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the-south-asian.com                         January  2001

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Tibetan Medicine - How and Why it Works

Dr Tamdin Sither Bradley

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About the author: Dr Tamdin Sither Bradley graduated from the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Dharamsala, India. Dr Tamdin has studied under the guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's senior personal physician, Dr Tenzin Chodak, and other prominent Tibetan doctors. She is the first Tibetan doctor resident in Great Britain and lives in London.


Tibetan medicine is a traditional system of medicine which has been practiced for over 2500 years and is still practiced today although Tibetans are now in exile.

The headquarters of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, also known as Men-Tsee-Khang (Men = medicine, Tsee = Astrology,  Khang = House/Centre) are now based in Dharamsala, North India. It is here that all the Tibetan doctors now receive their training, and it is also where the medicines are manufactured. The period of training before one qualifies as a Tibetan doctor is for a minimum of seven years. For the student to understand the medical texts, a knowledge of Tibetan linguistics, grammar and poetry is required. The first four years of training are taken up with studying the four main medical tantras, or rGyud-bzhi; they are the root tantra, the exegetical tantra, the oral tradition tantra containing methods and instructions, and finally the subsequent tantra. In the fifth year students take exams both oral and written on these four tantras. For the sixth and seventh years students are sent for practical training under a senior and experienced doctor at one of the branches of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological institute. At present there are over 30 branches in India and Nepal, and in addition to this there are a number of private clinics. Tibetan medicine still survives in Tibet where the Chinese have destroyed so much of the Tibetan tradition and culture. It has survived because it is of great practical help for them.

Tibetan medicine is one of the five major sciences, and it is called gSoba Rig-pa, the science of healing. It uses different kinds of ingredients such as herbs, trees, rocks, resins, soils, precious metals, saps etc. However, 95% of Tibetan medicine is based on herbs, and precious metals are used for the seven kinds of precious pills known as Rinchen rilpo. If the physician is able to make the right diagnosis and administer the right medicine, then Tibetan medicine is good for all kinds of illness. However, it has been particularly successful in its treatment of chronic diseases such as rheumatism, arthritis, ulcers, chronic digestive problems, asthma, hepatitis, eczema, liver problems, sinus problems, anxiety and problems connected with the nervous system.

Brief Description of the Nyipa sum

The basic theory of Tibetan medicine is to keep in balance the Nyipa sum - they are rLung (pronounced loong), mKhris-pa and Bad-kan. The long-term causative factors of Nyipa sum are the three poisons of desire, hatred and delusion which show how closely connected Tibetan medicine is with Buddhist philosophy.

So this introduction will now be divided into four parts. Firstly I will give a brief description of the Nyipa sum - their type, location and function within the human body. Secondly I will describe what happens when the Nyipa sum are imbalanced. Thirdly I will talk about the diagnosis of these Nyipa sum when they are imbalanced. Finally after diagnosis, I will talk about their treatment

Firstly, what is rLung? What is mKhris-pa? what is Bad-kan? Before these terms can be explained it must be pointed out that there is no equivalent translation of them except into Sanskrit; therefore the original names are used.

The general description of rLung is that it is a subtle flow of energy and out of the five elements (air, fire, water, earth and space) it is most closely connected with air. However it is not simply the air which we breathe or the wind in our stomachs, it goes much deeper than that. rLung is like a horse and the mind is the rider, if there is something wrong with the horse the rider will not be able to ride properly. Its description is that it is rough, light, cool, thin, hard, movable. The general function of rLung is to help growth, movement of the body, exhalation and inhalation and to aid the function of mind, speech and body. rLung helps to separate in our stomachs what we eat into nutrients and waste products. However its most important function is to carry the movements of mind, speech and body. The nature of rLung is both hot and cold.

Five types of rLung

 There are five types of rLung.

  • The first is called Srog-'dzin (life-grasping rLung). Its location is in the brain and its functions are the swallowing of food, inhalation and spitting, eructation and sneezing, clearing the senses and intellect, and steadying of the mind.

  • The second type of rLung is Gyen-rgyu (upward moving rLung). Its location is in the chest and its functions are responsible for speech, the increase of bodily vigour and health, the giving of lustre to the skin and the promotion of mental endeavour and diligence.

  • The third type of rLung is Khyab-byed (all pervading rLung). Its location is in the heart. Its locations is responsible for lifting, walking, stretching, grasping of limbs, the opening and closing of the mouth, eyelids, anus etc.

  • The fourth type of rLung is Me-mnyam (fire accompanying rLung). Its location is in the stomach and its function is to promote digestion and the metabolism, and ripen the seven bodily sustainers known as lus-zung dhun.

  • The fifth type of rLung is Thur-sel (downward cleansing rLung). Its location is in the rectum and its function is to expel faeces, urine, semen, menstruation and the foetus.

 Five types of mKhris-pa

 mKhris-pa is the hot nature within our body and not simply the bile which comes from our gall bladder. Among the five elements, mKhris-pa is related to fire. The description of mKhris-pa is oily, sharp, hot, light, pungent and moist. The most important function of mKhris-pa is to keep in balance the bodily temperature. It helps with the digestion of food and it is what makes us feel hungry and thirsty at the right times. It also gives lustre to the skin and helps to keep the pores clear. The nature of mKhris-pa is hot like fire or the sun.

  • The first type of mKhris-pa is called 'Ju-byed (digesting mKhris-pa). Its location is between the stomach and intestine. Its function is to promote digestion and to break down essential nutrients from foodstuffs and fluids and then to separate essence and waste. It promotes bodily heat and helps to provide energy to the other four types of mKhris-pa.

  • The second type of mKhris-pa is called sGrub-byed (accomplishing mKhris-pa). Its location is the heart. Its function is that of anger, aggression and hatred. It provides the initial driving force behind the minds of desire, achievement and ambition.

  • The third type of mKhris-pa is called mdangs-sgyur (colour changing mKhris-pa). Its location is in the liver. Its function is to maintain and promote the red colouring of essential nutrients in the blood.

  • The fourth type of mKhris-pa is mThong-byed (seeing mKhris-pa). Its locations is in the eyes and it promotes vision.

  • The fifth mKhris-pa is mDog-sel (complexion clearing mKhris-pa). Its location is the skin and its function is to clear and promote skin lustre by giving it a healthy and wholesome colour.

Five types of Bad-kan

 Bad-kan is not the phlegm which comes from the chest, it is all the diseases connected with the cold nature called Bad-kan. Among the five elements it is related to both water and earth. The description of Bad-kan is oily, cool, heavy, blunt, smooth, steady and sticky. The main function of Bad-kan is to sustain the bodily liquids. It helps to mix food in the stomach, steady the mind, and it helps to keep our joints flexible. The nature of Bad-kan is cold, like water or the moon.

  • The first Bad-kan is called rTen-byed (supporting Bad-kan). Its location is the chest, and it's function is to support the remaining four Bad-kans.

  • The second Bad-kan is called Myag-byed (mixing Bad-kan). Its location is the upper region and, its function is the mixing of liquid and solid foodstuffs into a semi-liquid state.

  • The third Bad-kan is called Myong-byed (experiencing Bad-kan). Its location is the tongue, and its function is to sense and experience the six primary tastes.

  • The fourth Bad-kan is called Tsim-byed (satisfying Bad-kan). Its location is the head, and its function is to increase and satisfy the power of the five senses.

  • The fifth Bad-kan is called 'Byor-byed (joining Bad-kan). Its location is the joints and its function is responsibility for the flexibility of the joints.

This is a brief description of the type, location and function of the Nyipa sum. When the Nyipa sum are balanced, then what are called the seven bodily sustainers are also balanced.



H.H. The Dalai Lama on Tibetan medicine

What is Tibetan  medicine

- History & Background

- Basis of Tibetan Medicine

- Tibetan medicine - How   and Why it works

- Future of Tibetan   medicine




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