What is Tibetan Medicine?


Tibetan Medicine is one of the world’s oldest healing traditions that has been practiced for more than five thousand years in Tibet and the Himalayan region. It is a unique medical science that provides holistic healthcare to the body, mind and soul. Tibetan medicine is commonly known as “gSowa Rigpa” in Tibetan. “gSowa” means to heal or restore and “Rigpa” means the knowledge or science.

While Tibetan medicine is a science, it is also art and a philosophy of holistic healthcare.

It is a science because its principles are enumerated in a systematic and logical framework based on an understanding of the body and the mind’s relationship to the environment. It is an art because the Tibetan healers use diagnostic techniques based on the creativity, insight, subtlety, love, and compassion of the medical practitioner. And it is a philosophy because it explains the key Buddhist principles of impermanence, altruism, karma and ethics.

The fundamental principle of Tibetan medicine is that the body, the disease, and the treatment, all share common principles and are comprised of the five elements: earth, fire, water, air, and space. This approach recognizes that everything in the universe – plants, animals, and human beings including all our body tissues, internal organs, skin, skeletal system and even emotions, are composed of these five elements. Each one of them plays a major role, both individually and in combination as aspects of all matter. The five elements in a balanced state, results in a healthy body, speech, and mind. Whereas, if any one of these elements falls out of harmonious balance, excess or deficient, it results in bad health.


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 as old as civilization itself.

Humankind has depended on nature for sustenance and survival and the instinctive desire for good health has led us to discover remedies for common ailments from natural source. 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 experience and gradually formed the basis for the art of healing in Tibet.

The era from the beginning of human civilization to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet, can be termed as the Pre-Buddhist era. During this 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-din) that around 200 BC (during the emergence of the first Tibetan king Nyatri-tsenpo) there lived twelve scholars of Bon tradition including a medical scholar who treated disease through medicine and therapy. These indicates that Tibetan practiced medicine and Tibetan physicians existed even prior to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. However, FOUR TANTRA (RGYU BZHI) remains the foundation of Tibetan medicine today.

The major goals of Tibetan Medicine are:

  • maintaining a healthy constitution through balance as an overall preventative approach;
  • providing treatment methods for sick people;
  • aiding in longevity; and
  • assisting those who want to be successful in their physical body and spiritual fields.

Tibetan medicine laid high emphasis on the importance of having love and compassion, and the belief that many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and our need for them lies at the very core of our being.

Tibetan medicine is much deeper than what it appears to be. Beyond treating symptoms, Tibetan medicine concentrates on treating the patient comprehensively, to promote peace and healing through diet, physical exercise, herbal formulas, and spiritual practice. When Tibetan physicians treat a patient, they focus equally on both the mental and physical states because they believe that the mind and body are inseparable. They address the three poisons (Moha, which is delusion or confusion, Raga, which is greed and sensual attachment, and Dvesha, which is aversion or ill will) as the fundamental cause of emotional disturbances and mental disorders. Tibetan physicians also consider how diet, behaviour, and daily habits affect each individual patient. Therefore, Tibetan Medicine can be best described as a holistic approach to tackle illness because it is designed to prevent and treat all diseases of our living being.



Tibetan medicine shares many ideas with the Buddhist tradition. For instance, “cause and effect” is one of the major concepts that Tibetan medicine shares with Buddhism. Within Tibetan medicine, there are two major divisions of the causes of all illnesses: distant causative factors and immediate causative factors. The distant causative factors are results of the three mental poisons: desire, hatred, and ignorance at work in our physical, emotional, and mental levels. Desire is the root cause of rlung, hatred causes Tripa, and ignorance generates Badkan. Tibetan healers work to free patients not only from physical sickness but also from mental sickness.

In short, the three poisons are the causes and three Nyepa (rlung, mkhris-pa and bad-kan) are the effects. On the other hand, the immediate causative factor is due to seasonal factors, harmful evil spirits, improper eating, and behaviour that result in increase, decrease or disturbance of the three humors that eventually rules the body and mind.


 DSC00479Tibetan medicine uses three diagnostic methods when examining a patient – visual observation, touch and interrogation. One of the most unique aspects of the Tibetan observation method is to perform a urine analysis during consultation, by which the doctor is able to analyse the disease immediately without sending the sample to a lab. The most common method of palpation is to feel both wrist arteries of patients. The doctors’ index, middle, and ring finger do palpation because each finger is able to detect characteristics of different internal organs. Detailed inquiry into a patient’s health, symptoms and history is also a valuable diagnostic tool, which gives the doctor a greater context for the analysis of current health issues.

    1. Visual Observation

      This involves checking a patient’s skin complexion, the colour and texture of his/her blood, nails, sputum, feces, and other general conditions. Special attention is paid to the condition of the patient’s tongue and urine.

    2. Touch 

      Pulse reading forms the most important method employed in Tibetan medicine. After ensuring an important set of preconditions, the physician proceeds with a pulse diagnosis. This involves placing the index finger, middle finger and ring finger of a doctor on patient’s radial arteries. The fingers must be held in a line close to one another yet not touching each other. The index finger must not put too much pressure on the skin; the middle and ring fingers should apply more pressure.

    3. Interrogation

      Interrogation forms the most important clinical aspect of the diagnosis. There are three main elements to a medical interrogation:
      a. Determining the causative factors
      b. Determining the site of the illness
      c. Studying the signs and symptoms

      Interrogation involves the doctor asking the patient about the dietary regulations she/he has been following, and what the physical and mental behaviour she/he has been experiencing etc.