Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 71

This week I had my final Tibetan Medicine lesson with my mentor, Dr. Tenzin Kunga, at his clinic in Chettrapati. It's unbelievable how quickly these past five weeks have gone by! My decision to study Tibetan Medicine a month and a half ago sort of came on a whim. I could have chosen something like yoga or photography, two subjects I already love, but for some reason I chose to spend five weeks with a Traditional Tibetan medicine doctor/astrologer, studying a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. I've never even really been interested in medicine (in the Western definition of the word) so I was actually surprised at myself to feel so groovy about this new, quite random topic. So I went with it, feeling good that I had chosen a subject which I would never otherwise have the opportunity to learn about. And hey, I have the rest of my life to practice yoga and photography! All was great in the beginning. Dr. Kunga is kind, intelligent, has a great sense of humor, and a set of twins who are both named Tenzin. But about mid-way through, I started to grow tired of the furiously fast note-taking require for me to understand and remember the endless amount of information spewing out of Dr. Kunga's mouth. I second guessed my decision, wondering if I would have been happier studying something I already knew and understood. But I knew this doubt was pointless and wouldn't help anything, so I didn't let it linger for very long. Instead, I carried on taking copious notes but not really caring all that much, thinking about how it had little to no relevance to my life at home. Now that I've made myself sound unappreciative, in my defense, I really did enjoy learning from Dr. Kunga. I never dreaded going to my lessons, but I guess there was some sort of tension growing in me because for about five hours a week I would delve into this ancient medical tradition, but the second I left, all of the information fled my mind and I wouldn't think about it again until I was back in his office. Anyway, after our last meeting, I compiled all of my notes to present to my group, and it was through that organization that I realized the vast amount of information I feel so grateful to have learned. And now, I will present to you a sort of condensed summary of Tradition Tibetan Medicine as it has been taught to me over the past several weeks by Dr. Tenzin Kunga.
The first kind of wild thing about Tibetan Medicine is that there is no one universally agreed upon founder. Some believe that it is the direct word of the Buddha's mouth, however Dr. Kunga, among many other modern-day Tibetan physicians, argues that medicine existed before the Buddha's birth. Thus, the more commonly held opinion about Tibetan Medicine's origins is that it is the product of many cultural influences, including the practices of Indian Ayurveda and the medicinal concepts of China, Mongolia, and Persia. Traditional Tibetan doctors study a single text, which has never been translated in its entirety out of Tibetan. It is called "Gyud-shi" or "The Four Tantras," tan meaning body, and tra meaning protect. The Four Tantras explain the theory of the five elements, the philosophy upon which both Tibetan Medicine and Tibetan Buddhism are based. This theory states that everything that exists in the infinite external universe has it's counterpart in every living being's own internal universe. So in terms of medicine, the body, the disease, and the remedy are all composed of these five elements, which are earth, water, fire, air, and space. Thus, the Tantras explain that all life is innately interconnected because we all have the common origin of the five elements. Each of the elements performs its own specific function in the body, and these elements must maintain their proper balance in the body or disorder will arise. For example, the fire element provides digestive heat, but if this element begins to overpower the other elements too much, illness will manifest. Along with the five elements, Tibetan Medicine says that there are three principle energies which control all bodily processes. Every individual is predominantly composed of one energy based on both psychological and physical qualities. Doctors claim this connection to a particular energy to be very important in diagnosis practices, for they believe that symptoms for one individual could be more or less serious than they would be for a person of a person of a different energy, but with the same symptoms.  The three principle energies are as follows: rLung, or wind, refers to the subtle energy of the body, and it is the nature of the air element. Tripa, or bile, is the nature of the fire element and is connected with bodily heat (digestion). And lastly, Bedken, or phlegm, refers to the mucus of the body and is the nature of the water and earth elements. In order to determine my predominant element, Dr. Kunga gave me a test of personal questions about my physical body as well as my psychological health. After completing the evaluation as accurately as I could, I found out that I am predominantly bedken (phlegm) and my secondary energy is tripa (bile). Knowing these energies would allow me, in Tibetan culture, to choose the compatible foods, drinks, behaviors, and lifestyle, and maintain my bodily balance. However, strong bodily balances do occur (Dr. Kunga says this is a result of human ignorance), thus I learned the three diagnostic procedures of Tibetan Medicine: Visual examination (most importantly urine and tongue analysis), radial pulse examination, and interrogation. Of course, the most bizarrely fascinating technique to learn about was urine analysis, because as Dr. Kunga says, "Urine is like a mirror that reflects the features of a disorder." For those who are curious, healthy urine should be clear light yellow, have steam of moderate intensity/duration, have medium sized bubbles when stirred, and light sediment. Unhealthy urine is simply the opposite. And everyone ought to watch out for "death urine" and "evil spirit urine," which is blood-like, has thick sediment, and a rotten leather like smell. As far as treating such disorders, I learned three therapeutic techniques: diet, behavior, and medicine. The diet aspect goes into immense detail about which tastes are compatible with each energy. For example, sour taste is based in the fire/earth elements and can help generate body heat (metabolism). However, an excess of this taste will cause the fire energy to overpower the body and can cause vertigo and other disorders. Behavioral therapies emphasize a preventative lifestyle, based on the Four Immeasurables of Tibetan Buddhism, which are loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equinimity. And lastly, the medicinal aspect of therapy is vastly different from the pill-for-any-problem culture of the West. There is a long list of types of medicine, including medicinal butter, ash, powder, gems, and herbs. And in fact, as common and popular as surgery is in the U.S., it is a rarity in Tibetan Medicine, an absolute last resort.
Of course, as I learned all of these concepts of health and healing so different from anything I've experience in my own medical history, I found myself asking in my head "How do people actually believe this?" The ancient nature of the texts leaves out any trace of scientific words which I am so use to not understanding (for some reason my lack of understanding makes medicinal science feel more valid). Rather, descriptions feel more vague, claiming that the smell of death urine is like "rotten leather." Further, something really interesting that Dr. Kunga discussed with me was the avoidance of raw food. He believes that raw salads and such decrease bodily heat and will cause a cold disorder. I found this so wild because in the U.S. there's a whole food movement to raw food! Chemically, I know nothing about nutrition or digestion or anything like that, but this was undoubtedly a moment where I asked myself, "who is right?" Working with a structure of medical practices that I often found so hard to believe led me to a whole line of questioning of the medical field. Why are we so positive that Western medical practices are the best? Cultural conditioning I guess! Anyway, I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about the body and health through the Tibetan lens. Though, I think the most interesting part of the whole experience was working with a man who is so passionate about the ancient traditions of a homeland he's never seen, and fears that he never will. Dr. Kunga was born and grew up in Dharamsala, India, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans seek refuge from exile. In India, he studied Tibetan Medicine and began his practice, and five years ago he opened his clinic in Kathmandu. Everyday he wears a pin of the Tibetan flag, and the desktop background on his computer is a photoshopped image he made of the faces of all the martyrs who have sacrificed themselves for Tibet. He comments that all of the sacred texts on Tibetan Medicine had to be smuggled over the border at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Thus, not only are the Tibetan people in exile, but also the practice of Tibetan Medicine.
In other medical news, I found out a couple days ago that I have giyardia! (A water-born bacterial infection). It's really no big deal, I got antibiotics so I'm feeling great and groovy! Now after five weeks in Kathmandu, I prepare to say goodbye to my homestay family, Rajeshwor, Munu, and Suwes Shrestha, who have been so unbelievably welcoming and loving. And Munu (my mother) found out last night that she has been accepted into the U.S. Visa lottery and has an interview in January, so maybe I'll see them soon in the U.S.! Though the wild woman in me is yearning to heed the call of the mountains, I am so infinitely grateful to have spent so much time in this city, where I learned to fend for myself and find joy in the chaos! Now lech lecha, to the Himalayas!!!!!!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Day 64

As an officially Hindu state, and the only one in the world, Nepal is an intensely spiritual place. Kathmandu is speckled with countless temples, both small and grand, where Nepali's make daily offerings to each of the mystical gods and goddesses. While the city is attempting to rapidly modernize, building plans are revolved around the centuries old religious structures, leaving malls woven between Laxmi temples and Shiva lingams. On Sunday, we visited one of the most powerful places I have ever experienced, not because of any individual religious connection, but because of the undeniable interconnectedness of all life that penetrates this place. Pashupatinath is where cremations are held. Lying along a murky river which flows through Kathmandu are countless temples and cement ledges upon which the bodies of the dead are burned. Families dress in the purest white. Some wail and others are stoic as they carry the body of their loved one to the funeral pyre. I sat along the river, opposite the burning logs, brush, and flesh, and watched as families performed the final death rites and rituals. It was intense to say the least. I found myself crying in echo of the family members, for their relatives and for mine. At Pashupati, where even the royal family has been cremated for generations, death is made public. Whereas in the U.S., grief is private, and often suppressed or hidden, Nepali's, both Hindu's and Buddhist's recognize death as an inseperable part of life. Further, many travel to Pashupati as newlyweds or with a newborn infant to receive blessings from the Hindu swami's and baba's, or renounciates. Thus making this place of cremation just as well a symbol for beginnings. What an incredible intersection of spirituality!! And of course this is all in accordance with the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the life/death/life cycle that characterizes the entire infinite universe. And while many in the East spiritually believe that all beings are innately interconnected, I think we can all at least agree that we are unified by the experience of loss. Even if one has never endured the death of a loved one - it could be the loss of a spouse, a friend, a home, a job, even a shoe, we have all experienced how it feels to have something taken from us. By no means am I trying to say that the loss of a material item is equal to the loss of a grandfather, but maybe through this universal experience of loss we can learn compassion.
The only thing that was really a bummer about Pashupati was the mass of tourists with their huge multi-thousand dollar cameras taking pictures of the burning bodies. How inconsiderate! That's someone's family member! Damn tourists! (Ke garne, what to do. Maybe I should develop compassion for them too).

"Para mi solo recorrer los caminos que tienen corazon, cualquier camino que tenga corazon. Por ahi yo recorro, y la unica prueba que vale es atravesar todo su largo. Y por ahi yo recorro mirando, mirando sin aliento. (For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse it's full length and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.)"
- Don Juan Matus