bringing tibetan medical astrology to the west: an interview with jhampa kalsang

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    Russ Mason, M.S.


    W estern medical practitionerswho are familiar with Tibetanmedicine generally associate itwith characteristic herbs, the Buddhistpractice of compassionate spirituality,and the traditional Tibetan medical textsknown as the Kalachakra. While Tibetanmedicine encompasses elements that arefamiliar from Chinese and Indian medicaltraditions, it does so in a uniquely Tibetanway tha t in t eg ra t e s the prac t ic e o fmedicine into the broader cultural milieu.According to the Tibetan scholarly tradi-tion, all fields of learningincludingmedicine and astro-science (or astrolo-gy)are based on the interrelationshipsamong the five elements.

    Jhampa Kalsang holds the degree ofRTsis Rhampa, which is equivalent to aWestern doctorate in Tibetan traditionalastronomy, astrology, medical astrology,and Buddhist psychology. He is an inter-nationally renowned scholar, lecturer,teacher, Tibetan medical doctor, and prac-titioner of Tibetan astrology. He was bornin Nepal while his parents were en routefrom Tibet to Dharamsala, India, wherethe Dalai Lama has lived for more than 30years. Professor Kalsang grew up inDharamsala, where he studied at theTibetan Medical and Astro Institute andreceived his RTsis Rhampa, in 1999. For 10years, he taught and conducted consulta-tions with both Tibetan and non-TibetanAsian clients and with Westerners.

    Since 1997, he has traveled to Germany,Italy, and France on numerous occasions,to teach courses, workshops, and semi-nars to European students who are eager

    to learn about the traditional Tibetan inte-gration of medicine, holism, and spiritual-ity.

    Since Professor Kalsangs arrival inthe United States in 1999, he has com-pleted a very important book publishingproject that he initiated while in Italy. Atthe end of 2000 the Rome-based publish-er, Tibet Domani, released his definitiveEnglish-language textbook, entit ledTibetan Astro-Science. As the first majortreatise on Tibetan medical astrology tohave been published in the English lan-guage, it has been very well-received inthe West. Medical astrology is a special-ized field within the Tibetan practice ofmedicine and resembles the specialty ofradiology in Western medicine. A West-ern-trained physician learns how to readX-ray films, but depends on the radiolo-gists skilled interpretation before incor-po r a t i n g t h e f i lm s r e s u l t s in t o acomprehensive diagnosis. Similarly,cas ting and reading heal th-focusedastrological charts is part of the tradi-tional Tibetan medical education, butonly few practitioners specialize in thatfield.

    Professor Kalsang has spent the past 2years teaching, lecturing to, and work-ing with U.S. physic ians in numerouslocations, demonstrating the uniquelyholistic and compassionate traditionalTibetan healers approach to medicalpractice. In 1998, he was the keynotespeaker at the First International Con-ference in Tibetan Medicine in Wash-ington , D.C. , and, dur ing hi s morerecent vis its, Professor Kalsang hass ha r e d h i s k n ow l ed g e o f T i b e t a nmedicine with anthropology students atPrinceton University and nursing stu-dents at Yale University.

    East Meets West

    Russ Mason: The Dalai Lama has hada significant role in the preservation ofTibetan culture, including medicine.Would you explain a little about that?

    Jhampa Kalsang: Yes, the Dalai Lamabelieves that Tibetan medicine has animportant role to play in helping the suf-fering people of the world. He is commit-ted to preserving Tibetan culture andTibetan medicine, because he believesstrongly that it will help all people. In1961, he established the Tibetan Medicaland Astro Institute, in Dharamsala, inorder to preserve Tibetan identity andcul ture as appl ied to the pract ice ofmedicine. Our practice of medicine comesfrom a Buddhist perspective, so there is avery deep spiritual component to whatwe do . I a t t end ed t h i s s c hoo l andremained there after attaining my Ph.D.equivalency in Tibetan astro-science, andwas on the teaching faculty for manyyears.

    RM: Since you first came to the UnitedStates 4 years ago, you have been busyworking with Western doctors. In whatways do you assist them?

    JK: I often am a consultant and provideinformation about psychological supportfor a suffering patient. In the Buddhistphilosophy, the mind is very important,so I often talk with the patients and showthem different ways to think: how toreceive a health problem in a calmer way.This is important because many peoplewith a disease allow it to affect theirthoughts, and they make the mistake ofcomparing themselves to someone who ishealthy. But if they were to spend timemeditating about people who had greaterhealth problems than themselves, this

    Bringing Tibetan MedicalAstrology to the West

    An Interview with Jhampa Kalsang

  • could provide a change of perspective.Yet, for a suffering patient, this is verydifficult to do, since people in the Westwith a disease tend to define themselvesin terms of that disease, but a disease issomething a patient has; it is not what apatient is. That is why it is important toview the patient as a human being whoha s a d i seas e and who is su f fer ingbecause of it.

    RM: What are the most significant dif-ferences between the ways a Tibetandoctor and a Western doctor practice?

    JK: First, through my personal obser-vations, I have seen that Western doc-t o r sesp ec i a l l y in th e a l l op a th i ccommunityspend comparatively littletime with each patient, and almost noattention is paid to spirituality. Westerndoctors often try to see as many patientsas possible in the course of a day and donot spend time with the patient as ahuman being. The diagnos is may beinsufficient because the doctor does nottake time to listen to what the patientwants to tell, which is very important.Sometimes Western doctors dont eventalk to the patient . Therefore Westerndoctors, or other health care practition-ers, might be advised to spend more timewith each patient and generate compas-sion for the human beings they are treat-i ng . I have a l s o not i ced tha t manyWestern doctors are not very happy, andthis may be because they are lacking aspiritual component in their own lives.

    RM: How can a Western health carepractitioner understand disease in theTibetan context?

    JK: Suffering and disease constitute avery big picture. To the Tibetan physi-cian, disease comes from a combination of

    factors: from psychological; physical; orbehavioral factors; or from the diet. Wedo not regard physical disease as being assignificant as psychological, or mental,disease.

    RM: When you first began your studyo f med i c i ne , was i t o n l y T ib e t anmedicine, or were you exposed to allo-pathic medicine as well?

    JK: When I attended the Tibetan Medi-cal and Astro Institute, we studied onlytraditional Tibetan medicine. We did nothave the opportunity at that time to studyWestern medicine. Since then, there havebeen many visitors teaching medical sci-ence from the West and they have lec-tured about Western medicine.

    RM: When you studied at the TibetanMedical and Astro Institute, what weresome of the courses which were offered?What sort of text books did you use?

    JK: Much of it is based on naturalherbs, natural remedies, and how to cure.Also, Tibetan medicine is solidly based onBuddhist philosophy and the liberationfrom suffering of the individual.

    Our main source of information for allthe various diseases, symptoms and soon, is contained in the Four Root Tantras,which is a collection of Tibetan-languagetexts that have been only partially trans-lated into English. This is the main medi-cal textbook used by all the Tibetandoctors. The first Root Tantra containssix chapters and is designed for someonewho is brill iant. It provides all of theimportant texts for someone who wantsto be a Tibetan doctor and al l of theessential information. The second RootTantra is the Explanatory tantra andcontains 31 chapters. This explains theFirst Root Tantra in great detail. The

    third Root Tantra is the Oral Tantra.This has 92 chapters and goes into evengreater detail than the previous two RootTantras. The Fourth Root Tantra is calledeither the Last Tantra or PracticalTantra; it contains 25 chapters. Thisprovides detailed information on morepractical applications, such as reading apulse. This is shown in the First RootTantra, but only very briefly. At the end,there are two chapters, which are sup-plementary, or a conclusion. The FourRoot Tantras contain 156 chapters andcontain the whole of Tibetan medicine.The Kalachakra is the main astronomicalt e x t b oo k , an d i t a l s o t a l k s a b o u tmedicine.

    RM: Is astro-science an area of tradi-tional Tibetan medical study?

    JK: Yes. If someone wants to be a greatscholar, he or she must study ten majorfields of learning. These include medicine,


    People in the West with a disease tend to definethemselves in terms of that disease, but a disease

    is something a patient has; it is not what a patient is.

    Jhampa Kalsang, Ph.D., New York City.

  • astrology, grammar, poetry, Buddhism, art,dancing, crafts, and so on. All of thesefields are interrelated, and medicine andastro-science are very closely relatedbecause they work with each other, and thefoundation of both teachings is based onthe five elements.

    Someone who wants to be a Tibetanphysician must study for 5 years at oneof the accredited Tibetan Medical Insti-tutes. This is followed by 2 years of resi-dency, under a senior physician, usuallyin a clinic, as we have very few inpatientfacilit ies. After that , the person mayopen his or her own practice or continueto work with a mentor or work at aninstitute. At the present time, there arethree Tibetan medical schools i