Home Institution

Stanford University

Publication Date

Fall 2005

Program Name

Tibet/Bhutan: Tibetan and Himalayan Studies


For hundreds of years, western science understood the material world as a set of individual objects assembled into an impossibly large and complex machine. This mechanistic ideology, dubbed reductionism, finds its roots in the mathematical theories of Newton, the philosophy of Descartes, and the methodological approaches proposed by Francis Bacon. The culmination of these ideologies lead to the belief that all complex systems could be understood and ultimately mastered by reducing them to their basic elements. Some texts, including Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point argue that once classical physicists established this type of thought, the other sciences, including medicine, simply followed suit and came to accept the attitude as law. Today, the modern western, or allopathic, medical system continues to deal with diseases and treatments according to what's become known as the "doctrine of single causation." As it implies, this ideology leads western doctors to seek a\out and isolate specific causes for an ailment. Treatment, then, revolves around the elimination of that problem from the complex system which incorporates it. Consequentially, despite a quick and precise cessation of the ailment, the overall function of the system may be affected. These side effects can range from acceptable (drowsiness, sensitivity etc.) to debilitating and even fatal.

The East However, on the other side of the planet, some cultures took an entirely different approach in understanding the nature of the world. In large part due to powerful Buddhist influences, the Tibetan people came to appreciate the complex systems of our planet as a whole. These seemingly utterly interwoven relationships were valued for their function, not the "material sub-strata of which they were composed", but the synergy they created. The Tibetan people possessed a solid understanding of the intricate relationships they observed in the natural world and were sensitive to the effects brought on by changes in that world (including changes in time of day, temperature, season, etc.). So it comes as no surprise that Tibetan medicine developed a view of the human body, with its intricate anatomical, philosophical, and intellectual functions, as a microcosm of the natural relationships all around them. Tibetans understood disease as an imbalance within the functioning body and thus "healing is effected by restoring the lost equilibrium and not by symptomatic treatment of a particular organ." Furthermore, Tibetan doctors are much more concerned with using symptoms and an understanding of these functions in order to identify the primary cause, or root, of a disease, going beyond the problem to find its much more subtle origins. Their texts state that symptoms are caused by a sort of ‘chain reaction' of events within the body emanating from the primary cause. As a result, diagnosis may require proper environmental setting and timing, while therapies can take significant time and patience as treating the entire system requires much more subtle and sensitive methods than we see in the west.

So Why Tremors? While the theories governing these two modern medical systems evolved from vastly different foundations, it is in practice that conflicts become most apparent. Through studying and comparing the alternate methods used to define and treat the disease, we can better comprehend each tradition as a whole (thereby using both reductionist and holistic perspectives). Yet to obtain such a thorough understanding, we must study an appropriate disease; one which exemplifies the inherent conflicts between the two ideologies, while concurrently shedding light on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to treatment. The essential tremor provides us just that. While tremors have afflicted mankind for thousands of years (ancient texts from both cultures acknowledge the ailment), it's only within the last century that western medicine has begun to truly understand and effectively treat the disease. This current curiosity leaves many researchers more open to recognizing and investigating alternative theories. Additionally, current treatments used by each tradition couldn’t be more typical. Western methods involve invasive surgeries and/or harsh pharmaceuticals which promise rapid results, although sometimes accompanied by serious side effects. Meanwhile, Tibetan methods are slow, holistic, and organic, but can take months to years to gradually show results. Perhaps most significant is the fact that allopathic medicine offers no actual cure for tremors, only treatments which may alleviate symptoms, while Tibetan physicians claim they can ultimately offer a complete cure. Thus, the essential tremor provides us with the perfect lens through which we can analyze these complex traditions.


Alternative and Complementary Medicine



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