History of Tibetan medicine

The Origin of Tibetan Medicine

The science of healing is called gso ba rig pa in Tibetan. There are many descriptions and narrations of the history of Tibetan medicine; most of them express mythic or possible origins. Buddhists believe that it dates back to Buddha Śākyamuni (the historical Buddha). Buddha Śākyamuni’s central doctrine of the “Four Noble Truths” is expressed in medical terminology, and teaches the way to the cessation of suffering.
The origins of Tibetan medicine can be traced back to the first medical conference organized by the famous Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (627-649 AD, Tib. srong btsan sgam po). In the same period the Tibetan alphabet was adapted from Sanskrit and the first translations of Indian and Chinese Buddhist texts were begun. During this time, doctors from India, China and Persia were invited to Tibet, bringing with them medical texts that were afterwards translated into Tibetan. The royal initiative also led to a great number of medicine-related compositions, and the first medical school was then founded. The Persian doctor Galenos (whose name may reflect the Greek origin of his teachings), remained in Tibet to server as the kings physician. Thus, the seventh century can be claimed as the beginning of “professional medicine”
In the eighth century an even larger international conference took place. King Thrisong Detsen (Tib. khri srong lde bstan) invited physicians from India, Kashmir, Nepal, China, Iran, and the Turkic regions of Central Asia such as the present-day Afghanistan or Sinkiang to what is widely know as the “first international medical conference” at Samye (Tib. bsam yas). Again, each attendant translated at least one text of their tradition and debates and discussions were held. A group of Tibetan youths were chosen to master the accumulated medical knowledge. Among these was the famous Tibetan doctor, Yuthog Yontan Gonpo the Elder (708-833 AD, Tib. gyu thog yon tan mgon po). He was supposedly the best well-versed physician of his time and a far-traveled scholar. Afterwards, many medical texts were then translated into Tibetan. After a period of decline in the ninth century under the reign of Langdarma (Tib. glang dar ma), Buddhist culture was largely destroyed. Nevertheless, the work of translating texts and compiling medical treatises was revived in the tenth century, with a strong influence by Indian sources.

The most fundamental, popular and widely studied Tibetan medical text is the four-part, 156-chapter rgyud-bzi (“The Four Secret Oral Tantras on the Eight Branches of the Medical Tradition”) and is a reworking of a Sanskrit text, Amrta Astanga Guhyopandesa Tantra, which is taught to have been compiled in the 4th century AD. It is believed that Lord Buddha taught the fundamental text book rgyud-bzi of “Sowa-Rigpa”. The original Sanskrit work is no longer to be found. It is divided into four parts: the so-called four Tantras of Tibetan medicine.

Developments since the Seventeenth Century

The seventeenth century is considered to be the second movement of standardization of Tibetan medical education. In 1696 Desi Sangye Gyatso (Tib. sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mstho), a well-known physician and who wrote various books on astrology and medicine, founded the first central medical institution of Tibet. He also became the regent of the fifth Dalai Lama, he was capable to establish the Chagpori (referring to “The Iron Hill” (Tib. lcag po ri) near Lhasa on which it was built) due to his political influence. Chagpori became the most important medical education center up until the twentieth century and was set up according to the structure of the monastic colleges in the Gelugpa-tradition . Other medical colleges were also founded around the same time in Kham, Eastern Tibet. Besides monastic learning centers, Tibetan Medicine and healing traditions were also abounded in tantric circles, and oracle mediums were involved with healing as well.

The twentieth century

In 1916 Thupten Gyatso (Tib. thub bstan rgya mtsho), the thirteenth Dalai Lama, initiated the creation of the Medical and Astrology Institute (Men-Tsee-Khang; Tib. sman rtsis khang), in Lhasa. Tibetan medicine was then in process of being modernized as a result of the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s efforts to centralize political power and authority. Up to today the Men-Tsee-Khang Lhasa remains the central institute of Sowa Rigpa in Tibet, whereas Tibetan medicine has been subordinated under the Chinese national health system.
The New Men-Tsee-Khang medical institute and the astrological school was founded in in Dharamshala in 1961. It was successively enlarged and six years later, it was established as the first Tibetan hospital, providing fifteen beds at its start in the beginning. Doctor Yeshi Dhonden was in charge of the medical guidance of the center, and began teaching the students. Further successive “Chief Medical Officers” of the medical department included Trogawa Rinpoche and Lobsang Dolma Khangkar to name but two of them. The first class of students graduated from the school in 1974. Today, more than fifty students attend the training, which consists of a five year course and two further practical years. Since the The medicine department includes the training college and contains a dispensary, a surgical ward, and an in-patient ward, all while operating approximately forty-two branch clinics in India and Nepal.

Matthias Albers