It was a cold November afternoon in Beijing. A senior lama was surrounded by scores of people in a small hall. They expressed their great respect by presenting him with white hada, long silk scarves used as a greeting gift among Tibetan and Mongolian ethnic groups. This was not a Buddhist ceremony, but a Tibetan medicine lecture by Venerable Lama Zhaxi Rinpoche, hosted by the Buddhist Association of Beijing.
Zhaxi Lungdor Dainqu Gyamco, Rinpoche, was born in 1936, the Year of Fire Mouse of Tibetan calendar, in a village near Tar Monastery in Qinghai. The monastery, one of the famous Tibetan monasteries in the country, is located in Huangzhong County, Qinghai Province's capital Xining, and was built in 1577 in memory of Master Zongkapa, founder of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. When he was three years old, Zhaxi Rinpoche was recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Zhaxi Lama, who passed away in 1934. In 1943, the seven-year-old Zhaxi Rinpoche formally entered the monastery. Rinpoche is the title given to venerable lamas who are recognized from a previous incarnation.
After 15 years studying Tibetan language and sutras, Zhaxi Rinpoche, began his medical study. "I wanted to do something down-to-earth for my people," he recalls.
"Being a Buddhist, I may not have to understand ordinary people's joy and happiness, but firstly I must know their pain and sorrow. I feel I have the responsibility to heal their pain, not only by spiritual healing, but also in the way of medical treatment," he explained.
By studying traditional Tibetan medical classics, such as the Four-Volume Medical Tantras, and after decades of medical practice, Zhaxi Rinpoche became a well-known Tibetan doctor. Between 1965 and 1980, he was often found collecting herbs in the hills around the monastery, which he would later use to make medicine for people suffering from various diseases in the area. In 1980, he built the Kumbum Tibetan Medicine Hospital of Tar Monastery, and during his tenure as the hospital's president, it became known as one of the leading Tibetan medicine research centers in China.
Tibetan medicine is a holistic healing system in which the human body is considered based on the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth. These are manifested in the human body by the three factors or the "three humors," wind, bile and phlegm, which govern the functions of the body. In Tibetan these are known as lung, chipa and paigen. Each of these three is considered to be a sort of energy or force, which circulates through the centers of the body. "To cure the disease, we doctors need to rebalance these three factors," explained Zhaxi Rinpoche.
One of the outstanding characteristics of Tibetan medicine is its connection with Buddhist tenets. Zhaxi Rinpoche said, "Lung is like a wind, concentrating at the lower portion of the body, while chipa affects middle, and paigen the upper part of the body. As people get older, lung in the body increases. When people pass away in old age, we say that the wind inside them has blown away." He believes the secret of a longer and healthier life is to live by the principle of moderation. "For example," he explained, "if one drinks or eats too much, he will suffer from liver disease, stomachache and even heart disease. On the contrary, if he eats or drinks too little, he might be in danger of malnutrition. Anyway, people cannot do anything without proper self control, and being excessive is against nature."
Zhaxi Rinpoche leads a very simple life. Every morning, he gets up at 5:30. After a short sutra chant and meditation, he eats a simple breakfast of zanba, a bowl of fried barley flour, and a bowl of water. This is followed by sutra chants. "I usually recite one sutra 1,000 or 2,000 times every day, a habit I have had for many years," he noted.
The other important part of his daily routine is teaching disciples. Being an eminent and learned Rinpoche, both on Buddhist sutras and medical research, he always has a lot of followers, both from within China and foreign countries. Presently he teaches two or three disciples every year. His senior student Sanggyi, a 16-year-old from one of Mongolia's ethnic groups, has been studying with him for five years, beginning his study of Tibetan medicine two years ago. Talking about Sanggyi brings great joy to Zhaxi Rinpoche and he sounds more like a grandfather than a venerated lama. "Sanggyi is a very clever and docile. He is working very hard on medicine study and when I treat patients, he is always watching. I hope he will be a good doctor."
As a famous research unit on Tibetan medicine, Tar Monastery has opened Tibetan medical clinics throughout the country, including Beijing. Every year, senior lama doctors from the monastery's Kumbum Tibetan Hospital pay regular visits in these clinics, as part of their medical practice. During his duty in the clinic in Beijing, Zhaxi Rinpoche diagnoses and give treatments to about 200 patients, most of them are from out of town and have been attracted by his reputation. For a 68-year-old, it is a very long and exhausting workday. But he never refuses any patient who comes and asks for his help. "I am just an ordinary doctor, and my responsibility is to reduce their pain," he said.
Because of geographic and climatic reasons, Tibetan medicine is particularly effective in treating chronic diseases, such as heart and cardiovascular diseases, hepatitis and apoplexy. Since 1988, Zhaxi Rinpoche's hospital has carried out thorough research on traditional Tibetan prescriptions, and successfully produced them commercially. Feedback has shown the medicine is working effectively on both Chinese and foreign patients.
"Today, our Tibetan medicine is made up from many resources, some from India and Nepal, some from Han Chinese medicine and the rest gathered from our Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau," he said.
Traditional Tibetan medicines are divided into four categories: Liquid medicine, medicine powder, pills and plasters. "In recent years, most Tibetan medicines are made into pills, because the patients want a better taste and convenience. But such a reform reduced the efficiency of medicines, because pills cannot be the best medicine for all diseases. So, I suggested that we should resume some of our traditional treatments, for example, using phlebotomy on treating apoplexy," he added.
Another worry for him is that mass production might damage the environment of the plateau. "It usually takes nature decades of years to cultivate some medical plants, which grow only on the plateau. But industrial production causes an excessive consumption of these material, including plants, animals and minerals," he stressed. "The best way to protect the environment is to find substitutions in a precondition of assuring the medicine's qualities."
On medical research, Zhaxi Rinpoche has an open mind. As he speaks fluent Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese, he keeps up to date with other medical developments, like works on Han Chinese medicines and Western medical theory. "Other medical systems also have their advantages and specialties. As long as it can cure disease and reduce people's pains, it is good," he concluded.
Tibetan medicine seeks balance and moderation
Tibetan medicine, generally considered to have a history of over 2,400 years, is one of the world's four traditional medical families. The other three are Han Chinese medicine (generally known as traditional Chinese medicine), Indian medicine and ancient Greek medicine.
Hundreds of years before the Christian era, people living on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau had learned to use the medicinal properties of animals, plants and minerals to reduce pain and cure disease. In the fourth century, simple medical theory was documented, which said chills must be treated with warming medication, and fever with cooling medications.
During the first half of the seventh century, King Songsten Gampo adopted Buddhism in Tibet. It was during his reign that physicians from India, China, Nepal, Byzantium and Persia were invited to Tibet for a medical conference and to translate their medical texts into Tibetan. This formed the core of the highly evolved medical system adopted in Tibet. Buddhist philosophy maintains that the mind is part of everything, including the health of the body and is what makes this form of medicine unique. Together with medicines (mainly herbal) and physical treatment (involving taking of the pulse and examination of the tongue), a combination of balancing physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person evolved into Tibetan medical practice.