The Tibetan Way Religion and Medical Traditions

Bookworm Issue 91 Jul, 2010

'The Tibetan way, Religion and Medical Tradition' by Susan Hoivik, was published by Eco Himal in 2004 and is available at their information center. Susan Hoivik holds degrees from Columbia University, New York, Leeds University, UK; and the University of Oslo, Norway. She is also author of the book, ‘Reflections of a Western grandmother in Nepa'l.

The Tibetan Way is a book divided into three parts. The first deals with Buddhism as the religion it is today and Susan Hoivik writes about Buddhism in a way that clears much of the confusion. She writes about the history of the Buddha and his teachings as well as the later development of Buddhism into its various schools of thought. The writer, undoubtedly an expert on the topic, also sheds light on the meaning of highly symbolic structures such as the prayer flags, the wind horse (lung ta) and the prayer wheel; the significance of the stupa (chorten) designs, as well as other sacred symbols and mantras. One chapter is dedicated to the Bon religion of Tibet and its effects on Tibetan traditions.

The second part of the book talks about Tibetan medicine. The author declares ‘Tibetan medicine (or Gso-wa Tig-pa, the knowledge of healing) to be similar to other great Asian systems of health and well being, in that it is a holistic approach that focuses on balance as the key to good health. The reader is introduced to the basic principles of Tibetan medicines in a way that is quite understandable. The reader learns that health according to Tibetan medicine is a balance between various physical, psychological and spiritual elements and that this basic principle underlines the practice of Tibetan medicine.

The three poisons of existence are described as: 1. lung (desire, attachment) which is related to air, 2. tripa (anger, aggression) related to fire, and 3. beken (ignorance, delusion) related to earth and water. Diseases are also classified into hot (tsawa) or cold (dangwa). Tibetan medicine emphasizes correct diet, correct thought and lifestyle, correct medicine and auxiliary techniques as the means of healing diseases.

Diagnostic tools of Tibetan medicine are stated to be primarily conversation, examination of urine and the taking of pulses. Susan Hoivik goes on to describe in interesting detail about these methods. The author however hastens to add that her book is only a greatly over-simplified presentation of a very complex subject matter and she stresses on the ‘supreme importance of a responsive, trust based Amchi (trained practitioner)/patient relationship. According to the author, 84,000 ‘affective emotions’ generate 84,000 types of disorders and these can be condensed to 404 specific diseases.

Susan also lets us know that the etiology, diagnosis and treatment are described, illustrated and specified in the Gyu shi; the basic text for students of Tibetan medicine. The book is also very informative on Tibetan medicinal plants that can be categorized according to taste as sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent. Further, Amchis operates with six stages of the life cycle of the plants starting from juvenile and ending at dry stage.

The third part of the book deals with Jharkot (3,600 m.), a small village located on the trekking route around the Annapurna massif near the religious centre of Muktinath and its surroundings. The monastery in Jharkot houses a small centre for Tibetan medicine, the Tibetan Medical Center, where traditional methods are preserved and passed on by an Amchi and two assistants to about 30 students. Basic education is imparted in Tibetan, English and Nepali languages and later, courses in Buddhist philosophy and a seven-year training in Tibetan medicine and herbology follows. The center is a joint venture between some Austrian academic institutions, including Eco Himal, and Tibetan medical practitioners to preserve important traditional knowledge. This part of the book also has a chapter on Muktinath, which is a sacred place both for Buddhists and Hindus. It is also one of the 51 Sakhti Piths.

On the whole, ‘The Tibetan Way’ has much knowledge about a unique subject, packed into a slim book. It is a wonder that the author has managed to do so. n

Amar B Shrestha is author of 'The Dark Mermaid'