The origins of traditional Tibetan medicine (TTM) go back to native shamans in Tibet who used herbs and fasting in their healing practices. The Tibetan medical system combines principles from a variety of ancient medical systems, including Ayurveda and TCM.
Tibetan medical practices also include Buddhist religious principles. TTM embraces the traditional Buddhist belief that all illness results from the three poisons of the mind; ignorance, attachment, and aversion. The Tibetan Buddhist approach to psychiatry is based on this premise.
Tibetan medicine employs a complex approach to diagnosis, using techniques such as pulse analysis and urinalysis. TTM incorporates the use of herbs, minerals, and physical therapies, such as acupuncture, dietary modifications, and fasting.
Fasting performs different functions within Tibetan medicine. Some protocols use fasting only in the case of acute illness whereas others believe it is an essential part of the rejuvenation process (Clark, 2008). In the instance of acute illness, the intake of any type of food is stopped for one to three days. The ensuing fast consists of hot water, and sometimes herbs, minerals, meat, or rice broth.
Barry Clark, a physician and author on Tibetan medicine, studied under Pema Dorje, one of the personal physicians of the Dalai Lama. Clark explained how the rejuvenation process of fasting in Tibetan medicine focuses on cleansing and relaxing the body. Prior to fasting, the participant has an oil massage, followed by a bath and a laxative. According to Clark, fasting without taking these steps was tantamount to “dyeing a stained cloth.” Clark has personally undertaken 21-day fasts, consuming only herbs and minerals with hot water. He explained that fasting can improve mental acuity and help the participant to achieve enlightenment and paranormal states, such as clairvoyance.
Anthropologist Barbara Gerke pointed out that many Tibetan practices, such as fasting, have roots in religion and medicine. Gerke described a Tibetan medicine fasting practice known as “essence extraction” or “chulens.” During this kind of fast, the individual subsists on extractions from various plants in the form of elixirs and tonics while on an isolation retreat.
Although Tibetan medicine is relatively unknown in the West, it is practiced by millions of people in Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Siberia, China, Mongolia, Russia, Europe, and North America. Physicians in the Soviet Union have incorporated TTM into fasting methods that have been developed over the past 40 years.