To celebrate the 100th anniversary of a Tibetan hospital, more than 400 scholars and experts from home and abroad gathered in Lhasa, capital of Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region, to attend the first international forum on traditional Tibetan medicine.
Men-Tsee-Khang, also known as the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute, was founded in 1916 and was formally named Tibet Autonomous Region Hospital of Traditional Tibetan Medicine in 1980. It held the forum on Sept 13, as a part of the Third China Tibet International Tourism and Culture Expo, which was held in Lhasa between Sept 10 and 16.
Tibetan medicine, or Sowa Rigpa in Tibetan, is more than 2,000 years old and has been influenced by traditional Chinese, Indian and Arabic medicine.
Similar to traditional Chinese medicine and in sharp contrast to biomedicine, Tibetan medicine, which is mainly practiced in Tibet and the Himalayan region, uses herbs, minerals, and sometimes insects and animals to treat afflictions. It is particularly well known for its treatment of digestive, cardiovascular and rheumatoid ailments.
Tibetan medicine can be traced back to its roots in the region's monasteries and, even to this day, many of the most renowned doctors are often high monks. The practice uses a patient's urine to diagnose ailments, with the color, consistency, scent and sediment of urine used to help dictate treatment.
Stephan Kloos, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said Men-Tsee-Khang has been crucial to the development of Tibetan medicine, as generations of Tibetan medics have passed through its doors.
He presented a thesis entitled "Tibetan Medical Education Outside China" to the forum.
According to Stephan Kloos, Tibetan medicine crossed the Himalayas long ago and has been spreading worldwide, being taught in colleges and institutions in India, Mongolia, Bhutan and Nepal, with various training programs and institutions established in Western countries.
"From its beginning, Tibetan medicine as we know it today has been an international assemblage, incorporating the best medical knowledge from China, India and Persia into a uniquely Tibetan framework, and then re-exporting it along with Tibetan Buddhism through vast parts of Inner Asia," Kloos said.
"Its very strength, resilience and dynamism derive from the centuries of exchanges between practitioners and scholars from diverse backgrounds.
Damdinsuren Natsagdorj, a professor at Otoch Manramba University of Mongolia, said that Mongolian and Tibetan practitioners have been studying in each other's countries for more than 1,000 years. "There is a very close relationship between traditional Mongolian medicine and Tibetan medicine."
Tibetan medicine was added to China's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2006. The ancient practice has also won the support of the World Health Organization, according to Natsagdorj.
Phuntsog Wangmo, director of the International Shang Shung School of the Tibetan Medicine, presented a thesis entitled "Tibetan Studies Overall and Particularly Tibetan Medicine Development in the Western World" to the forum.
"Overall Tibetan Medicine as a traditional medicine is not standardized in many countries. However, in countries like Germany and Switzerland, it is not a prohibited practice," Phuntsog Wangmo said.
She also said the number of Tibetan medicine organizations and clinics is rising in Western countries, such as the United States.
Founded by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu in Italy in 1980, the Shang Shung Institute is dedicated to spreading knowledge of Tibetan medicine and Tibetan culture. It has branches in the US, Argentina, Australia, Spain, Venezuela and Russia. The institute has worked with many universities and colleges around the world.
It has been working with the Tibetan Medical College of Qinghai University, with both sides agreeing to operate student exchange programs.
Saroj Dhital, the founder of Public Health Concern Trust of Nepal, said Tibetan medicine has just started to grow in Nepal.
"The very purpose of my coming is to start some kind of cooperation in Tibetan medicine, especially in the trans-Himalayan region," Saroj Dhital said.
Dhital operates two hospitals in Nepal, and he plans to open Tibetan medicine services in one of his hospitals in the near future.
"There are Tibetan medical practices in different parts of Nepal, and most of them are in the monasteries which are practicing Tibetan Buddhism," Dhital said.
At the Tibetan Medicine Committee's annual conference in August, Harvard University's Janet Gyatso expressed her amazement and optimism about the development of Tibetan medicine.
Vincanne Adams, from UCSF School of Medicine, said the biggest challenge is exposing Western medics to Tibetan medical theory, which is difficult to explain in a Western context.
More should be done to promote Tibetan medicine on the international stage and to attract students to this branch of medicine, she added.
Tawni Tidwell, a PhD candidate at the anthropology department of Emory University, said Tibetan medicine is not only concerned with the body, but also the mind, and it "is needed in the world (today)".
"Tibetan medicine has treatments for afflictions that Western medicine does not understand," he said.
"As more new and complicated diseases emerge that Western medicine cannot treat - in particular, chronic diseases - Tibetan medicine could take a (leading) role," Kloos said.