A BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE TRADITIONAL TIBETAN MEDICAL SYSTEM
The history of the traditional Tibetan medical system dates back to more than 2,550 years and originates from the historical life of Buddha Shakyamuni, the Medicine Buddha, and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara-Chenrezig, who is the principal patron of Tibet. The Medicine Buddha is the supreme teacher of the traditional Tibetan medical system. He is called the King of Lapis Lazuli Light, in Sanskrit – Bhaishajaya Guru, in Tibetan – Sangye Menla, or Vaydurya – the Medicine Buddha. His practice is the heart of the traditional Tibetan medical system, which encompasses psychological and physiological state of well being. Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, under deep meditation, sought from Medicine Buddha the remedy to cure beings’ ailments and save lives. The Medicine Buddha declared that there are 84,000 types of afflictive emotions, broadly categorized as attachment, hatred and delusion, which give rise to 84,000 different types of disorders. These could be condensed into 1,616 types of physical and mental disorders, which could further be condensed into 404 ailments. Lord Shyakyamuni Buddha, at the request of Bodhisattva Manjushri, taught at Yangpachen (Vaishalli) the original 800-verse sutras of the Medicine Buddha. There are numerous medicinal plants, herbs, and minerals found in the mountains, valleys, and plains around the world. Nagarjuna, one of the greatest renowned Buddhist masters from Nalanda University in the 3rd century C.E., once said:
“The lifesaving nectar grows in the mountains, valleys and plains of every corner of the world, but only one with proper knowledge instructed by the master can correctly identify the plants and herbs.”
Later, in the 7th century, the great King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet invited many physicians from neighboring countries to share their medical knowledge and practical experiences from their respective health systems. In the 8th century, during the reign of King Trisong Detsen, the first international conference in Tibetan medicine was held at Samye Monastery in Central Tibet. This gave invited physicians from neighboring countries, such as India, China, Persia, Nepal, Kashmir, Mustang, Mongolia, and Mi-Nyang, the opportunity to exchange medical expertise amongst them. Additionally, the founder of the traditional Tibetan medical system, Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, who was considered to be the manifestation of Medicine Buddha, was present. He synthesized the essence of different traditional medical systems with a thorough understanding of human health. He lived in Tibet during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (708-833a.d.) At the same time, a famous Indian scholar, Guru Padmasambhava, and a great tantric master Shantarakshita came to Tibet, following a special invitation extended by the king. At that time, the king’s minister of health was Vairochana, an eminent early translator of Buddhist teachings and traditional Tibetan medical texts.
Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, who founded the Tibetan medical system in Tibet and later spread its knowledge and practice to the peripheral Himalayan kingdom, was a man of great wisdom. Moreover, he started clinical and scientific research in the field of traditional Tibetan medical system, and he set up clinics open to all sentient beings. Yuthok Yonten Gonpo edited the principal traditional Tibetan medical text known as “Gyud Shi” (the Four Tantras). The teachings of the Four Tantras consist of four million words. This text explains in length and details the causes, conditions and symptoms of various ailments, and gives minute and intricate methods of treatment. It includes an in-depth study of pathology, anatomy, materia medica, pharmacopoeia and altruistic moral attitudes of the Tibetan physician towards his patients based on compassion. The text book is based on Buddhist science, philosophy, psychology and a wide range of medical knowledge. It explains that every existing ailment in this samsara-universe comes from the imbalance between five elements. The mind is considered to be the principal source of all physical, emotional and mental imbalances. It is therefore imperative to live a disciplined life with constant contemplation of the law of causality and the impermanent nature of the mind. We as human beings are prone to various diseases which lead us to immense suffering and hardships. The interdependence of mind and body has immediate and direct effect on one’s well being. The great Tibetan physician has demonstrated that even Medicine Buddha’s practices and the traditional Tibetan Medical system can be questioned, examined and investigated. These great masters employed the scientific approach of being skeptical and like modern scientists were open to all ideas and possibilities.