Buddhism and medicine meet: Tibetan perspectives on wellness

Like all medical doctors, traditional Tibetan physicians seek to reduce a patient’s suffering. However, the means of accomplishing that end are decidedly spiritual. In order to fully understand the Tibetan medical perspective, one must also understand the tradition’s Buddhist foundation. This unique melding of religion and medicine was the central focus of Dr. Hun Lye and Dr. Youlha Tsering’s presentation on “Tibetan Perspectives on Pathology and Wellness” at Malaprops Bookstore on Oct. 29. (File photo courtesy of Urban Dharma)

In the Buddhist tradition, the concept of suffering is translated to the slightly more complex Sanskrit term, dukkha. “Dukkha is the existential problem that we all have,” explains Dr. Hun Lye, founder of Urban Dharma, a local Buddhist community in downtown Asheville. “Suffering is simply that underlying feeling that something is not right.”

The Buddha believed that all suffering stems from three causes or three poisons: desire, hatred and ignorance. All of these causes arise, says Lye, from “a fundamental lack of awareness of things as they are.” Tibetan medicine takes this Buddhist concept further and addresses the ways in which the three poisons effect both physical and mental health.

Traditionally trained Tibetan physician, Dr. Youlha Tsering, explains that physical and mental health cannot be separated. The emotional state of a patient and the physical state of a patient are “always related, always interdependent.”

Tibetan medicine — a synthesis of knowledge from the medical traditions of India, China, Greco-Arabic cultures and Tibet — recognizes three main energies at work in the body: lhung energy, tri-pa energy and bad-kan energy. Each energy has its own distinct qualities and corresponds to specific areas of the body as well as potential ailments. When these energies are out of balance, disease and suffering occurs both on physical and emotional levels. Both speakers agreed that in Tibetan medicine, more emphasis is placed on the cause of illness than on the symptoms of illness.

For example, Tsering might see a patient with a liver issue and, instead of immediately prescribing medicine to treat the symptoms, he might question the patient about his or her emotional state. This may seem bizarre to an American patient, but in Tibet, this interest in emotions would be quite common. Tsering explains that the energy associated with anger is located in the heart and liver. Therefore, many patients with liver and heart issues may also have issues with anger. “What is anger?” says Tsering. “What is the nature of anger? What is the function of anger? What is the result of anger? How does it affect the body and the mind?” These are all important questions within the Tibetan medical tradition.

“The treatment of the body is rooted in the understanding of the mind,” says Lye. “Some of the greatest doctors in the Tibetan tradition were basically monks and Buddhist practitioners.”

The talk was rounded out with a question-and-answer session where attendees asked about issues ranging from karma to breast cancer. To conclude, Lye pointed out what he perceives as the big irony in the West and within western medicine, saying, “We value individuality so much, but the solution seems to be a group solution, like one size fits all.” Asian cultures, he counters, are the “opposite.” People in Asia typically place less emphasis on the individual culturally, but when it comes to medicine and spirituality, there is much more of a “tailored approach.”

Dr. Hun Lye is the founder of Urban Dharma, a local Buddhist community located at 29 Page Ave. Those interested in learning more about Urban Dharma can visit their website at udharmanc.com. Traditionally trained Tibetan physician Dr. Youlha Tsering sees patients at the Menlha Tibetan Healing & Wellness Center at 29 ½ Page Ave. and can be reached via email at menlha_youla@yahoo.com.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.