Friday, March 8, 2013

It's A Matter of Taste

It came to my attention yesterday that there is a difference in the way Indian Ayurvedic treatises list the six tastes in terms of how they remove the three doṣas and the manner in which the Explanatory Tantra lists them.

To summarize the two systems, the six tastes are made up of the following combination of elements according to the Carakasamhitā [Sūtrasthana, 26:40]:

earth and water = sweet
fire and earth = sour
water and fire = salty
air and fire = hot/pungent
air and space = bitter
air and earth = astringent

The list in the Explanatory Tantra, chapter 19:

earth and water = sweet
fire and earth = sour
water and fire = salty
water and air = bitter
air and fire = hot/pungent
air and earth = astringent

Here we can see a slight difference in the presentation: bitter is constituted of air and space according to Carak, but according to the Explanatory Tantra, it is constituted of water and air. This is not a major difference, but it is noteworthy, since it should and does affect the principles of the application of tastes to the different doṣas in each system.

This brings us to another, more important difference. In the Aṣṭāṇga Samgrahā, [Sūtrasthana 18: 5 onwards] it is stated that:

Sweet removes vata and pitta
Sour removes vata
Salty removes vata
Bitter removes pitta and kapha
Hot/Pungent removes kapha
Astringent removes kapha and pitta

Further, Suśruta states [Sūtrasthana  chp. 42]:

Sweet, sour and salty mitigate vata; sweet, bitter and astringent mitigate pitta; hot, bitter and astringent mitigate kapha.

However, in the Explanatory Tantra, the following explanation is given:
Sweet, sour, salty and hot subdue vata;
bitter, sweet and astringent removes pitta;
hot, sour and salty removes kappa. 
So the observant reader will note that there is a significant difference between the lists presented in the two Indian texts and the Tibetan text. In reviewing the tastes with a colleague, this difference sparked my curiosity.

Naturally since there is a discrepancy between the Indian Acaryas and the Tibetan system, such a difference would hardly go unnoticed.

Is there in fact a real difference between these two lists? As it turns out, this issue is addressed in a commentary by Sum ston ye shes gzungs on the Explanatory Tantra called the 'bum chung gsal sgron nor bu'i 'phreng mdzes.  First, to give context to his subsequent comments, he states:

Through the combination of the four elements, earth, water, fire and air, sweet comes from the combination of earth and water. Sour comes from earth and water. Astringent comes from earth and air. Three tastes come from earth combinations. Then, leaving aside earth; salty comes from water and fire. Bitter comes from water and air i.e. two come from a water combination and thus the addition of two more gives rise to five tastes. Then, leaving water aside, the combination of fire and air produces hot...

After addressing other issues connected with the tastes and so on, he addresses the very point I introduce above -- the fact that there is a discrepancy between the Indian texts and the Explanatory Tantra. In the context of writing about the post digestive tastes, he comments:
For example, it is like the difference between India and Tibet. Since India is a dry place afflicted with heat, bitter and astringent tastes are said to remove kapha; but since Tibet is very cold, bitter and astringent are harmful to kapha. Also in India, the hot taste is harmful to vata; but since Tibet is a cool country, the warming effect of the hot taste is stronger than its light and rough effects. Since the cold of vata is subdued through its warmth, hot is beneficial for vata. In India, salty is harmful to kapha; but in Tibet, since the action of generating digestive heat exists in salt is stronger than the oily effect [sneha] of salt, it is likewise beneficial for kapha. 
I think there is an extraordinary lesson here. Despite the apparent differences between the formulation of tastes and their properties in removing the three doṣas, in reality the underlying theory of these two systems is identical.

We are taught in both Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine that we must take into account the environment we find out patients in and so on. In many popular books on Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda, these lists of tastes, the foods that bear them and what they are purported to be good for are recommended uncritically irrespective of season and local. For example, in New England, where I live, we have very cold winters, and very hot summers. It suggests that the range of tastes we recommend for a patient will change seasonally. It supposes that a patient we  treat in Arizona or Southern California will be prescribed a different matrix of tastes than a person who lives in Oregon or Seattle for the same doṣa condition.

People often select for salads and so on to lose weight. In Ayurveda especially, you can see diet books that mark bitter, astringent and hot dishes as kaphahara i.e. kapha removing. But if a patient actually consumes these bitter and astringent foods in the middle of winter in New England, it could be harmful to them. But if, following a Tibetan doctor's advice, they eat sour and salty foods in the middle of a hot summer to alleviate a kapha condition, likewise they could experience vitiation of their kapha doṣa instead. Likewise, if a kapha-afflicted or vata afflicted person in Latin America chooses to eat based on the recommendations found in the Explanatory Tantra, they could likewise experience doṣa vitiation.

So the lesson is that we need to be careful in what we recommend to our patients. We need to understand that Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine recommendations were formulated for specific regions and not generalize to all regions. If we keep this principle in mind, then our dietary recommendations will be more effective. So it behooves us to understand in more detail the function of taste in relationship to our outer environments and seasons, both for our own health and that of our clients.

As students of these systems, we need to go deeper into the underlying theoretical beauty of the six tastes, the eight effects and seventeen properties connected and really analyze what kind of food is good for what patients, in what climate, and so on, and not leave our understanding in a partial state.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nagpo Gujor Pouches

One of the most famous preventative formulas in Tibetan Medicine is a sachet or pill called Nagpo Gujor, "the preparation of the nine blacks".

During the SARS outbreak in China, pouches and pills containing this formula were distributed by the millions.

Sudarshana Mandala has just brought over a number of these attractive brocade pouches containing the formula in powder form prepared by the pharmaceutical department at the Tsoṅön Tibetan Medical Hospital in Xining, Qinghai Province, China.

Traditionally, during the flu/cold season one sniffs the pouch three times with each nostril in the early morning; one wears it for the rest of the day for protection against such infections.

This powder is not for internal use. It it is strictly a sachet. If it is made wet, it will be ruined. If it is treated well, it should retain its potency for at least three years. It should be kept out of the reach of children.

This item is being sold strictly as a decorative object. No warranty for its effectiveness is being implied or asserted.

The ingrediants are:
Terminalia Chebulam; Aconitum richardsonianum; Ox gall stone; Commiphora wightii; Musk; Acorus Calamus; Ferula assafoetida; Sulphur; Chinese Black Ink.

The cost of for one of these pouches is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Vimala and Vata

In this day and age of high technology and fast living, we are constantly exposed to historically unprecedented levels of environmental and social stress. The climate is becoming unstable because of human activity, the seasons are becoming unbalanced, and many parts of the world today are experiencing all kinds of social, economic, environmental, and spiritual disturbances. One result of all of these disturbances is imbalance in our vata dośa, known in Tibetan as "nyes pa rlung".

Vata disturbances are difficult to manage because people become accustomed to them under the name of "stress" -- spending billions of dollars a year on therapy, sleep aids, and so on. Stress-related illnesses are so pervasive in Western culture that many traditonal physicians in both Ayruveda and Tibetan Medicine see vata-related conditions as being the number one acute health problem facing those in the West. It is not a coincidence that the cause of vata in the human body is the affliction of desire. There is direct link between our consumerist society, the stimulation of desire, and the resultant vata imbalances that so many people experience.

The seasons also play a role in vata-imbalances. Though the fall season is traditionally considered to be the season in which pitta dośa [nyes pa mkhris pa] accumulated during the summer manifests as a disease in both classical Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine, we lack a late summer rainy season in the northern hemisphere, followed by an intensely hot autumn. In our climate, the late summer is when the days are hot but the nights are cool. This produces the manifestation of many dual vata-pitta disorders, and so we commonly observe the increase of vata imbalances combined with pitta imbalances in the form of rampant colds and flues, and so on, that afflict the northern hemisphere every year.

From the perspective of Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine, one of the main reasons our immunity becomes compromised is that our constant level of stress directly degrades and damages ojas (mdangs), the subtle life-sustaining fluid that permeates our entire body and supports our life-force. Therefore, the we need to reduce our overall levels of stress in order to reduce damage the damage to ojas which directly supports our vitality, our health, and our wellbeing.  

Fortunately, there are a number of inexpensive alternatives for the management and alleviation of vata imabalances. Yoga, proper exercise, massage and self-massage with a high quality traditionally-crafted Ayurvedic massage oil suited to your individual constitution, praṇāyāma, and meditation are important methods of reducing stress and controlling vata imbalances. Diet is also important: eating with the seasons, eating regularly, eating whole foods in proper combinations and so on. All of these factors contribute to the management of vata related symptoms. In addition, we may occaisonally need to resort to herbal supplements to assist in bringing our three dośas back into balance.

For persons of general good health, one of the best formulas for controlling vata disturbances is Vimala. Vimala (Dza ti 20) is special formula developed by the great Indian Pandita and Dzogchen master, Vimalamitra in the eighth century. The traditional uses of Vimala are described in Vimalamitra's Eighty-Four Thousand Healing Therapies:
A special therapy for vata (rlung) in the heart:
when the nine wicked spirit siblings are rampant,
no one will be unaffected by this disease.
The symptoms are depression
mental instability, disturbed thinking,
pain and tightness in front and back of the upper body,
lack of mental clarity, poor memory,
being sad for no reason, restlessness,
hostility, lethargy and agitation, shortness of breath,
acute fainting. Because various illnesses
arise, the method of healing them with medicine is demonstrated.
Vimala is a balanced formula, the basis of which is Nutmeg, Terminalia chebulam, Boswellia serrata and Aquilaria malaccensis. Nutmeg and Boswellia serrata are warming; Terminalia Chebula and Aquilaria malaccensis are cooling, and all are used in controlling wind. In particular, the function of nutmeg is to regulate wind in the central channel and heart cakra. In addition to these four herbs, Vimala has a number of other supporting herbs which control wind and support the heart cakra.

 Vimala might be described as the meditator's formula of choice. Vimala is an excellent herbal support for those who are embarking in meditation retreats where vata or "rlung" disturbances are a constant issue. In addition to this, since Vimala assists the regulation of the praṇāvāyu in the heart cakra, it is an excellent aid for supporting calm and restful sleep. For an anupāna (sman rta, foods and drinks to enhance the effect of the medicine), Vimala may be combined with warmed milk sweetened with sucanet or a small portion of high quality aged alcohol such as 10-year old tawny port or brandy. When used in combination with a vata-reducing diet, regular massage, and light exercise such as yoga or walking, Vimala plays a role supporting calmness and a positive mood.

 Why should one choose Vimala over Agar 35? Agar 35 is considered to be the heaviest and coolest of all the Agar preparations. Agar 35 is classified as a heat-removing formula recommended for general vata (rlung) disorders, especially those combined with heat. Agar 35 is contra-indicated where there is a heat condition in the upper body and a cold condition in the lower body (i.e. below the diaphragm), when there is an unproductive cough, arthritis, and so on.

In the past, Tibetan formulas such as Vimala have been hard to find. This formula can be obtained from Siddhi Energetics.