In Tibet, the path to wellbeing is paved by the Buddha. According to the spiritual leader’s traditional teachings, health has three key dimensions: mind, body and spirit. To be one’s most vibrant self, each of these vital components that make up who we are must be kept in perfect balance.
Why we get ill
First, it’s important to address the question of what manifests sickness in the first place. Tibetans believe that every human being is inevitably going to become ill at some point in his or her life, merely because of the fact that we are human beings and suffering, along with ignorance, is an inextricable part of our inherent, disordered nature. This conclusion is drawn from the ancient Mahayana text in which the Buddhist sage Vimalakirti states, “All sentient beings are ill.”
Three dominant strategies for promoting health
Just like health has three components, so does its counter-state of illness. So, it is important to note that there are the varying forms of sickness—sickness of the physical body, of the mental mind, and the spiritual soul—and each require different approaches to treatment.
Secular medicinal approaches
These methods of treatment are used to address the body’s ailments. They are described as physical manifestations of the three poisons: desire, hatred and ignorance.
Saffron, an important herb at Tibetan Medicine.
Desire shows up in disruption of the lung, translating to blocked wind/pathway. When this happens, it means the body’s circulation is compromised, which leads to an idyllic terrain for the proliferation of disease. Symptoms include insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety and heart palpitations.
Hatred is affiliated with the element of fire, often manifesting as a bile disorder. Symptoms of this include yellow/red urine, a yellow coating on the tongue and a full pulse. Finally, ignorance is typically manifested in phlegm disorders. Watch out for symptoms like odourless, white urine and a sluggish pulse. When these three poisons are presented in our bodies, they harm us because they bring us out of balance. The more off balance, the more severe the sickness.
Treatment may come in the form of alternative, holistic medicine, or western medicine, or a combination of both. Some examples include the prescription of pharmaceuticals, massages, mineral baths, acupuncture, cutting out cigarettes and junk foods, abstaining from sex, burning incense, and taking laxatives. Sometimes, the ill are even told to wear gemstones and animal hides because of the powers they are believed to hold.
Surgery is viewed as violent, and thus only used as a very last resort, when all other options have been exhausted. It is believed that it is preferable to undertake the malady that has been bestowed on you, rather than hide from it. This does not mean submit to it entirely, but rather to acknowledge it and not avoid it by operating on it. “It is better to cure the organ than to remove it”; this is the widely held opinion in Tibetan Medicine.
The Buddha is referred to here as the absolute healer, while the Dharma holds the title “King of Medicine.” These approaches aim to heal illnesses that are spiritual in nature. These are often borne out of unethical actions conducted in this life—i.e. stealing or adultery, but they may also stem from negative karma, a result of mistakes made in a previous life.
Spiritual healing can be characterized as that spark of desire that inspires us to strive for enlightenment. This sought-after state is distinguished by its seven pillars: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility of body and mind, equanimity and concentration. Practices that help us in our journey to heal spiritually incorporate music, mantra, visualization, chanting, symbolic objects, and iconology.
A popular symbol is the blue Medicine Buddha, made of a healing stone called lapis-lazuli. This precious gemstone is considered to have divine power. In some depictions of the blue deity, he is holding the dug-bcom fruit, which is a healing symbol itself, specifically touted to have the ability to protect from the three poisons: desire, hatred and confusion. Just about all forms of spiritual practices can be used to celebrate this symbol: mentally/physically building altars around it, drawing images, offering flowers to these images, and repeating mantras directed to it.
Used to address the mind, and everything that stems from the power of our minds, meditation is also guided by the Buddha’s teachings. The belief here is that our mindset affects our lives at their very core. When we have angry, closed minds, we become ill because are promoting negative energy, aka stress. If left unchecked, our bodies’ immune system will weaken over time, manifesting in various ways: through the thinning of hair, weak digestion, unhealthy weight loss or gain, etc.
Rongbuk meditation cave.
What’s more, it’s believed that these negative thought patterns developed in our minds not only directly affect us, but also our external world and, by extension, everyone else who shares this planet with us. This idea comes from the philosophy which propagates the notion that this world that we inhabit is literally the physical manifestation of its peoples’ thoughts. And since our thoughts are largely eco-centric in nature, they end up bringing into fruition a cold, selfish world, one with negative energy that ultimately leads to subpar health.
The good news here is that once we become aware of how our thoughts affect us, we can use them to our benefit. This is what the practice of meditation helps us do: turn our ever-buzzing “monkey minds” into powerful tools for manifesting positive energy.
Next time you catch yourself thinking “I could never do that,” or “this won’t work for me because I have this or that responsibility to take care of,” hold on to these thoughts and recognize them for what they are: self-limiting beliefs you have constructed. You have the power to change your story, by changing the way you think.
Tibetan Medicine tells us that the path to success here starts with being open-minded and remaining present. When we focus on the here and now, we are not fretting about the future, nor are we stressing about what happened in the past; we are free to enjoy the moment.
The importance of this last factor for your health
Lifestyle. A holistic form of healing, Tibetan Medicine recognizes that lifestyle factors play a large part into our lives. We may be meditating, eating properly, abiding by all seven pillars in an effort to reach enlightenment…but even if we incorporate all of the aforementioned techniques, if we are working a job that are truly unsatisfied with, or that is demanding over and beyond what is reasonable all of our efforts to create peace and harmony in our lives can be unfruitful. Working a soul-sucking job, engaging in a long commute to work every day will drain you of energy and put you out of balance. So, be sure to consider the full picture in your effort to achieve health. Look closely, live a fully examined life.
The healing practice that ties it all together, for you to try: Moxibustion
This practice is a prime example of the multi-dimensional approach that Tibetan medicine takes to healing. It addresses the physical body by heating specific areas that will stimulate circulation and thus the removal of toxins. Plus, it addresses the spiritual and mental self by offering life-affirming prayers to the Medicine Buddha. Instead of thinking “we must kill this disease,” mantras are kept positive, asking respectfully for the body to release any disease or bacteria it may be holding onto.
Tibetan medicine is highly revered because it really covers all its bases. Instead of discounting patients’ worries, like is found all too often in the Western world, Tibetan Medicine men really listen. They take into account the knowledge of the secular medicine world, and the more spiritual wisdom of the Buddhist faith. It’s a practice that masterfully combines rituals, symbolism, and medicine, with the goal of uniting us spiritually, emotionally and physically. It brings out the artful nature of medicine and the medical nature that can be found in art.
Author - Chloe Xin