Principles of Tibetan Medicine

"Where there is poison, there is medicine."

In ancient times, after countless fights and struggles with nature to control and understand it, the people living in the Tibetan Plateau became knowledgeable about the characteristics and functions of herbs. They then began using the herbs for therapies. At the same time, they also came to realize some medical functions of animals from their hunting endeavors. There soon developed the ancient medical theory that "Where there is poison, there is medicine.” Medicine and poison coexist, the former depending on the latter. This is basic concept is considered the earliest theory of Tibetan medicine.

"The Theory of Three Factors"

Tibetan medicine, which has been used for over 2,500 years and is still widely practiced today, is a traditional medical system. It operates on its own integrated theoretical system.
According to classic theory, the human body's physiological functions are summed up in 3 major elements. The basic idea is to keep in balance the Nyipa sum-rLung, mKhris-pa, and Bad-kan. The long-term causative factors of Nyipa sum are the 3 poisons of desire, hatred, and delusion.
This idea directly reflect how closely Tibetan medicine is connected with the concepts of Buddhism. But what is are rLung, mKhris-pa, and Bad-kan? Before these terms can be explained, it must be pointed out that there are no equivalent translations of them into Sanskrit, therefore the original names are used.
Tibetan medicine states that everything within the universe is composed of 5 proto-elements: wind, earth, water, fire, and space. Wind is responsible for movement; earth gives substance; water holds things together; fire heats or transforms; and space provides the realm of existence for creatures. Nothing would function without the 5 significant elements. The harmonious relationship between herbs and the environment are stated according to this medical theory.
The general description of rLung is that it is a subtle flow of energy and, out of the 5 main elements, most closely connected with air. However it is not simply the air that we breathe nor the wind in our stomachs. It goes much deeper than that. Suppose rLung is like a horse and the mind is like the rider; if there is something wrong with the horse, the rider will not be able to ride properly. RrLung is rough, light, cool, thin, hard, and movable all at the same time. Its nature is both hot and cold simultaneously.
The general function of rLung is to help growth, movement of the body, and exhalation and inhalation. RLung also helps to separate in our stomachs what we eat into nutrients and waste products. However its most important function is to carry the movements of mind, speech and body.
Bad-kan, then, is not the phlegm which comes from the chest; it refers to all the diseases connected with the cold nature called Bad-kan. Out of the 5 main elements, it is related to both water and earth. The description of Bad-kan is that it is oily, cool, heavy, blunt, smooth, steady, and sticky.
Its main function is to sustain the bodily liquids. It helps to mix food in the stomach, steady the mind, and keep our joints flexible. The nature of Bad-kan is cold, like water or the moon. According to old Tibetan pathological theory, the 3 elements, when balanced, will help the body function smoothly, but when unbalanced, will cause various diseases.
The basic theory of rLung, mKhris-pa, and Bad-kan is that they are responsible for human physiological activities. Based on these factors, humans are divided into 4 types named: RLung, mKhris-pa, Bad-kan, and type of mixture on the basis of different figures, colors and characters.

Physiologist and Dissection

With a history of some 1,300 years, Tibetan medicine has won itself a reputation for having strong traditional characteristics in its understanding of physiology, organs of the human body, diagnosis and treatment, and more. To no surprise, Tibetan medicine is considered one of the earliest and the most advanced traditional medical systems in the world.
While traditional Tibetan medicine is based on the "Theory of Three Factors" as mentioned above, there is more to it than the inclusion of Nyipa sum-rLung, mKhris-pa, and Bad-kan. The theory also centers on the "seven substances" and "three excrements" of the human body.
The seven substances include diet, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, and seminal fluid; and the three excrements are sweat, urine, and stools. When a person is in good health, the relationships between the three factors, seven substances, and three excrements are in good or perfect balance. Keeping balance is one of the most important principles of traditional Tibetan medicine.
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