The Knowledge of HealingBMJ 1998; 317 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.317.7172.1599c (Published 05 December 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1599
Director Franz Reichle
89 minutes, at selected cinemas around Britain
It would be unwise to dismiss the ancient and comprehensive healing tradition embodied in today's system of Tibetan medicine simply because diagnosis and treatment seem strange and the beautiful texts are obscure, for the lack of controlled clinical trials, or because of the Buddhist emphasis on spirit as well as body and mind. It would be additionally foolish to ignore it given its successes with chronic illnesses regarded in the West as incurable. Such, at least, was the view of Karl Lutz, a Swiss drug manufacturer who began bulk production of Tibetan medications in Europe.
Franz Reichle's beautiful and engaging film seeks, with evidence from key players, to persuade us that Lutz was essentially right. Filmed in Dharamsala (the Himalayan seat of the Tibetan government in exile), in Ulan Ude, Siberia (where the tradition flourishes alongside Western practice and takes on its incurables), in Switzerland, Vienna, and Jerusalem, the film seamlessly unfolds parallel tales of investigation and discovery, of advanced cancers and arterial diseases in remission, and, above all, of compassion and hope.
We hear of imbalances in the body's humours of earth, fire, and wind. We are shown related methods of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment: taking the triple pulse, inspecting the urine, meridian line diagrams, cupping, moxibustion (heating of acupuncture points), and restorative concoctions of up to 28 carefully selected ingredient herbs, roots, and minerals. But it is not only these which fascinate; it is also, and especially, the people.
Endearingly wise and humble, one unlikely hero of the human drama is an elderly monk-physician, Dr Tenzin Choedrak. Now doctor to the Dalai Lama (who also appears), he was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese authorities in Lhasa for years before his release and escape to India.
There is complete reverence and respect both ways between Tibetan doctor and patient. The attempt to understand and to relieve suffering is in that context a humble and holy undertaking, beneficial to all parties, whatever the outcome. Lutz was probably right, and there are values being lived out which would repay a comprehensive revisit from the West. This is a moving, thought provoking, and surprisingly enjoyable film.