Tibetan medicine is beginning to be promoted as a new commodity within the growing American alternative medicine industry, within some sectors of the Tibetan community and among some in the Tibet support community. But market forces alone cannot present the true Tibetan medical tradition to the West. The Western medical tradition has already shown us the dangers of developing medicine as a commodity. In fact, the alternative medicine movement grew as a direct response by the American people to the negative impact such a development had on the quality of allopathic medical care.

From the perspective of the Tibetan community there are dangers as well. The Tibetan medical community in India and Tibet has not yet developed a sophisticated understanding of the protocols and actual uses of Western medical research, the workings of Western medicine, or the American medical industry. If our goal is to preserve Tibetan medicine we must be conscious of the powerful hegemony of our culture and avoid to the greatest extent possible negatively affecting Tibetan culture as we attempt to encourage its preservation and perpetuation. The economy of time and commerce and the influence of Western medical approaches places the more classical, holistic approach to Tibetan medicine at risk of being lost.

Another issue of great significance is ecological sustainability. The growing demand for medicinal herbs in the West creates the potential for an ecological crisis in the countries in which these herbs grow and/or are cultivated. The burgeoning nutriceutical industry is always looking for potential new herbal supplements to put on the U.S. market. "Biopiracy" is already a term commonly used in India to describe the plunder of the herbal knowledge of traditional people by pharmaceutical companies. Deforestation and over-exploitation of land in the Himalayan region is a very real crisis. In India there is a shortage of herbs required for the manufacturing of Tibetan medicines which serve the needs of existing doctors and clinics. For these reasons, it is ill-advised to promote a sudden increase in demand for Tibetan medicine in the West without providing for its sustainable supply and educating people to distinguish between what is authentic and what is not.

If people in North America want to encourage the survival of the full tradition of Tibetan medicine and see it spread to the West, there are certain steps to take. First, we must support those institutions teaching Tibetan medicine in Asia. There are very few senior Tibetan physicians working and practicing in India, Nepal and Bhutan, and we need to insure that they can fully transfer their knowledge to a new generation. Tibetan medical education is restricted in Tibet, it is restricted, so we must appeal to the Chinese government to allow a maintenance of the complete tradition in its land of origin.

To allow a true flowering of Tibetan medical practice here the small group of clinicians in North America who are serious long-term students of Tibetan medicine need assistance from our Tibetan colleagues and from those Westerners who are supporters and/or consumers of this system of natural healthcare. As we succeed in our attempts to study and faithfully practice this tradition, we can begin to work with our Tibetan colleagues to build the practical and pedagogic infrastructure required for the proper practice of Tibetan medicine here. The key to Tibetan medicine's success in the U.S. will be native practitioners working in concert with American practitioners to consistently help individual patients suffering from illness.

For a person to practice Tibetan medicine effectively he or she must draw upon all aspects of human cognition as well as spiritual understanding and a sense of compassion. In practice our responsibility is not only to provide for our patients. We must also serve as an example teaching our fellow citizens that living with a sense of compassion derived from ecological and spiritual awareness is the most practical way to reduce suffering in our bodies, minds, and in the world in which we live. For those who would like to see such an approach to health and medical care survive and proliferate in the West, now is the time to make it possible through thoughtful action.


Eliot Tokar practices Tibetan medicine in New York City. He has studied Tibetan medicine since 1983, and he is one of very few Westerners internationally to have received extensive textual and clinical training in this field. He has additionally trained in aspects of traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. During a period from 1983-1986 Eliot studied with and received private instruction from Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, former personal physician to H. H. the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Since 1986 Eliot has been an apprentice of the lama/physician Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche, president of the Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute in Darjeeling, India. He has additionally received clinical and/or textual instruction from Dr. Shakya Dorje, Dr. Thubten Phuntsog, Dr. Kuzang Nyima and Dr. Tenzin Choedrak.

In addition to his practice and studies Eliot has lectured on Tibetan medicine, natural medicine and alternatives in healthcare at Washington University School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, State University Of New York College of Medicine, MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine, Princeton University, New York University, Brandeis University, the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, University of Michigan Complementary & Alternative Medicine Research Center, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Medical Student's Association's Annual Convention, the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, the New York Botanical Garden and at New York's Asia Society. He was the only Western Tibetan medicine doctor to be invited to speak at the first International Congress on Tibetan Medicine to be held in the USA (Washington, DC, 1998), the first modern International Academic Conference on Tibetan Medicine held in 2000 in Lhasa, Tibet and at the first International Symposium on Tibetan Medicine convened in Taipei, Taiwan (2004). In June 1999 he was invited to appear on America Online to conduct the first Internet chat to be held on the subject of Tibetan medicine.

Eliot served as an advisor to the American Medical Student Association's Interest Group on Humanistic medicine (1998-99), and on the Steering Committee of the Roundtable on Traditional Medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (1996-97). In addition, he has acted as a consultant on Tibetan medicine to H. H. the Dalai Lama's Office of Tibet (USA), the database project of Columbia University's Rosenthal Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine and to the Science Attaché of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. He was a nominee for the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy proposed by the U.S. Senate.

Eliot's publication "Seeing To The Distant Mountain: Diagnosis In Tibetan Medicine" appeared in the March 1999 issue of Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine (Aliso Viejo, CA; Innivision Communications), and his article 'Building A Means of Discourse For Integrative Medicine: A Tibetan Medical Perspective on Irritable Bowel Syndrome' appeared in the October 1998 issue of the journal Alternative And Complementary Therapies (Larchmont, NY: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.). His publications also include 'Between Heaven and Earth: An Introduction To Various Philosophies And Approaches To Medical Care' (Annual Publication of the American Medical Students Association's National Project on Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Washington D.C.:AMSA, 1998) 'Tibetan Medicine: Ancient Wisdom. Modern Healing. Future?' (NEWS TIBET, New York: Publication of H. H. the Dalai Lama's Office Of Tibet, Winter 1997), a book review of Asceticism And Healing In Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery (TRICYCLE: The Buddhist Review, New York: The Buddhist Ray Inc., Spring 1992). He has been featured in publications such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, Yoga Journal, News India-Times, China Daily, Beijing Review and The New Physician and on National Public Radio's Living On Earth. America Online¹s Alternative Medicine Forum (AltMed) has published Eliot's descriptions of the system and practice of Tibetan medicine as their primary source on the subject. His web page www.tibetanmedicine.com is dedicated to bringing clear and useful information on Tibetan medicine to the Internet.

The 'Buddhist Guide to New York' (Pub: St. Martins) states that Eliot. Tokar is "one of the most knowledgeable resources in America on Tibetan medicine."


For a Biography of the Author:
Eliot Tokar


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