Medical advice from the Dalai Lama's doctor

A Tibetan temple. Tibetan doctors think we get sick when our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being are out of balance.

Story highlights

  • Tibetan medical experts want more collaborative projects with modern medicine
  • Tibetan doctors sometimes prescribe kindness and compassion to cure illness
  • Tibetan compassion meditation may lower stress-induced immune responses
  • The Dalai Lama wants more scientific testing of Tibetan traditional medicine
A young girl bravely stood to ask the Dalai Lama's doctor a question, and he gave her an unusual answer.
Dr. Tsewang Tamdin, a world-renowned expert in Tibetan medicine, visited Emory University in Atlanta on Monday as part of his effort to reach more American medical practitioners. He wants to develop collaborative projects between the Tibetan medicine system, which is more than 2,500 years old, and Western medicine.
The little girl told Tamdin she suffered from asthma. She wanted to know if there was anything in Tibetan medicine that could help her get better.
Tamdin, who spoke through a translator for the hourlong lecture, immediately switched to English. In a gentle, almost too-soft tone, he explained what might help.
Inhalers doctors prescribe for asthmatics works well, he said, and told her to continue using one if she does already. The inhaler, though, treats the symptoms only. Tibetan medical practice, he explained, ultimately aims to get to the root cause of the problem.
"While others might consider the holistic practice of Tibetan medicine 'alternative medicine' or a kind of side practice, I would like for others outside of our system to consider the Tibetan healing system full-fledged healing," Tamdin said. "Tibetan medical knowledge has tremendous potential to add to modern medicine."
Tibetan practice teaches that people get sick when a person's physical, psychological and spiritual well-being are out of balance.
Dr. Tsewang Tamdin
To restore balance, Tamdin recommended diet and exercise changes for the girl. He encouraged her to get proper rest and to get exercise that encouraged deep breathing, such as skipping or cycling.
He also suggested eating three or four white raisins a day. There is a property in the fruit that helps breathing, he said. But perhaps the biggest sacrifice for a child was his advice to avoid cold foods -- particularly, he said, ice cream.
Another patient who came to him with asthma symptoms would get a completely different diagnosis, Tamdin said. Each patient's disease is treated differently from the next. That's in large part because traditional Tibetan medicine is grounded in Buddhist philosophy. In his training to become a physician, Tamdin also studied Buddhist tradition and astrology.
American and Tibetan doctors have some practices in common. If Tamdin were to have a longer consultation with the girl, he said he would perform familiar diagnostic tests. He would examine her urine sample and take her pulse, but he also would ask questions that would be the more familiar terrain of a psychologist. He tries to find out if a person is angry or anxious or if someone is becoming too self-centered.
"Tibetans believe in our interconnectedness," said Geshe Lobsang Negi, a former monk who is now director of the Emory-Tibet partnership. "When we lose that perspective -- that we are a kind of little speck that is infinitely connected with the rest of the world -- when we see ourselves as the solid, fixed, all-important center of the universe, we call that ignorance, and that means we are vulnerable to illness."