Tibetan Medicine and the Coronavirus

Tibetan Medicine and the Coronavirus

Interview with Pasang Yonten Arya – by Carolyn Chan

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, as its growing presence was being felt in more and more countries worldwide. Dr Pasang Yonten Arya answers questions that offer an intriguing view of viruses in Tibetan medicine, and what we may expect in the future.

As I understand it, “coronavirus”, refers to a family of viruses which affects the respiratory tract system of humans and animals, and includes some diseases that are well known, such as some common colds and the not so well known such as SARS. However, there is a new coronavirus on the block called the novel 2019 coronavirus which causes coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, for which nothing is known. So far, we have learned that COVID-19 causes mild to severe respiratory illness with fever and cough in humans and it seems to spread fast with the most severe effects, even death, occurring mostly among the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, as its growing presence was being felt in more and more countries worldwide. As of the date of this writing, March 21, 2020, there have been 267,013 confirmed cases worldwide, and 11,201 deaths attributed to COVID-19*. Italy is particularly hard hit, with the number of deaths as of today, standing at 4,825, surpassing those of China, which appears to be over the worst with this virus. Italy is on “lockdown” with the Prime Minister attempting to limit the spread of the virus by instructing people to stay at home, and instituting country-wide restrictions on movement and gatherings. The United States is bracing for what is to come over the next few weeks. So far, there have only been 340 deaths, but this number is expected to increase dramatically. California has been the only state to issue a “Shelter in Place” order, however New York looks as though it will be adopting these measures shortly. On Monday, March 9, the British and US stock exchanges tumbled to lows not seen in more than a decade, due in large part to uncertainty caused by the new coronavirus.

The present panic, is fueled by fear of this new virus, its potential impact on our immediate health and that of our family, as well as its larger impact on the world as we know it. I thought it would be interesting to see how Tibetan Medicine with its centuries of traditional healing behind it, has dealt with viruses in the past, and what we can learn from its ancient wisdom on how to deal with this new virus and also into the future.

To this end, I am reaching out to our beloved Tibetan Medicine teacher, Dr Pasang Yonten Arya, who is at home in Italy, with a few questions on viruses.

NB. For the latest facts and guidance on the current COVID-19 outbreak, including protective measures to keep yourself and your family safe, please see the World Health Organization website: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Carolyn Chan 

Interview with Dr Pasang Yonten Arya:

First of all, I trust that you and your family are well, and have not contracted the new coronavirus which has infected a number of people in Italy. How are you, and those around you, managing with the restrictions on movement on a daily basis?  

Dr Pasang Yonten Arya: Indeed, it is a difficult time here in Italy. My family and I have self-quarantined from February after Tibetan Losar New Year till now for safety reasons and for the next three weeks there is an official lockdown of the whole of Italy. All Tibetan medicine courses and workshops have been cancelled or postponed. Actually, life here is not bad because the daily essentials can be obtained from supermarkets. However, such an unexpected virus pandemic terror attack makes the heart saddened and creates an uneasy life for everyone. There are many people, especially elders dying, and deaths even without family in attendance. This is a huge impact on the mind of people and the nation.

Are viruses known in Tibetan Medicine?

According to my knowledge on medical literatures, Tibetan medicine could be one of the medical systems with the richest information about viral and bacterial diseases. The disease is called gnyan-rims in Tibetan and was expounded by Guru Rinpoche Padma Sambhawa in the 8th century. His description of the pathogenesis is comparable to that of virus diseases that modern scientists have discovered so far. There is not only one Gnyan-rims srinbu, but he said there are a hundred different types of viruses, some are mild and some are severe killer infectious diseases. Basically, Tibet is a sub-tropical country and there was always some kind of infection circulating from neighboring countries. For example, according to medical literature: Gnyan-rims viral disease of yellow skin and yellow eye came from the Jang tribe (China), Gnyan-rims Zumbu Tak gye or meningitis came to Tibet from mainland China. Tibet had frequent attacks by Gnyan-rims disease which killed people within six-seven days, diphtheria, quinsy disease and other infectious diseases. All these are viral diseases with which Tibetan people have rich experience and great teachings.

Unfortunately, there is no available statistical information about the disease occurrences, but descriptions of viral invasions can be found in the biographies of many Lamas.

P1010650 Padmasambhava 3
Can you tell us what Tibetan Medicine says are the causes and effects of viruses?

Dr. PYA: The gnyan-rims diseases were expounded by Guru Rinpoche in his hidden treasure Dutsi Bumchen[1], a terma text revealed by Dorbum chokyi Drakpa in the 10th century, which was followed by supplemental texts Dutsi Bumchung and Dutsi Tsebum etc. The books contain more than seven hundred pages on the gnyan-rims diseases alone.

All the texts say that the cause of viral disease invasion in this world is due to human unethical and irresponsible misbehavior that lacks respect for nature, that destroys nature and the environment. The invisible nature protectors, or natural defensive energy which is called “eight classic spirits”, gets angry and turns into demons, what we call now climate change disasters. Who is behind those natural disasters? Regarding the viral and bacterial invasions, Tibetans say that the eight classical sprits breathe out lethal poison breaths which collect in the sky like clouds. The toxic breaths are carried by wind and can reach to any part of the world. It may enter the human body through the mouth, nose and even through body pores. It attacks the human body’s red blood cells or plasma (chuser), begins to activate the poison and becomes tiny microbe killer beings which are called gnyan-srin.  Depending on the nature or type, and body constitution, the gnyan-srin, the infection could remain in the body for differing lengths of time. Some can remain one day, two, three, up to fifteen days even months. Some infections can kill human beings within a few days and some take a longer time to heal. In short, there are hundreds of different types of diseases, of which summarized into eighteen, are gnyan-rims diseases. Guru Rinpoche detailed the pathogenesis, signs and symptoms, gnyan-srin or virus body shape, form, color, the process of treatment, and self and patient protection by medicine, spiritual meditation, mantra recitation, sadhana practice, amulets and incense etc. Therefore, I respect the Guru Rinpoche as an enlightened medical scientist, who so many centuries ago, in the 8th century, revealed the tiny and invisible causes of diseases, their origins or causal factors, long before the advent of advanced science and technology in medicine. He also lay down the diagnosis, treatments and preventive measures for all gnyan-rims diseases.

Does Tibetan Medicine talk about viruses into the future, that is, does it foresee viruses such as the present COVID-19, which is new to humans?

Dr. PYA: According to my understanding, the above described terma books could be some of the most useful material to form the basis for study and experimental research for future prevention. I always say that diseases are much cleverer than we are. They can change form, multiply or mutate, and remain for long time in the body before beginning to attack and destroy the health. Medical sciences and doctors remain confused when they introduce a new disease. Generally speaking, spring and autumn seasonal flu, influenza and even mild cold, could all become the cause of major chronic inflammation disease that debilitates and requires lifelong medication. So for example, Coronavirus is in the beginning not that bad, but later becomes a stronger killer disease, as may occur in the future as Guru Rinpoche predicted. He said, one fourth of the population of the world will be killed by gnyan-rims diseases in degeneration age.

How is a gnyan-rims disease usually treated in Tibetan Medicine?

Dr. PYA: This coronavirus is a type of gnyan-rims disease, and shows some of the usual cold and flu-like symptoms. Then, it turns into pneumonia with coughing and respiration disease. I would say it is gnyan-rims glo-tsad disease or viral asthma-bronchial disease. I believe that there are several Tibetan herbal medicines single and combined that can be the subject of experimental research with studies done on their effects.

In addition to following the National and International health advisories and safety precautions, are there any other tips you can give that may be helpful to avoid contracting coronavirus?

Dr. PYA: There are multiple precautions and preventive measures explained and practiced by local people, and especially religious-spiritual practices as described in Dutsi Bumchen:

  1. Traditionally, close the entrance paths to village, cities, towns with special medicinal plants and stone boundaries.
  2. Keep clean self, house and exterior and respect nature and heal and restore the ecology of the world.
  3. Visualizing yourself protected by meditative light of Medicine Buddha.
  4. Morning respiration, yoga and meditation practice
  5. Taking traditional preventive medicines
  6. Visualization and practice of Guru yoga of triple stacked sattva practice an antidote Buddhas for Gnyan rims diseases: Buddha Vajrapani, Medicine Buddha and Garuda, and reciting their mantras.
  7. Inhale three times every day, the black pill made from nine black ingredients.
  8. Close nine orifices of your body by your own urine (this is interesting subject of study)
  9. Physically and psychologically should be strong and avoid fear.

NB. For the latest facts and guidance on the current COVID-19 outbreak, including protective measures to keep yourself and your family safe, please see the World Health Organization website: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019


On March 29, 2020
Dr. Pasang Y. Arya gave a detailed lecture on the gnyan-rims disease and the coronavirus.
This special online session is reserved for TME’s Tibetan Medicine and Tsalung healing students

Also read: A Conversation on the Causes of Covid-19 with a Senior Tibetan Doctor Living in Lockdown in Milan

  • [1] Guru Padma Sambhawa’s rin gter sman yig gces btus, published by Sichuan people’s publishing house, China, 1997
  • Main Tibetan Course

    Tibetan Medicine Course

    3-year Tibetan medicine course with distance learning + one 11-day practice workshop in Europe

    Online and practical