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A Tibetan medicine doctor's view: Interview with Eliot Tokar

A Tibetan medicine doctor's view: Interview with Eliot Tokar

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Published by etokar
Many people ask me how I came to study TIbetan medicine. Here is that and other stories and information gleaned from my 25+ year career in natural medicine and Tibetan medicine.
Many people ask me how I came to study TIbetan medicine. Here is that and other stories and information gleaned from my 25+ year career in natural medicine and Tibetan medicine.

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Published by: etokar on Nov 09, 2009
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01/06/2013

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NIFIED
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UE
(UnifiedEnergetics
):You have studied and prac-ticed Tibetan medicine for almost 22 years now, beginningin the early eighties with Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the former personal physician to H.H., the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.How did this come to be?
ET
(Eliot Tokar): The way that I got involved with myserious studies in natural medicine, and especiallyTibetan medicine, was very typical of an earlier phase of the natural/alternative medicine movement in the U.S. Idid so to help someone close to me find a solution for aserious health problem.Back in the early eighties I was living in Amherst,Massachusetts, having stayed on there after college. Atthat time I had a friend who had come to the UnitedStates trying to find a cure for what at that point was asix-year long bout with a wide variety of serious infec-tious diseases. She had already been diagnosed andtreated for illnesses such as rheumatic fever, rheumatoidarthritis, tuberculosis and pneumonia. At the time, I hadsome basic interest in Asian medicine that hadn’t yetcrystallized; in order to find help, I called a friend whohad experience in the field. He had cured himself of aduodenal ulcer using the Japanese macrobiotic system -essentially a distillation of traditional Japanese medicinewith a specific focus on dietetics and home remedies -and he recommended that we see Shizuko Yamamoto.Ms. Yamamoto was a Japanese practitioner of shiatsu,
Practicing an Ancient Tradition in the New World:A Tibetan medicine doctor’s view.
Interview by Matt Laughlin
©2005 Eliot Tokar 
Eliot Tokar 
Eliot Tokar practices Tibetan medicine in New York City. He hasstudied Tibetan medicine since 1983, and is one of very fewWesterners internationally to have received extensive textual andclinicaltraining in this field. He has additionally trained in aspects of Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine. From 1983-86 Eliot stud-ied with Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, former personal physician to His Holinessthe Dalai Lama, and from 1986 he was an apprentice of Dr. TrogawaRinpoche, President, Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute, India. He hasalso studied with numerous other Tibetan doctors including ShakyaDorje, Thubten Phuntsog and Kuzang Nyima. Eliot was the onlyWestern Tibetan doctor to be invited to speak at both the first modernInternational Academic Conference on Tibetan Medicine held inLhasa, Tibet (2000), to the first International Congress on TibetanMedicine held in the USA in Washington D.C. (1998) and to the firstInternational Symposium on Tibetan Medicine convened in Taipei,Taiwan (2004). He has lectured at institutions such as WashingtonUniversity School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Princeton University, the Association of American MedicalColleges, New York's Asia Society and at the New York BotanicalGarden. Mr. Tokar has served as an advisor to the American MedicalStudent's Association, as a consultant to H. H. the Dalai Lama'sOffice of Tibet (USA), as well as on the Steering Committee of theRoundtable on Traditional Medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital(NYC), and was a nominee for the White House Commission on CAMPolicy. His publications have appeared in journals such as AlternativeTherapies In Health And Medicine, the Annual Publication of the American Medical Students Association's National Project on Alterna-tive and Complementary Medicine and in News Tibet. He has beenfeatured in publications such as the New York Times, San FranciscoChronicle, News-India Times, the Bejing Review and on NationalPublic Radio. His web page www.tibetanmedicine.com is dedicated tobringing accurate information on Tibetan medicine to the Internet.
Eliot Tokar with his teacher Dr. Trogawa in Boulder, CO duringDr. Trowaga’s 1989 tour of the USA. ©2005 Eliot Tokar 
 
 Around that time, Professor Thurman had askedDr. Dhonden to teach a professional training class inTibetan medicine here in the States, just as he would in aTibetan context. Because of my experience, as well asmy desire to develop certain kinds of intellectual, spiritualand practical knowledge, I decided to enter the class. Theclass occurred over a period of three years within specificteaching sessions. Of those students who completedDr. Dhonden’s three year course, I was the only one whodecided to continue with my studies in Tibetan medicine.Itook the classes quite seriously and I also studiedTibetan language. I chose to ignore the improbability of my goal. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Dhonden outsideof the class, observing his clinical work and seeing anenormous number of patients with him. I traveled withDr. Dhonden, and on one occasion I did some translationfor him. In that way, I started my studies in a field that isstill somewhat inaccessible to Westerners.
UE
Your next primary teacher for several years wasDr. Trogawa Rinpoche, a Buddhist Lama, and former president of the Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute inDarjeeling, India. In the Tibetan medical system, itappears great emphasis is placed on the importance of receiving direct instruction by a master, in addition totheoretical study and practice.
ET
This is true. In Tibetan medicine there are threeways people traditionally study. One may study throughapprenticeship (as did I), through family lineage, or in aninstitutional setting (there are several Tibetan medicalschools throughout the Himalayan region). I did my mainstudies with Dr. Dhonden and as an apprentice to Dr.acupressure massage, and had impressive diagnosticskills. We went to Boston to see her and she diagnosedmy friend’s overall condition and recommended a courseoftreatment using mostly dietary approaches.Unfortunately, soon after this my friend developed avirulent new infection called osteomyelitis, a very seriousbone infection that is accompanied by excruciating pain.Wetook her to the Tuft’s University Hospital in Boston,where she was diagnosed with this condition and toldthat given her history, she required surgery followed bylong-term treatment in the hospital for upwards of ninemonths. After six or seven years of this kind of suffering,and after many hospitalizations, both in the States andoverseas, she was faced with the question: Did shewant to undergo the biomedical approach or try some-thing different? She decided that she wanted to leave thehospital and return home to try the natural medicineapproach recommended by Ms. Yamamoto.Isuddenly found myself responsible for my friend whowas incapacitated with a severe infectious disease, and inexcruciating pain 24 hours a day. Upon returning to Amherst, we began reading about and studying macrobi-otics, and experimenting (mostly in the kitchen) - abasickind of scientific method. Over a period of about threemonths, in very distinct phases, she improved. First, shewas able to have somewhat of a reduction in pain. Then,she was able to move around using crutches. After aboutthree months, all the symptoms of the osteomyelitis weregone. However, her previous condition persisted and shecontinued to be in a diminished state of health due to her illnesses. At that point I came to know Dr. Yeshi Dhonden.Dr. Dhonden visited Amherst yearly because he had asponsor at Amherst College, a professor by the name of Robert Thurman. Now, I am not someone who acceptsthings casually, so I checked Dr. Dhonden out. I wasn’twowed by the fact that he was Tibetan, wearing robes, or this kind of thing. I didn’t find that particularly fascinating.It just so happened that there had recently been an articleabout Dr. Dhonden in the New York Times magazine,and after reading this and other things about Tibetanmedicine, it seemed like there was some real, crediblepotential of finding a cure for my friend’s illness.So we went to see Dr. Dhonden.Perhaps mostreassuring was the fact that his diagnosis, albeit a lotmore detailed, was very much in accord with the diagnosiswe had previously gotten from Ms.Yamamoto.It seemedlike we were finally getting somewhere, getting to whatthis illness was really all about. Dr. Dhonden suggestedmy friend continue on the same dietary approach andsupplement it with his prescription for Tibetan herbalmedicines. In another three months with this newtreatment, my friend’s illness was gone. She still hadresidual affects from all those years of illness andbiomedical treatments, but she was now in stable healthand all of her previous symptoms had declined or hadbeen eliminated. Suffice it to say, I was impressed.
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remained open to other views.Dr. Trogawa was a Tibetan doctor who truly practicedin the classical fashion. He was the first Tibetan doctor that I saw who would not always prescribe herbalremedies. In fact, the first level of cure in our system isto simply advise a person about their lifestyle, behavior,the state of their mind, etc. Therefore, if such behavior modification was all that was required to cure a patient,Dr. Trogawa would leave it at that. If it wasn’t sufficient,he would add dietary recommendations that werespecifically tailored to the patient’s condition. Finally, if he felt that these steps alone weren’t sufficient, hewould then recommend herbal medicines and perhapsphysical treatments.It is unfortunate that in the West (and even in Asia)people too often confuse Tibetan medicines, meaningherbal compounds, with the Tibetan medical system. Thisis a big problem, because any kind of herbal compound,acupuncture or moxibustion technique is merely a kind of device that requires a medical system to come into beingand to have any meaning.
UE
Do any memorable stories come to mind thatdemonstrate the skill of Dr. Trogawa, or the Tibetanmedical approach in general?
ET
Iremember a patient that Dr. Trogawa saw inSan Francisco. The woman had a psychiatric history of hospitalizations, medication and quite a lot of difficulty.She came to see us accompanied by her psychotherapist,and expressed to Rinpoche that her main concern wasTrogawa. I then did a great deal of additional clinical andtextual studies with a number of other Tibetan doctors.Dr.Trogawa was very generous to me; when I methim in 1984 and asked if I could apprentice with him, hesaid yes at once. Only later did I learn that at that time,he was really not taking on any Western or Tibetanstudents. Despite this, he said yes to me for whatever reason, and I was very happy about it. I studied withhim, traveled with him, attended his lectures andreceived a significant amount of direct private instructionin North America and in India. From 1986 through 1993,Ialso sat through hundreds of clinical sessions where hewould see patients and also give instruction to me and tohis translator who was also his student.When you study directly with a master, they take onthe responsibility of teaching you what they think youneed to know. There is a certain amount of straightteaching where you are taught directly by your master.There is a significant degree of self-study that one has todo as well; for example, as a Westerner I needed todevelop ability in the Tibetan language. There is alsoclinical work, where you are taught specific skills (likepulse analysis) and where you are asked to demonstratewhat you know in the clinic. The master will take thepulse, for instance, and then ask you to take it, andbefore stating his diagnosis he will ask you what youthink is the nature of the illness. If you’re right, they’ll sayyour right and if you’re wrong, they’ll correct you. That isthe basic approach.In 1993, with the help of his supporters, includingmyself, Dr. Trogawa established the Chagpori TibetanMedical Institute in Darjeeling, India. As a result of thisachievement Rinpoche’s activities changed and he nolonger had time to make regular trips to N. America. Atthat point, he instructed me to begin my own clinicalwork in the New York in order to help perpetuate thework that he had begun here in the U.S.
UE
What was Dr. Trogawa like?
ET
Dr. Trogawa was a very profound individual.The breadth of his work and his teaching on medicine inthe West was very important, and needs to be fullyappreciated in order for Tibetan medicine to properlydevelop here. While there is a lot of romanticizing andstereotyping of Tibetans and of lamas, different lamashave different kinds of qualities. From a Tibetan point of view, Trogawa Rinpoche was typically seen as the epit-ome of what a lama should be like. Trogawa Rinpochewas a very outstanding person, a consummate lamaand Tibetan doctor. He was not only a good clinician, hewas also a good scholar, a very highly regarded personwithin Tibetan culture. He was not narrow-minded or ideological about Tibetan medicine. Because he had agreat understanding of Tibetan medicine and such agreat ability to see its capacity and limitations, healways looked for what was the simplest solution and
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