David Crow, author of "In Search of the Medicine Buddha," was recently honored with an invitation to speak on a panel with the Dalai Lama in New York City. We were moved by his vision for the role medicinal plants can play in solving global problems and wanted to share some of his remarks with you. The following is a reprinting of his notes for the talk.
I would like to discuss the role that traditional medical systems, such as Tibetan medicine, can play in creating and supporting an ethical revolution.
There are two broad topics to consider.
The first is the role that plants in general, and specifically medicinal plants, can play in solving global problems.
The second is the ethical principles that are contained within traditional medical systems, and how these can be used to protect the environment and benefit people.
During my studies of Tibetan, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medicine, I came to understand that medicinal plants are one of humanity's greatest resources. They are the world's oldest and most widespread form of healthcare. In many parts of the world, medicinal plants are the only affordable form of healthcare available to people.
Medicinal plants provide a wide range of therapeutic benefits, which can be summarized into two primary categories: they provide different kinds of nutrition, which revitalize and strengthen the body, and they detoxify the organs and tissues. These are functions which modern drugs are generally unable to perform. These two functions of strengthening and detoxifying the body will become increasingly necessary as the nutritional status of food declines, and environmental toxicity increases.
Medicinal plants are also the world's most lucrative legal cash crops, which are capable of lifting communities and nations out of poverty.
Because medicinal plants are so valuable, they are also the key to preserving ecosystems: they offer sustainable economic alternatives to environmentally destructive practices.
Medicinal plants are also the foundation of a culture's heritage of ethnobotanical knowledge and wisdom, one of humanity's most valuable legacies.
Looking to the future, we can see that humanity will be needing a lot of medicine. There is already a tremendous worldwide increase in the demand for natural medicines, and as environmental conditions worsen, this demand will grow further.
In order to have those medicines we must begin replanting the world, so that it can once again become a garden of healing plants. If we consider the four benefits of medicinal plants - medical, economic, ecological, and cultural - we can see that they are the key to solving numerous interrelated global problems, and the way to make this vision a reality.
Replanting the world is not only a necessity for human health. Just as plants detoxify and rejuvenate the human body, they also detoxify and rejuvenate the outer body of the planetary biosphere. Plants are medicines for the diseases of the earth, just as they are medicines for diseases of humanity: they purify, regenerate, and regulate the soil, water, and air.
There are ultimately no manmade solutions to the disorders of planetary physiology, such as global warming: The plants made this world livable for higher life, and only the plants can restore and maintain these conditions. For this reason, the ethics of the new millennium must include respect, gratitude, generosity, and restraint toward our botanical elders.
Your Holiness, the approach to replanting the world that I am advocating and working toward is the creation of a grassroots medical system. This medical system, which we could call "the people's pharmacy," is based on community gardens and school gardens, collaborating with seed banks, eco-preserves, organic farmers, the herb industry, health educators, and other related entities.
There are numerous benefits that ensue when communities come together to grow their own foods and medicines. Community gardens bring social healing, higher nutritional status, increased beauty, and decreased crime. Community gardens provide food and medical security during times of economic difficulties. School gardens in particular teach children how to have a positive relationship with nature, and help counteract the epidemic of nutrition-related health problems that are plaguing the pediatric and adolescent population.
The positive conditions created by community gardens are the foundation of an ethical, Dharmic culture. In order to manifest this goal on a wider scale, there must be strong collective motivation, political will, and economic resources. This is the link to the ethical principles that are contained within traditional medical philosophies, because it is primarily the responsibility of physicians and healthcare practitioners to raise the level of health consciousness within society.
There are countless examples of how physicians can transform society spirituality, ethically, politically, and environmentally. One of the simplest examples is to consider the changes that would occur if physicians gave only one piece of nutritional advice: to eat only organic food. This would lead to widespread environmental detoxification and decreased rates of chronic degenerative diseases. If physicians addressed illness at this level, they could help create a revival of sustainable nontoxic agriculture, and the creation of garden cities filled with healthy foods and medicines.
I would like to offer a pragmatic solution that would support replanting the world at this level. I propose that the global sangha begin planting gardens of organic food and medicinal plants. Specifically, I propose that Dharma centers become repositories of botanical biodiversity, centers of ethnobotanical knowledge and culture, and community pharmacies.
If these Dharma gardens are planted around the world, there will be widespread and far-reaching benefits. Endangered medicinal plants, such as those used in Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine, will be preserved within spiritual communities. The physicians of these ancient medical systems will be able to continue making and dispensing their traditional formulas. The health of both practitioners and lay people associated with these centers will increase. The presence of the plants will heal the local environments, and bring happiness and well-being to all.
These are not new ideas: monastic pharmacies and medicinal gardens were once a central part of many cultures, and there are many such projects currently underway. However, I believe that the world's urgent environmental, social, and medical crises require that all levels of society become much more active in this work of replanting the earth, one neighborhood at a time. I believe that the religious communities of all faiths can and should play an active role in this endeavor.
I also believe that if this is done, a new form of eco-dharma will evolve, that will teach through example the ethics of the new millennium within the context of medical, social, and environmental healing.
I welcome your insights and guidance in these matters.
David Crow, Founder of Floracopeia, Master Herbalist, Aromatherapist, Expert in the Ayurvedic and Chinese Medical Systems and Author