Last October, Valley residents Anasuya Weil and her daughter Mira presented a paper at the Second International Conference on Tibetan Medicine, held in Dharamsala, India. Since Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in the 1950s, Dharamsala has been where the Dalai Lama lives and the exiled Tibetan government is based. It has also become a center for studying Tibetan medicine.
Both graduates of the ShangShung Institute in Conway, the Weils were the only Western-trained practicing doctors of Tibetan medicine to speak at the conference. (And since the first conference was held in the eighth century, they’re likely the first Westerners ever to present at the event.) Their paper was on the current state of Tibetan medicine in the United States.
“We were going to be addressing several senior practitioners,” Anasuya Weil said in a recent interview with the Advocate in her Northampton office, “and I thought they’d be interested in what was going on here.
“Although Tibetan medicine has been practiced for hundreds and hundreds of years in Tibet, it’s virtually unheard of in America,” she continued. “Since around 1991 when, under the auspices of the Tibetan resettlement project, a thousand visas were issued, there’s been a whole influx of Tibetans—not just the original thousand, but their families followed, too. A lot of trained Tibetan doctors came over with them, and there’s been a new awareness. Several clinics have opened up across the country.”
And, she added, a number of professional organizations have formed to support practitioners and patients: “We also talked about the need for more education. We’re sort of in the same position as traditional Chinese medicine was in the 1960s, and we need to get out and let people know we exist. Unlike Western herbal traditions, Tibetan medicine is a complete system of knowledge that has been handed down through an intact lineage for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Tibetan medicine seeks to bring the body and mind back into balance. Rooted in Buddhism, it sees a direct link between the mind, the spirit and the physical body.
“The connection between mind and body,” she said, “is that we’re all in our human bodies because of our ignorance, or ma-rigpa. This ignorance is based on attachment, hatred and delusion. These three mental poisons are associated with our nyespa—rLung, Tripa and Badkan—and can give rise to physical ailments.
“I like to try to use the Tibetan terms, because the translations aren’t very accurate, and they can lead to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding,” she added. “It’s almost like the nyespas are energies in our bodies. Each is also associated with different pathways and parts of the body. RLung is the energy of movement. It works our circulation, our joints, muscles. It’s very much related to our consciousness and our minds. It’s said our mind travels on the wind.
“Tripa is associated with the energy of heat,” she continued. “Badkan is the energy of cold. It’s heavy and sticky. They all have their own qualities. When you see someone has back pain, for instance, you try to figure out what’s out of balance. Is it a heat or a cold problem? And there’s always some involvement of rLung.”
There is also an emphasis on digestion and maintaining a proper digestion heat.
“They use the metaphor of the stomach as the body’s kitchen, feeding all parts of the body,” Weil explained. “After years of consuming a certain kind of food, you might kill the fire in your belly. Or maybe there’s too much heat.”
Diet may be a factor in insomnia, a widespread chronic problem that Tibetan medicine can treat successfully, freeing people from overhabituation to medications. “I had someone who was using Ambien for several years,” Weil recalled. “Together, using herbs and diet and other kinds of behavioral changes, we worked it out, and now she hasn’t been using it for two years.”
Instead of only targeting attention to the specific symptom—stiffness, joint pain, anxiety— Weil explained that the Tibetan approach is to learn about the patient’s nutritional patterns, behaviors and general constitution. She might examine a patient’s eyes or tongue or a urine sample. While her shelves are stocked with row upon row of herbal remedies and as a licensed massage therapist, she is trained in Tibetan Kunye therapy (a type of massage involving herb-infused oils, relaxing touch and hot and cold compresses), these are administered in conjunction with recommendations for ways to alter what patients eat and how they spend their time.
“The ‘dharma’ itself, the teachings of the Buddha, though, are considered the best and ultimate medicine,” she said in conclusion. “By practicing the dharma we learn to tame our minds and ultimately be free of suffering.”
Last year’s trip to Dharamsala was not the first for Anasuya Weil.
“I lived in India twice for about a year each time,” she said, “once in 1971 and another time in ’74. For five months of that time, I lived in the part of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama has his residence, and I was with the Tibetan exile community. I actually lived just down the hill from a Tibetan doctor. I’d always been interested in herbs and things, and I got to know her and some of her patients. Seeing her work, it seemed very effective and I was inspired.
“But at that time I had my first child, and he was with me. I didn’t know the language, and it didn’t ever seem like something I could spend my time doing. Still, on my own I started studying the language and herbs. And when, in 2005, this school opened up in Conway—the ShangShung Institute—I was ready.
“I had already met Gan Phuntsog Wangmo, who founded the school, at a meditation retreat,” Weil continued. “I liked her. I respected her work. It seemed like a perfect fit. My daughter Mira had also been studying Western herbalism and was also interested in Tibetan medicine, having been exposed to it through the years, going to talks and meeting with practitioners.” Their studies concluded with a three-month clinical internship in Tibet.
Weil sees Tibetan medicine as being complementary to what’s practiced in America.
“There’s certainly a time and a place for Western medicine,” she said. “My husband is a physician. There are many great doctors out there. But I also feel that there are many things that Western medicine can’t really address very successfully. Stress issues. Digestive issues. Insomnia. And I think that’s where Tibetan medicine kind of shines.
“Because it’s a collaborative relationship between the mempa [healer] and the patient, there’s an emphasis on not only getting the body back into balance when it gets hurt or is ill, but also living a life that keeps you in balance. People have to take responsibility for their own health, but sometimes they just don’t know how to do it.”•