History and Origins: Part 1, until 8th century
Design from a Tibetan
medical text showing the three "rivers" of Indian, Chinese
and Tibetan medicine
Clicking on the hyperlinks in the section which follows will take you to fuller details from the Wellcome Foundation's history of Tibetan Medicine, by Rechung Rinpoche
GENERAL: The main formation of what we know today as Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) came in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. Before this, Tibetans had a folk medicine and vetinary science, much other ethnic groups throughout the world, based upon experiential knowledge of the therapeutic qualities of local plants, salts, minerals and animal products.
BEFORE 7th CENTURY: there were significant visits from foreign doctors, such as the physicians sent from India by the Buddhist King Asoka (3rd century BCE) to spread medical science through Asia. There was doubtless some intercourse with China through trading caravans. There are various accounts of early regional kings in whose biographies medicine is mentioned. Of note are the 5th century Lha-mtho-ri, who brought two eminent doctors from India to teach diagnostic procedures to Tibetans, and the 6th century hBron-gnyan, whose son was successfully
translation and introduction of the "Great Medical Treatise",
translated from Chinese by Ha-shang Mahadeva and Dharmakosha,
These three eminent doctors set down severally the essentials of their healing arts in texts in the new language. More interestingly, they produced a seven-chapter treatise ("The Weapon of the Fearless") based upon their mutual discusssions and interaction. The first two eventually returned to their homeland but Galenos remained as Court Physician, married and had three sons whom he trained as doctors and who subsequently spread the medical science in northern, central and southern Tibet. There was also a royal programme for training bright boys to become doctors.
8th CENTURY: Many medical texts were translated into Tibetan (mostly from Chinese) in the first half of the 8th century and a first set of medical ethics were laid down for court and other physicians. The major event in Tibetan history, however, was the reign of King Khri-srong-lde-btsan during the latter half of the century. It was he who firmly established Buddhism in Tibet and under whose patronage hundreds of bright children were trained as translators to bring the best of Asian civilisation to the land. Of particular note was Vairocana, who mastered and translated the Fourfold Medical Treatise (rgyud bzhi), the extensive presentation of the Indian Buddhist medical system which was to become the very foundation stone of the Tibetan medical system. However, the main spiritual figure in Tibet at the time - Padmasambhava - judged it to be too early to introduce so complete and profound a system [there was considerable religious tension at the time as the ancient animist religion and healers were holding out with much resistance; their numbers included influential government ministers]. It was decided to conceal the translations and instructions in a chalice-shaped pillar on the rooftop of the great Samye monastery, with prayers that the right person would discover and propagate this complete medical science at the right time.
Nevertheless, King Khri-srong was determined to establish an excellent medical system. Knowing that the full system - based upon the Fourfold Treatise - would come later, he brought eminent physicians from neighbouring lands and had them translate from medical sources of the great countries of Asia. During this period a great wealth of Asian medicine came to Tibet. Later, with the unveiling of the Fourfold Treatise, all these strands of wisdom would be drawn together under a great and unifying light, benefiting from the rigour of Buddhist logic and the already 1,300-year old psychological and psychiatric knowledge developed through Buddhism's thorough analysis of mind, body and their interrelation, not to mention its direct investigation of these through meditation. The king had a number of intelligent young men trained in the techniques embodied in these translations. Nine of them became most learned and were appointed Court Physicians. Of particular note was the first gYu.THog.Yon.Tan.Gon.po. (pronounced Yutok Yeunten Gonpo), probably the most famous Tibetan physician of all. The more extraordinary stories about him make him almost the incarnation of the healing art itself and contain all the wonder and vastness of the discovery of that art by humankind. He is seen by Tibetans as remanifesting (one may consider this as reincarnating) some centuries later to become the guardian and expounder of the Fourfold Treatise teachings hidden at Samye.
Continue on to PART TWO: development
of Tibetan Medicine, 8th century - present day
Note 1: Some commentators talk of Indian ayurveda as being one of the sources of Tibetan medicine. This point needs some clarification, otherwise one might understand it to have its roots in Hindu medicine, which is not the case. "Ayurveda" - as its name suggests - is the term used these days for the medical science of India which started with the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Veda. One must bear in mind, however, the fact that Hindu and Buddhist medicine nourished and cross-fertilised each other for almost 1,700 years after the modest medical beginnings of the Vedic period and became similar in their material application, if different in their world-vision and healing rituals. Around the 12th - 13th century, Buddhism was virtually eradicated from India by foreign invasions. The multi-sourced Indian medical science, however, continued under Hinduism with the Hindu name of ayurveda. As mentioned above, Tibetan Medicine has one of its main roots in the Indian Buddhist medicine of the 8th - 12th centuries, which somewhat resembles the ayurveda of India today.
Note 2: Another aspect of Indian Buddhist medicine at the time was siddha medicine. The siddha were highly-accomplished meditators and quite extraordinary beings, with a great deal of knowledge of chemistry. They had elaborate techniques for detoxifying metals and minerals used in complex medical formulae employing metals, precious stones, minerals, plants and sometimes animal products. They also had superlative knowledge of using the mind to benefit the body. Their skills were handed down in a very discrete and secretive way. This tradition went to Tibet under the influence of the great Indian masters of the 8th-12th centuries and has persisted in an unbroken tradition until this day. However, in India, due to the virtual disappearance of Buddhist siddhas, this form of medicine has deteriorated considerably from its high origins but nevertheless continues, in a diminished and sometimes even quite corrupt form, mainly in southern India. One should not confuse the ancient and mostly secret techniques preserved carefully over a millennium by Tibetan master physicians with the siddha medicine of southern India today.