western patients who are unaware of the understanding between the doctor and the community.   Also, Westerners traveling in Nepal who are in need of medical attention have no knowledge of where to find the local doctor or how to receive treatment.  These are some of the reasons that Amchi Nyima has begun plans for a medical clinic in his village, The Ancient Bumzhi Medical Collection & Processing Center.  The clinic will also cultivate medicinal plants that are in danger of being lost through over harvesting by business interests. In this way, Amchi Nyima is working to preserve this ancient medical tradition for generations to come.

If you would like more information about Amchi Nyima’s travel schedule, please contact Raven Cypress Wood: RCW108@gmail.com

 

Movement of the Soul through the Body

soul through the body image 2

In the Yungdrung Bön tradition, the soul is known as la.  According to sutra, the soul is defined as the innermost, subtle essence of the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth. The primary locus of the soul continually moves throughout the body and completes one full cycle each month in accordance with the cycle of the moon.  Within Tibetan medical texts, it is advised to not bleed, damage, or conduct surgery in the area of the body in which the soul is located at any given time.  The exact location of the soul differs slightly between texts.  The translation below is from the medical text, Menbum Karpo.

movement of the soul color chart 3

 

The First Way: Divination, Astrology, Ritual and Medicine

Detail from the tree of health and illness which shows the root, branches and leaves of both health and illness. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

The First of the Nine Ways of Bön is The Way of the Shen of Prediction and contains methods of divination, astrology, healing rituals and medical diagnosis which deal directly with the concerns of this present, worldly life. As in all of the Nine Ways, the basis for all practice is compassion.  Although the ultimate goal is enlightenment and complete release from the suffering and misery of cyclic existence, the perspective of The Way of the Shen of Prediction is upon the individual’s immediate circumstances during this very lifetime.  Within the Yungdrung Bön tradition, the knowledge related to the divination, astrology, healing, and medical diagnosis is vast.  In the words of the Buddha Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwo:

“In general, there are 360 different kinds of divination.  There are 360 kinds of astrological calculation.  There are 360 kinds of ritual and 21,000 methods of diagnosis in order to avert the danger of death.” 

Divination or mo, This is a method through which one can obtain guidance for worldly questions such as, “Will my new project be successful?” or “Will my travel be safe?” If the answer is negative, the text will either recommend a different course of action or suggest an antidote such as prayers or ritual that could change the projected course of events for the positive. It is common to ask a lama for a divination for any number of reasons such as success of new projects, buying or selling a home, traveling, health, or marriage.

Copy of an old text detailing a method of divination taught directly by Lord Tönpa Shenrap. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

There are four categories of divination within Yungdrung Bön tradition: 1) using a mala or die, 2) using the drala, or powerful protective spirits who are considered messengers of the gods, 3) dreams, and 4) reading signs and symbols. For each of these methods, it is necessary to receive instructions, transmission and empowerment. Then, a prescribed individual retreat is undertaken in order to receive the blessings and power of the respective deity associated with the divination.

astrology thangkha

Astrological deities and symbols of the Yungdrung Bön. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

Astrology or tsi, is a method to determine the harmony or disharmony with the external forces of the universe as well as a calculation of the flow of time.  For example, the Tibetan New Year begins somewhere between the beginning of February and the end of March. The exact date is determined astrologically. Each year is characterized by one of the five elements and by one of twelve animals which are alternatively male or female.  The qualities of this element and animal combination are identified with every individual born within that year. Subsequently, it is possible to use astrology in order to calculate the probable effect of any given year upon an individual in relation to health, success, wealth etc. For example, someone born in the year of the Male Wood Rat (1984) would have their force of good luck ruled by the wood element.  The year 2013 of the Western calendar was a Female Water Snake year and the year’s  force of good luck is ruled by the water element.  Because the wood element and the water element have a naturally positive relationship, the Male Wood Rat person is likely to have a very positive year related to their force of good luck.  It takes sixty years in order to complete the cycle of twelve animals and five elements.

Astrological calculations are important in order to ascertain the most favorable date and time for important events such as religious festivals, marriages, travel, significant business dealings, healing rituals, funerals, etc.  In this way, the events that take place can be in harmony with the natural energies of the universe and therefore amplify the positive outcome.

A Yungdrung Bön monk prepares for a longevity and life ransom ritual. Photo credit: Geshe Chapur Lhundrup Rinpoche.

Ritual or to, ritual methods used to prevent or stop harm coming from unseen, external forces.  According to the texts, what we perceive as empty space is actually crowded with beings that are invisible to us.  Because humanity damages and pollutes the external environment without consideration for these other beings, we cause harm and offense to these unseen spirits who then seek repayment or revenge.  This can lead to sudden unexplained loss or illness that is resistant to medical cure.

Once divination or astrology has established that the source of the disturbance is one or more of these external unseen forces, a specific ritual is advised in order to restore health and harmony.  Traditionally, a lama is asked to come to the home in order to perform the necessary ritual.  The family hosts the lama and the assistants for the duration of the ritual.  Some rituals are concluded in a single day.  Others may can take many days to complete.

Medical Diagnosis  or men, is a method of diagnosing the cause of a physical illness and prescribing a medicine to bring about a cure. The root of health is awareness and virtuous behavior, and the root of illness is ignorance and non-virtuous behavior.  This idea is expounded at great length in the Yungdrung Bön medical texts.   Health is the balance of the qualities of wind, bile and phlegm within the body.  Illness is the weakness, damage or excess of any or all of these qualities.  The hot or cold nature of the imbalance is also taken into consideration.

Old-style Tibetan medicine bags. Photo credit: Dr. Nyima Gurung.

When diagnosing the root cause of an illness, the doctor will use the three techniques for diagnosis: 1) seeing, 2) touching, and 3) questioning. These include observing the general demeanor of the patient, listening to the sound of their voice, studying the appearance and shape of their tongue, examining the qualities of their urine, and feeling the multiple pulses of both wrists.  The doctor will also question the patient about their behavior, diet and the onset of symptoms.

When prescribing medicine, the Tibetan doctor gives herbal medicines that are to be taken at specific times of day.  Medicine is most effective when taken at the time that the disease is most active or at the designated time of the affected organ.  Additionally, the doctor will give advice for diet and behavior, sometimes prescribing that a patient be more generous and less greedy, or to spend more time with spiritual practice and less time with mindless distraction.  Prevention of disease includes the discrimination of beneficial and harmful activities as well as an appropriate diet with a proper balance of rest and activity.

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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