By Angela Cookston
Denise Glover in the Sociology and Anthropology department gave a lecture hosted by the Bioethics Club on the concepts of compassion and karma in Tibetan medicine on Oct. 25.
Glover has done research in China’s Shangri-La province on the Tibetan medical industry and local knowledge of environment.
“Tibetan medicine, in particular, pulls a lot from Tibetan Buddhism,” Glover said. “So there are a lot of ideas that come from the religious tradition that are appropriated into the medical tradition. In fact, for a long time they weren’t really separate traditions at all.”
The medicinal tradition is based on indigenous knowledge of environment and written texts.
One of the most central texts is “The Four Tantras,” which was written mostly between the 11th and 12th centuries. “Doctors still use this,” Glover said. “It’s hard to find that kind of parallel in western medicine, for example. Who studies a text that old? They’re considered out of date. But in the Tibetan medical tradition, they’re seen as very central.”
Tibetan medicine uses Mahayana Buddhist figures as ideal images of what doctors should be. The Bodhisattva of Compassion, who are beings that could potentially reach enlightenment but choose to not to in order to help others, and the Medicine Buddha, who has all the knowledge of healing, are used in this way.
“In the medical tradition in Tibet, doctors are supposed to basically emulate this kind of being,” Glover said. “Not only do the doctors imagine themselves as the Medicine Buddha … but the patient will have to do a similar thing, which is to imagine the doctor as intricately connected to the medicine Buddha.”
Next, Tibetan medicine’s doctors see the body as a collection of three “humors.” “These things are considered as a combination of a substance and an energy,” Glover said.
The three humors are wind, bile and phlegm. “Each one of these is responsible for a different function in the body. So, for example, movement: wind is responsible for movement in the body. Bile is responsible for digestion. And phlegm is responsible for lubrication.”
When the three humors are balanced, a person is considered to be healthy. But an imbalance can cause problems.
In addition to causing physical problems, the humors can cause emotional or mental problems. “The humor of wind is linked to desire. Bile is linked to hatred. And phlegm is linked to closed-mindedness,” Glover said.
All of the humors have negative emotional effects on people. “In fact, you could argue from the Tibetan medical perspective that if you have a body, then you are likely to end up with some kind of imbalance,” Glover said. One could have too much desire, hatred and closed-mindedness.
“It’s almost like a very natural thing for people to get sick in this medical system,” Glover said. “It’s kind of different than other medical systems that state, you know, the natural state is a healthy state. Yeah, health is natural but so is illness in Tibetan medicine.”
The three humors can become imbalanced due to physical or emotional changes. Additionally, past negative actions, or bad karma, can cause illness.
“How can you tell if you’re sick because of humoral imbalance or because of karma?” Glover asked the room. “[Karma] is used to explain when things are not getting better. Like, the doctor is trying to figure out, trying to treat the patient and the treatments are not working.”
In Western medicine, this is similar to the concept of an idiopathic disease.
Tibetan medicine uses a slow-acting treatment process which can take months to heal the patient. If, after three different treatment plans, the patient is still ill, the doctor will diagnose their problem as karmic. Tibetan medicine doctors can’t treat karmic problems.
If a person is ill due to a karmic problem, they must go to a religious monk, who will help them attain spiritual balance once more. However, when the illness is due to karma from a past life, it is much more difficult and sometimes impossible to treat, since one can’t go back into their past life and fix the problem.
“To me what’s significant about these two ideas in Tibetan medicine is how both of these concepts really stress the agency of the patient. The patient actually has some responsibility in their own illness,” Glover said. “And then it also stresses, of course, the responsibility that the practitioner has to have good motivation. To really be wanting to help the person and not, for example, to be making a profit.”