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Chinese Medicine Times

Aiding The Tibetans

by Subhuti Dharmananda

The introduction of traditional Chinese medicine to the West, which was spurred on by the gradual opening of China that began in the late 1970s, has been a great benefit to us. People in many nations now have the option of utilizing a well-developed medical system rooted in the idea of balancing the body with natural therapies that has been imported from China and preserved for future generations. Chinese medicine has given thousands of Westerners careers that they enjoy as practitioners, teachers, or in other capacities, and has allowed development of a large industry for providing herbs, acupuncture needles, and other requirements of the profession. China has also seen great benefits; among them are sales of crude herbs and finished herb products, books and medical devices, and income from foreigners who travel to study Chinese medicine and pursue tourist activities during their visit. While other countries have worried about “loss of intellectual property,” mainly because of lack of remuneration as Western companies seek to make use of traditional remedies under modern patent laws, China has done well with the international medical exchange and continues to promote investment in traditional medicine by any of the available methods. Virtually all provinces of China—including Taiwan and Hong Kong—have benefited from the export of Chinese medicine, with one notable exception: Tibet. Due to the circumstances of Tibet’s location and isolation, its history and culture, and its resistance to incorporation into China (becoming a province, technically an Autonomous Region, in 1959), the fruits of the international boom in Chinese medicine had passed it by. The Tibetan people, whether living in their native land or as refugees in India or elsewhere, continue to struggle to meet the bare requirements for day to day life.

The Institute for Traditional Medicine (ITM) has been promoting the effective use of Chinese medicine in the West for nearly 30 years. Recognizing the situation with the Tibetan people, it has also taken steps to assist the Tibetans. This has been primarily through two projects, both focusing on the health and well-being of those people that ITM has been able to assist. One project has been support for a large Tibetan refugee community in India: Drepung Gomang Monastery (for pictures and more information, see: A portion of ITM funds is sent each year to help with specific tasks, including the construction and operation of a medical dispensary (clinic). The construction of the medical facility was inspired by a sad event. One of the leading teachers at the monastery died suddenly, perhaps of a heart attack or stroke. The people who were there at the time were sure that his life would have been saved had they been able to get him medical attention promptly. However, they had no medical facilities at the refugee camp and there was no ambulance to bring seriously ill people to the nearest Indian medical facility (several miles away). Between the options of obtaining an ambulance or building a medical facility, it was decided to undertake the latter, a more expensive and much more complex option. However, this could also provide for the health needs of the many residents of Drepung Gomang as well as refugees in the other sites that were close by. There are about 750 visits to the Dispensary each week.

To learn more about Drepung Gomang, how the refugees ended up at this site in India, about the dispensary, and other aspects of this subject, please see these articles on the ITM web site:

• From Tibet to India:
• Drepung Gomang:
• Medicine in the Tibetan Refugee Community:
• Update on Drepung Gomang Community Dispensary:

In addition to funds provided directly from ITM and its director, several acupuncturists have made contributions to Drepung Gomang, including one who provided substantial support towards the construction of a residence hall for aged refugees (the usual living quarters are very crowded; this new facility gives them more room). Contributions can be mailed to their site in India:

Drepung Gomang Monastic Administrative Office
P.O. Tibetan Colony 581-411
Distt: Karwar
Karnataka State, India

Figure 1. Drepung Gomang Monastery.

The other project has been to help the efforts at a tea farm and finished products factory in Tibet, with import of their products for sale in the U.S. The primary group of purchasers has been acupuncturists who obtain the teas via ITM (2017 S.E. Hawthorne, Portland, OR 97214; 800-544-7504); the teas have also been distributed by Tibetan Buddhism organizations, an Art Museum during a Tibetan art exhibit, and stores that specialize in Asian products. ITM also provides tea products free to Tibet Spirit, a shop in Portland, Oregon that mainly serves Tibetans and people who are pursuing Tibetan Buddhism; the owner of the shop supports needy children in Tibet.

The tea plantation and factory for making packaged products was developed into the current well-run company by the investment of a Chinese businessman from Sichuan, He Xingyou, who is an admirer of Tibet and its people. The Tibetan workers gain a good income from a job that is in a clean environment, features often missing from typical modern jobs in Tibet. The tea is healthful and the packaging displays aspects of traditional Tibetan culture. Some of the teabag products are made with addition of one of the following herbs collected in Tibet. In the context of Chinese medicine, these may be mentioned here:

Snow lotus: classified as a yang tonic, this herb is obtained also from the mountainous regions of China adjacent to Tibet. Among its applications are to promote metabolism, increase vitality, and alleviate stiffness in the joints. The snow lotus (Saussurea laniceps) is a high altitude plant with brilliant white flowers appearing over dark green leaves which grow through the rocks of mountain peaks. Its collection is carefully regulated, since snow lotus is classified as an endangered species (not banned from sale, but monitored to assure no over collection).

Rhodiola: this herb is often collected in Tibet, but is also found in surrounding mountainous regions; it is known as hongjingtian in Chinese medicine. It has become one of the most popular adaptogenic herbs. Recently, rhodiola preparations have been shown to have the following effects: reinforce physical strength, enhance body endurance, compensate for low oxygen, relieve tiredness and weakness, and improve efficiency of physical and mental work. The combination of green tea and rhodiola is of potential value in normalizing the blood content of lipids, glucose, and hemoglobin, and calming nervousness, while helping to overcome fatigue.

Cordyceps: this is a rare fungus, long revered as a tonic for people suffering from weakness for various reasons, including prolonged illness, overwork, and aging. It is considered a sexual tonic and a therapy for weakness of the lungs leading to frequent bronchitis or to asthma. Recent applications include improving sports performance, adjusting to high altitude, lowering blood lipids, and promoting immune functions. It is well-known in China as dongchongxiacao, meaning winter worm (it starts out as a caterpillar), summer grass (the fungal fruiting body that grows from the dead caterpillar is like a blade of grass).

Saffron: this is the world’s most expensive spice. Saffron has been used as a medicinal herb to promote blood circulation, remove toxins, and to alleviate fever and inflammation. In traditional Chinese medicine it is known as fanhonghua, but because of its rarity, it is substituted by carthamus (the safflower; honghua). In Tibet, saffron is often an ingredient in medicinal incenses; it is considered a tonic for the heart and the nervous system. Saffron is well known as a mild spice with pleasant sweet flavour that has been widely used in Indian cooking.

Silverweed: this is a popular herb among women worldwide. The common name silverweed or, silvery cinquefoil, refers to the silvery appearance of the bottom side of the leaves. In Europe, it has been used to treat menstrual cramps; its high tannin content makes it useful for sore throat, oral ulcerations, bleeding, and diarrhoea. The herb, Potentilla anserina and related species, contains antioxidant phenols, including flavonoids, simple tannins, and proanthocyanidins (condensed tannins). The related Chinese herb is fanbaicao, which is used as an astringent to control bleeding.

Aside from tea bags, the factory in Tibet produces loose tea in packets: green tea (same as in the teabags, but whole leaves), premium maofeng tea (highly prized by connoisseurs of tea), and maofeng scented with Tibetan jasmine, a fragrant and tasty digestive aid. Maofeng tea is best known at its original growing place, the Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan), but the Tibet variety is gaining popularity because of its complex flavour.

Figure 2. Picture from He Xingyou’s book of Tibet photos: View of the tea plantations.

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