Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tibetan Medicine, Astrology and a 13-Year Old Boy

The Men-Tsee-Khang, also known as the Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute of HH the Dalai Lama, is a cultural, educational and charitable institution that functions under the support and guidance of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) and HHDL.

Established in 1961, the Institute’s primary objective is to preserve, practice and propagate the ancient systems of Tibetan medicine and astrology, both of which are deeply linked in relation to the well-being of each human being.

Traditional Tibetan medicine is a holistic system that takes into consideration the overall relationship between the mind, body, spirit and its outside environment. It looks at the balance of the three main body energies (in Tibetan: rLung, mKhris-pa and Bad-kan) which are the root cause of a healthy mind and inner and outer body, along with the five cosmic energies (earth, water, fire, air and space) that surround us in our external environment. When these energies are out of balance, our skin and bodies are prone to ill health.

Says HH Dalai Lama, “Tibetan medicine is deeply integrated with Buddhist practice and theory, which stresses the indivisible interdependence of mind, body and vitality. The ideal doctor is one who combines sound medical understanding with a strong realization of wisdom and compassion. I strongly believe that our medical system is one of the means by which we Tibetans can contribute to the well-being of others, even while we ourselves live as refugees.”

So the main work of the Men-Tsee-Khang is preparing new doctors to work in the more than 40 branch clinics it operates in India and Nepal. The clinics provide health care to thousands of Tibetans, Indians and foreign patients, (regardless of color or caste) and free health care is given to the poor and needy, monks and nuns and all new arrivals from Tibet.

The main facility is located in Dharamsala. Both the medical (traditional Tibetan medicine and surgery) and astrological programs are rigorous five-year disciplines. To date, 235 medical and astrological students have been trained under its wing.

Even though the cost to produce traditional Tibetan medicines are quite high, the cost to patients is kept very low to assure accessibility for all who seek care under the holistic Tibetan system of health and medicine.

The Men-Tsee-Khang derives some income from the products it produces (Tibetan medicinal and non-medicinal products under the brand name of Sorig), however it depends greatly on the generosity of individuals and Tibet support groups.

All Men-Tsee-Khang staff members and their families live in dormitory-style housing within the grounds of the Tibetan government “complex” and housing, childcare and other resources are provided to all employees and families. Economically, the Men-Tsee-Khang can only offer very modest salary and wages to staff and employees, who work long hours providing education to the students and medicinal products to be used by those in need.

To ensure that the children of the Men-Tse-Khang employees receive adequate medicine, food, clothing and school supplies, a sponsorship program has been set up.

Under the program, individuals willing to sponsor a Men-Tsee-Khang child donate $20(US) per month, to a particular child, and those funds are placed in account for the child, to be used for his or her benefit. Sponsors receive photos of the child and the ability to communicate with that child (via mail or email to the Men-Tsee-Khang office).

Most children in the sponsorship program are between the ages of five and 13 years old.


This morning I met for the first time the Tibetan child I am sponsoring, he is 13 years old and his name is Tenzin Yonzen. I am sponsoring him for several reasons, relevant here is that this is my small way of supporting the important work the Men-Tsee-Khang does.

Tenzin came to my guest house to meet me this morning with his mother and father, both of whom are Men-Tsee-Khang employees. It was warm this morning and they walked up a very steep hill to get to my guest house, yet had big smiles as they approached.

Tenzin was wearing a San Francisco Giants baseball shirt, blue jeans and white basketball sneakers. He is a 6th grade student at the Tibetan Children’s Village school in lower Dharamsala.

I told him about my children, some around the same age, and he smiled at the idea of having friends in America.

He was a little shy, and spoke very softly. Even though he was very respectful and quiet, keeping his hands folded in front of him, I could see his spark. His father told me that he loves to play both basketball and football (soccer). In school he is studying English, mathematics, science and social studies.

Tenzin is the oldest of three children, both of his sisters, of whom I was given photos, are currently sponsored. The three of them are beautiful, in that glowing way that all Tibetan children seem to be.

His parents were very appreciative, and we had a very happy time together, getting to know one another, taking photos, etc.

After about 20 minutes they left, Tenzin needed to be back in school, there are exams coming next week and he needs to review his lessons.

Before leaving I taught him the American tradition of “high-five” and we slapped fives with gusto. We made plans to see one another after my meditation retreat is over in ten days, at which time I will be the visitor, traveling down to Tenzin’s school.

After we said goodbye and they walked away down the path, I watched them, feeling the joy that comes from the gratitude of being able to be a part of this . . . and noticed Tenzin, who had been so reserved and mature in our meeting, hopping and skipping in front of his parents, just a happy little kid. It made me smile, inside and out.

So what is about this place that makes it so special to me? It’s a question I ask myself several times each day, and it was recently posed to me by Lauren back home in Florida.

When you are here you never lose touch with the fact that you are in India, in the Himalayas, our true earthly mythical paradise. Incredibly beautiful, transcendently splendorous, the peaks soar high . . . mysterious and immense, touching a sense of solitude, spiritual quest and raw eternal power that penetrates deeply into a place beyond which our sense of understanding can reach.

Add to the mix the magic of the Tibetan people who live here . . . who through tremendous hardship have retained poise, beauty, dignity and spiritual calm. It is not an exaggeration to consider them as members of the last real living “wisdom” civilization.

So, the land and the people come together here on a ridgetop named Dharamsala, and if you are open to the spell they weave, you find yourself in a place where your mind cannot help but dance, and your heart cannot help but release its abundant happiness.