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From Tibet, With Love 

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

  • Illustration by Annie Internicola
Just over a year ago, Peter Buettner finally admitted to himself what a lot of people had been telling him: that something was not right. "I was walking funny, I had a tremor in my hand, my voice changed. I just wasn't my same self," says Buettner, 64, a Woodstock-area musician. A neurologist diagnosed him with early-stage Parkinson's disease, and he started a course of treatment doing everything by the book—taking Levodopa to alleviate his symptoms, showing up for regular appointments, eating well, exercising. Yet Buettner also did something that his doctors wouldn't have expected: He started a Medicine Buddha practice. Guided by lamas and teachers at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) monastery, he learned about the centuries-old traditions surrounding the lapis lazuli–colored "King of Medicine," as this particular Buddha is described in the Tibetan lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. Immersing himself in meditation, visualization, and mantra, he invited the healing blue light of the Medicine Buddha to wash over his brain and body. To the uninitiated, it may sound naïve and unscientific, like so much spiritual hoodoo. But on a mental and emotional level the effects have been profound, as well as measurable and quantifiable.

"The main thing that it's done for me, the Buddhist practice, in whatever limited level I'm practicing on, is that it's changed my attitude toward the way I feel about having a chronic condition," says Buettner. "You make choices, things happen to you, and you're in environments that create conditions in your body that manifest as disease later. It's about being able to accept that and not take it personally. It's part of the karma of the human body." Despite the weight of his diagnosis, there's a peace and calm that emanates from Buettner which he can trace back to a practice that is not entirely new to him: He's been studying Buddhism, in a "hit or miss" sort of way, for the past 30 years. It's only since his Parkinson's diagnosis that he has stepped up his commitment and become very diligent. Daily visits to the monastery (possible now since he is on disability from his day job as a contractor) have allowed him to intensify his study and practice, and to meet more lamas and teachers who open new doors for him. Meditation is more accessible thanks to teachers such as Mingyur Rinpoche, who visited KTD in July. "He talked about developing awareness, being aware of your mental states," recalls Buettner. "It's not about trying to stop the mind or change the mind. Instead, whatever you can do to be aware in the moment and not be feeding your story, your neurosis—that's the practice in itself."

A Medical System with Spirit

Although Buettner is mainly employing the spiritual and mental aspects of practice, there is an entire world of traditional Tibetan medicine which combines the spiritual and the medical in one interconnected system of healing. Among other classical Asian systems, "Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine are much wider known [than Tibetan medicine]," says Eric Rosenbush, a teacher and acupuncturist who has studied in depth all three systems of healing, and who is leading a Tibetan Rejuvenation Immersion at Menla Center for Health and Happiness in Phoenicia this October 25–30. The weeklong retreat, co-taught with Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman, offers an introduction to the principles and practices of Tibetan medicine, which Rosenbush describes as "a blend of indigenous Tibetan healing techniques, some of which are shamanic and very old, with the Buddhist medical system of India that came over with Indian Buddhism starting over 1,400 years ago, as well as a strong influence of Chinese medical tradition and ancient Greek medical tradition. Tibetan medicine took all of these various influences and from around the 8th century really created its own system."

On a physical or subtle-body level, disease is understood in Tibetan medicine as an imbalance of the three principles: "rLung" (air or wind), "mKhris-pa" (fire), and "Bad kann" (earth and water). On the spiritual level, illness is described as resulting from three afflictions in Buddhist belief: ignorance, attachment, and aversion. Beyond these principles Tibetan medicine is a vast system that, according to Rosenbush, who is a student of the eminent Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, has strong clinical efficacy to treat disease. "The Tibetan doctors that are practicing throughout the world are for the most part very highly trained and skilled in their diagnostic techniques and use of different substances. [Tibetan medicine is] really a gem within medical systems in the world today."


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