Tibetan Medicine 

What is it?

What influence do the three ‘humours’ have on your health? Tibetan medicine is more than 2,000 years old and is said to have originated from medical teachings given by the Buddha around 500BC.


Although based on the religious and medical traditions of Bon and Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan medicine has also incorporated medical ideas from Greece, Persia, India and China.

In the 18th century Tibetan medicine was formalised in four great medical texts, the Four Tantras (rGyud-bzhi, pronounced ‘gyu-zhee’). These comprise 156 chapters and 5,900 verses on concepts and causes of disease, diagnosis and treatment and are still used for medical teaching today.

The guardian deity of Tibetan medicine is the Medicine Buddha, who’s often symbolically depicted with a bowl of long-life elixir and a myrobalam fruit – a potent medicinal plant said to cure all diseases.
Concepts for the body

Three ‘humours’ are said to make up the physical body and regulate physical and mental processes. Each has particular qualities and functions:

* Loong (vital energy or ‘wind’) is light, moving and dry. It influences respiration, thinking, digestion, reproduction, physical movement and vitality.
* Tripa (body heat or ‘bile’) is hot, oily and odorous. It influences appetite, thirst, digestive function, skin quality, joint lubrication, vision and tempestuousness.
* Peken (moisture and fluids or ‘phlegm’) is cold, heavy and sticky in nature. It regulates sleep, joint mobility, digestion, excretion and mental alertness.

When the humours are balanced, there’s good health. However, imbalance can be caused by lifestyle factors such as unhealthy diet, negative thoughts, environmental factors and spirit influences, leading to disease.

At the root of all diseases are three mental ‘poisons’: desire, hatred and confusion. Desire (characterised by attachment, greed, pride and cravings) disturbs ‘wind’. Hatred (including anger, aggression and aversion) disturbs ‘bile’. Confusion (characterised by indecision, mental lethargy and listlessness) affects ‘phlegm’.

Tibetan medicine classifies 84,000 types of diseases divided into four main types; those due to early life, present lifestyle, past life (karma) and spirit influence.

Diagnosis is based on pulse taking, urine analysis, observation (of the tongue, skin, eyes, ears and/or gait, for example) and questioning. The best Tibetan doctors are said to be able to make a diagnosis using pulse alone. Pulses for each internal organ are taken on the radial arteries of the wrists; there are also seven ‘wondrous’ pulses for determining pregnancy and spirit influences. Astrological charts may be used to determine predisposition to disease and underlying cause.

The aim is to restore the balance of the humours. This is achieved through dietary modification, behavioural change, medicines, external treatments, religious rituals and purification techniques.

Diet and lifestyle changes are always recommended and are based on the effects of different types of food and behaviour on each humour. Medicines are herbal (made from the roots, leaves, flowers, bark and fruits of different plants), minerals and occasionally animal products. The remedies are given as pills, powders, decoctions and ointments.

External therapies include moxibustion (a form of heat treatment), massage and bone-setting. Spiritual healing involves prayers and rituals by the physician and/or the patient, often invoking the healing power of the Medicine Buddha.

What’s it good for?

Tibetan medicine is widely used in the East and increasingly in the West to treat a wide range of disorders. Research has shown that certain formulas are particularly effective for digestive and circulation problems.
Finding a practitioner

Qualified Tibetan physicians make regular visits to the UK on the invitation of the Tibet Foundation in London. For further details, visit www.tibet-foundation.org.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.