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'The Tibetan System of Medicine' - Article Based on Interview with Barry Clark

The Tibetan System of Medicine

By Chad Ryan

Tibetan medicine, “whilst for sheer scope and breadth, … globally does not really compete with Chinese medicine” (Clark, 2017), it has persisted and found its “niche” (Clark, 2017) since surviving the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1968. Today there are a few independent Tibetan medicine practitioners scattered around the globe, with short courses also popping up from time to time, often run by visiting, English-speaking Tibetan doctors from India and Tibet, where, along with Nepal and Mongolia, particularly around the Himalayan region, Tibetan medicine remains much more widely practiced (Clark, 1995). Outside of the Men-Tsee-Khang Tibetan Medical & Astro-Science Institute in Himachal Pradesh of Northern India, there is a four-year course that has been established in Massachusetts of the United States, which is furthermore doing a small part to “clinch the survival and dissemination” (Clark, 2017) of the Buddhist medical system abroad.

At the end of 1973, after having read with great fascination and enjoyment the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as a number of “quite entertaining and interesting” (Clark, 2017) travelogue books by John Blofeld including The Way of Power, an Englishman named Barry Clark decided to set off to India, inspired to delve properly into Tibetan culture. From early on he had possessed an academic interest in foreign languages including French, German, Latin and Spanish. Though he “never imagined [he]’d end up spending twenty years in India” (Clark, 2017), it would be this ability to acquire functional capacity in a new language which would be “the magic key that [would] open the doors … to the five major and five minor [Tibetan] sciences” (Clark, 2017). Arriving in India and wandering around for a time, through Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, getting to know the country while encountering “many adventures” (Clark, 2017), he found his way to Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas. Here, accompanied by community of several thousand refugees, the Dalai Lama had established his seat of exile, and recently founded an institute known as The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, which offered courses in Tibetan Buddhism taught and translated into English for Westerners by high incarnate Lamas. “I went to that place with high expectations … [and] rather than my expectations being disappointed, they were surpassed completely” (2017) proclaims Doctor Clark today.

While Barry was in Dharamsala, the local Tibetan medical centre began an experimental course in Tibetan medicine for Western students. Barry was among the thirteen foreigners who commenced this course, and while “the others ran out of visa, or money, or got sick, or had jobs and families, commitments and responsibilities back home” (Clark, 2017), he was one of the few who were able to “[make] the most of the opportunity” (Clark, 2017) and remain in Dharamsala to continue it for more than a few months. He went on to be accepted as a personal student for a period of almost twenty years to Dr. Yeshe Donden, who was the personal physician of the Dalai Lama for a total of eighteen years, and who today “is still treating fifty to sixty patients every morning, weekdays at least, at the age of ninety” (Clark, 2017). Barry received two teachings from two teachers each day, for six to seven years, initially in textual training, then also in clinical training. By 1981 he had been given permission to take medicines with him on pilgrimages and to treat people. “By sheer force of sticking with it, showing that perseverance, energy, application, and dedication pay off eventually” (Clark, 2017), he went on to become a physician, but also a scholar, translator, teacher, and researcher of traditional Tibetan medicine. Over the last twenty-seven years he has travelled the world teaching and practising Tibetan medicine in fifteen different countries, and also in twenty-six different states in the United States of America alone. After leaving the Indian Himalayas he moved to New Zealand for twenty-two years where he resided until recently.

In Tibetan fundamental medical theory, the human body is composed of three subtle component energies, which operate both physiologically and pathologically, and which can only be “roughly translate[d]” (Clark, 2017) to “gross equivalents in English” (Clark, 2017). Of these, the wind energy is the vehicle for thoughts and emotions; its relationship to the mind is like the “relationship that a horse has with its rider, or a car has with its driver” (Clark, 2017). “The bile energy is the heat energy” (Clark, 2017), and when excessive can lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, jaundice, fever and hepatitis. By contrast, the third energy known as phlegm is regarded as heavy, cold, dull, oily, static and blunt. “Fundamentally I would say that Tibetan medicine is very different” says Doctor Clark, upon being asked to make a comparison with traditional Chinese medicine. Nevertheless, just like the general principle in Chinese medicine and most other health systems, treatment in Tibetan medicine is allopathic, that is treating by means of factors opposite in nature to the disorder; while formal medication is only applied when response to dietary and lifestyle suggestions do not engender relief. In the most serious cases venesection or a form of moxibustion may also be called into play. When using venesection in Tibetan medicine, it is sometimes “strictly stipulated” (Clark, 2017) that no more than a specified number not exceeding three drops of blood be extracted lest “extremely harmful and serious” (Clark, 2017) consequences result. It is both an alternative species of artemesia, annua (qīng hāo) rather than argyi folium (ài yè), or a type of “branding iron” (Clark, 2017) which induces “incredible … gnarled scars” (Clark, 2017), that are used in Tibetan moxibustion; the latter being applied above the heart for psychological aberrations such as depression. “There are no overnight miracles … [but] gradual miracles we can do,” Doctor Clark tends to remind his clients about the time required to overcome chronic illness. “Most important of all, the gradual miracle is one hell of a lot better than no miracle at all” (Clark, 2017).

One of the major undertakings that Barry took on during his rather unique extended period in Dharamsala, was his authorship of his book, The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine. This work is an English translation of the first two tantras, namely the Root and Explanatory Tantras, from “the four tantras, or secret treatises of Tibetan medicine” (Clark, 2017) which constitute the “actual syllabus” (Clark, 2017) of Tibetan medicine in the land of its origin. Although twelve years would pass before its completion, most of the chapters were ready after just three to four years, save for chapter twenty, that related to the Tibetan materia medica. “I had to take another seven of eight years at least of in-depth research, detective work, working in ten different languages in countries all over the world, with botanists and doctors, and curators of herbariums, and scholars, and teachers, and all kinds of people who had any knowledge at all about medicinal plants and herbs” (Clark, 2017). In one case Barry worked with a Chinese botany lecturer with whom he could not communicate verbally for two to three days for sometimes for eight hours at a stretch, in order to eventually find a Latin derivative of the herb names. When the translation was complete, Barry spent months with “one or two very smart young doctors … thrashing out” (Clark, 2017) more precise meanings as they read over and checked his work. This is a process which Barry reflects on as having been worthwhile, his final product having been acclaimed as a seminal work in shedding light on the Tibetan medicine for the international community.

Although not commonly encountered in Chinese medicine, the Tibetan materia medica draws on a vast number of stones, as well as metals and gems regarded by Doctor Clark as “undoubtedly the most powerful medicinal substances used in Tibetan medicine” (1995). Substances such as pearl, turquoise, hematite, lodestone, silver ore, ochre, coal and limestone, sapphire, ruby, emerald, and even diamond count amoung the substances that may be found in a traditional Tibetan medicine formula, the number of ingredients within which often number more than twenty or even thirty in a single compound. Animal products such as slug, the lungs of a fox, and pubic hair of a billygoat are also listed in traditional texts such as the Crystal Orb written in around 1737 CE, but “nowadays only very few animal products are used” (Clark, 1995). Of those herbs common to both traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, there are instances in which the two medical systems provide comparable descriptions of the substance’s properties. However, in other cases, where the application of the same herb is strikingly at variance, acknowledgement of the variation in species, and the differences in the underlying theoretical framework and terminology of the two medical systems can help to provide accountability for such discrepancy. Glycyrrhiza glabra, one of the standards species of gān căo, for instance, is seen in Tibetan medicine to “cure lung diseases and channel disorders” (Clark, 1995), while gān căo (glycyrrhiza radix) is similarly noted in Chinese medicine as “moistening the lungs and stopping cough” (Bensky, 2004) while also “entering all twelve channels” (Bensky, 2004). In the case of saffron, however, it is known to the Chinese medicine as fān hóng huā (croci stigma), where it is seen as a blood invigorating and cooling, stasis dispelling and toxin resolving herb (Bensky, 2004). The saffron species of crocus sativus and carthamus tinctorius used in Tibetan medicine on the other hand are seen to “cure all types of liver diseases and constrict the mouths of the channels” (Clark, 1995), while no reference to ‘blood’ is made. The ‘date’ used in Tibetan medicine comes from the plant polygonum convolvulus, and its functions in contrast to the known functions of the fructus zizyphi jujubae of Chinese medicine, underline its status as quite another product altogether. “It cures brown and yellow phlegm and stomach disorders, [and] in addition is beneficial in wind fever, blood fever, insanity caused by spirits and as an aphrodisiac” (Clark 1995).

Barry was “very fortunate” (Clark 2017) to receive personal private audiences with a “tremendous, extraordinary inspiration” (Clark 2017) of his, the Dalai Lama, every year for ten consecutive years from 1999, except for one year, when the highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism “was a bit unwell and … had to cancel all the audiences” (Clark 2017). During that decade Barry has developed a “more clearly defined student-disciple relationship” (Clark 2017) with His Holiness, whom he had first met decades earlier. Back in Australia, Barry can sometimes be found frequenting soccer matches or partaking in social language-learning circles, radiating a talkative and light-hearted geniality. During our interview in Queen Victoria Gardens, he reflects on the inherent strengths of his modality, surmising his personal belief “that Tibetan medicine, [particularly utilising the exquisite ‘Tibetan precious jewel pills’], has … the very best of all the available medical systems on the planet for hepatitis and jaundice” (2017). A Buddhist himself, Barry makes the point that “when you have a fully enlightened and totally omniscient source for the tradition [of Tibetan medicine]” (2017), “the teachings [having been] transmitted from the medicine Buddha about two and a half thousand years ago, … hidden [and] … recalled … around 200 AD” (2017); “then that stands the tradition in good stead” (2017). While his contribution to “unearthing and revealing the treasures of Tibetan medicine” (Clark, 1995) has been significant, he has noted that task cannot be completed by a single person, and so he hopes that his efforts may inspire further and more profound dissemination of Tibetan medicine by a new generation (Clark, 1995).

Since moving to Melbourne nearly two years ago, Barry Clark’s practice is now located at 1303-1305 Centre Road, Clayton. He continues to runs educational workshops and courses every so often for the public to learn more about Tibetan medicine. He can be contacted by email (, or through his website, and his book can be ordered online from Shambala Publications.


Bensky, D., Clavey, S. & Stöger, E. (2004). Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica 3rd Ed.. Seattle: Eastland Press.

Clark, B. (1995). The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Clark, B. (2017). Traditional Tibetan Medicine Interview with Chad Ryan recorded on the 21st of October in Melbourne.

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