Revealing the Medicine Buddha's Art

The following article is from the Winter, 1999 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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H.H. Dalai Lama Opens Groundbreaking Tibetan Medical Conference

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by Victoria Huckenpahler

The First International Conference on Tibetan Medicine, held in the nation's capital from 7-9 November and inaugurated by H.H. the Dalai Lama, brought together notable physicians, scholars, and translators from twenty-two nations seeking an integrative approach to healing. The Western physicians, whose impeccable medical credentials had been earned at such eminent institutions as Harvard Medical School, and Yale and Oxford Universities, exchanged views with Tibetan doctors, including the Dalai Lama's past and present personal physicians, Dr. Yeshe Donden and Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, in an atmosphere of mutual courtesy and deference.

His Holiness opened the plenary session by gently reminding participants that the event was not, as it had been billed, the first of its type, because such a conference had already been held in Tibet in the eighth century, and had included participants from China, Mongolia, Iran and Greece! Following his statement, Dr. Wayne Jonas, Director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institute of Health, set the tone by advocating greater receptivity in the West to indigenous medicines, resulting in improved communication between patients and physicians. Currently, though forty percent of Americans use alternative therapies, only twenty to thirty percent of this group informs their family doctors, intuiting that the use of complementary practices would be looked at askance. To counter this problem, Dr. Jonas advocated that the Western medical profession dispense with its illusion of knowledge and consider alternative systems through a dialogue of trust and goodwill.

Dr. Herbert Benson, trained as a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, then recalled how the course of his career changed after he noted that patients engaging in rudimentary meditation experienced decreased metabolism, blood pressure, and heart rates. Inspired by Alexandra David-Neel's accounts of feats achieved by advanced meditators, he determined to find out if more intensive practice led to yet greater physical effects. With the Dalai Lama's permission he journeyed to Ladakh in 1981, where he filmed experiments on lummo (heat-generating practice) meditators measuring their temperature before, during, and after practice. The conference audience was treated to a showing of this video in which meditators sitting in temperatures which would ordinarily bring on signs of cold (60-degrees F) in fact managed to increase the heat to their extremities by up to 17 degrees F. More startling was a segment showing the test of drying wet sheets. Seated in a 40-degree room, and repeatedly dipping sheets in 49-degree water, the meditators actually generated so much steam that the video image grew temporarily misty. Having demonstrated inarguably that such heat can be raised, Dr. Benson concluded with the hope that future studies will define its origin, and will help eliminate barriers between mind and body, East and West.

Later, HH the Dalai Lama returned to place Tibetan medicine in its historial context, and to emphasize that it must be recognized as an autonomous scientific discipline, separate from spiritual issues. While medicine can be complemented by mantra and ritual, it should be effective even when used by patients having no particular faith. Drawing a parallel with the spiritual charlatans who have occasionally appeared in the West, His Holiness expressed concern that physicians with inadequate training might engage in a form of healing practice which blurred the line between faith and genuine scienceand this is a bad precedent. In affirming the value of the Tibetan system, he recalled having had poor digestion in his youth, but strengthening it without surgery through his consistent use of Tibetan medicine. However, he noted one drawback to the use of Tibetan herbals in the exile community: because production is still acliieved by ancient methods, it is ill-adapted to the differences in altitude and climate between Tibet and India.

There followed a panel discussion in which participants questioned His Holiness. Dr. James Gordon, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School, and recently involved with displaced populations in Bosnia, asked how one could maintain an open heart when one was under attack by persons challenging one's goodwill. While emphasizing the need for unbiased compassion, His Holiness with characteristic practicality advised that if one were under physical attack, one should just run away! To just keep thinking compassion, compassion' at that point is foolish.

Dr. Kim Jobst, an Oxford-trained physician, returned to the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and medicine when, speaking for many, he respectfully challenged His Holiness's earlier statement that the two were separable. The Dalai Lama, perhaps to counter the reservations of skeptics in the audience, reponded that while any human endeavor benefits by the religious dimension, the two do not necessarily have to go together. When Dr. Woodson Merrell, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians, expressed concent over the future of an integrated Western-Tibetan medical approach, given that there are fewer than 150 trained Tibetan physicians currently practicing, His Holiness revealed that he was asking the Tibetan Medical Institute in Dharamsala to train physicians in native medicine up to a point, then to complete their education with Westem-style medical training in an effort to create a generation of Tibetan doctors at ease with the modern Western medical vocabulary. He also urged Western medical students to consider doing the same in reverse. Another of his goals is to see an improvement in the production of Tibetan herbals and surgical techniques through dialogue with Western physicians. Conversely, lie felt that Western medical practitioners might benefit from Tibetan diagnostics in those cases where a patient complains of a mystery illness which machines can't detect and which are then dismissed with the label psychosomatic.

Over the next two days, the conference continued with such diverse offerings as Diet and Behavior, Herbal Bath Therapy in Tibetan Medicine, Grand Rounds in Oncology with Dr. Yeshe Donden, and Environmental Implications in Tibetan Health Systems, as well as showings of such films as Franz Reichle's The Knowledge of Healing, which documents the manufacture of Tibetan medicine both in Swiss and native settings. In the majority of the sessions presenters emphasized the centrality of the mind in healing the body. In a talk on the origins of the Medicine Buddha, Lati Rinpoche, who was introduced by Jeffrey Hopkins, as the scholar's Abbot, outlined the six root afflictions and twenty secondary afflictions which can indirectly lead to disease. He distinguished, however, between those afflictions that are karmically induced, those caused by spirits, and those brought about in simple and immediate ways. When asked if the administration of medicine would simply delay a karmic kickback which an individual was bound to suffer at some point in time, he replied, Probably not. Many illnesses are not directly caused by karma anyway. For instance, if you suffer a case of food poisoning, it likely comes from eating bad food, not from something you did in a previous life! Such a condition can be helped by medicine. But those illnesses which aren't helped no matter what medical steps one takes were probably due largely to karma. He also mentioned how the exaggerated reactions arising from our root afflictive emotions form the basis of our self-imposed difficulties. Anger views its object as across-the-board undesirable; desire attributes more positive qualities to its object than it in fact possesses; and pride destroys existing merits, while causing one to overlook the need for those not yet acquired. He concluded with a quote from a Kadampa Geshe stating that we must do whatever possible to harm our own afflicting emotions, while equally doing whatever possible to help others.

Of particular interest were those Westerners already incorporating Tibetan medicine into their treatment plans or wholly devoting themselves to its practice. A Canadian physician going by his Dharma name of Shakya Dorje currently maintains an exclusively Tibetan medical clinic in Toronto where he treats all types of illnesses including such non-classical diseases as toxicity and CFS. Trained by the eminent Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche, he is also a fully accomplished pharmacologist, an especially valued credential given that post-Cultural Revolution Tibetan physicians have been all but forced to abandon this study. In readily accessible terms, Dr. Dorje outlined the difference between the Western analytical approach to diagnostics, which tends to break down the understanding of the body until it arrives at a single cause of illness (bacteria, virus, etc.), and the Tibetan system which considers the whole person. Because the same illness can take vastly different forrhs according to the character of the patient, Tibetan medications are compounds containing anywhere between four and one hundred sixty-five herbal elements. Recalling a flu epidemic that broke out while he was visiting Europe, he mentioned using foiuteen different modes of Tibetan treatment depending on the stage of the illness, the type of person being treated, and the patient's level of resistance. He noted that while some patients respond readily to a mere trigger intervention, others may have systems so weakened that they are overwhelmed when an imbalance arises.

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His Holiness revealed that he was asking the Tibetan Medical Institute in Dharamsala to train physicians in native medicine up to a point, then to complete their education with Western-style medical training. He also urged Western medical students to consider doing the same in reverse.

On the psychological side, a grand rotmds presentation in psychiatry featured Dr. Tenzin Choedrak who, despite suffering over twenty years of torture and deprivation in a Chineseran labor camp, returned to his prerevolutionary post as the Dalai Lama's personal physician. His soothing, yet masterful presence recalled that passage in the seminal Tibetan medical texts, The Four Tantras, which terms a learned physician an inheritor of the unstained medical wisdom of the ancient sages and a trae incarnation of the king of medicines. Dr. Choedrak examined the cases of two patients in the care of a psychiatrist from the George Washington University Medical School. Without having seen their Western diagnosis, Dr. Choedrak presented his findings based on his examination of the patients earlier that day. The first patient was shown to be experiencing severe depression as a result of cancer surgery and concurrent professional and personal traumas, while the second, an overweight, insulin-dependent diabetic, was reporting depression and panic attacks. Dr. Choedrak viewed the illness of the first individual in terms of a wind imbalance resulting from unwholesome thought which had in turn caused an accumulation of impure blood leading to tumors. He stressed the need to calibrate the medicine carefully because the patient's multiple problems would require a variety of herbs, some of which, while helping one disorder, might exacerbate the others. Dr. Lobsang Rapgay, a traditionally trained Tibetan physician who additionally holds a PhD in clinical psychology, explained further that from the Buddhist perspective an organism comes into being in an attempt to find stability. The fluidity of the environment, however, causes anxiety in that organism which then tries to attach itself to something, usually unsuccessfully, thus giving rise to stress. In the first patient's case, he felt that the wind disorder was related to attachment which in trying to tie itself to something permanent, became further disrupted. He also intuited that the patient might have a weak heart, contributing to the inability to work through loss. Panel member Dr. Walt Rutherford suggested that in such cases the therapist might try to ascertain if the patient has a spiritual affiliation, since severe illness can cause some patients to undergo a crisis of faith in the nature of If there's a God, how could this be happening to me? Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., remarked on the descriptive nature of Dr. Choedrak's analyses, which assigned no blame to the patients but merely saw the evolution of events. He warned against today's compulsive professional attitudes (the first patient felt trapped by her highly stressful law firm), which force many people to feel that they have to buy into schedules and behaviors with which they are fundamentally at odds. He also noted the immense psychological toll which surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can exact on patients, sometimes lasting up to a year following treatment, and said that physicians must therefore be exquisitely sensitive in discriminating between who should get chemotherapy and who should get radiation. Noting how apparently similar symptoms can have diametrically different causes, Dr. Choedrak ended his presentation by noting that whereas the second patient was experiencing depression due to a cold disorder (wind and phlegm), the first was feeling depressed owing to a heat disorder (blood problem).

It was in the area of psychiatry that the observer sensed Western medicine might have the most to offer to the East. While a Tibetan physician can prescribe medications and religious rituals, the latter being indeed effective when practiced by advanced meditators (less so when practiced by beginners), a Western psychiatrist can, in addition to an array of psychotropic drugs, offer behavior modification techniques and practical information on support groups and selfhelp literature which may yield more accessible and immediate results.

An enriching dimension, though its scheduling concurrent with the second day of the conference created some conflict, was HH Dalai Lama's day-long teaching at American University. Although his topic, a commentary on Geshe Langri Tangpa's Eight Verses for Training the Mind, did not specifically focus on the medical art, the text's typically Buddhist viewpoint of placing others, including enemies, above self-interest was not unrelated. However, His Holiness made the point that seeing oneself as lower than others had to be understood in its proper context. There is no question of developing a case of low self-esteem, and viewing oneself as the lowest among the low, but of recognizing that when we give in to the three poisons, we become oblivious to others' feelings. Thus, if we cultivate the idea of others as being higher, we are helped to develop restraint. With reference to the defilement of pride, he referred to the sign language interpreter standing a few feet away, saying that if he felt the tingling feeling of pride, he had only to look at her many intricate gestures, of which he understood nothing, to be brought back to balance. In similar instances he also reminded himself of what he didn't know about computers! With reference to the obscuration of prejudice, he lamented any tendency to reject particular members of society, and recommended that as an antidote one embrace individuals like ex-convicts into the wider community, going the extra length to restore their sense of self-esteem. He also referred to a tendency to deny incurable illnesses like AIDS, when in fact we should deliberately reflect on and accept these phenomena. He further urged that our actions not be polluted by mundane considerations. This applies to me. If, after this teaching, I ask myself whether people liked it, I am polluting my spiritual training with mundane concern. When asked if a specific amount of happiness must necessarily be balanced by a corresponding amount of suffering, he reminded the audience that from a Buddhist point of view even those circumstances we normally label favorable are in fact a form of suffering because they give rise both to the craving to retain them and the fear of being parted from them. So at the level of one taste Buddhists make no distinction.

Though each event comprising this historic weekend made its own special contribution, it was cumulatively that the conference talked on its full significance, leaving one with the impression that the whole had been yet greater than the sum of its parts. If the participant had any reservations, it was that the days were so densely programmed that one inevitably missed out on a significant percentage of valuable sessions. But the enlightened perspective of all presenters, along with their genuine concern, transcending personal ambition, for the spiritual, physical, and mental well-being of their patients, contributed to a sense that the conference had indeed unfolded under the umbrella of the Medicine Buddha's blessing. ä_æ

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