The Tibetan Art of Healing



tibetan medicine

The first time I think I was enchanted by the Tibetan Knowledge of Healing was when I was in Dharamsala, India. I took a friend to see the great Tibetan Physician, Dr Yeshe Dondon, one misty winter morning.

My friend had told me she had cancer and needed help.  She was a visitor to this hill town, the home of His Holiness Dalai Lama, where I lived. After waiting since six in the morning , in line, we finally went into his consultation rooms. The Tibetan Doctor, took a sample of her urine, and he bustled into his courtyard to test it. He returned, without a word. He then looked at her kindly, and rather deeply and seemed to scan her body visually. He then took her pulses for some time.

What arose was astonishing. He said to my friend : “You have three small tumours, one here and two there. “  He pointed his finger to an area of her breast and two other spots nearby. At the end of his consultation, he asked my friend how long she was staying in Dharamsala, and she said three weeks. He recommended she lengthen her stay to six, and that she stayed at the hospital.  He said he would remove ‘this one’ very quickly and the other two would take more time. But he told her he would take care of her. And there should be success.

When we left the consultation, she told me, “Yes, that is where I knew I have breast cancer”, and she would stay for his care.

It was at this point that I was determined, that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to know everything about this Art and I must start right away. My own teacher had sent me there to Dharamsala to learn Tibetan Medicine and this was for me the moment of inspiration. I knew that this study was for a lifetime, and if necessary hopefully the study would stay with me for several lifetimes .
The great Tibetan masters of Buddhist medical science recorded a knowledge of healing that had been continually practised over the centuries, and preserved it for posterity in written and pictorial form.

medicine pictureToday there are still great Tibetan physicians practising this traditional form of medicine, and I have had the privilege to study under some of them in India, Nepal and also in the west. Nowadays the study of the knowledge is based on the text called the rGyushi, (pronounced Gyushi ) which means ’the secret oral tradition of the eight branches of the science of healing.’  This text is studied and learnt off by heart by today’s trained physicians. The third part of the four chapters in this text are traditionally transmitted orally.
For myself, it has been and still is a life’s learning. A little similar to understanding the art of music by learning to play the piano. Firstly I had had the fortune of hearing this unique understanding from this Tibetan Doctor and then I learnt the basic keys. Inspired by other great Masters of the field, too, I have learnt to play a few songs, lyrics and chords, but little else. However, I would like to share a little of my understanding.

With a little self -observation, we might be able to apply some of it to ourselves. For example, did you know that all plants and foods are divided into six tastes: sweet, sour , salty, hot , bitter and astringent. And that, depending on those tastes, whether they are in addition hot or cold by nature, these different foods can be used for ‘for all’ ranges of dis-ease. For example take Wild Ginger: hedychium spicatum, the ascribed, is sharp and sweet, and the active force of hot and oily. This ginger is believed to increase heat in the body, to stimulate the appetite and overcome ‘badkam’ (Tibetan ) – Khapa (Ayurveda) disorders. Yet cinnamon, in Tibetan known as shingtsa, has the taste spheres of sharp, sweet, astringent and salty. This is also used medically, and counteracts cold illnesses of the stomach and liver, as well as well as providing a good defence againgst rlung , (Tibetan) Vata (Ayurveda) AND Badkam Tibetan – Pegan Ayurveda) disorders.

This use of the six tastes is understood in the Ayuvedic medical knowledge and Chinese medical knowledge and is always taken into account when they prepare their herbal prescriptions, accompanied with the use of therapeutic remedies, such as lifestyle , massage and dietary advice.

Western doctors, therapists, botanists and pharmacists have been increasingly interested in Tibetan healing arts. The spiritual and intellectual/phycological methods it utilizes have been an integral part of Western psychotherapy and physical therapies for many years now. Many scientists are fascinated by the science and convinced that Tibetan plant-lore can show us new paths of healing. When I say plant-lore I include all foods and herbs as healers as well as therapeutic therapies such as massage.

Like Ayurveda medicine, Tibetan medicine is based on the teaching and understanding of the three body constituents, or the three body ‘juices’ or ‘fluids’ sometimes called ‘the three constitutional energies’ Otherwise known these days as The three Types, called Humors or Doshas, the latter being an Ayurvedic term. These three are rlung (Tibetan ) Vata (Ayurveda) Wind or air, Tripa ( Tibetan) Pitta (Ayurveda) bile in English, and Badkam (Tibetan) Khapa (Ayurveda) , phlegm , as it is called in English. When these three are in harmony and balanced, then we can say the physical and mental bodies are in sync. However, rarely is this the case, as we are rarely in balance due to other factors. The other factors to be taken into account, are our own basic individual constitutions, from birth. (We can also understand some of this from Astrology , as we are all different in our basic constitutions, with regards astrological signs.  For example, if I am a Libra, then my basic element is the air sign. And air is by nature cold, unless there is an element of the fire element, which is hot. However, we must also take into account the country we live in. This also plays a part in our general health conditions for the future. For example, I live in Scotland which is cold and damp and is often windy. And I have found many people here to be suffering from phlegmatic conditions such as flu and lung problems in winter. The windy aspect can cause rLung or Air element disorders. The seasons are also taken into account. Some countries may have only three or fewer seasons. Personal lifestyle and diet are further factors. What is very important is our own mental behaviour. The latter reminds us of our attitude towards our emotions and our mental thinking mode. For example, here, it is understood in Tibetan Medicine, that thinking too much will affect the air element , the rlung, (Vata – Ayurveda) or we can simply say that this is air is attributed to the balance of the nervous system. And in the long term can cause many physical disorders.


These three basic constitutions are the start, however.  When we are in disorder or sick, we will show a different constitution, or often a mixed constitutional imbalance, which depends on the factors mentioned above. It is this that the Tibetan Doctor is observing, in order to bring about a balance or ‘cure’.

So let us begin by ‘ Visiting a Tibetan Doctor’ .

When you visit a Tibetan Physician, he or she will firstly notice the way you look, the way you move and the way you present yourself. Both physically and mentally. When I say mentally, this means the observation by the Tibetan Doctor of how you yourself individually describe your condition. This verbal relationship or expression, will offer the practitioner his first clue for prognosis.

The physician will then ask you what you what your symptoms of dis-ease are. We will call the Physician he for now, as it makes it easier to write, but equally there should be no difference whatsoever as to whether the Physician is a male or female .

He will look at your urine, which you have brought him. The first midstream urine of the day, is what you bring him. If you are to do this it is important that 24 hours prior to the appointment, you should avoid coffee, spicy foods, and avoid sexual activity. I say this because sexual intercourse may deplete your energy, and you want to be in the best form as you can, before her sees you.

The physician will whisk the urine with a stick (we used to use a chopstick) but any thin stick will do. He is looking for the bubbles that arise, when he has whisked it, and sees what settles in, ideally, a white cup. What will show on the surface, is your general current situation, the bubbles shown on the surface of the cup are either large bubbles, which indicates an air element at play, or many small bubbles, which is the fire element at the fore, or bubbles rather like beer that stay on the surface. This last bubble formation shows an imbalance of phlegmatic or earth and water imbalance at this time.

The very advanced practitioner, will be able to read much more into the urine, as he divides the cup surface of urine into several squares, but this is more complex than we need to know at this point.

Having taken that information on board, he takes your pulse. The pulse is taken from the radial artery at the wrist with his three fingers. The doctor will read the pulse from the two parts of his fingertips. The upper part of the finger reads the vital organs, and the lower part of the fingertips senses a cavity or vessel organ (such as intestine or stomach) . The doctor is able to diagnose the condition of upper, middle and lower body.

For our own understanding here, at this point, he will be able to ascertain as to whether the pulse reads the dominant element as being either Air, which is read on the surface of the general pulse, the fire which is found beneath it, and the Pegan pulse found deeper 

Then he will check your tongue, the colour and the ‘roughness’ the discoloration, the whiteness, or the lines displayed on your tongue. Each reading will give him another clue of your condition, depending on your imbalance of the three humors.

Do look at your tongue and you will see it changes, depending on your health. The Chinese and Ayuvedic Physicians, work with tongue diagnosis too. It is complex and is a very profound way of diagnosis. For example if the tongue is red, dry and rough this indicates a Rlung. (Vata-Ayurveda) disorder in place at this time. 

Ideally, the physician will ask you about your lifestyle and your diet. What time do you eat, when and what ? This is important because certain foods and lifestyle can be a cause of sickness or can be contributed to the condition you have. Especially in the long term.
The digestion plays an enormous part in our health and depending on what we e

Image result for photo of ayurvedic air

at, and as to whether our foods are hot or cold, will have an effect on our health. What we eat and drink feed our bones, blood, organs and the lymphatic system. If the foods we take are detrimental to our health, then eventually these foods will affect our general well- being and after time can cause havoc with our health. For example sweet foods are by nature earthy . If you take sweet foods in excess, this will effect your weight and may well cause phlegmatic conditions. As they say ‘we are what we eat’. BUT what I have found out is that the diet taken in California, should be completely different than the diet we eat in the cold countries of the west. Because California is much warmer the foods we eat there have a different impact on our bodies. In the new age of health and diet the Californians were at the forefront on media health books, and recommended raw cold foods. All very well for the Californians, but if you live in Scotland or colder countries, warm nourishing foods are recommended, due to the outer cold, so it is better not to take cold foods, but to warm the digestion, as the outer environment itself is cold.

In this way, the Doctor will ask you where you live, to determine which foods are best for you, as to whether they should be cooler or warmer at the time of your consultation.

Depending on your answers and his observations on your pulse , urine, tongue and questions, and what he has read on you pulse regarding to the strength of your organs , the physician will recommend you to take certain foods in your balanced diet, and he will also suggest to you , how to balance you mind.

The mind and psychology are a very important part of this meeting with your Tibetan physician, and needs to be listened to with great care as the physicians, seem to ‘throw’ this vital information into the soup, with very few words and therefore can be missed! For Buddhists, we are very lucky to be studying the effects of mind on our mental health, but for other people I have met, they are often surprised by the observations.

This advice which the physician may offer to you will depend on your present constitution. For example, if your rlung, is greater, her might ask you to think less, no small thing, but what he is actually saying is try not to dwell on thoughts too much. If he has seen that you have a Tripa or fire element problem might ask you to try to be more patient, and watch you anger. He may suggest to you to be less jealous.  If should you have a Pegan disorder, he may say not to be too attached and to be a little more less fixed. Within the Tibetan Medical view, there is a great deal more help on offer in these areas of psychology which are studied in the profound Buddhist teachings. And therefore I suggest you study these more to get a greater understanding of how the mind affects the overall health. This information is readily available to anyone who is interested.

However, my personal view is that if you have any doubts or need any clarifications on the advice you have had from your doctor, you need to ask your physician for more clarification so that when you leave you are clear on your way forward, in terms of herbs that have been offered, diet and lifestyle which may have been suggested or any psychological advice. You need to know what you are doing, when you are doing it and why. In this way I feel we start to take an interest in our own well being and our own healing.

One small thing to finish. When you do take herbs from a practitioner in Tibetan medicine, only take them at the time when he or she says so. If you miss a time, leave it until the next day. I will expain why I say this next time !

kate roddick

KATE RODDICK  studied Tibetan Medicine for seven-years at Dharmasala.  She has incorporated her skills into her health-care practice in Edinburgh where she now resides. 



3 responses to “The Tibetan Art of Healing”

  1. Robin Sengupta Avatar
    Robin Sengupta

    First of all, I am fascinated by what you posted. Thank you!

    I spent several years studying, and then teaching English, in Mt. Hermon School in Darjeeling, India.

    There were many Tibetans in Darjeeling and my best friend in school was a Tibetan whose father was the chief craftsman in the Potala Palace in Tibet before the Chinese invasion.

    This friend of mine once told me of a Tibetan health practitioner who made diagnoses by looking at his patients’ fingernails.

    Have you encountered this in your time studying Tibetan Healing?



    1. Albert Avatar

      Thank you so much for your letter via ‘ Many Roads ‘ . Your letter was interesting and the news of your friends Father of the building of Potala amazing . Where do you live I wonder ?
      In Darjeeling it seems there is an Institute of Tibetan Medicine there. I am sure you know of it. It is called Chakpori Institute. .

      With regards Tibetan Medicine it is true that looking at the nails gives an opportunity to see the overall health of a patient – but of course it is an indicator – amongst others for diagnosis . We like to firstly talk to the patient . Take a history of life situations and health and also look at the urine and take the pulse . Within all these it is possible to access the way forward for healing .
      I have offered a web connection for nail diagnosis within Ayurveda for you to study for yourself .
      We have different names for the five elements in Tibetan Medicine as regards the three constitutions of Vata – Pitta and Khapha In Ayurveda . However within the Tibetan medical texts we name Vata as namely rlung ( Loong ) – air element Pitta ( fire ) is Tripa and Khapha ( earth and water element ) is Phegan in Tibetan medicinal texts . I hope this gives some answer to your e mail . And offers an opportunity for you to understand more for study .
      With warm wishes
      The website for this information is as follows:

  2. sheila shane Avatar
    sheila shane

    Thank you

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