Tara Rokpa's links with TTM


Medicines Used

images from Tara Rokpa image bank

Traditional materia medica

Gathering of medicinal plants
The Tara Rokpa database and image bank
Changes due to environmental and ecological considerations
Changes due to European and American legislation
The need for research
The need for sustainable and pure supplies

  Traditional Materia Medica: We need first to shun any limiting misconception of TTM being a simple folk medicine using just a few exotic high-altitude plants to extraordinary ends.  On the contrary, it is a carefully-experimented awareness of the interplay of all things in the material world and their uses for healing.

Because so many things influence human health when encoutered on a regular basis, TTM sees almost everything - animal, vegetable or mineral - as a potential medicine or source of harm. The physician's art is in knowing how to utilise whatever resources are

available in a given situation, applying them at the right time and in the right circumstances.

TTM Medical texts describe over 2,000 substances used to make medicines in TTM. In practice, the largest hospitals employ up to 800 and a doctor in a remote valley, sourcing and making his or her own medicines, may use around 100. Traditionally, the medical texts point to eight areas of resources which may be effectively employed to treat ailments:

  'precious' substances, such as gemstones, precious metals and rare articles (for Tibet) such as Abalone shell
  minerals derived from rocks, such as iron salts
  minerals derived from soft rock and earths, such as sulphur, calcites, hot spring deposits etc.
  aromatics and rare essences, (for Tibet) such as nutmeg, clove, cardamon or rare animal extracts (see important section below) such as bezoar or musk. Salts are also included in this category, be they saline salts, water or earth-sourced, or the likes of Glaubers salt etc.
   tree-sourced materia; a varied category including woods, such as sandalwood, eaglewood etc. but also tree fruits and nuts, such as the famous arura plum, as well as peppercorns, amber etc.
   perennials and sturdier plants
   herbs, annuals and smaller plants
   animal products
(see important section below)

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   FORMULATION    The above ingredients are rarely used in isolation. They are usually combined with each other in order to counter any secondary effects and also in order not only to deal with specific symptoms and ailments but to bring the whole system back into balance. It is very common for 5, 8, 10, 15, 20, 30 or even more of these substances to be carefully combined in order to respind to a specific patient's condition. The resulting compounds bear the name of the main ingredient + the number in total of ingredients, e.g. Eaglewood 20, Saffron 13 or Pearl 70.

The three main principles underlying the compounding of Tibetan Medicines are:

     A medicine should not only calm the disease, but should also be able to restore the body at the same time.
     It is not enough to aim at just calming the disease, but one must also make sure that the medicine does not have any harmful side effect.
     Once an illness is calmed by a medicine, the medicine should be such that it prevents the illness from recurring. These principles underlie the whole art of making medicines.

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GATHERING OF MEDICINAL PLANTS When collecting wood, aromatics, perennial and herbal ingredients, there are certain procedures mentioned in the Fourfold Tantra which a Tibetan doctor must observe.When collecting medicinal plants, a positive state of mind is important. The plants should grow in the right habitat:
     Cooling plants should grow in a cold climate, facing north, without sun, at a higher altitude.
     Warming plants should grow in a hot climate, in the sun, facing south, in a dry place.
     Good medicine should grow in a solitary place, where the plants are not disturbed by humans or animals.
     The plants should grow in a clean, spacious and pleasant place, with good light, and should be healthy, and undamaged by insects or by the weather.
     The plant should have the right appearance, colour and taste, and have strong root.

The plants should be picked at the right time. Medicines are collected in accordance with the five elements and the four seasons:
     Roots, stems and trunk-parts of the plant should be collected in late autumn, when the vegetation starts to dry and wither.
     Leafy parts of the plant, sap and stalks should be collected in the summer (in Tibet this coincides with the rainy season), when the plants are in full bloom.
     Flowers and flowering tops should be picked in late summer.
     Fruits and seeds should be picked in mid-autumn, before the frost sets in, when they are fully ripened.
     Barks, inner rind and resins should be collected in spring, when the weather starts to warm up and the saps are rising.

There needs to be proper sorting and drying
     If possible, cooling and warming plants should be kept in different rooms for storage until they are compounded into medicines.
     Each plant should have its own container, and plants with a very strong scent such as garlic (Allium sativum), onion (Allium cepa), and asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida) should be kept separate from other plants.
     When drying and during storage, plants should not be contaminated by smoke or bad smells from urine, excrement, etc.
     They should be kept in a clean and well-ventilated environment.

Freshness: medicines should be made from plants picked in the same year.

All medicines are to be made according to the formulae mentioned in the traditional texts, which describe precisely which part of the plant is to be used, when these plants are to be collected, how they should be dried, prepared and compounded and the exact proportions of each ingredient.Compounded medicines are to be kept in a special place and treated with care and respect.

   PREPARATION    Various processes are applied to get the best out of these raw materials. This may mean, in a first instance, simply separating the most potent leaves from the rest of the plant or using mechanical and simple chemical means for isolating a mineral from its ore. It also included sun-drying, cleansing, pounding, grinding etc., as necessary to prepare the raw ingredient for mixing, as well as, in some cases, extremely complex and labour-intensive processes of detoxification. Once ready for mixing, they are combined according to strict orders and procedures, carefully taught by master to student. Indeed, even the gathering of the materia medica is - in the best circumstances - personally supervised by the physician in order that the material be gathered in the location and at the time of highest potency and purity. The resulting products are pills, powders, decoctions, medicinal butters, ointments, medicinal baths, inhalations, enemas etc. designed to have little or no side effects.

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THE TARA ROKPA DATABASE & IMAGE BANK:: In order to prepare for the vast research which needs to be undertaken into Tibetan materia medica, Tara Rokpa is building up a database, linked to an image bank. Although Tibet and Western China were highly-prized by the great plant hunters and explorers of the 19th and 20th century, the information and plant recognitions they brought back leads to considerable confusion. In cases where recognitions are at odds, it is impossible to choose and the best solution has been to include all recognitions in a database while nevertheless privileging data ara Rokpa itself gathers through its own contact with eminent doctors and scientists in Tibet. Part of the confusion comes through different plants with similar therapeutic properties being used under the same medical name in different areas, according to availability. One must recall that the Tibetan plateau is 7 times the surface area of France, with regions very isolated from each other and presenting differences of climate and topography. Furthe complication has been caused by the work of Tibetan refugee doctors in India, Bhutan and Nepal, using local resources which (in Western terms) are botanically quite different.

The Tara Rokpa database now has almost one thousand entries, recording the Tibetan name, its pronunciation, the preferred Latin recognition, other recognitions made by plant-hunters, a popular name (where one exists), taste, post-digestive potency, potency, processing methods, geographical origin, uses, an image bank reference etc.

The image bank has over one thousand photos and illustrations.


an entry from the Tara Rokpa database

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CHANGES DUE TO ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS:    Things have changed dramatically in the last century. Animal and plant resources which were once sufficient to provide for the needs of sparse local populations have now become rare or threatened with extinction. It is no longer ethical to use products from rare wild animals nor is it right to deplete stocks of unique high altitude plants. Fortunately, substitutes exist for most of these rare materials and Tara Rokpa and its associated medical institutions on the Tibetan plateau are taking pains to follow an ethically correct policy with regard to sourcing its materia medica. Furthermore, we are keen to set up village industries which will cultivate rare species of plant and we already have set up protected areas on certain mountainsides.

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CHANGES DUE TO EUROPEAN & AMERICAN LEGISLATION:    The law regarding what a TTM doctor can prescribe varies from country to country. Tara's clinics operate in the UK at present. In our global modern reality, changes in legislation in other European countries and in the USA are followed with interest. As things stand, TTM operates as a heral medicine. This precludes the use of gemstones, minerals, many earths and animal products. Among the plant resources, some are banned, even though the detoxification processes used in TTM have not been researched. Fortunately, the great 19th Tibetan scholar, scientist and physician, Mipam Rinpoche, devised a whole series of substitutes coming from the plant world. We use these in our Tara clinics and they are proving effective on Western patients. Ideally, however, huge sums of money need to be invested in proper clinical trials on the vast traditional range of medicines, as they almost certainly have much to offer, given the great medical systems which lie behind them and the centuries of effective use on millions of people.

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THE NEED FOR RESEARCH:     We find ourselves in a situation where one of the world's great systems of traditional medicine is being discovered by the modern West. Insofar as its medicines are concerned, there is doubtless much to be learnt both about the therapeutic uses of individual materials as well as about the theory and practice of their combination and the resulting synergy. Furthermore, before Western patients can truly benefit from these ancient formulae, large-scale research needs to be done to credible double-blind standards both to authenticate the value of these medicines and to guarantee their safety.

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THE NEED TO ESTABLISH PURE & SUSTAINABLE SUPPLIES:    Urgent effort needs to put into stopping the pillaging of the rare plant and animal resources of the Tibetan plateau in order to satisfy the Asian market. This will be best accomplished by creating high-altitude farms of materia medica as a cottage industry for the indigenous Tibetan people, who lack employment.


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