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Weekly Alibi Reader, Heal Thyself

Baker and Shrestha's "The Tibetan Art of Healing."

By Stephen Ausherman

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Would such a book be published if Tibet were not currently at the center of popular attention? I'm not making light of the issue; it's one I've taken into serious consideration since 1992, after meeting with members of the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Secretary to the Dalai Lama at the residence of His Holiness.

But since the American entertainment industry took up the cause--when the American Gigolo pimped Tibet on the Oscars, when it became the basis for a rock 'n' roll show, when Hollywood churned out gobs of celluloid bent on slandering China and glorifying Tibet--it seems to have accumulated a great deal of cheese. So naturally any product that uses Tibet as a selling tool must be regarded with suspicion, even if it is endorsed by His Holiness himself.

By the same token, spiritual healing must be regarded with suspicion as well. With its witch doctors, Ayurvedic practitioners and televangelists, it's plagued with about as many thieves, liars and covered wagon medicine shows as the American pharmaceutical industry. And there's nothing more depressing than seeing sick folk expecting a miracle from a pilgrimage to Lhasa or Santa Fe.

Both the perils and promises of trends like these are made manifest in the new book, The Tibetan Art of Healing. On one hand, it's loaded with hokey, nonspecific cures, like "the backbone of yaks, which are crushed and mixed with gold to make a powerful female contraceptive." Or such "ingredients used in medicines" as "vaginal secretions at the time of orgasm" or "scabs of smallpox pustules." Some even call for parts of endangered animals, encouraging a pernicious trade that's already out of control. Is this really a legacy that any student of medicine should carry on? Taken as a pharmaceutical guide to concoct some healing potion, this book is a recipe for disaster and hardly seems like anything the Dalai Lama would endorse.

However, in his 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama claims: "I have found Tibetan medicine to be very effective. I take it regularly, not just as a cure but also as a preventative against illness." Fortunately, his endorsement in The Tibetan Art of Healing is more reserved. He suggests that its concepts are but components, albeit vital ones, in an ideal health system--abstract supplements to sound medical understanding.

These are precisely the ethereal components that were long absent from Western medicine and are just now being given serious consideration. For example, the Dalai Lama states, "Tibetan medicine views health as a question of balance." Interesting to note that a textbook soon to be published by Simon & Schuster paraphrases this concept with a chapter titled "Wellness: A Matter of Balance." It goes on to offer a definition of spiritual health that includes "a feeling of oneness with others and with nature--and a guiding sense of meaning or value in life."

What an odd and wonderful concept for students of Western medicine. The author could just as well have quoted Deepak Chopra in his foreword to The Tibetan Art of Healing: "Ultimately, true healing begins when we discover within ourselves that place where we are linked with the larger forces of the universe." Certainly, Chopra shows more confidence in spiritual health, but he is not exaggerating when he states that this is the "revolution in health care emerging now in the West."

So, yes, there are lessons in this book for those in the field of health and medicine, as well as for those who are at their mercy. But the most astonishing features in this book are the paintings by Romio Shrestha. A master in the Tibetan artistic tradition, Shrestha, along with 70 unacknowledged students, recreated hundreds of thangkas, detailed paintings used as references by Tibetan doctors for the past 400 years. The results are stunning--at once horrific and beautiful--renditions of the human body in its various states of health and illness. That these images can heal on sight, as Shrestha suggests, is almost believable. Though, often graphically shocking, they could also make one feel quite ill.

In any case, The Tibetan Art of Healing is full of certain wisdom and unforgettable images. That it happens to be linked with a current trend in pop culture does not necessarily diminish its brilliance. (Chronicle, paper, $29.95)

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