Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poisons and Pathogens: Origins of Disease

Someone, with whom I have a polite connection, has been struck down by a particularly insidious form of encephalitis, and that is weighing on my mind. As she is over eighty years of age, the matter is quite serious. She has been in the intensive care unit for over a week now, and only today has she been able to breathe on her own. Although there was early intervention, she stands a better than fifty percent chance of permanent impairment, and certainly, a significant impact to quality of life -- if, and only if, she manages to survive at all.

So, you know, I am saying prayers for her.

When her family first informed me of the diagnosis, it caused me to recall a disturbing book I first read seven years ago: The New Killer Diseases, by Elinor Levy and Mark Fischetti. Of course, this book, in turn, caused me to recall Desi Rinpoche's foretelling of such diseases, back in the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Regardless, it may surprise you to learn that encephalitis is often caused by herpes, and in such cases, mortality runs around seventy percent.

Herpes? The sexually transmitted "cold sore" disease? 
Well... yes and no.

Actually, herpes is a family of viruses, referred to as herpes 1 through 8 -- maybe it is up to 9 or 10 by this writing -- that, from a Western medical perspective, was first recorded in ancient Greece, and now afflicts more than ninety percent of the world's population. That is correct -- over ninety percent of all adults in the world have at least one form of the herpes virus already in their system.

When you study this disease -- how it is transmitted -- which is not always or exclusively sexual -- and how it actually operates once transmitted -- and when you learn about its diversity, you begin to think you are reading science fiction. You begin to think it is an alien life form, sent to wipe out planet earth. Indeed, researchers at the Harvard Medical School believe that "herpes is so advanced it understands the human immune system better than we do," so when they want to study the human immune system, they study herpes.

The classical Tibetan explanation for herpes goes something like this: a couple had sex beneath a tree, and so offended a spirit that happened to be in the tree, that the spirit caused this infection to reach all of mankind.

Modern scientists do not like such explanations, but they offer little in the way of alternative. Even modern Tibetan doctors tend to discredit such explanations, and seem ashamed of them.

So, where do diseases begin? Well... apart from desire, anger, and delusion, that is.....

In order to explore the various hypotheses, it is necessary to return to the time of Homo habilis—almost two million years ago—when there are no doctors and small medicines, and then work our way forward. We of course do not know everything about prehistory, but archaeology and anthropology have offered a few clues about the most recent prehistoric era, and we are free to extrapolate from the foundation these provide.

Primitive man’s first struggle is sustenance. He must eat, and it is likely his pangs of hunger occur two or more times daily, as ours do. Old bones—human and otherwise—have something to tell us about what he eats. We find that man almost immediately becomes carnivorous, and starts consuming his own and other species.[1] This begins in moderation. Plants do not escape in fear or fight back when cornered, but animals and other humans do. The early diet is thus vegetarian to the greater percentage, with the lesser percentage being flesh. Around 1,700,000 to 1,500,000 years ago, in the period of Homo erectus, we find evidence of the systematic use of fire for cooking. This is surely an important—and probably the first—medical development, as it changes man’s diet and hence, his constitution, for evermore.

We speculate that primitive man’s next struggle is with his environment. Looking back, it is likely that average life expectancy was subject more to the whim of stray storms, falling rocks, large birds, and peer aggression than to the etiology of disease. A palaeo-anthropological study that supports this likelihood comes to us from the Peking Man community. The study involves skeletal remains of some forty Homo sapiens. More than a third died at fourteen to fifteen years of age, with trauma—apparently both accidental and deliberate—being the principal cause of death.[2]

Thus, ancient man constantly forages about, snares the odd reptile or small mammal, occasionally dines on other ancients, and tries to avoid being injured in the process. As he does so, he thinks of his lot in life. He has but one source of information to apply to his mortal vicissitudes. To embrace this source means hope; to ignore it means disaster. This source is inflexible and absolute, yet it has a rich, infinite character, full of magical possibility. 
This source is nature, and nature is the divine instructor.

The divine instructor allows us to witness, but does not immediately explain. Any explanation comes from our contemplation of what we see. We explain what we understand and those things we cannot explain become magic. This becomes our learning and learning becomes our instinct—call this instinctive magic, if you like.

Some 2,000 years ago, an unknown Chinese author wrote, “When a person is born, there are two things that do not need to be learned: the first is to breathe and the second is to eat.”[3] As human beings begin to consider, from the very foundation, what they learn from what they witness in nature and then apply it to what they wonder about in themselves, the notion of primary power comes into being. This, in itself, seems a simple matter: what breathes, lives. That which does not breathe dies, so the first place to find this primary power is the air.

The study of air is a profound step in the ancient study of life, leading to the concept of air as both medicine and medical belief system. This, in turn, leads to the development of a diverse palette of cultivation techniques. Hence, the practices of “eating spirit vapor,” or breath absorption encountered in early China, the disciplining of the five winds in Buddhist yoga, or the pranayama of post-Buddhist Hatha Yoga.

Such techniques come to differ only in the matter of goal, or aim. The Chinese techniques, for example, are intended to prolong corporeal existence. In contrast, the Buddhist techniques are intended to transcend corporeal existence, thus: “Being the life force of sentient beings, what is called ‘wind’ performs all deeds; and as the vehicle of [perception] is five....”[4] As they are infrequently remarked in the literature, I will pause here and note the five winds of perception. These are the rgyu ba wind, based on the eye; rnam par rgyu ba wind, based on the ear; the yan dag par rgyu ba wind, based on the nose; the rab tu rgyu ba wind, based on the tongue, and the nes par rgyu ba wind, based on the torso.[5]

Consumption, the other thing that does not have to be learned, leads to the idea of food as medicine. On a rudimentary level, it is probable that ingestion of certain foodstuffs was rapidly observed to gain certain effects; further, that cooking such foodstuffs could alter or enhance said effects.

The early materia medica evolves by means both sacred and profane. By way of example, ancient Tibetan physicians discovered bcad sbyor, or the medicines learned from nature. Doctors would paint cracks on bird eggs, or paint cosmetic wounds on baby animals, and then observe what substances the deceived parents might bring to heal their offspring. There are twenty such medicines still in the pharmacopoeia, including saussurea medusa, primula, paeonia veitchii, paraquilegia microphylla, and pterocephalus hookeri.

Fire, food, air, and a cautious, observant lifestyle are thus probably the four corners of early medicine. Application of the human hand is probably the first medical treatment.

Around 4,000 years ago, someone in China had abdominal pain of such evident gravity that diviners were sent for. The record of their query, inscribed on bone, asks whether the pain can be successfully treated by pressing and rubbing, i.e. by massage.[6] More or less at the same time, give or take five centuries, a Sumerian in Nippur inscribed a clay tablet—the oldest received pharmacological literature in the world—with a prescription which called for “friction and rubbing.”[7] Around 3,000 years ago, the Greek poet Pindar wrote of the physician Asklepio’s healing patients by “spreading on their limbs ointments from far and near.”[8] In Historia naturalis, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) mentions that “unguents” are rightfully attributed to the Persians.[9] He then writes, “The first instance of the use of unguents that we have been able to meet with is that of the chest of perfumes which fell into the hands of Alexander…” This sets a date of the third century BCE. Pliny then describes a dozen principal formulae, including one that he calls “regal,” because it was compounded for the Parthian kings. The ingredients of this formula closely resemble that of an Ayurvedic formula, particularly in its use of Myrobalan.

Plainly, the laying on of hands was ancient man’s first response to somatic malady, and this for the simple reason that it worked. If it did not, the practice would not have survived the millennia and would not be seen in all quarters of the earth even to this day.

The other surviving traveler of time and distance is the why of fire, food, air, behavior, and human touch. In the age before microscopes and systematic introspection, this is the unseen dimension: the spirit world. From the earliest times, the spirits are called forth by sound: by incantation, drumming, and song. The vibrations of light are mixed together with the vibrations of sound, becoming spells, mantras, and prayers, and when combined with the other media become ritual. Hence, is medicine born, as ceremonial spawn from this world of magical possibility.

One notable ritual of which we speak is that of the shaman: arguably mankind’s first medical practitioner. The elements of shamanism, like the foundational elements of all early medical belief systems, are seen everywhere. These consist of symbolic death, dispersal and resurrection; an ability to fly to, and then fluently empathize with, the spirit world, whether in descent or ascent; a special relationship with fire, inclusive of autothermy; the ability to enlist the animal realm, either by assuming or usurping animal form, and the power of invisibility, i.e. mastery of the covert and clandestine.[10]

The age-old, worldwide phenomenon of shamanism—and we safely call it thus, for there is neither a recorded time nor place when it is not encountered—leads us to the idea of specially skilled people who, for one reason or another, are able to see what we cannot see and heal what we cannot heal. Thus, are doctors born, as adepts in the basis of survival, in worlds seen and unseen, able to do for us what we cannot easily do for ourselves. In the resulting attempts to emulate these special people, we find the origin of doctrine.

Doctrine is, perhaps, the very opposite of shamanic insight. Doctrine is linear, and sequential. Time, which is the basis of mortality and the shaman’s ground, is in contrast a series of self-replicating models, or what one commentator invokes as “creative repetitions of primordial archetypes.”[11] The sun rises, the sun sets. The moon waxes, the moon wanes. Night follows day and day follows night. People are born and people die. These things are happening everywhere, to all of us, and we share knowledge of them. We seem to be born into this shared experience as self-replicating models ourselves.

But, we stray from our topic. 
We have speculated about healing, but we should speculate equally about disease. Did men die of cancer two million years ago? What was the prevalence of heart disease? I used to delight in hearing my Tibetan teacher’s recollections of autocratic masters from the past. “They were unrelenting,” he told me. “They had bones in the heart! Really! When they were cremated people would find bones in their heart.”[12] Then I developed arteriosclerosis, and came to realize the origin of the personality type he described and the phenomenon of bones in the heart.

As a point of departure in the investigation of disease, I want to examine a healing practice from the Tibetan Bön tradition that dates to around 1017.[13]

The Bön religion is an ancient, pre-Buddhist, shamanic belief system of Tibet that came under strong Buddhist influence from about the seventh century. The Bön resource under examination comes from a time, some three centuries later, when such influence is evident. Still, it is useful in revealing something of the earlier Bön practices. The resource is the Srid-rgyal drag snags gnad kyi dgongs-thim [The Secret Text of the Primordial State (of the Goddess) which presents the Essential Points of the Fierce Mantra of Sidpa Gyalmo].

Sidpa Gyalmo, or the Queen of Existence, is a Bön guardian deity of the transmundane type, i.e. an emanation of the enlightened awareness and compassion of a great being, such as a Buddha. She has a complex iconography, and pantheon of manifestations, but is usefully summarized as a deep azure blue, wrathful deity who is pre-Buddhist in origin, and is a direct emanation of Shes-rab byams-ma, the Great Goddess. The latter is variously described as the Goddess of Wisdom and Love, or the Queen of the Waters.

As a mythological study, Sidpa Gyalmo may represent a West to East transmission, along the Silk Route, of a most ancient Mesopotamian goddess, possibly as old as 5,500 years, used by Ashipus, or Mesopotamian medical exorcists. In this regard, she may well be Gula, the Mesopotamian goddess of healing, known as the Great Physician, who flourished in the city of Isin. Equally, she may be the pre-Zoroastrian Iranian goddess of the waters Ardvi Sura Anahita, and in such case of later vintage, probably received in around the second century BCE. In either event, Bön iconography depicts her riding a mule, lending credence to the notion that she arrives in ancient Tibet from elsewhere.[14]

As a ritual issue, Sidpa Gyalmo’s practice is directed to healing infectious and contagious diseases. In the preliminaries, the practitioner commences with supplication to the deity, and then transforms into the deity. By means of divine fire, extraction of life force, dismemberment and consumption, the practitioner-deity eradicates the spirits of disease.

Next, a mantra is uttered numerous times, the deity is praised, and the origin of disease is considered. In general, disease is said to result as the consequence of fighting amongst corporeal beings. This, in turn, disgusts beneficent spirits, who desert them, and leads to attack by malicious spirits of water, wood, earth, and air, who plague them when the seasons change.

The causal considerations are pondered in detail, together with specific symptoms, and indications. For example: the practitioner listens to the sound of fresh spring water in his or her particular territory, and thereby discovers “the signs that originate prior” to the appearance of the infection. The practitioner also examines other signs in nature, such as the death of small mammals.

The body of the practice then commences with collection of pure water from an east-facing, valley spring in a clean earthen vase. One then bathes and makes earnest supplication to the Goddess, who is visualized as holding a vase containing medicine. She pours the medicine from her vase into the vase containing the spring water, after which the practitioner recites a mantra over the water, energizing it with sound.

The practitioner then effects a cure with this water by bathing the patient some six times during the day, all the while believing himself to be an emanation of the Goddess and uttering specific prayers.

The practitioner can also extend protection to an entire region by erecting specially prepared flags bearing the mantra, or by scattering clay images and pasting the mantra on door posts. Amulets are prescribed for personal protection and finally, the practitioner is advised to grind ten protective substances into powder and dissolve this in the consecrated water as a prophylactic against disease to a range of two miles.

The ten protective substances are listed as adonis vernalis, terminalia chebula, aconitum carmichaelii, sulfur, allium sativum, colchicum autumnale, ferula assa-foetida, saussurea lappa incense, musk, and crocus sativus.

From our study of the Bön resource, we learn that one dangerous, ancient problem was, plainly, dehydration arising from either influenza or heatstroke. This is indicated from the symptoms of the winter and spring maladies: “diarrhea, vomiting, shortness of breath, pains in the intestines, and heaviness of the head.” This is said to originate in result of cold, and imbalance in the wind humor. In the summer and autumn maladies, the symptoms are “pains in the heart and headaches which nearly break the head into pieces.” This is said to originate in result of heat.

Of greater immediate interest is what our resource reveals about the origin of disease, i.e. the result of disharmony among living beings. Far from being intended as social commentary, this is intended as a fundamental definition. If we stop and think about it, this is a good definition. The Bön text says, “Because of the evil actions of some sentient beings and the fierce fighting that ensued among them, their protective deities may have deserted them.”[15] This could encompass any somatic disorder you might care to name.

Apart from being a definition, this is also a pragmatic demonstration of completing cause and effect. Buddhism, ever concerned with the root of things, takes the issue of cause and effect to its very basis and determines that somatic disorder is fundamentally caused by desire, anger, and delusion: the three poisons. 

So, if this is the case, then from where do the pathogens take their "intelligence," or their organic ability to survive, and indeed resist death?

An interesting question, don't you think?

[1] There is informed speculation that the brains and marrow of women and teenagers were regularly consumed. See: Michael A. Cremo and Richard L Thompson, Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Publishing Co., Inc., 1998), pp. 550-554, discussing the work of Franz Weidenreich with Choukoutien remains.

[2] State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy, Advanced Textbook On Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology, Vol. I (Beijing: New World Press, 1995), p. 13.

[3] Anon., Tianxia Zhidao Tan [Discussion of the Culminant Way In Under-Heaven], in Donald J Harper, trans., Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts (London: Kegan Paul International, 1998), p. 432.

[4] Alex Wayman, Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra: The Arcane Lore of Forty Verses (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977), p. 198.

[5] Wayman, op. cit. pp. 252-253.

[6] Matthew Miller, “A Brief History of Chinese Therapeutic Massage.” http:// (October 2002)

[7] Nancy Gordon, “Mesopotamian Medicine,” Ancient Healing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Health & Healing Through the Ages (Lincolnwood: Publications Intl., Ltd., 1997), p. 24.

[8] Ead., “Greek and Roman Medicine,” op. cit. p. 73.

[9] Book iii, Chapter 1.(1.) The Natural History of Exotic Trees and an Account of Unguents. Pliny was stating the first century case. Today we understand that the Persians received their formulae from the Indians several centuries prior.

[10] Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Bollingen Series lvi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 320.

[11] Id. The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History. Bollingen Series xlvi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).

[12] Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, c. 1968.

[13] John Myrdhin Reynolds, trans. The Healing Practice for Sidpa Gyalmo from the Bonpo Terma Tradition (San Diego: Vidyadhara Publications, 1996). I first became acquainted with John Reynolds 45 years ago, and know him to be among the most gifted, and woefully neglected, of the Tibetan translators this generation has produced. His work should be collected and sent to the mainstream, as it is truly impressive in its compass.

[14] I am captivated by the work of Jeannine Davis-Kimball, of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, in Berkeley, California. In particular, I am endlessly drawn to archaeological studies along the Silk Route that reveal the presence of women of evident high rank and magical occupation, some with decidedly Caucasian features, buried with numerous horses.

[15] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 16. Note that sentient beings encompass any being with a mind, such as hell beings, pretas, animals, insects, humans, titans, and gods.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

6 reader comments:

michael said...

To your last question, "So, if this is the case, then from where do the pathogens take their "intelligence," or their organic ability to survive, and indeed resist death?" Pathogens are a part of us, inseparable, and a reflection of our state. Their intelligence is our intelligence. Their survival is our survival. If we abide in meditative stability, then the pathogens are abiding. If we wander in distraction, then pathogens wander and invoke disease, our wandering and distraction. Our compassion for pathogens heals and is the universal medicine; expressed, as you say, by fire, food, air, and human touch. Waging war on pathogens is counterproductive to our health, since pathogens are us. Shamans know this during ritual healing, by retelling the story of union. Shamans may wander in distraction by getting caught up in the three worlds, and can return to compassion by singing the one world, emptiness. Padmasambhava warned against shamanizing to emphasize the singularity of emptiness; loving compassion. Disease is a sign of imbalance and calls for healing through the elemental modalities so throughly recognized and confirmed through the ages; fire, water, air, earth, and space. These elements reflect our human face, which we recognize and are healed.

TENPA said...

Very well said, Michael.

UrgyenRinpoche said...

hummm tenapa has something to do with this no? the deNavajo say that the medicine clan arose because of war... the earth drums were first... hollows built in the ground stamped with the feet. may the queen of waters find peace through the tears and love of a simple monk.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this and thinking about what I read. I wish you would write more about this subject.

Discordant note said...

This is straying into oversimplification and intellectual theory. Many diseases have independent awareness and intelligence. Some are like simple microorganisms, others are spirits that have strong personal feelings and self referral consciousness. Most have no qualms about attacking the innocent once they are independent consciousnesses. Additionally some disease is simply wearing out, over use and poor body mechanics. This is like talking about the assassination of Prince Ferdinand while you are in a trench in 1915. [I did love the article ;)

Anonymous said...

To strike a discordant note against 'Discordant note', I don't think this is oversimplification, at least not for a blog -- it's an essay worthy of being published on paper (with a few enhancements still possible of course). Granted some infectious agents have awareness, some are non-corporeal entities, some may simply be psychic forces of other humans that stress us out without our knowing why (what used to be called "evil eye" or black magic).

It's interesting that Peldan Lhamo, another scary lady riding a mule who is the main protectress of Tibet, carries a "disease bag". So do many other deities of the Mamo (female wraith) class, including those that protect Buddhism.

Now what's in those bags, I wonder? Pixie dust mixed with itching powder? Giardia-laced acidophilus supplements? Probably not. More like powdered Rakshasa-warts from Alpha Centauri, or aerosolized demon-dung from Mars.

So maybe 'spirits' are not themselves the infectious agents; maybe they think _WE_ are the infection, so they call the Orkin Man from Orion, who uses something that we perceive as scum, to deal with what they see as a dangerous eruption of scum (i.e., our vibrations, oozing interdimensionally).

Here in Jambudvipa 4-d space-time the universe is busting through, as it were, with plagues of porn, riots of spousal abuse, storms of electromagnetic polition, and (for all I know), tsunamis of space-time disturbance caused by our very confused, overactive minds, if not also by other devices in the hands of sociopathic tycoons.

That might be vexing, even a health hazard in some parallel realm. Someone there might grab a 32-oz can of Raid Ultra-Grody Herpes Formula, and spray us through the Stargate app on their 7-dimensional-modem-equipped iPod...

You never know.