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From Tibet, With Love

Traditional Tibetan Medicine Interlaces the Spiritual and the Medical for a Singularly Holistic Approach to Health


Last Updated: 09/12/2016 11:50 am

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With a home base in Himalayan India, not far from the Tibetan border, Rosenbush works for an NGO that helps local farmers and villagers preserve and cultivate high-elevation plants used in traditional healing. Many of these are the same unique, endemic plants that are sourced to create the herbal substances used in Tibetan medicine, along with Indian and Chinese herbs introduced through centuries-old trade networks. At Menla, Rosenbush has plans to cultivate local plants and flowers for traditional medicine-making in future Tibetan Rejuvenation programs, to be offered several times a year. During the retreat, participants engage in mild fasting, skipping at least one meal a day. "In place of a meal," says Rosenbush, "you learn to absorb vital energy from special herbal substances mixed with ghee or honey, or different kinds of herbal pills," many of which he creates. Called Chulen, or "extracting the essence," the practice is combined with breathing, visualization, meditation, and simple yoga to help cleanse and rejuvenate the body and mind. Participants also join in a Mendrub ceremony, which is a ritual with mandala-making and chanting to bless the medicine and "transmute it into nectar." Says Rosenbush, "It's quite profound, and it's another great example of how the Buddhist tradition and the medical tradition work together."

Compassion as Medicine

At KTD monastery, with its golden shrine room perched high above Woodstock, practices like these are woven into everyday life among the lamas, monks, teachers, and community of Buddhist practitioners. Above all, one Buddhist tenet emerges as a powerful vehicle for healing: compassion. A large part of Medicine Buddha practice involves compassion for the self and others; it aims to direct healing not just toward oneself, to ease one's own suffering, but also toward other beings who need healing and freedom from suffering. "We have three kinds of practices for healing and to protect from disease: the outer, the inner, and the innermost," says resident teacher Khenpo Karma Tenkyong. The outer practices are directed at protecting nature and other sentient beings, and often involve the live release of fish or other animals into their natural habitat. From there, the practice naturally moves inward, Khenpo explains. "Because you are a part of nature, you can feel your interdependence. Nature has the power of medicine: The inner person will come out. Then you're not going to eat something that's going to hurt you and cause disease. You love yourself and don't want to harm yourself, because you know how important is this human life. You will take care of your body, exercise, train your mind with meditation. When you train your mind and body, you are healing. Then you can turn to helping animals, to helping other people."

Khenpo knows that in the Western world of modern medicine, these basic views are far from orthodox. But for him, growing up in a remote village on the border of Nepal and Tibet, a simple approach to health was the only approach to health. "We had no doctor, no hospital, and until now we had no road. If someone had a wound we would use tree leaves, medicines. If there is a very serious problem we contact the government and pay them money to bring a helicopter. But most people do not have big disease; I never hear about cancer in our village." He chalks it up to Medicine Buddha practice—the "innermost" practice in Tibetan healing—taught to every child and practiced by every family in his village to this day.

Buettner, too, benefits from the simple heart qualities of these teachings on his journey with Parkinson's disease. "This really teaches you to use your condition, whatever condition or affliction that you have, as a springboard to compassion for other people and their suffering," he says. These days, he is unable to play the saxophone because his fingers can't hold certain keys down; he is, however, able to play the flute, compose music, and do basically all of his normal activities. "There are many people who are suffering far worse than I am," he adds. "Having to face my mortality, and the limitations that my condition is going to place on me as time goes by, inspires me to have compassion towards anyone who needs it, and to bring some kind of conscious energy to the healing of any suffering being."

Meet Your Inner Blue Healer

Rosenbush concurs that it all goes back to the Medicine Buddha—the "originator" of the Tibetan medical system and the source of all healing. "The Medicine Buddha is not necessarily a blue person or a blue alien that taught this medical tradition," he says lightly. "It is the enlightened essence of the perfectly realized potentiality of healing. Within everyone there is, we say, the Buddha nature. This is your own enlightened essence, the wisdom essence of your soul. In Tibetan medicine, the Medicine Buddha is really the heart, and can manifest in different ways as your highest potential for healing."

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