On the Roof of the World with Tibet’s God-Kings

We are fortunate to count among our beloved Waggers Audrey Ronning Topping, who along with her husband, former New York Times’ editor Seymour Topping, carved out quite a journalistic career in the Far East. Audrey’s latest book, “China Mission,” is due out in September. For August WAG’s “S’wellness” issue, Audrey offers a riveting account of acupuncture’s use as an anesthetic in Chinese surgery. Here she looks back on a rare visit to Tibet:

In 1980, my husband, Seymour Topping, and I visited the Mentsekun Medical Hospital of Tibetan Medicine in Lhasa. The hospital was originally created in 1915 by the 13th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, who resided in a mystical castle fortress called the Potala Palace (High Heavenly Realm). When he died in his own hospital, his body was seated in the lotus position, packed in clay, encrusted with gold leaf and enshrined in a death tower of gold that rises 70 feet up from the depths of the Potala Palace to emerge in a golden filial on the roof  top, where the remains of eight god-kings who once ruled Tibet also sit enshrined under glowing golden canopies. On a sunny day the “blaze” can be seen for miles around.

The hospital was modernized in the 1960s and now combines modern medicine with ancient Tibetan herbal medicines. In the eighth century, a famed Tibetan doctor wrote a “Code of Medicine” – consisting of 30 volumes, including “The Book of the Dead” – which laid a foundation for Tibetan medicine. The Tibetans’ unique ceremonial custom of dissecting dead bodies before feeding them to the vultures and using human skulls as ritual wine vessels had a beneficial side effect, for it enabled doctors to gain an early knowledge of the nervous and circulatory systems and the development of the human embryo. In the Middle Ages, they already had a scientific conception of the origin of man’s evolution, which in the 15th century was recorded in hundreds of thankas  showing  accurate anatomical charts and illustrations of  thousands of medicinal herbs. In 1704, they composed colorful charts depicting the different stages of evolution, from fish (aquatics) to the tortoise (reptiles) to the pig (mammals). We saw some of these ancient originals hanging on the walls in the office of a kindly doctor sporting a wispy white beard.

After sharing the traditional yak-butter tea, he walked us through the high-altitude (12,000-foot) farms on which exotic herbs are grown and shipped to China and other places, including New York.

– Audrey Ronning Topping

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