By Jason Lee
The Men-Tsee-Khang or the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute (TMAI) was originally established in 1916 by the 13th Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the escape of the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans to India in 1959, the Men-Tsee-Khang was re-established in Dharamsala, India in 1961. The Men-Tsee-Khang has had a key position in the evolution of Tibetan medicine, serving as the most politically and culturally significant institution of Tibetan medicine worldwide. In particular, the Men-Tsee-Khang has played a critical role in shaping the image of Tibetan medicine as Tibetan medicine has been secularized, institutionalized, and globalized in the past few decades (Kloos 2010, 85).
Tibetan medicine, also known as Sowa Rigpa, or “the science of healing,” is often described as a syncretic body of healing practices with influences from Āyurvedic medicine, Greco-Islamic medicine, Chinese medicine, and indigenous Tibetan ideas and practices. In addition to acupuncture, moxibustion, and herbal medications, Tibetan medicine is also characterized by its use of a range of tantric Buddhist rituals for healing. Closely interlinked with Tibetan astrology, divination and astrological calculations are also utilized in Tibetan medicine (Yoeli-Tlalim 2008, 224-5). At its core, the basis of Tibetan medicine is a treatise known as the Four Tantras (rgyud bzhi), which outlines the key principles of Tibetan medicine (Donden and Hopkins 1986, 18). Despite its significance, the origins of Four Tantras are heavily debated, with some Tibetan commentators contending that they were teachings of the Master of Medicines Buddha (Bhaiṣajyaguru) while scholars asserting that they were written by Yuthok Yontan Gonpo, a twelfth-century Tibetan doctor (Gyatso 2017, 602-608).
Originally founded in 1916 to expand and standardize training in Tibetan medicine and astrology, the Men-Tsee-Khang was the second medical college established in Tibet after the Chagpori Drophenling, which has been around since 1696 (Gerke 2017, 124). To meet its quota of training new Tibetan doctors and astrologists, the Tibetan army, aristocratic families, and monasteries were required to send in a set number of students to enroll at the Men-Tsee-Khang. Monasteries, for example, were each required to send two students, one to study medicine and the other to study astrology (Janes 1995, 13-15). Whereas the Chagpori Drophenling was destroyed by the Chinese Red Guards during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Men-Tsee-Khang narrowly escaped destruction (Gerke 2017, 124). While the Lhasa Men-Tsee-Khang was subsequently brought under the control of the Chinese health bureaucracy, the 14th Dalai Lama reestablished the Men-Tsee-Khang in Dharamsala two years later (Janes 1995, 16-17).
During its early years in Dharamsala, the Men-Tsee-Khang faced not only financial problems but also political pressure. Although the original purpose of its reestablishment by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was to preserve Tibetan culture, the Men-Tsee-Khang was ultimately tasked with the difficult challenge of providing health care to the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala (Kloos 1994, 84). In addition, with Tibetan medicine being only semi-officially tolerated in India, Men-Tsee Khang also faced the difficulties of operating in a legal gray zone (Kloos 2008, 18). From 1967 onwards, Men-Tsee-Khang continued to transform from a monastic institution to a modern college. Despite its growth and development, however, the Men-Tsee-Khang’s reach was still restricted to a minority of Indian patients beyond the Tibetan community in Dharamsala (Kloos 2008, 28-30).
It was only in the 1990s that concrete plans were made to internally reform the Men-Tsee-Khang and increase its international exposure with medical tours and international connections. To protect the reputation of the organization and of Tibetan medicine more generally, the Central Council of Tibetan Medicine (CCTM) was established in 2008 to regulate and standardize medical practices and pharmaceutical productions (Kloos 2008, 35). In turn, the Men-Tsee-Khang gradually adopted international standards and regulations, as observed in its adherence to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) (Kloos 2008, 38-40).
In many ways, the Men-Tsee-Khang’s history and development is reflected in its current organizational structure. In line with the Men-Tsee-Khang’s original purpose of preserving Tibetan culture, the non-administrative departments are collectively designated as “cultural departments,” despite their functions ranging from medical education and research to product development and production. In regards to education, the Men-Tsee-Khang College offers a Menpa Kachupa or bachelor’s degree program to train future Tibetan doctors and astrologists (Men-Tsee-Khang College 2018). As for medical outreach, the Body, Mind, and Life department, for example, strives to promote a greater understanding of mental health in light of the core values of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan medicine (Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute 2017). In terms of research and product development, the herbal product research department incorporates modern botanical and agricultural methods into the study of Tibetan herbal medicine (Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute 2017). Following GMP guidelines, the pharmacy department manages the manufacturing of the Men-Tsee-Khang’s medical products, all of which are designated as Sorig, the institution’s brand name, before being marketed and sold worldwide (Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute 2017).
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