Problems in Identifying and Translating Materia Medica

This paper was presented at the International Congress on Tibetan Medicine in Washington DC, November 7-9, 1998. © Barry Clark 1998.

When one endeavours to identify Tibetan materia medica often nothing more than a Tibetan name is available, and in the absence of a plant specimen or a name in some other language it is extremely difficult to identify specific items. Moreover, while the descriptions of medicinal plants found in Tibetan commentaries are quaint, from a botanical viewpoint they are mostly inadequate for the purposes of identification. However, the descriptions are sometimes very distinctive and therefore still helpful for identification purposes, for instance, a certain seed is said to resemble an old man’s testicle, or thal ka rdo rje (Foetid Cassia: Cassia tora L.)[1] seeds are said to resemble a dog’s penis.

At one point of time, centuries ago, when a certain herb was becoming scarce, Tibetans began to use a botanically unrelated substitute for it, bestowing the name of the original plant upon the substitute. After some time, the identity of the original plant was forgotten. For example, the plant gla sgang (Cyperus rotunda), now used by Tibetan doctors, looks completely different from the one featured in the sketch in Jampäl Dorje's (Tib. ‘jam dpal rdo rje) mid-nineteenth century work on materia medica.[2] It is quite likely that eventually Tibetan doctors even began to use a substitute for the substitute, and so the identity of the first substitute, as well as that of the original plant, were forgotten.

There have been similar problems with the medicine shri khanda. While some scholars say it is white sandalwood, other modern Tibetan experts have identified it as a type of cactus. However, in his Crystal Rosary[3] commenatry, Deumar Geshe Tenzin Phuntsok (Tib. de’u smar dge shes bstan ‘dzin phun tshogs) in 1737 identified it as a white purgative sap from a tree with a bluish trunk. From the description in the text it seems certain that this is a species of Euphorbia.

About twelve years ago, the eminent physician Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche went to Ladakh and discovered that local doctors were using as ming can nag po a completely different plant than the one regularly used in Tibet. Since the original ming can nag po also grows in Ladakh, Rinpoche was able to correct the erroneous usage. The ‘yellow’ species of this plant (ming can nag po) has been identified as Pulicaria insignis, having a bitter taste, cooling potency and application in cases of infectious fever, diphtheria, wind-blood imbalances and as an analgesic. The black type is similar with additional application in cases of poison-fever, colds and influenza.

Sometimes a Tibetan name may apply to two different types of substances; for example, padma raga is both ruby and garnet, depending of the quality of the stone. Nowadays people still long to re-discover and identify the legendary elixir-like plant medicine ‘Soma’ with its tonifying properties. It seems unlikely that this is the same as the Tibetan so ma ra dza (Cannabis medica), which is a kind of medicinal cannabis used for lymphatic disorders. It can also be confusing when both, a herb and a tree type, of a medicine exist, botanically unrelated of course, as in the case of dug mo nyung, which is both Cynanchum sibiricum,[4] and Holarrhena antidysenterica Wall. The main reason the Tibetans attribute the same name to two completely different plant substances is that they consider them to have the same taste, potencies and properties (in this case for treating bile disorders and feverish dysentery.)

Another problem of identification is posed when Tibetan experts do not agree about whether two substances having different names are really one and the same plant or bush, as in the case of ‘jam ‘bras (Indian Beech: Pongamia pinnata: Pongamia glabra : Caesalpinia crista) and karany ja (Indian Beech: Pongamia pinnata: Caesalpinia sepiaria Roxb.) The latter increases digestive heat, and the former treats cold kidney disorders. Sometimes many plants are identified by the same generic name, such as tig ta (or tigta: Swertia chirata) and chags tig (Gentianopsis paludosa), dngul tig, gser tig (Swertia angustifolia), etc., causing further confusion.

Problems also arise when the Tibetans apply the same name to various different plants by means of the appended designation ‘common’ or ‘supreme’ type, as, for example, with ‘bri ta sa ‘dzin, the common type being an emetic wild strawberry (Fragaria nilgeerensis Schlecht). In cases where a generic name of a plant is used in relation to many different disorders, for example, dar ya kan (Moerhingia latifolia (L) Tenzl.), then there are 25 different types of dar ya kan.

It is also interesting to note that shalmali,[5] the tree with razor sharp, sword-shaped leaves that slash beings severely in one of the hell realms, has an earthly equivalent with appropriately lance-shaped leaves. Jampäl Dorje mentions that it has been identified as Erythrina indica. Other plants have celestial counterparts or divine origins, but only their earthly version can be identified. Is it relevant or appropriate for us to investigate the flora of the god realms? The father of the previous Serkhong Rinpoche, himself a great lama, is said to have often brought fruits back from Shambhala and left them lying around the house.

Similar to dar ya kan is (dkarpo) chig thub, which in one case is probably ginseng (Panax major Burk; Panax notoginseng Burk), but refers also to other plant substances used solely because of their unique potency in each case. Sometimes as in the case of lca wa (Angelica archangelica), as many as ten different related species of the plant may be included under the same name. It is also interesting to note that in his work Jampäl Dorje laconically refers to Yeti as a medicinal substance in just the same way as to any other animal medicine in the same section of his text, whilst most of the world still denies the existence of such creatures. Other such medicines are even more obscure, such as parts of rba byi'u,[6] a rare bird. How can one identify the pools of urine left by the legendary snow frog, except from its effect as the supreme aphrodisiac?


[1] ^ Botanical names in this article have been added from Dr. Clark’s book The Quintessence Tantras of Tibetan Medicine, New York, 1985. (ed.)

[2] ^ Dorje, Jampäl, mdzes mtshar mig rgyan, An Illustrated Tibeto-Mongolian Materia Medica of Ayurveda of ’Jam-dpal-rdo-rje of Mongolia, edited by Lokesh Chandra, Satapitaka Series Vol. 82, New Delhi 1971.

[3] ^ Tibetan brief title: dri med shel phreng. Reprinted along with the root  text dri med shel gong  in the book shel gong shel phreng, Dharamsala, 1994, 537p. (ed.)

[4] ^ Also identified as Cynanchum vincetoxicum L. pers in ‘khrungs dpe dri med shel gyi me long, Lhasa, 1995. (ed.)

[5] ^ In Tibetan Medical Paintings, London, 1992, Plate 30, No. 5, shalma li is identified as China brier [or kapok?]: Similax chinensis - Bombax malabaricum. (ed.)

[6] ^ Cinclus cinclus, the white-breasted dipper. Tibetan Medical Paintings, London, 1992, Plate 28, No. 140. (ed.)