The applied science of Mongolia’s traditional medicine

Mongolian traditional medicine was founded thousands of years ago. Mongolians mastered the traditions of Buddhism’s “Ten Sciences”, and with the seed of Tibetan culture planted in the soil of nomadic traditions, created a wealth of national intellectual heritage, one of which is the science of Mongolian traditional medicine.

The third wave of Buddhism in Mongolia took place in the 16th century. Numerous scholars and monks traveled to India and Tibet to gain a wider scope of knowledge to create new customs which would suit the nomadic lifestyle and the extreme climate of Mongolia. This led to the emergence of extraordinary scholars, such as His Holiness the First Bogd Zanabazar (1653-1723), Saint Luvsandanzanjamts (1639-1704), and Zay Bandida Luvsanperenlei (1642-1715). The first incarnation of Bogd Zanabazar was the creator of many treasured cultural items, such as images of Buddha and the robes of Mongolian lamas, the design and wonderful features of which have become world-wide famous. Saint Luvsandanzanjamts was an author of books on Mongolian astrology and methodologies of traditional medical science and treatment methods. He became the first monk to accomplish the rank of Otoch Maaramba (monk healer).

The evolution of the centuries-old field of traditional medical science was forced to a halt under the communist regime, and Otoch doctors were prohibited from practicing medicine. The development of democracy in Mongolia since in 1990s presented an opportunity for the revival and further development of Mongolian religion and traditional medical science.

Making Mongolian traditional medicines

Mongolia is home to hundreds of rare medicinal plants, most of which are found in the Khangai Mountain region and the steppe. Prior to making any herbal medicine, plants must be collected at the appropriate time and season. For instance, the yellow snowdrop (aneta) blooms in early spring. Therefore, the exact time of its full bloom must not be missed, and the collected plant should be dried before use.

In Mongolian traditional medicine, illnesses of the human body are labeled under three general categories of energy: heat, cold, and accumulated energy. Under those categories, plants used for particular illnesses can be identified by their particular place of growth. For people suffering from hot illnesses, medicines must be made of plants grown on the shaded side of hills or in cool areas, and must be dried without being exposed to the sun. For people suffering from cold illnesses, medicines are prepared using plants grown in sunny areas and are dried in the sun.

There are cases where toxic plants are used in making medicines. Those toxic plants need special care and there are specific methodologies for drying and releasing their toxins. If the stem of the plant contains the toxin, it must be cut in half before drying. If the plant has a poisonous surface, that layer must be scraped away. To release the toxins a metal, it needs to be placed in a covered dish and set on fire.

A traditional diagnosis 

To make a diagnosis, Mongolian physicians use their six senses. They mainly emphasize pulse reading, visual diagnosis (of the tongue and urine), and questioning the patient, asking questions about their health history as an important part of the examination. Generally, they don’t use machines or any electronic help.

Examination through touch

Mongolian physicians read a patient’s pulse to discover the nature of their disease. They read it on the radial artery, where all psychic, emotional, and organ energy pulses with the flow of arterial blood. Before the day of a pulse reading diagnosis, the patient should have plenty of rest. The patient should not eat heavy food or do hard physical labor.

Visual diagnosis

The visual diagnosis method, a visual analysis of urine, the tongue, ears or eyes, and constitution, uses the sensory organs and the doctor’s perceptions.

Urine analysis

Urine analysis is a method that examines the physical residue of blood and other waste in  urine. It gives a clear indication of physical pathologies.

The patient’s first morning urine (urine after midnight) is collected and kept in a white cup. The physician examines the urine, if possible, in the morning sunlight. The color, vapor, and smell, as well as the thickness and the presence of any sediment, is interpreted for irregularities and give indications of disease.

Tongue diagnosis

Tongue diagnosis is an important method often used by Mongolian physicians. The tongue is the “heart flower”, which means heart diseases can be diagnosed by looking at the tongue. Also on the tongue, evidence of diseases of the digestive system can be seen. The digestive system is the central motor of metabolism, and its regulation by the “three humors” (a life-force theory representing combinations of the five elements) is the central subject of traditional physiology. There are numerous tongue characteristics that may be seen depending on the disease, but the following three are the principal characteristics for the three humors.

* A wind disorder is diagnosed when the tongue is reddish with a dry, rough texture.

* A bile disorder is diagnosed when the tongue is covered with a thick, light yellow coating.

* A phlegm disorder is diagnosed when the tongue appears whitish, thick, lusterless, smooth, and moist.

Traditional Mongolian physicians also look at the eyes, veins in the ears, nose, nails, and lips. The eyes are the liver flower, the ears the kidney flower, the nose the lungs flower, and the lips the spleen flower, each organ reflecting the condition of another.

As with any medical system, understanding the various functions of the body is essential to Mongolian medicine. However, the underlying physiological principles which create and maintain those functions are of primary importance. Mongolian medicine identifies three main systems which control all the body’s processes.

These three systems are created at various stages of development in the womb by an interaction of our mind’s developmental process and the five elements: earth, wind, water, fire, and wood. During embryological development, the mind acts as the basis for the creation of an individual’s three principle physical systems: lhung, tri-pa and bad-kan. These three systems create and sustain all the body’s functions.

Lhung (wind) creates an enormous number of bodily functions. The best example of these functions is circulation, such as the circulation of our blood, circulation of the nervous system’s impulses, circulation of thoughts in our minds, and circulation of food through our digestive tract and eliminative organs. The mind is expressed as attachment, desires and our materialistic world view are manifested as a system of wind.

Tri-pa (bile) gives rise to and are controlled by functions such as metabolism, liver function, and vision, and allows our mind to function with discriminating intellect. Disorders of the mind are expressed as aggression, hatred, anger, or the like, and are manifested through the bile system.

Bad-kan (phlegm) creates the physical principle whereby energy can create function, provides our body with lubrication, creates will power, and allows us to have a good memory among other things. Ignorance or incomprehension is manifested as a  phlegm disorder.

A disturbance in one or a combination of these three principle systems results in illness. The disturbance can come from diet, behavior or environmental factors whose qualities, based on their constituent elements, act to disturb the qualities of any of the three energies. The manner in which these factors can result in illness will be more or less complex depending on the acute or chronic nature of the problem. All illnesses must be seen as individual and based on the situation of the particular patient’s background.

The treatments include pills, powders, pastes, decoctions, medicinal salves, herbal compounds, oil therapy, moxibustion, medicinal baths, natural spring baths, emesis, nasal drops, enemas, channel cleansing, cauterization, venesection, compression, massage, and surgical therapy.

The recommended diet for a person with a lhung disorder consists of molasses, one-year-old meat, marmot meat, horse and donkey meat, onion, garlic, milk, and aged butter. The diet for a person suffering from a tri-pa disorder consists of curd and buttermilk made from cow’s or goat’s milk, fresh butter, the meat of game animals, goat’s meat, porridge made from fresh barley, natural cool water, and boiled cold water.

The recommended diet for a bad-kan disorder consists of mutton, wild yak meat, the meat of carnivores, fish, honey, yogurt and buttermilk made from yak’s milk, warm dough made from aged grain that grows in dry land, and hot boiled water.

The recommended lifestyle for treating lhung disorders is staying in a warm region and enjoying the company of loved ones. The recommended lifestyle for treating tri-pa disorders is relaxing and staying in a cool place, whereas exercising and staying in a warm place is the recommended lifestyle for bad-kan disorders.

Mongolian traditional medicine center

Mamba Datsan is the biggest Mongolian traditional medicine clinic in Mongolia. It has its own  medicine production laboratory, monastery and university. The clinic treats various kinds of diseases, such as digestive, neurological, respiratory, circulatory, and dermatological disorders. The university runs undergraduate and postgraduate courses for students to become a doctor in Mongolian traditional medicine, a nurse, or a pharmacist, and it also offers Buddhist studies. The monastery reads prayers for the clinic’s patients. The laboratory produces medicines based on ancient medicinal texts.