Tibetan medicine history

Short history of the Tibetan medical system (part II)

Dr. Pasang Y. Arya

There are various accounts[i] of how the astro and medical systems were brought from China during the reign of Namri Song Tsan (early 7th century). However, these all fail to mention the names of the texts, which were translated at that time. During the reign of Song Tsan Gampo (617-650) Tibet was militarily strong and unified into one nation. He conquered the bordering regions and was known for his honest code of law for which he was named Lha Tsan Po (celestial stringent king). Intending to spread the science of medicine, he invited the three physicians: Bharadvaja from India, Hen Weng Han from China, and Galen from rTarzig[ii] as his personal physicians. The Indian physician translated 'Bu zhags ma bu che chung and sByar ba mar gsar, the Chinese translated rGya dpyad thor bu che chung and the rTarzig physician translated mGo sngon bsdus pa, De pho, rMa bya dang Ne tso gsum gyi dpyad[iii] and the three together composed a volume called Mi 'iigs pa'i mtshon cha which they offered to the king. He praised them with the stanza[iv].

"If you do not understand the three great traditions,
You cannot be counted amongst the great physicians.
Because you will be of no benefit to yourself or others,
It will be as if you were grasping at air.
Bharadavaja the great sage,
Galen the strong regent,
Han Wen Han the court physician,
To you three marvellous ones,
I praise your skill as physicians."

The king ordered that these three medical systems: the Indian, Chinese and Upper Tibetan systems be studied. He sent the physicians of China and India home with rewards but kept Galen as his court physician who composed many treatises and the Bi-Ji and Lhorong physician lineages developed from his descendants. At the order of the king he taught medicine to the four lower casts: Tuk, Jang, Nig and Mong without any discrimination and treated them equally. He was given the title, "Tshoje Menpa" - the healer physician and was rewarded with nine great and three small gifts[v]. In this way he gave great benefits.

Concerning the three traditions there is a crucial point to be considered: the Chinese and Indian systems were named as they were, whereas the rTazig system was called the Upper Tibetan system or Galen(ic) system, which is very significant. To be more specific, before Song Tsen Gampo the only culture prevalent in Tibet was the Bon culture and these medical traditions developed quite early. ln gSo ri rgyud 'bum bye ba'i yang snying and in bShad mdzod yid bzhin nor bu, Khyungtul Jigmed Namkha'i Dorje (1897-1956) says: "The Bodhisattva Chad Bu Tri Shes was born to Desang Gyalmed on the auspicious day of the 15th in the Autumn of the Wood-Monkey year, the 26th year (called) Jungden. At that time in the centre of the Tagzig 'Olmo Ling surrounding the nine leveled Pagoda of Yung Drung Bon was the forest of Jambutrika, the best of all woods and Makudara, the best of all plants. ln such a beautiful environment abides the Omniscient Lord Shenrab..." It goes on to say, "The great Chad Bu Tri Shes who possessed knowledge of the medical tantras arose..."[vi] Thus Chad Bu Tri Shes and the eight rishis requested the Lord Shenrab to expound the Bon medical Tantra called rGyud 'bum and at the conclusion of his teachings he gave responsibility for them to Chad Bu Tri Shes.

We can conclude that Tibet's trade, religious and cultural relations with Persia introduced the Greek medical system into Tibet at the time of Song Tsan Gampo when he invited Galen to Tibet. That Bon medicine existed even earlier than the introduction of the Greek system into Tibetan is further substantiated by Lopon Tenzing Namdak in his work Sangs rgyas kyi bstan rtlis nga mtsar nor bu'i phreng ba in which he says that until 1987, 16483 human years have passed since the birth of Chad Bu Tri Shes. Therefore, bon medicine existed before 14,000 B.C. The theories on which the system are based are similar. For example, the Greek medical system describes the four principle elements as the causes of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood disorders. Likewise a Bon sutra says[vii]:

"The five poisonous delusions,
Arise from the three poisons
Which themselves give rise
To the four causes of illnesses:
Wind, bile, phelgm and blood disorders"

Moreover, in both systems pulse and urine diagnosis and blood letting are explained extensively[viii]. ln short because of the similarity both in practice and theory of the Greek and the Bon medical systems, the Galenic System appears to have been named the Upper Tibetan system.

Galen, according to western medical history, was a great physician who lived from 129 to 199 A.D. He was a highly exalted and incomparable scholar, and was the court physician of the Roman King Marcus Aurelius and subsequent Roman kings. He was thoroughly acquainted with all the aspects of medical practice, especially in anatomy and in performing operations. ln the science of physiology and anatomy his discoveries and works were used even until the 16th century[ix]. Rechung Rinpoche's book[x] Tibetan Medicine mentions both Galeno and Galen; his contention being that Galeno was either a translator of Galen's medical texts into the Persian language or a scholar who adopted his name. But I wonder what could be Rinpoche's source for it is not mentioned. However, there is no evidence to disprove it and it is not unusual for a master physician to be accorded the name Tshoje Zhonu/Jivaka (5th century). There is certainly room for further research into the relationship between the ancient Tibetan medical system and the Greek system.


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[i] Saskya Je btzun bSod nams rgyal mtzan, Rgyal rabs gsal ba'i me long. Peking edition 1981 P61 LI7.

[ii] The Tibetan word rta zig could be a corrupt use of Tazixtan or Persia.

[iii] See Dr. I.C. Beckwith’s Introduction of Greek medicine into Tibet in the seventh and eighth century.

[iv] sDe-srid sangs-rgyas rgya-mtshos, gsorig khog 'bugs legs bshad baid'urya'i melong drang srong dgyes pa'i dg'a ston, Kansu edition 1982 P150 LI 5.

[v] I could not locate the names of all the gifts.

[vi] Ven. Tenzin Namdak, Sangs rgyas kyi bstan rtis nga mtsar nor bu'i phreng ba zhes byawa 1987, According to the author Bon radical system existed at least 14496 B.C ago.

[vii] Khyung-po blo Idan sNying-po, Duspa Rinpo che'i rgyud drima med pa gzi brjid rab tu 'bar ba'i mdo. Tibetan Bon Monastery, Solan, H.P. (India) 1969 P27 L2.

[viii] Nurse E. Alan, edi. by the editors of Life; The body, life Science Library, New York 1964, P.P. 24-31.

[ix] Singer, Charles, A Short History of Anatomy and Physiology from the Greek to Harvey. Dover Publication, USA P46.

[x] Rechung Rinpoche Jampal Kunsang, Tibetan Medicine. Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London 1973, P.5 LI4.