This interview was originally published in The Edge, 2005
There are at all times, on this blue, jeweled planet, those groups of peoples so unable to experience the majesty of life they turn to brutalizing and dominating others as a means of feeling themselves alive. Struggles for ideology, food, clothing, and territory aside, such peoples torture, rape, and kill for the sheer release of it.
This describes the history of the Chinese in their takeover of the holy Himalayan kingdom of Tibet, where a systematic genocide grinds on and on, since 1959. Horror stories are commonplace among those still imprisoned and suffering in their own country, as well as among those who have escaped and survive in exile.
In March, 1959, the capture, at the Dalai Lama’s home, of his personal physician, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, marked the beginning of a prolonged ordeal. As the Dalai Lama’s physician, Dr. Choedrak was a special prize for the Chinese. He was targeted for intense “studies,” and suffered a series of severe beatings and tortures during his interrogations, which left his mouth and left eye shattered. Following that, years of starvation dragged on, piled upon excruciating hard labor, with thousands upon thousands of his fellow prisoners succumbing, ending at last dumped into common graves.
With his deep knowledge and practice in Tibetan medicine, which is intimately intertwined with the Tibetan Buddhist religion, Dr. Choedrak quietly endured for more than twenty years, armed with his daily practice of an advanced form of meditation–Tum-mo Bar Zar, meaning “Rising and Falling Heat.” In this way, he visualized purifying energy, in the form of white light, suffusing him, ascending up through his tantric energy centers, then releasing a fountain of clear, nectar-filled light which returned, blissfully, down his body. He would then experience all of his sufferings being washed away, and replaced by the ineffable joy embodied in the light.
Eventually, his great skill as a physician won his release and a restoration of his honored place in his culture. Once free, Dr. Choedrak worked to save those ancient medical texts not yet destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and a research project in Tibetan medicine was begun. Finally, he was awarded the public title “Master Teacher of Tibetan Doctors.”
Now restored to his position as the Dalai Lama’s physician, Dr. Choedrak lives in Daramsala, India, where he also works at the Tibetan Medical Institute. There, he has trained over 90 students, who carry on the unbroken line of the thousands-year-old tradition of Tibetan medicine.
Dr. Jan Thatcher Adams: What sorts of thoughts sustained you all those years in prison?
Dr. Tenzin Choedrak: I survived by accepting my fate. Whatever positive or negative things happen, or happiness or suffering, is the fruit of past action. So, this was my karma.
Were there particular practices that sustained you?
Choedrak: The Chinese required me to read the communist book by Mao Tse-tung, but they couldn’t read my thoughts. There are, in Chinese type, thirty characters in one line, so I would point at each character, pretending to be intensely reading. But I was actually reciting one mantra (prayer) for each character. I accumulated 300,000 mantras from studying Mao’s book. It gave me joy.
Also, I was not alone in my suffering. Not only were all my fellow prisoners suffering, the whole Tibetan nation was suffering. In a sense, it was like a family thing. So, each night, when I finished reciting my prayers in my mind, I would dedicate them to the benefit of all sentient beings, and to the world’s learning how the Chinese army was treating Tibetans. Hopefully, one day the Tibetan people can be free again and can have peace.
In your observation of western medicine, do you see any strengths or weaknesses?
Choedrak: The very good side is the very detailed and quick diagnosis from technology, and in the research. The tools are very impressive, as is the surgery and the availability of medical care. But the medicine given is often too harsh, and harms the body as well as cures. So there is a contradiction between the well done diagnosis and the treatment that often causes other problems.
Tibetan medicine does not have the technology, but the medicine is very effective and doesn’t hurt the body in any way. It doesn’t add more stress to it, because it is all medicinal plants and herbs. Instead of concentrating on one area, the whole being is cured.
Are there things that Tibetan medicine does not heal?
Choedrak: Tuberculosis, for example, although Tibetan medicine does work if in the early stages. Also, many diseases present today are new, and Tibetan medicine is very old, so the medicinal ingredients have to be revised for today’s problems. Now, the medicine must take into account pollution, radiation, etc. We have created fifteen new medicines, including one we’re trying for AIDS, as well as ones for diabetes, asthma, kidney problems, etc. I am in charge of the pharmacy, the actual making of the medicine.
Are there body techniques that are part of Tibetan medicine, like massage or exercise?
Choedrak: The Tibetan medical texts have specific instructions in massage, as well as for applying heat to the stomach for indigestion and for exercise. We don’t do aerobics. What the medical texts require for a healthy body is to keep in movement but not to the point of sweating. There are different prescribed movements for each illness. The overall general instruction is not to overexert your physical body and to watch what you eat and not to overeat one particular flavor like sweets. Also, overeating prevents the wind energy from circulating properly and, therefore, food doesn’t digest. Diet, behavior, and positive mental thinking contribute to a healthy body.
When we talk about being healthy, Tibetans are talking about the physical, biological, and also the conscious or mental self. They are not separate. For instance, if we won the lottery and are very excited, we get tense, tight, and emotional. So, our mental state manifests itself in a physical form. Whether one is in a positive or negative mental state affects health in some way.
When I was in prison, my accepting my fate allowed me to have a tolerance for the Chinese army and a certain sense of peace and tranquillity. Other inmates, who lost their mental tranquillity had a lot of hate and anger toward the Chinese. All this very strong negative mental thought had dramatic physical effects on their bodies. Most often, it affected the heart. At its maximum, it caused heart attacks. Before the Chinese arrived, Tibetans never died of heart attacks.
Do you have any advice for the peoples of the world?
Choedrak: Remember how precious a human life is. The cause of suffering is desire, hatred, and ignorance. If we work together in dispelling ignorance, practicing tolerance and patience, helping others, and releasing thoughts of revenge and self-pity, the world will be a healthier place.
No matter the crushing grief, burdens, and loss they have endured, Tibetans, with the shining light of their beliefs intact, manage to survive and transmit the beauty of that inner light around the world. And Dr. Choedrak survived, in order to lead us all into understanding more fully just what it means to be alive.