Tibetan Medicine


Samye Ling Stupa
Holy Island Stupas

Mani Wall at Simdzi
Holy Mountain of Drakar
Woodblock Printing at Dege

Structures and Settlements




Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche is a Tibetan lama and doctor who came to the West in the 1960's. He was recognised at an early age for his gifted qualities and was trained and educated to become abbot of Drolma Lhakhang, a small but distinguished monastery and retreat complex in a very high and desolate part of eastern Tibet. He was also educated as a doctor of Tibetan Medicine, as the previous abbot, the first Akong, had been known for his healing ability.

Professor Khenpo Tsenam, Tibet's most famous exponent of TTM, in jovial mood, mixing medicines in a master class at the Tara College

A Tibetan doctor palpating the pulse of a patient
at one of Rokpa's clinics in Eastern Tibet

Sample materia medica and medical paintings in a Tibetan clinic

The medical world can be split into two basic categories the direct diagnostic approach and that of technology based observation, Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) lies within the former category. The knowledge behind Tibetan Medicine has been practised and developed for over 2500 years. In the 7th century the first Youtok Yonten Gonpo, the greatest physician of Tibet who had studied extensively the essence of Chinese and Ayurvidic medicine, wrote the first medical texts on Tibetan Medicine, known as the "Four Tantras". The four Tantras explain how the body is formed, and how it functions right down to the smallest cells in relationship with the five elements and also how it deteriorates, how to prevent disease and how to cure aliments .

The Five Elements
In Tibetan Medicine, one finds both the Indian and the Chinese systems of the "five elements":

The Indian system, in which they apear primarily as the 5 fundamental components of all relative phenomena, corresponding to what, on one level, we would currently call matter, bonding, thermodynamics, kinesis and space.

The Chinese system, in which they appear in a more dynamic sense, corresponding to four general phases of all life cycles and an underlying ground state, i.e. initial growth, maturation, decomposition and resorption into the whole, that is taking place on all sorts of levels and over all sorts of timescales, from the molecular right up to the duration of a human life.

These two systems are not contradictory but complementary. Both are employed extensively in Tibetan medicine. Pulse palpation, for instance, is very much concerned with attuning to the immediate state of the body and so uses the dynamic form of the elements. The pharmaceutical theory of TTM however is more concerned with the more constant therapeutic properties of its materia medica, and hence resorts more to the compositional aspects of the 5 elements.

Helping to Preserve Traditional Tibetan Medicine
TTM texts describe over 2,000 substances used to make medicines in TTM. In practice, the largest hospitals employ up to 800 and a doctor in a remote valley, sourcing and making his or her own medicines, may use around 100.
Although Tibetan Medicine is held in high esteem throughout Asia, it also faces real and present danger of extinction, even by its very popularity, with the breakdown of traditional Tibetan culture. Urgent effort needs to put into stopping the pillaging of the rare plant and animal resources of the Tibetan plateau in order to satisfy the Asian market. This will be best accomplished by creating high-altitude farms of materia medica as a cottage industry for the indigenous Tibetan people, who lack employment.

:TTM in the West - Maintaining high standards
Ttraditional Tibetan Medicine is being discovered by the modern West and, so far as its medicines are concerned, there is much to be learnt both about the therapeutic uses of individual materials as well as about the theory and practice of their combination and the resulting synergy. Preservation of the highest standards of medical scholarship, training and practice are in urgent need of support. Rokpa International, a Swiss-based humanitarian organisation, already has a number of on-going initiatives for Tibetan medical education, preservation of medical knowledge and provision of clinics in remote areas.
Tara Rokpa is concerned with the healing arts, both in terms of psychotherapy and medicine. The Tara Rokpa College of Tibetan Medicine offers both training and clinics. Before Western patients can truly benefit from these ancient formulae, large-scale research needs to be done to credible double-blind standards both to authenticate the value of these medicines and to guarantee their safety. Tara Rokpa Edinburgh propose to support a factory for the production of purely herbal Tibetan Medicines which will meet UK and European Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) standards as well as the traditional Tibetan ones.