Tibetan Medicine History
The Tibetan medical system is one of the world’s oldest known medical traditions. It is an integral part of Tibetan culture and has been developed through many centuries. We believe that the origin of the Tibetan medical tradition is as old as civilization itself. Because humankind has depended on nature for sustenance and survival, the instinctive urge to health and accumulated knowledge has guided us to discover certain remedies for common ailments from natural sources. For example, applying residual barley from chang (Tibetan wine) on swollen body parts, drinking hot water for indigestion, and using melted butter for bleeding are some of the therapies that arose from practical experiences and gradually formed the basis for the art of healing in Tibet. The Tibetan medical heritage is based on the book of the Four Tantras (rGyud-bZhi), which remains the fundamental medical text even today.
The era from the beginning of human civilisation to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet, can be termed as the pre-Buddhist era. During that time Bon tradition flourished in Tibet and Bon medical practice influenced and enriched the existing Tibetan Medical knowledge and practice. It has been clearly mentioned in a Bon text titled “Jam-ma tsa-drel” that around 200 B.C., (during the emergence of the first Tibetan King Nyatri Tsenpo) there lived twelve scholars of Bon tradition including a medical scholar who treated diseases through medication and therapy. This indicates that Tibetans practiced medicine and there were Tibetan physicians even prior to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet.
Buddha Shakyamuni (961-881 B.C.,) (according to Phuglug Tradition of Tibetan Astrology)
Shakyamuni Buddha was born in circa 961 B.C., and he lived till 881 BC. During his life time he taught Buddha Dharma (popularly known as Buddhism). Buddhism came to Tibet during the reign of King Thothori Nyantsen (245-364 A.D.,) (according to gSo-rig Kuns ‘Dus ). The Buddhist teachings gradually spread and were assimilated into every part of Tibetan culture, becoming Tibet’s state religion. The philosophy of Tibetan Medicine also got motivated by it and the influences are clearly visible in rGyud-Zhi (the principal Tibetan medical text). The incorporation of Buddhist views of the four immeasurable thoughts and six perfections in the prerequisite conditions of Tibetan physicians are testimony of these influences.
Lha Thothori Nyantsan (245-364 A.D.,) (according to gSo-rig Kuns ‘Dus)
The Indian physicians Biji Gaje and Bila Gazey (according to Yuthok Sernying kyi Namthar) were born to rNga-Chenpo, the King of Yul Pema Nyingpo, and his two wives, one the daughter of a drum maker and the other the daughter of a bell maker. The mothers offered ten drums and ten bells to the Mahabodhi Stupa of Vajrasana and made prayers for their children’s success in benefitting sentient beings. When the boy and girl grew older, they requested their parents to let them learn the Science of Healing. After getting permission, they went to Taxilla in present day Pakistan and studied medicine under the great Physician Atreya. Afterwards, they travelled throughout India and also visited China, Nepal and East Turkistan (which is now under China and called Xinjiang Autonomous Region). They also received medical teachings from another great physician, Kumara Jivaka, at Magadha.
When they were in Vajrasana, Arya Tara prophesied that they would go to Tibet and propagate the Medical Science. During the reign of the 28th King, Lha Thotho-Ri-Nyantsen, Biji Gaje and Bilha Gaje did visit Tibet. The King invited them to his Palace, Yumbu Lakhar, after hearing news about the healings they rendered to Tibetans. He requested them to remain there to teach and practice, and he gave his daughter Yidkyi Rolcha as a bride to Biji Gaje. It is believed that Biji Gaje and Bilha Gaje are still alive and exist in a forest of sandalwood after attaining immortality. They got empowered by medicines during retreats.