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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Medicine — The Bridge Where East Meets West

Medicine is a place where East increasingly meets West.

Other than some chiropractic sessions after a car accident years ago, I have never been to an alternative medicine practitioner.

However, I was intrigued when I read this online description of Eastern medicine: “The human body is viewed as an ecosystem and treated as a whole instead of in parts.” Contrarily, Western doctors check vital signs to form an opinion about disease. 

“The heart of many of these practices is the concept that life and medicine are one. Healing is approached through harmony of body, mind, and spirit,” the blog goes on to say.

Many doctors and other health practitioners are beginning to blend the best advantages of the two powerful traditions. This is true for a Californian who became the personal physician to the Dalai Lama.

The venerable Dr. Barry Kerzin — author, teacher and physician to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama — will speak during an upcoming visit to Santa Barbara.

Kerzin was born in Los Angeles and attended UC Berkeley and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA before establishing a medical practice in Ojai.

Later, as a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, he learned that the Dalai Lama was looking for Western-trained doctors to teach research methods to practitioners of traditional eastern medicine in India.

“I was interested in Buddhism before,” says Kerzin, “but I got more involved when I arrived.”

He found himself extending his stay again and again. Ultimately, he became a Buddhist monk, ordained in 2003 by the Dalai Lama. He lives in Dharamsala, India, and provides free medical care throughout the country.

“It stunned my colleagues,” he remembers. They told him it was ridiculous to live with no house and no car when he could enjoy the good life back in the States. But Kerzin believes developing the inner habits of the heart, such as compassion and altruism, are essential for our civilization.

“The cultivation of compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, if our species is to survive,” he quotes H.H. the Dalai Lama on his website.

Kerzin is the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute (AIMI), whose mission is to “promote and support rigorous, multi-disciplinary scientific investigation of the role of altruism and healthy mental states.”

He teaches and offers workshops blending Buddhist teachings with his medical training, emphasizing the spiritual and health benefits of meditation and compassion. He also lectures on the science behind meditation.

One area where compassion might be the most important medicine is in end-of-life care, and it is in this important role that he will visit Santa Barbara.

The Alliance for Living and Dying Well is sponsoring an upcoming series of events featuring Kerzin.

The Alliance, which helps people have conversations about dying and helps them translate their wishes about end-of-life care into directives, is sponsoring Kerzin for a free lecture called “Being Fully Awake for Life and Death” Friday, July 1, at the New Vic.

Though Kerzin wears traditional monastic vestments, he has not left Western medicine behind. The Dalai Lama told him to “stay connected to the world. Keep your credentials.”

His words would serve us all well as we pursue healthy minds and bodies.

“Don’t just do the wisdom,” the Dalai Lama told Kerzin. “Do the love and compassion. Do it 50-50.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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