“Sowa-Rigpa” commonly known as Tibetan system of medicine is one of the oldest, Living and well documented medical tradition of the world. It has been originated from Tibet and popularly practiced in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and Russia. It is considered to be condensed essence of all the ancient traditional medicines that of Chinese and Ayurveda that it has various similarities in terms of theory and practice.
With gradual transmission of Buddhism, especially Nalanda School of thoughts in Tibet, also invitation of Indian great masters to Tibet and sending of scholars to Nalanda to study Buddhism greatly opened the era of Buddhism expansion and exchanging knowledge. As Indian texts and literature started flooding Tibet in eleventh and twelfth centuries, a number of Indian medical texts were also transmitted and translated into Tibetan language. For example, Ayurvedic Astāngahrdayasamhitā (Heart of Medicine Compendium attributed to Vagbhata) was translated into Tibetan by Rinchen Zangpo (95-1055). Tibet also absorbed the early Indian Abhidharma literature, for example the fifth century Abhidharmakosasabhasyam by Vasubandhu which expounds upon medical subjects such as fetal development. A wide range of Indian Vajrayana tantras, containing practices based on medical anatomy, were subsequently absorbed into Tibet.
rGyud-bZhi (Four Tantra), the fundamental text book of Tibetan Medicine was composed by Yuthog Yonten Gonpo who is believed to be the father of Sowa Rigpa. rGyud-bZhi which is based on indigenous medicine of Tibet enriched with Ayurveda, Chinese and Greek Medicine in 12th century. It was not formally taught in schools at first but, intertwined with Tibetan Buddhism. Around the turn of the 14th century, the Drangti family of physicians established a curriculum for the Four Tantras (and the supplementary literature from the Yutok School) at Sakya Monastery. The 5th Dalai Lama supported Desi Sangay Gyatso to found the pioneering Chagpori College of Medicine in 1696. Chagpori taught Gyamtso’s Blue Beryl as well as the Four Tantras in a model that spread throughout Tibet along with the oral tradition. Many of that knowledge were further enriched in Tibet with the knowledge and skills of neighboring countries and their own ethnic knowledge. “Sowa-Rigpa” (Science of healing) is one of the classic examples of it. The impact of Sowa-Rigpa along with Buddhism and other Tibetan art and sciences were spread in neighboring Himalayan regions. In India, this system is widely practice in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling (West Bengal), Dharamsala, Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir.
Sowa-Rigpa is based on the principles of Jung-wa-nga (Skt: panchamahabhutas) and Ngepa-Sum (Skt: Tridosa). Bodies of all the living beings and non-living objects of the universe are composed of Jung-wa-nga; viz Sa, Chu, Me, Lung, and Nam-kha (Skt: Prithvi, Jal, Agni, Vayu and Akash). The physiology, pathology Pharmacology and metria -medica of this system are established on these theories. Our body is composed of these five Cosmo physical elements of Jung-wa-nga; when the proportion of these elements is an imbalance in our body disorder results. The medicine and diet used for the treatment of disorders are also composed of the same five basic elements. In the body, these elements are present in the form of Ngepa-Sum (Skt: Tri-dosa) Lus-sung-dun (Skt: Sapta Dhatu) and Dri-ma-Sum (Skt: Trimala).
In drugs, diet and drinks they exist in the form of Ro-dug (Skt: Shast-rasa) Nus-pa (Virya) Yontan (Skt: Guna) and Zhu-jes (Skt: Vipaka). It is in context of this theory that a physician would use his knowledge, skills and experience in treating a patient, using the theory of similarity and dissimilarity (Skt: Samanaya and Vísesa) of five elements.
The basic theory of Sowa-Rigpa may be adumbrated in terms of the following five points:
1. The body in disease as the locus of treatment;
2. Antidote, i.e., the treatment;
3. The method of treatment through antidote;
4. Medicine that cures the disease;
5. Materia Medica, Pharmacy & Pharmacology
Traditionally the sMenpa or doctors are trained under the traditional educational system either under private guru-shisya tradition or under gyud-pa (lineage) system in families in which the knowledge is passed down from father to son through generations. It takes several years to become a skillful sMenpa, which requires hard theoretical and practical trainings. After finishing his/her training the trainee, sMenpa has to give an examination in front of the entire community in the presence of a few expert sMenpa in a ceremony to confer the designation of sMenpa on him/her. For higher training, those from the Indian Himalayan region as well used to go to study with reputed scholars or to any of the medical colleges in Tibet in the past. Some from these regions preferred to go to Tibet to begin their education of Sowa-Rigpa.
Given the modern social and educational system, some institutions are imparting the education at par with the modern system in terms of time with packages to be completed within a limited duration. Presently, after completing senior secondary education, the students are selected on entrance test merit basis.
The nomenclature of this six years course is sMenpa kachupa which is equivalent to Bachelor of Sowa Rigpa (Tibetan Medicine). This course is presently conducted in following four Institutions in India:
- Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh (under Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India)
- Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, Dharamsala HP of his Holiness Dalai Lama
- Central University for Tibetan Studies, Saranath U
In most of Himalayan regions Sowa-Rigpa is practiced in traditional way with community support where a sMenpa in every village. But since the last two decades this scenario has been changing, adopting some of the administrative elements of modern hospital system in educational Institutions, dispensaries, hospitals and pharmacies etc. Nevertheless, still there are all together around 1000 practitioners of Sowa-Rigpa in India catering health care in harsh Himalayan regions and other places. Dharamshala in Himanchal Pardesh and Ladakh region of J&K are the main Centers for Sowa-Rigpa Institutions in India.
After taking refuge in India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been in Dharamsala (Himachal Pardesh) where he has set up the Tibetan Medical & Astro. Institute to train youngsters and provide quality health service through Sowa-Rigpa system of Medicine. This Institute has a Medical college, Pharmacy, Astrology section and a chain of more than 50 clinics all over India.
There is Central Council for Tibetan Medicine in Dharamsala to regulate the practice of Sowa-Rigpa in India; it looks after the registration of practitioners, standard of colleges and other mechanism to regulate Sowa-Rigpa.