Medicine of water, fire and air Tibet: A gathering in Washington, D.C., this weekend will enable practitioners of Western and Buddhism-based medicine to learn what the systems might offer each other.


November 06, 1998|By Thomas Graves | Thomas Graves,SUN STAFF

Stomach bothering you? It could be exposure to internal cold winds, or perhaps you're not wearing the right clothes.

Pain in the bones and joints? Maybe you need to put your back in balance by showing more compassion toward the aged.

Not exactly the kinds of diagnoses you get from your HMO. But they might be what you would hear from a Tibetan physician.

This weekend in Washington, more than 1,200 Western medical professionals will get an intensive look at Tibet's long history of Buddhism-based medical practice. The First International Congress on Tibetan Medicine is designed to see what the two systems might offer each other.

It's not for new-agers. One seminar title is: "A Tibetan plant preparation as potent inhibitor of cell killing induced by synergism among oxidants, membrane perforators and proteinases: modulation of inflammatory and infectious responses." Seminars dealing with death and dying will be presented, as well as exploration of mental-health issues.

The congress will be opened by the Dalai Lama and will conclude with a ceremony around a sand mandala dedicated to the Medicine Buddha. After its ritual destruction the mandala, a symbolic circular design created by monks during the weekend, will be dumped into the Potomac River as an offering of healing power to the waters.

An exhibit of 17 paintings describing aspects of the Tibetan medical system is on exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery until Jan. 3, when it will move to other museums around the country. The show, and an accompanying book, are called "The Buddha's Art of Healing: Tibetan Paintings Rediscovered."

The elaborate fabric paintings, or "thangkas," illustrate a 17th-century medical text called "The Blue Beryl." They were originally kept in a monastery in Buryatia, a republic in the Siberian region of the former Soviet Union.

The Tibetan system developed over 2,000 years and was formalized after the development of the Tibetan alphabet in the 7th century. Due to Tibet's location on the Silk Road, the trade route from the Mediterranean to China, healing practices from many cultures were incorporated into the Buddhist belief that the practice of the religion is itself a healing art, aimed at relieving the suffering of all beings.

In this system, good health is maintained by a balance among three interrelated systems of the body, called humors. Bad-kan (pronounced baygan), the water element, is responsible for mechanical function and structure of the body. Mkhris-pa (pronounced treeba), associated with fire, is responsible for producing the body's heat and enabling digestion. Rlung (pronounced loong) is connected with mobility and is tied to the element wind.

These humors, mixed in varying quantities, reside in different places in the body, and good health comes from their being in balance within the individual and with the world around them. Disease arises when they are unbalanced, often because one element, having dominated its own region, then spills into other regions.

Traditional Tibetan diagnosis proceeds from palpation, the detailed sensing of the pulse; uroscopy, inspection of the patient's urine; and interrogation, discussion and interpretation of the patient's lifestyle and behavior.

Interrogation may involve the patient's diet, sleeping habits, dreams and many behavior aspects, including frequency of sexual intercourse. Tibetan physicians believe that the amount of sex a patient has should vary with the season -- during the cold winter months it is unlimited, but sex more than once a fortnight in the summer may drain vital energies. Dream imagery may even help a physician predict the coming of death.

Pulse-taking is an involved and delicate process, which takes the Tibetan doctor more than a year to learn. With both hands, the physician feels the throbbings in the radial artery of the patient's two wrists. Pressing delicately for as long as a half-hour in some ++ cases, the practitioner can detect problems in the six "hollow organs" (stomach, small and large intestines, gall bladder, urinary bladder and reproductive organs) and the five "full organs" (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and spleen).

Pulses can be characterized as hot, cold, weak, strong, floating, fluttering, sunken, loose, trembling, thrilling, thin, rough, short, or missing -- to name just a few. Pulse reading is thought to have been introduced from China, where it is also commonly practiced today.

Urine analysis is now used less frequently, largely because the best time to collect urine for examination is immediately after the patient wakes up, and the physician should examine it while it is still warm.

The technique involves whipping the urine in a bowl with two sticks and then inspecting it for color, odor and froth. The procedure is repeated after it has cooled.

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