BOOK REVIEW: Principles of Tibetan Medicine by Dr. Tamdin Sither Bradley

Principles of Tibetan MedicinePrinciples of Tibetan Medicine by Tamdin Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Full disclosure: let me first state that I’m a scientific-minded person and skeptic by nature, and if you’re expecting a review by a true believer, you may be disappointed.

A couple of questions may arise from the disclosure above. First, why do I feel I need to make such a commentary? Well, because this is a book about a system of medicine (i.e. gso-ba rig-pa) that developed within a country that was isolated for centuries and in which every aspect of knowledge was infused with and influenced by religious belief—both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist. Because of this, while some of the advice offered is surely sound, some of it is—from a skeptic’s point of view—bat-shit crazy. For example, there are herbal and dietary preparations to aid in digestion that may be completely sound and reasonable, and then there is the idea that Zombie spirits (one of 18 types of evil spirits) cause constant shivering.

The second question is, “If I’m not a believer, why read the book and review it?” For one thing, as I indicated above, I don’t think that just because the beliefs behind the “theory” of this system of medicine are baseless, it means that there is nothing in the book that is true or of value. The theory is that there are three kinds of energy (Loong, mKhris-pa, and Bad-Kan) and that excesses or deficiencies cause health problems. But it’s a 2500 year old system of healing; certainly they learned a thing or two in the process. It’s quite possible that they have learned things that scientific medicine has not. (Consider for example, Tibetan Buddhist monks have repeated and verifiably demonstrated capabilities—i.e. consciously controlling autonomic systems, that Western medicine would have thought impossible.)

The analogy that I always use is with kid’s Christmas presents. Parents hide the presents, and tell the kids that if there’s any tampering with them the kid won’t get anything but a lump of coal (you say that was just my parents?) Anyway, the kids find the packages, but are afraid to invasively tamper with them. Therefore, they feel the heft of them, they shake them, and they listen to said shakes. From that limited investigation, they develop a theory. The theory may be spot on, it may be completely wrong, or over several gifts it’s probably a combination of wrong and right. However, the question of whether the present does what it’s supposed to (i.e. bring joy) is not closely connected to the child’s theory, because it’s based on the parent’s observation of what the kid likes. That, my friends, is why systems of healing that are based on notions that are empirically wrong sometimes produce good results.

Second, while I’m a believer in science, I don’t always believe that Western medicine (rooted in science as it may be) consistently does a good job. Part of this is the fault of economists, policy types, as well as lazy patients who’ve created a system in which medicine only pays off if it can cut one open or give one an expensive medication. This leaves room for alternative systems of medicine that may not be so scientific, but that allow for the fact that changing patient behavior is often key to improving health.

I’ve taken a long time to get to the actual review, but I thought the reader should know from whence this reviewer was coming. The book is a little under 200 pages long. Its 11 chapters are logically oriented, and it’s easy to navigate the book. The author writes in a readable style, and jargon and foreign terminology aren’t a problem. It doesn’t have an index, but each chapter is broken up into many smaller subunits–so finding what one is after shouldn’t be hard.

The chapters cover the history of Tibetan Medicine, the nature of gso-ba rig-pa, the theory of Tibetan Medicine, causes of illness, human anatomy and physiology (not of the physical body as we know it), common diseases and illnesses, treatment techniques involving changing diet and behavior, medicinal treatment, representative case histories, and the nature of the Tibetan Medicine physician.

It’s not clear who the target audience for this book is. It’s not a self-help book as the implication is that the patient should see a doctor of Tibetan Medicine and not self-prescribe. Furthermore, while the book provides a good overview of Tibetan Medicine, it’s not an all-inclusive description by any means. The book seems to have been written primarily to make individuals aware of Tibetan Medicine and to give enough insight into the system that readers can differentiate it from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Indian Ayurvedic Medicine, both of which display similarities and differences.

I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in alternative approaches to healing, or if you’re interested in Tibetan culture in detail.

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