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Tibetan Medicine: The Knowledge of Healing

By World Tibet Network News on Sep 21, 2008

Published by the Tibet Canada Committee Film Journal

With so much about Tibet in the media these days, with Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt and Richard Gere attracting larger audiences than His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, would ever have time for, Swiss-born documentarian Franz Reichle's The Knowledge of Healing provides an excellent opportunity to focus public attention on Tibetan culture and one of the basic foundations of its Buddhist philosophy.

Taking its name from the Gyüshi, a four-volume Buddhist tantra dating from the 12th century, this film is not only a valuable and timely contribution to the understanding of the tradition and practice of Tibetan medicine, it is also a glimpse into the history, politics and spiritual philosophy of an ancient culture-in-exile.

The origins of this medical tradition date back 4,000 years, to the Bön po, a shamanistic pre-Buddhist culture indigenous to Tibet before the arrival (ca. 127 B.C.) of Buddhists fleeing persecution in Hindu-dominated India. The exodus brought with it the precepts of Ayurvedic medicine (the ancient Indian tradition), and as Buddhism spread throughout the Himalayas and into China and Mongolia, into Southeast Asia and Japan, it filtered and integrated the best aspects of all of the indigenous traditions into one unique holistic system, set forth over time in the Gyüshi and illustrated in a series of woodcut prints and 70 thangkha paintings. In its 156 chapters, the tantra delineates 1,600 illnesses and classifies about 300 treatment protocols, with recipes for medicines composed from herbs, roots, fruits and minerals (including the use of pulverized gold, pearls and coral). So vast and omniscient is this compilation, 18 chapters foretold future illnesses resulting from social and environmental changes and the invention of chemical substances that would prove toxic to human and animal life. One book contains descriptions of symptoms corresponding to AIDS.

When China annexed Tibet in the '50s, it outlawed Tibetan medicine and destroyed all of the training institutes and hospitals, imprisoning and executing the practitioners in the process. Only 12 of the traditionally trained doctors managed to escape, smuggling out the precious texts and thangkhas (the original woodcuts were destroyed) as they fled to Mongolia, Nepal and Bhutan, and to Dharamsala in northern India, which was to become the Dalai Lama's residence-and government-in-exile.

It is
here that we are introduced to His Holiness, as he undergoes a check-up by his personal physician, Doctor Tenzin Choedrak, and in the course of the film, we will see Dr. Tenzin gathering and preparing ingredients for his curative remedies (which may contain as many as 37 components) and administering to patients, most moving among them a young nun suffering nerve damage from having been beaten and tortured by Chinese soldiers in retaliation for a political demonstration.

Segments with the doctor and
the Dalai Lama are intercut with segments filmed at a clinic in Buryatia, Mongolia, where another Tibetan doctor, Chimit-Dorzhi Dugarov, treats patients who were previously discharged from large Western-staffed regional hospitals after their tumors were diagnosed as  being inoperable. The Buryatia locale is important, because its population was exposed to radiation from Chernobyl. The locations of the film's final third start in Zurich with Karl Lutz, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who, in accepting the Dalai Lama's challenge to the Western medical establishment to make scientific investigation of traditional Tibetan medicine, founded the first company to begin manufacturing it. Lutz died in 1995, but a roster of prominent immunologists, biophysicians, microbiologists and oncologists in Switzerland, Vienna and Jerusalem continue the research and experimentation with highly favorable results.

Of questionable inclusion
is an elderly Swiss offering some enthusiastic anecdotal evidence for Padma 28, a remedy that he credits with having saved his own and a friend's diseased legs from amputation. Encouraging as that is, the film fails to point out the three distinct levels of Tibetan treatment protocols: Unlike the esoteric formulae seen earlier being prescribed and blended by the doctors according to the needs of each individual patient, Padma 28 (and Padma 14, etc.) is in a category comparable to Western over-the-counter, non-prescription medications.

Fascinating and
extremely relevent to both the healthy and those diagnosed as having inoperable afflictions, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (though the Dalai Lama does offer insightful comment on the healthful benefits of the belief in reincarnation), The Knowledge Of Healing presents a time-tested, non-invasive, life-affirming path from sickness to recovery and optimal well-being. Perhaps it will open a dialogue in America's high-maintenance medical community, among med students and specialists and bioscientists, among financially strapped hospitals and bottom-lining health insurers.

(Originally appeared here.)