NEW YORK — The 10 minutes I spent with Dr. Choeying Phuntsok, a stolid, middle-aged practitioner of Tibetan medicine in New York, were marked by an uncommon degree of eye contact and warmth. It was a short, preliminary consultation, just enough for him to take the Tibetan equivalent of my vitals. But it lasted about as long as a head-to-toe check-up at my regular doctor’s office.
He held my left wrist, then my right, listening to the “shape” and frequency of my pulse through his fingers, eyes clamped in concentration. He examined my tongue and inquired about digestion and menstruation, but also my cultural background and stress levels. His preliminary diagnosis: Low hemoglobin levels and pressure on my heart and lungs.
The visit took place at a conference on the future of indigenous Tibetan medicine in the U.S., in a dim, modern theater at the Himalayas-focused Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan. Phuntsok, trained in Tibet and in Indian exile, was among several dozen physicians, educators and advocates — some of them monks wearing long robes of burgundy and saffron — meeting to discuss Tibetan medical practice in the U.S. (with applications for stress, mental health, arthritis, cancer, and heart disease) and to devise standards for education, treatment and licensure. On the gallery floors above us, the exhibition “Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine” showcased minutely detailed paintings of the anatomy and Buddhist cosmology, tanka scrolls, the four medical Tantras, pharmaceutical manuals featuring delicately rendered plants and golden statues of the Medicine Buddha seated in lotus position.
Tibet has long been a darling of the Western imagination, but its 2,000-year-old medical tradition — which demands nine to 12 years of study and training of its practitioners — remains obscure compared to Chinese herbal treatment, Ayurvedic therapy and, above all, acupuncture. In the U.S. to date, Tibetan medicine has mostly been known to those involved with Tibetan Buddhism. It is strictly a matter of medicine and culture, not politics or profit, said Dr. Phuntsog Wangmo, president of the American Tibetan Medical Association and director of medical education at the Shang Shung Institute in Massachusetts.
According to the latest data (2007) from the National Institutes of Health, nearly 40 percent of adults and 12 percent of children rely on some form of alternative medicine. These are not just hippies and countercultural dabblers, but some of America’s 47 million uninsured (who must pay out of pocket regardless of treatment), as well as immigrants accustomed to ancestral methods back home. And in an era of over-prescribed, addictive painkillers, depersonalized managed-care companies, astronomical medical bills, profit-driven pharmacology and fervid debates about Obamacare and public health, more patients feel that “Western medicine doesn’t have good answers and are seeking alternatives,” Wangmo said.
The Tibetan medical approach, rooted in Buddhist teachings, is “focused on maintaining balance, not being cured,” said Phuntsok. “In Western medicine, they give you drugs and tell you, ‘If you take this much for this amount of time, you will be cured.’ According to Tibetan medicine, disease comes not only from what’s inside but also diet, nutrition and the environment. Everything is a factor that affects your health.”
Tibetan medicine prescribes acupuncture and acupressure, breathing and movement therapy, hot and cold compresses, cauterization, hydrotherapy and “open-source” herbal medications for a range of mental and physical ailments. But what sets the tradition apart, according to Dr. Tashi Dawa, a post-doctorate at Emory University, is “the motivation of the doctors.” Money, he believes, has spoiled the work of healing in the U.S. “You take the Hippocratic Oath but only for a few seconds, and then you look at your patients as an ATM machine,” he said. “In [Tibetan] training, you treat your patient like he’s your son or daughter, listening to what they’re saying. Every patient is a new subject for us. Symptomatically they’re similar, but constitutionally, emotionally, they’re all different.”
The best physicians, tradition aside, approach patients with sensitivity and altruism. But even good doctors risk losing their humanity and patience in the face of the systematization, scale, complex reimbursement policies and medical billing that characterize the U.S. health care system. As Tibetan medicine expands and grows roots stateside, Dawa said, its practitioners must prioritize offering an “alternative” to the medical establishment.