By Helen Weisman
In 2014, The Rubin Museum of Art presented Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine. The show focused on visual representations of Tibetan medicine, from its earliest applications in antiquity to its presence in modern societies. Elena Pakhoutova, Curator of Himalayan Art at The Rubin Museum, says that Tibetan medicine is “a comprehensive tradition of medical knowledge and practice dating back to over 1,000 years which is thriving at present and is very relevant to our 21st century visitors.”
The continued relevance of Tibetan medicine can be seen in the fact that a number of Tibetan doctors practice traditional Tibetan medicine in the U.S. today. Although Tibetan medicine is not accredited by the U.S. health care system, some American doctors teach the discipline and have small practices as alternative medical practitioners. The Shang Shung Institute and The Sorig Institute, both located in the U.S., also represent Tibetan medicine.
Pulse-taking is a fundamental tool in Tibetan medicine that identifies characteristics of mental and physical health. The Rubin Museum’s 2014 exhibition allowed visitors to engage directly with this principle by tincluding a pulse station at which visitors could learn how to feel their pulse according to Tibetan practice. Visitors could also take a quiz to determine which of the three nyepas, or body systems, they possessed. According to Tibetan medicine, the human body is composed of three nyepas: phlegm, wind, and bile. Understanding the dominant force(s) of one’s constitution can help an individual move toward the ideal inner balance. Diet, conduct, medicines, and external therapies are the primary methods used to lower elevated forces and achieve that inner balance.
The Medicine Buddha, an immensely popular figure in Tibet, was heavily featured in the murals, paintings, and statues of the 2014 exhibition. The Medicine Buddha is typically shown with blue skin—one hand holding a bowl of healing nectar, and the other holding a fruit or leaf of the cure-all myrobalan plant. For Tibetan doctors, the Medicine Buddha is the divine source of knowledge for the classical medical text known as the Four Tantras, and is a model for a calm demeanor and restorative powers. These qualities are considered essential to the Tibetan healing professions.
Created in the 12th century, the Four Tantras, or Gyushi, treatise describes the interaction among body, mind, Buddhism’s five cosmological elements (water, fire, earth, wind, and space), and the nyepas. The text describes basic ideas about the body’s formation, structure, and functioning. It also lists a large number of diseases, symptoms, and medicinal ingredients. Specifically, it offers behavioral, dietary, and medicinal approaches to balancing the constant flux of the body’s elements and forces.
American horoscope readers may have engaged Tibetan medicine without realizing it: In medical institutions in Tibet, astrology and medicine are intertwined. Also, many members of modern Himalayan societies consult horoscopes. Texts dating back to the 9th century offer instructions on how to calculate the daily movement of the la, or life force, through different body parts. Some individuals wear amulets, which are said to protect and maintain health, foster longevity, and help wearers avoid life’s obstacles; these benefits are acknowledged in both Tibetan and Buddhist medical texts. They also come with the caveat that a particular person’s karma, or accumulated actions, ultimately determine the outcome of any celestial occurrence.
Another example of the intersection of Buddhist teachings and Tibetan medicine is Tibetan astrology’s Great Golden Turtle. This turtle is viewed as a manifestation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. This Buddhist deity is credited as being the divine source of astrological knowledge.
“Even if you know nothing about Himalayan cultures, by studying Tibetan medicine or astrology you will learn that everything is interdependent,” says Pakhoutova. She believes that Tibetan medicine “has the potential to take off in the same way as other traditional medical traditions [such] as acupuncture or cupping.” The Rubin Museum’s 2014 exhibit reflected America’s interest in Tibetan medicine and indicated that its principles may be the focus of more attention in the future.