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Revival of Tibetan Medicine in Russia

SERAPHIM A. SIDOROV (born 1955), spent 12 years (1982-1994) in Buryatia receiving traditional education from Buryat Emchi-Lamas in Tibetan medicine,  pharmacy and the historical migration of the Tibetan medical tradition. In 1995 he was the head of the Russian Centre of Traditional Medicine. He also studied Vajrayana Buddhism and classical Tibetan language for three years and obtained the Certificate of the Medicine Buddha Healing Centre after a 3-year correspondence study of traditional pharmacology, Kathmandu, Nepal. Since 1994, he has been the head of the Information and Consulting Centre of Tibetan Medicine in Moscow.

Since 1997, SERAPHIM A. SIDOROV has been the Deputy Director of the Institute of the Central Asian Traditions of Medicine and Astrology, "Rasayana", Moscow. The Institute's avowed aim is to revive the "Russian tradition of Tibetan medicine", which according to Mr. SIDOROV got interrupted with the death of Doctor PETER ALEXANDROVITCH BADMAYEV in 1920. "Rasayana" has been sought to be built on a foundation that combines research, palliative and curative treatment and teaching programs. SERAPHIM A. SIDOROV calls this the first of its kind in Russia, since after the death of BADMAYEV there was no further centre for organised research and therapy of Tibetan medicine in the country.

 A number of research projects have been taken up by the "Rasayana" community:

  • Organising research projects on Tibetan medicine and its allied subjects - astrology, psychotherapy and therapeutic effects of the rituals.
  • Creating the educational aids (teaching manuals) on these subjects.
  • Imparting comprehensive training in Tibetan medicine for becoming doctors, pharmacists, astrologers, translators, etc.
  • Identifying the medical terminology, especially of materia medica by developing necessary dictionaries and reference books.
  • Translating and publishing into Russian the most important medical treatises, such as Gyushi (Tib. rgyud bzhi), Blue and White Beryl (Tib. baidurya sngon po and baidurya skar po), Lhang Thab (Tib. blang thabs), Shel Phreng (Tib. dri med sel gong dri med sel phreng) and others. Establishing a Therapeutic Centre with necessary infrastructure.
  • Furthering the future production and official registration of multi-compound Tibetan medical drugs.
  • Creating a strong pharmaceutical infrastructure in future.
  • Establishing a specialised drug-store.

A large variety of diseases are being treated at "Rasayana":

The Centre treats diseases of:

- ear, nose and throat
- the respiratory and gastro-enteric tract
- the hepato-biliary system
- the motor (locomotive) system
- the cardio-vascular and the uro-genital system
- Haematology
- Endocrinology
- Neurology and Psychiatry

Renovative and adaptive therapies are also applied.

Therapeutic methods that are practised at the Centre include individually prescribed diet and behaviour, moxibustion, blood-letting, massage with ointments, baths and compresses.

We have here an interview with Mr. SIDOROV, where he explains the purpose and role of "Rasayana", as well as his personal views and ideas concerning Tibetan medicine.

Interview with Seraphim A. Sidorov

Question: Please tell us about your education in Tibetan Medicine in Buryatia.

S. Sidorov: In Buryatia I studied Tantric Buddhism from 1982 to 1994. I was lucky to find the teachers of the pre-revolution period. I learnt from them and their followers, both Buryats and Russians. As Tibetan Medicine is just one of the many disciplines of traditional Buddhist studies, I did not pay any special attention to it, until I was asked to translate a few recipes from Tibetan into Russian. I became interested in the subject, and during two summer seasons I examined those species of Zabaikalye* flora which were used in the local replica of Tibetan medicine. I, myself, was the first patient to experience my self-prepared medicines.

*The area east of Lake Baikal.

Question: Why did you found this Institute in Moscow?

S. Sidorov: In Moscow while studying Tibetan Medicine more closely, I understood that one person could not handle the task adequately. There is a certain need for a close relationship between researcher, practitioner and pharmacist. Previously all the three were perfectly combined in the personality of the Tibetan doctor. Nowadays, presenting this perfect combination seems to be beyond the capacity of a single individual, though I can not say that such an outstanding personality like YUTHOGPA* could not reappear. It is exactly for this reason that in bringing together individuals interested in this matter, this institution promoting both research and educational activities has been established. Now it is called THE INSTITUTE OF THE CENTRAL-ASIAN MEDICAL TRADITIONS AND ASTROLOGY, RASAYANA. It is a non-commercial organisation. One of the Institute's projects aims at establishing a Centre of Tibetan Medicine, to be named the CONSULTING AND DIAGNOSIS CENTRE.

*YUTHOG YONTEN GONPO (gyu thog yon than mgon po), famous physician of the 12th Century, Tibet.

Question: What will the main activities of the Centre in major areas such as pharmacy, therapy, research, etc., be, and who will work in these areas?

S. Sidorov: As I have already mentioned, the Centre will promote clinical treatment and pharmacy, research and education in Tibetan Medicine and Astrology, as well as provide education on the spiritual roots of the Central-Asian civilisations, which led to the birth and development of regional medical cultures such as the Tibetan. We shall provide translations and publications of original texts which focus on these religions and their philosophical teachings.

For two years we have been imparting special training to prepare people for working in these areas. For example, my colleague, PAVEL DORONIN is working on Tibetan Medicine and Astrology (education, research and translations from Tibetan language). My area of work includes research in the Central Asian teachings, teaching courses in the basics of Tibetan medicine and pharmacy at the primary level, as well as editing translations. ELENA BOGDANOVA is promoting the Tibetan Medicine Centre project. Our assistants will choose one of these areas to work in. We will keep to our respective specialisation which would enable us to concentrate our efforts in attaining our objectives. 
(see Plate I, p. 16.)

Question: From where do you get the raw ingredients for the preparation of  the Tibetan medicines?

S. Sidorov: Until recently we were going to specific regions for collecting the medicinal herbs. These regions are Zabaikalye, Far East Russia, Siberia and Middle Asia (within the territory of the former USSR). Now we are getting herbs from the herbalists and herb dealers. 30 - 50% of the raw materials are bought in the markets of India and Nepal, 
sometimes in China. Communication with the Middle Asian region and Mongolia is a problem now. Sometimes we use small quantities of Russian curing herbs. These are Orchis latifolia (Tib. dbang lag), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum cirrhifolium; Tib. ra mnye), caltrop (Tribulus terrestris L., Tib. gze ma), Coriandrum sativum, (Tib. 'u su), Ephedra gerardiana (Tib. mtse ldum), sweet flag (Acorus calamus L.; Tib. shu dag nag po) etc. The flora of Russia has not as yet been exhaustively researched for use in Tibetan medicine.

Question: Please tell us about your experience with the substituting of Tibetan herbs not available in Russia?

S. Sidorov: Buddhism spread in the regions of Russia - Buryatia, Tuva and Kalmykia more than 250 years ago. During this time the Lamas practising medicine succeeded in adopting many species of the local medical raw ingredients as substitutes for the traditional Indian and Tibetan ingredients. Tibetans are said to have begun using substitutes for the Indian materials, and Mongolians and Buryats for the Tibetan.

It is, as yet, quite a complicated matter demanding much more research, as well as   developing such a special discipline as Medical Geography. Paying due respect to the 
traditional Indo-Tibetan raw ingredients, we should not neglect the great experience of   treatment with the use of substitutes which was started  by our predecessors -  Mongolian and  Buryat Lamas. For example, Scrutellaria baikalensis growing in Zabaikalye is a substitute of the Indian Picrorhiza kurroa  (Tib.  long len).  Paeonmia  anomala of  the same area (Zabaikalye) or Paeonia albiflora, which is more rare to find is a substitute of Withania somnifera (Tib. bu sphru).  Sophora  flavescence and Sophora alopecuroides (with the  better effect of the former) growing  in Buryatia, Chitinskaya oblast (from Siberia) and Primorye (Russian Far East region) are substitutes of Tinosphora cardifolia (Tib. sle tres). Inula elata or Inula Helenium is a substitute of Inula racemosa  (Tib. ma nu).  Schizonepeta  multifida  is  a substitute of such an irreplaceable ingredient as Piper longum (Tib. pi pi ling). Perhaps the most recent suggestion for substitution was made by DR. P. BADMAYEV at the beginning of the century. He suggested substituting Aquillaria agallocha (Tib. a gar)  with  the  Guayaqil tree growing  in Latin America. Myrobalan  (Terminalia chebula, Tib. a ru ra) a widely used medicinal plant in Asia should preferably be continued even if a genuine substitute  is available.

Question: How do you see the development of Tibetan medicine in Russia?

S. Sidorov: This is a difficult question. You can only answer this question if you know the direction towards which Russia is developing. We should not forget that karma affects individuals as well as the entire society. Under any circumstance there will always remain the individual practitioners of Tibetan medicine. Concerning the possibility of Tibetan medicine enjoying a greater popularity, much will depend on a number of factors. For example, the State policy and the way in which the policy will meet the needs of the people. Should the now widespread pragmatic ideology win, Tibetan medicine, though having found its niche, won't have a great effect on the society. The ideology which could serve our aim should be open enough, and the society sharing it should be capable of giving an objective evaluation of the Tibetan heritage. If the present ideology happens to be reanimated (as a matter of miraculous intervention), then the actual restoration of Tibetan and other traditional medical cultures, with its possible recognition by the State, is likely to become a reality. This is why we are paying special attention to the Central-Asian spiritual teachings in which Tibetan medicine is rooted. I wish to reiterate that Tibetan medicine presupposes a certain ideological background.

Question: How do you see the future of Tibetan Medicine world-wide? 

S. Sidorov: I believe that the course of the social karma is going to change, which will lead many countries out of the technocracy impasse. Once the development along more ecologically agreeable guidelines has started, Tibetan Medicine will be accepted as an integral part of the European culture. We ourselves are creating the future of Tibetan Medicine, through the work which we and other enthusiasts do. Certain secondary conditions should necessarily be provided for attaining this aim. For example, if Green Peace had a proper fundamental ideology they would be able to attain much more. Just entertaining the hope of adjusting Tibetan medicine to the mad rhythm of modern life is futile. The game should be played the opposite way, and we should adopt the attitude that not only should the Gods be summoned to change the society karma, but we as well.

Question: What is your opinion about research on Tibetan Medicine? What should be the main subject of research and which methodology should be applied?

S. Sidorov: First of all I consider the methods of research experimenting on animals as unacceptable. I hope that our publications will not provide space for  highlighting this kind of research, even if these experiments prove the validity of Tibetan Medicine. I believe that the only honest way is to make experiments on oneself, or on volunteers who can be paid. The patients are human; the causes of their diseases very often do not originate somatically. One of the main subjects of our theoretical research will be the traditional cosmogony.

For example, the theory of the five colours (blue, green, red, yellow, white) and the five elements (water, earth, fire, wind, space) presents a very important conception. The understanding of the cosmogony will bring about the understanding of the teaching, its theory and practice; from that, the understanding of the medicine as one aspect of the teaching will come.

The fragments which can serve for discovering the system in its wholeness, have been preserved in the tradition of Tantric Buddhism, Bon and Zoroastrianism. The teaching hinted at by the cosmogony presupposes obtaining not only the experience of a physician, but also that of a magus (miraculous healer).

The task for further research is presented by the Tibetan medicine tradition with its extensiveness and depth of contents. The most urgent task in this field involves composing a dictionary and publishing the translations of Tibetan medicine classic works into European languages, the composition and publishing of different works on therapy, treatment and pharmacy, as well as recipe books and reference books. Finally, high quality manuals and educational aids for institutional and correspondence courses should be  developed and circulated. 
In practice we should seek to acquire and master all the known methods, even those which came to be forgotten, or did not enjoy a great popularity (for example surgery). According to the tradition the doctor should be both a magus and an astrologer.

We have to revive Tibetan medicine giving to it a form closest to our conditions and our frame of mind. It will be supported by the positive achievements of Western medicine. So, we have to achieve a level of work similar to that which the great YUTHOGPA had done for Tibet.

From the very beginning this process should be thought of in terms of creating a European tradition of Tibetan medicine, and this knowledge will be transmitted to generations to come. This means transmitting knowledge through initiations (Tib. dbang) as well as by the common educational process. 
Question: Do you view Tibetan medicine as an independent workable medicine system for the Western cultures, or as an extension to allopathic medicine?

S. Sidorov: I view Tibetan medicine, or as it is otherwise called the Buddhist Ayurveda, only as an independent and self-sufficient system. The ideology of the civilisation of the West is a bit different, and it has its own value. I believe Western cultures are able to understand the spirit of Tibetan medicine and the spiritual teachings in which it is rooted.

But Tibetan medicine is not, and cannot be an addition or extension to modern allopathic medicine. And even if such forms of Tibetan medicine are to appear, they will be only a temporary and inadequate phenomenon, because Western science sees its task in only following the methodologies of Tibetan medicine, but fails to understand the spiritual background of the knowledge and the way this knowledge is being transmitted - through the initiation. But this does not discard the idea of  a mutually enriching exchange of knowledge between these two systems,  especially in critical surgery,  stomatology,  vaccination and others.

Question: How do you relate Dharma with your medical practice?

S. Sidorov: Any person can study Tibetan medicine, but my hunch is that only the one initiated in the Buddhist Dharma or Bon can successfully apply its methods. Practising Tibetan medicine implies movement to Enlightenment. Here, in the fact that the practitioner and the patient are progressing together on the way of perfection, lie the most unique features of the tradition. The medicine consecrated by the ritual, transforms itself to Dharma.

So, the practitioner should seek not only general as well as special knowledge and methodology from the teachers, but also wisdom, spiritual power, compassion and intuition. This is achieved through meditation, contemplation on one's Yidam, rituals and through studying from books.

I begin each day with a spiritual practice which helps me to obtain clear vision, intuition, spiritual power and compassion.


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