Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The smell of herbs

Today I received a new batch of herbs. I open the bags of each one, and inhale the fresh clean scent of Tibetan herbal medicines manufactured in Tibet. The scent of Tibetan medicine seems to have all smells, sweet, sour, bitter, musky and so on.

I open up a bag of skyu ru nyer lnga (emblica officinalis twenty five). This one has many uses and is made of twenty five ingredients, it's primary ingredient is what is known famously as amla or amalaki. It is a blood purifier and can be used as a substitute medicine when one cannot do bloodletting. It is used for pain in the upper body, disturbed blood, and heat which has developed in the upper body. It is an medicine used frequently in so called "combination diseases" i.e. when the three humors along with blood have disrupted or are in the process of seriously disrupting the digestive system. In particular, it can be used for the hot form of a disease call bad kan smug po, when the constituent of blood that was not properly transformed into healthy blood begins to invade other organs from the liver.

I open up another bag and inhale the perfume of Vimala, or dza ti nyer lnga (Myristica fragrans twenty five). This famous formula is traditionally credited to the Dzogchen master Vimalamitra who is said to have compounded Vimala in order to combat disorders caused by the class of spirits known as gongpo. One of its main functions is to control the prana vayu, or the vital wind (srog 'dzin rlung) in the aorta and thus is often used as a sleep aid, but may also be taken before breakfast in the early morning. It has an interesting story related by the Yang ti sman sbyor 'chi med bdud rtsi'i bcud len:
The Indian, Vimalamitra's Eighty Four Thousand Therapeutic Treatments has a special treatment for wind that has invaded the heart. When the nine evil spirit siblings are wide spread, no one will be unaffected by this disease. The symptoms are unhappiness, mental instability, agitated thinking, pain and tightness in the upper torso in the front and the back, unclear memory, great forgetfulness, depression, inability to stay still, anger, lethargy and agitation, and short breathing through the nostrils. It produces eight serious diseases and minor diseases...

Another medicine, this one for severe mental illness, is sems kyi bde skyid, Blissful and Happy Mind, the main ingredient being go yu (Areca catechu) or betel. Betel is mainly used for kidney diseases, but in this medicine, betel is being combined with agar (another important medicine used for mental illness in such formulas as agar so lnga and agar rbgyad pa), nutmeg, clove, hing, and so on. The function of this medicine is place wind back into the aorta. It is to be given either in the evening or the morning, depending on when the disease manifests the strongest.

Turning our attention to women's health, another interesting medicine is 'ol mo se nyer lnga (Podophyllum hexandrum twenty five)-- this is the primary medicine used for the conditions called khrag tshabs and rlung tshabs, which is best described by its symptoms. "Tshabs"means "severe" -- khrag tshabs is the acute form of the condition, caused primarily by menstruation and featuring burning pain below the waist, the lower belly is hot, the upper back and diaphragm are painful; the pulse is hot, fast; blisters and small pimples form, blood flows from the uterus, or pools and becomes purulent. The second, rlung tshabs, is the form of the chronic condition, and has the following symptoms: the bones feel boiled, and depressed, dizziness, the whole body is cold and there is pain in the lower muscles, the flesh is puffy, bloated and numb, vision is unclear, one feels crazy, loses consciousness and memory, the urethra and the lower belly are cramped, menstruation does not stop and flows continuously. This medicine also is used alongside some of the wind medicines mentioned above.

To mention one final medicine -- this one is definitely one of the most useful and helpful herbal medicines of all for a condition that drives a lot of people crazy but who can't seem to find a good solution, a condition that pharmaceutical companies make millions off of not treating effectively -- constipation. I am talking about zhi byed drug pa, Pacifier Six. This sweet little formula is made from the root of inula racemosa, a very pretty garden flower, ginger, arura (the kind known as "bird nose"), the malva seed, a calcite mineral called congshi and bul tog, better known as sodium carbonate. I have used this herb with several patients and they have universally reported good success. Not only does this herb act to soften blocked feces and expel them, but it also stimulates the metabolic heat, balances the wind in the colon, and digests undigested food that is caught in the small intestine and colon.

This is where the smell of herbs led me today. One important thing to remember about Tibetan medicine and other herbal traditions is that they grew out of a deep sense of the sacredness of all that lives and breathes. My commitment to Tibetan medicine grew out of my desire to learn herbal medicines in order for people to take back control over their health. Medicine is fundamentally elitist, while herbalism is fundamentally egalitarian. The elitism of medicine grows out of the need for people to learn a comprehensive theory which is then applied to healing techniques. But it is important for those of us who term ourselves "doctors" to recall that the art of healing preceded all the sciences of medicine. So in the rich earthy smell of wild-crafted Tibetan herbs formulated according to theoretical principles originally taught by the rishis of ancient India we can hear an echo of the day when human beings walked in the richness of the earth and plumbed her wisdom to find health-giving and life-saving plants.

If anyone is the owner of Tibetan Medicine, all human beings are the owner of Tibetan Medicine, just as they are the owners of Classical Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Unani and so on. These medicines should not be kept secret, their formulas locked in obscurity. The best way to protect Tibetan medicine is to place Tibetan Medicine and its texts in the public domain, as public knowledge to which everyone is entitled.

Our responsibility, those of us westerners who are practitioners of Tibetan Medicine, as western guardians of the tradition of Tibetan Medicine is to see Tibetan medicine in the wider context of the human family, and seek to make connections with other traditional medicine systems, to broaden our relationships as human beings with other human beings, to live with honor, integrity, respect and compassion, to go beyond the boundaries of religion, sect, politics, economics and borders. In the end, Tibetan Medicine is not about being Tibetan, nor is it about Medicine; it is about:
...remaining without illness, being cured of illness, and accomplishing longevity, Dharma, wealth and happiness.

The actual name of Tibetan Medicine is bso ba rig pa, cikitsavidya i.e. the science of therapeutics or healing, which is ultimately the internal medicine branch of Ayurveda (tshe'i rig pa) or the Science of Life. So the ultimate goal of Tibetan medicine is to properly sustain what is healthy, to cure what is unhealthy, so that we can all enjoy the benefits of longevity, right living, wealth in things that make life meaningful and happiness through the application of therapeutic diet, behavior, medicinal herbs and treatments. As the famed Desri Sangye Gyatso says:
Spilling from the mouth of Brahma, Ayurveda
is the primary science that renders the life force of beings indestructible


bcreative said...

What you say is very interesting. I suffer with very bad upper body pain, tightness sometimes piercing in my chest - wll of this mainly at night while I sleep. It begins around two to three hours after going to bed. My elbows do not straighten and conventional medicine labelled it 'rheumatoid arthritis' ten years ago when it was actually affecting every joint including legs and feet. Ten years on it's just the upper body pain. I'm having acupuncture, and I meditate and I'm looking into Tibetan Medicine and learning about the nature of the mind - in your opinion how can it be treated?

Malcolm said...

Dear bcreative:

Without examining you, it is hard to say how your condition can be treated.

It sounds to me like a rlung (vata) disorder. But I cannot be sure.

If you like you contact me privately through