When the Buddha was A Doctor

In the Golden Sutra (1) there is a story of the Buddha’s past life as a doctor.

During this period there was an epidemic. A young man named Chubeb developed compassion in his heart for the suffering and illness he saw around him. Thousands of people had died. Chubeb’s father was trained in medicine, so Chubeb asked his father to teach him medicine so that he could save lives and help others.

His father agreed and gave him an explanation of Tibetan Medicine which included

  • – Knowing the seasons in order to administer appropriate medicine based on the ecological influences of that time.
  • – The elements of the body – to recognize the workings of the inner ecology based on the five elements.
  • – The manner in which disease enters the body.
  • – How to recognize the signs and symptoms of disease. In Tibetan Medicine this includes symptoms of the body, mind and personality. There are various diagnostic methods to ascertain these symptoms such as pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, face diagnosis and so forth.
  • – The four main body constitutions in Tibetan Medicine which are wind, bile, phlegm and all of them combined.
  • – Advice on dietary choices according to the seasons and the five elements
  • – How to identify which body constitution a person has through their physical signs and psychological demeanor. For example, a phlegm constitution will tend towards a more steady mind, a bile constitution will tend towards a more sharper intelligent mind and a wind constitution will tend towards a more busy or unstable mind.
  • – The different kinds of medicines such as purgatives for excessive bile constitution nourishing oily medicines for wind constitution and emetic treatments for excess phlegm. This is a key concept of Tibetan Medicine – there is not the idea that there is one right medicine for everyone, instead medicines are catered towards the individual’s constitution and season.
  • – The key factors of a wise physician.
  • – The key signs of dying. The system of such signs are also given in Buddhist texts as well. They are used to identify when someone is close to death so that it is clear whether medicine and healing measures should still be taken.
  • – Medicines to give. A medicine mentioned in the text is Terminalia Chebula. In Ayurveda this herb is known as Haritaki. It is the herb that the Medicine Buddha is shown holding because it is considered a herbal remedy for a wide variety of ailments. This is an herb recognized by western research as efficacious in fighting infections by destroying the protective biofilms the bacteria hides in. (2) These biofilms are what make bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It has a wide variety of properties including being Immunomodulatory, having Antispasmodic properties, Adaptogenic, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-arthritic activity, Antiprotozoal activity, Antiviral activity, Antifungal activity and more. This herb is also one of the three herbs in Triphala which is widely recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners as a daily health supplement. (3)
  • – Chubeb’s teacher also gave him advice on the importance of cultivating love and compassion as the first priority in his medical activity.

After learning these things, Chubeb became skilled in Tibetan Medicine and cured many people. Thus, this was one of the life times of altruism that later led to his future lives as the Buddha, that is the founder of Buddhism.



(1) Tib. mdosde gser-od-dampa; Sanskrit Ārya Suvarõaprabhàsottamasåtrendraràjamahàyànasåtra

(2) Read more about this here. Pema Khandro’s recommended reading on Haritaki

(3) Interesting article on Triphala here: Pema Khandro’s recommended reading on Triphala



See Dr Pasang’s translation of the text.

Understanding the Body Ecology

Key Concepts of Tibetan Medicine

– by Pema Khandro

No one right diet for everyone.

Tibetan Medicine is oriented around the notion that every individual has a unique body ecology that must be taken into account. This is why there is not one good medicine or diet that suits everyone. Some people tend to be more metabolic, others colder and heavier. Some people tends towards inflammation, others towards weakness and depletion. Understanding the play of the elements that make up a person’s present health is the decisive factor in determining what diet, lifestyle and healing practices will be most effective.


The elements.

The main organizing principle of Tibetan medical theory is that of the five elements which manifest in the body as three primary forces. These three are known as wind (Tib. rlung) which accounts for the vital forces of the body and circulatory movement; bile (Tib. mKhris pa) which accounts for the metabolic processes of the body; and phlegm (Tib. Bad kan) which accounts for the immunity and structural functions of the body. Each of these three, wind, bile and phlegm have numerous sub-divisions which describe the body according to the interaction of the five elemental forces which govern human life – earth, water, fire, wind and space.



The Ecology of Everything

These elements also govern every food or supplement. Even though it is a sophisticated and intricate understanding of foods and supplements, it is a principle that is accessible through common sense. Cucumbers are cooling and anti-inflammatory. Hot chiles are heating and can activate inflammation.


Not a type, a tendency.

Understanding the interaction of the elements that govern the person clarifies what the path towards greatest health will be. This is not just a matter of the body type one is born with, but instead it also accounts for the factors accumulated through many years of nutritional, behavioral  and mental-emotional factors. These factors can dramatically change one’s constitution so that even someone born with strength can develop a high wind condition, a tendency towards depletion. Likewise, even someone born with weakness can develop great nourishment and strength. What is most important is where the body is now, what are the blocks to health now and what is most needing support and care now.

About Tibetan Medicine

Introduction to Tibetan Medicine

–  by Pema Khandro


A Holistic Approach

Tibetan Medicine is a holistic health science which includes nutrition, spirituality, Buddhist philosophy, ethical practices, knowledge of herbs and practices for detoxification, cleansing and rejuvenation.

The concept of health in Tibetan Medicine is one that considers the whole person, their mind, emotions, lifestyle, behaviors and relationships.

International Influence

The main influences of Tibetan Medicine are Indian Ayurveda and Buddhist Philosophy. However, Tibetan Medicine was formulated under the international influence of healing traditions from India, Tibet, Nepal China, Persia, Mongolia and Greece. In fact, the first international medical conference was held in Tibet during the imperial period. Today Tibetan Medicine continues to be practiced in local villages, in institutions for learning in India and throughout Europe and North America. At the Yogic Medicine Institute, the principles of Tibetan Medicine are applied and taught throughout North America. The clinic and courses offer a main emphasis in Tibetan Medicine’s view – that many factors act together to contribute to disease, health and healing.


Tibetan Medicine dates itself back to the Buddha and his physician. According to the tradition, the Buddha first taught medicine to his students as part of his life’s mission to relieve human suffering. This teaching is known as “the Vinaya Sutra on Healing.” He taught that health was not based on somatic medicine alone, but had to also include the reduction of the mental poisons and to address issues of spiritual and ethical well-being. The text formulated based on Buddha’s teachings on the topic came to be known as the Gyud-shi (Tib. rGyu-bzhi), the four medical tantras which are the primary text of Tibetan Medicine today. The Buddha’s student credited as a founding father of Tibetan Medicine was known as Kumara Jivaka, a renowned physician, surgeon and pediatrician.

A Principle of Individual Specificity

The traditional accounts tell us that Jivaka became a disciple of the Buddha after the Buddha illustrated how every plant and food could be mecidine or poison depending on the person it was given to. Jivaka was initially skeptical when meeting the Buddha and so the teacher sent him to go looking for one hundred and eight different plants. When he returned with these plants he could identify most of them, but not all of them. However the Buddha taught him their uses and explained that somatic medicine could only reach its greatest powers if it also included spiritual medicine – the consideration of suffering and its cause, the consideration of the disharmony or harmony of the a person’s mind.